How Outing Lost Its Power to Shock

Published: October 30, 2013

That was the overall effect of two recent items on Gawker, the gossip site, that revealed that Shepard Smith, the Fox News anchor, had been seen at a Chelsea bar with a date described as “a muscular 6-foot-2 30-something white male.” 

It struck some (including the New York Times reporter David Carr, in this week’s Media Equation column) as a textbook case of “outing,” to use the term that emerged in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when gay-rights activists embarked on a controversial push to expose closeted public figures, particularly those seen as homophobic. 
But as the puzzled responses from some Gawker readers would suggest, outing seems to have run its course. “I’m wondering why this is even news,” one commenter wrote. “So a news anchor is gay and has a boyfriend and a private life? Color me shocked. What is this, the 1950s?” 
At a time when gay people can marry and fly helicopters in the Marines, is it time to consign outing to history, alongside other ’90s crazes like Zima and square-toed shoes? 
“The apparent lack of shock waves when celebs are outed these days is a good thing,” said Michael Musto, the columnist who outed several celebrities in his days with The Village Voice. “It means there are so many out celebs on the landscape that the news about another one doesn’t raise that many eyebrows.” 
Wan attitudes like that are a far cry from the fierce debates (both within the gay community and the larger public) during the first Bush presidency, when combative gay groups like Queer Nation outed people it deemed hypocrites; one group, OutPost, blanketed New York with street posters modeled on Absolut vodka ads that read “Absolutely Queer” under the faces of various celebrities. 
During that same era, OutWeek, a short-lived but influential gay magazine, became a touchstone of controversy for outing celebrities. For this new breed of gay activist, the ultimate targets were conservative politicians who opposed gay rights. 
“There was a sense of urgency around visibility because of the AIDS epidemic,” said Michelangelo Signorile, who wrote OutWeek’s gossip column and was a pioneer of outing. “Gay people were invisible in pop culture, yet some of the most influential people in Hollywood and Washington were gay.” Mr. Signorile now has a radio show on SiriusXM and writes for The Huffington Post, where he argued that Gawker was not “outing” Mr. Smith, but merely reporting on his love life in the same fashion it would for a straight celebrity. 
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