Kirby Dick’s new film, four years in the making, seeks to expose the secret, and sometimes not-so-secret, double lives of closeted gay politicians, whose numbers are higher than you might imagine. But it’s not a salacious film, it’s merely out to cause a stir. The title, when first displayed, is broken up — Out / Rage — suggesting at least four readings. First, this film is about rage: the rage of those who have come out, against the politicians who haven’t. Second, it’s about the outrage of those who have discerned the corrosive effect that being in the closet has had on these politicians. Third, it’s about the outrages caused by being in the closet — the closet kills. And fourth, it’s about the positive effect it would have if all closeted politicians came out. The film makes a solid case that this kind of hypocrisy takes a terrible toll both upon the personal lives of those politicians, and upon their constituencies.
Though it’s an incendiary film, Kirby Dick himself is a friendly, mild-mannered man. When I met him in his publicist’s office in San Francisco, he was relaxed in his chair, seemingly hiding behind his cup of coffee and his stylish, rectangular-framed glasses, and spoke in subdued tones, not at all eager to push his points. Much like his film, he spent his time calmly laying out some facts he knew for certain, along with others less certain, drew some obvious conclusions, and offered them for my contemplation.
The Rumpus: Before watching this film, I didn’t realize how pervasive this issue is. What put you on to it?
Kirby Dick: I was in Washington D.C. in August of 2006, promoting my last film, This Film is Not Yet Rated, about the censorship of the American film rating system. And that was a story that I was aware of because I was in the film business. I thought, “Here I am in DC; there are probably lots of great subjects that only people inside the Beltway know.” I started asking around, and very quickly came across the fact that there were many closeted politicians. Somebody said, “Everybody is gay in D.C.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, even Karl Rove.” And I was like, “Uh… We’ve got to make a film about this.” But there’s nothing to that particular rumor. I don’t have anything substantial on that.
Rumpus: It struck me how very careful you were to not put in anything that wasn’t very well-sourced, and well-sourced actually right in the film. There was probably a lot of stuff that you couldn’t use at all.
Dick: That’s right. For the most part, the blogosphere has treated this issue by reporting on rumors, which is legitimate, but I wanted to approach this in a different way. I wanted to be very careful. It’s very well-sourced, and it’s not histrionic. I looked at quite a number of other politicians, some very powerful, and was able to get some information, but not enough that I really felt confident about putting it in the film. I didn’t want to put a rumor in just for the sake of salacious sensationalism. That would have been a lot of fun, but it’s just not going to go anywhere, and I do have a serious aim with this film.
Rumpus: I was also surprised when someone in the film described DC as “more gay than San Francisco.”
Dick: Yeah. Somebody told me that “one of the things that are outed in this film is Washington DC as a whole.” And it’s so true. I’ve heard estimates of 30 to 40 percent and more. But what’s interesting is once you’re there, it makes total sense. Even though it’s never really gotten out, it’s definitely the case. There’s a whole gay culture in DC, and there are as many gay Republicans as there are gay Democrats. The College Republicans, for example, are very gay. That was something that fascinated me, but I was never able to fully penetrate. And of course there’s a whole gradation of being out. People in New York, LA, San Francisco, they scratch their head at the concept of a gay Republican, but it really makes sense there.
Rumpus: How is that? Because to many people, the Log Cabin Republicans sound like a joke. A joke in poor taste, I might add.
Dick: Well, their objectives are political, not personal, and they’ve separated those personal considerations off.
Rumpus: Is it also that gay Republicans feel the party has been hijacked by the extreme right wing, and if they go, then who’s going to be there to help moderate the party?
Dick: Yes. I do think there are very few extreme right-wing gay Republicans. Although it depends how you define “extreme right-wing.” They’re making a political calculation.
Rumpus: Many of these politicians, whom you pretty well establish are leading double lives, have extremely anti-gay voting records. Not just Larry Craig, but also Charlie Crist, Jim McCrery and some others who are less contemporary, such as Ed Koch. The first time you showed a voting record, it surprised me, but by the time you got to the fourth or fifth one, it was just depressing. To identify subjects, did you simply look at the voting records of people in Congress, and then investigate whether they were hiding their own homosexuality?
Dick: The HRC voting record was just one of our starting points, but sometimes it was like that. We didn’t explain what the HRC is, which in itself is kind of a closeted organization: the acronym stands for “Human Rights Campaign.” It’s a gay and lesbian organization that doesn’t have “gay” and “lesbian” in its own title.
But the more important thing to think about regarding these politicians is they’re victims of homophobia as well. I mean, these are people who, I would imagine, would at least want the option to live an out lifestyle. Who knows? Maybe Larry Craig would still want to have sex in bathrooms. But they are victims of homophobia themselves. One of the things that Barney Frank says is that in the ’70s, the Democrats and Republicans had fairly equal numbers of semi-out gay politicians, but that over the last several decades, this kind of anti-gay hysteria has driven a lot of them into the closet. They were semi-out, but now they will just do everything they can to have no association. Especially now that the issue of same-sex marriage has provided such a handle to work a constituency with.
Rumpus: You spent some time talking to Jim McGreevey, who was one of the most remarkable figures in the film. Did you have to spend a lot of time with him before he opened up in that way?
Dick: No! I only spent a couple of hours with him. It wasn’t hard to get him to talk about these issues. As with Jim Kolbe, he clearly feels a certain relief at finally being able to talk about these things. Although one of the most fascinating things for me was when he talked about how being in a closet trains you to be a better politician. The upside of being in the closet is that you develop skills of duplicity, which are great for big-time politicians.
Rumpus: One of the points you insist upon is that the mainstream media doesn’t cover this issue, and you go so far as to characterize it as a ‘conspiracy.’ But don’t you think that part of the media’s reluctance to cover this is a fear of outing?
Dick: I think there are three reasons. The one you mention is kind of well-intentioned: they feel like this is someplace they shouldn’t go, and they feel they’re doing the right thing. They’re not, but they think they are. What I don’t understand is how a policy against outing trumps a policy of reporting. Whenever you’re reporting on hypocrisy, you’re kind of ‘outing’ something to begin with. So somehow, they’ve drawn a box around this subject matter. A second reason is that they may be worrying about their readership, that sometimes there’s kind of an “ick” factor around talking about anything about gay sexuality, for certain readers. And third, and I don’t have any proof of this, but these news organizations are corporations, after all, and their interests are continually being debated in Congress. So why would they go out of their way to cause problems for themselves?
Rumpus: You said a moment ago that you have a serious, not a salacious aim, with this film. Could you articulate that aim a little?
Dick: Obviously, one of the things I hope for is that it contributes to the gay rights struggle. I also hope that there will be more reporting on this kind of hypocrisy. But I also hope that it contributes to the demise of the closet. The closet exists because people don’t talk about it, so that people going into political careers make a calculation early on. They say to themselves, “well, the closet is under the radar, I can do this.” I hope that in the future, after this film is out, that at least some of these politicians will say, “it’s the wrong decision, both personally and politically, to do this.” And that the more politicians do this, the more the battles will snowball and become easier. What I really hope for, ultimately, is that the closet will be a non-factor in American politics in a couple of decades.
Rumpus: On that note, I thought it was a very interesting choice to end on that footage of Harvey Milk saying to a reporter that “if everybody came out, we will have won and it will be over.”
Dick: He was such a visionary. On the one hand there’s something very hopeful about that, but on the other hand, he was saying it thirty years ago, and look where we are now. But then again, we’re in a much better position on this issue, just not where we expected to be, looking at it then.