Saturday, June 1, 2019

Aaron Schock and the Politics of Outing by Michelangelo Signorile

A gay blogger was banned from Twitter after posting an explicit video of disgraced former congressman Aaron Schock. But it is Schock’s alleged hypocrisy that is more outrageous.

A sexually explicit video, allegedly of disgraced former Republican congressman Aaron Schock, lit up the internet and social media this week. Coupled with photos of him that circulated in recent weeks said to show him partying with gay men—and kissing and groping one man—the episode once again raised the issue of outing in the LGBT community.

It also exposed what seems like misplaced priorities at Twitter, which is still allowing white nationalists to spread hate on the platform, but which decided to suspend a gay blogger who tweeted a link to a post on his blog with screenshots of the Schock video.

Kenneth Walsh, of the blog Kenneth in the (212), who has covered Schock’s career and downfall extensively over the years, was cited for “abusive behavior” and “harassment.”

But why is it harassment to report on a public figure with information that itself is public? As Dan Savage noted in a tweet responding to the suspension, if nudity or sexual acts are the issue, then when “everyone posted Anthony Weiner's sext messages all over Twitter” why wasn’t everyone banned?

Or was this considered “abusive behavior” because the post was from someone who implied that Schock was gay? And why is that a bad thing?

Schock’s long been rumored to be gay, going back to even before the days of his hot pink gingham shirt, teal belt and white jeans at the Obama White House picnic in 2010.

Those rumors have been discussed hundreds, perhaps even thousands of times on websites and in media over the years, though Schock had denied he was gay in an interview back in 2004.

Schock, the youngest member of Congress when he was elected in 2008 at the age of 27, voted against the gay community, including against the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and supported a federal marriage amendment. He represented a largely rural district in Illinois, but his anti-gay voting record was likely more about satisfying GOP leadership, as Schock was a highly ambitious rising star.

I had a chance to interview him at the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa, and he responded quite defensively, before storming off, with a kind of non-denial denial when I asked about people who said he was gay and found it hypocritical of him to vote anti-gay: “Those questions are completely ridiculous and inappropriate. I’ve said that before and I don’t think it’s worthy of further response. I think you can look it up.”

The rumors only escalated, and The New York Times even picked them up in 2014, writing about former CBS journalist Itay Hod’s Facebook post in which, without naming Schock, Hod discussed his anger at an Illinois congressman who voted anti-gay and whom a colleague of his reportedly saw coming out of the shower with his roommate. The Times, too, didn’t name the congressman but it was quite clear.

Schock’s downfall, however, didn’t come because of his anti-gay voting record and any perceived hypocrisy. He resigned in 2015 amid investigations that began after a growing media scandal over his lavish spending, including having his congressional office decorated like the set of "Downton Abbey" and flying himself and others on trips around the world.

He was indicted the following year on 24 criminal counts, including using his campaign funds to fuel his expensive lifestyle. The entire affair magnified Schock’s narcissism—which had always been evident from his Instagram account, in which he showed off his body as he traveled the world on adventure trips with studly male buds—and his complete obliviousness to criticism. It explained why, if he is gay, he’d be so brazen to think he could be so public and yet vote against the gay community.

Schock disappeared for almost two years, and it looked like he’d be doing prison time. Then he surfaced earlier this year when his high-priced lawyers cut him a jaw-dropping, sweet deal in which the felony charges were removed in return for his paying back tens of thousands of dollars to the IRS.

Schock soon popped up on Fox News, claiming it was all due to “mistakes” and told CBS News he wouldn’t rule out a run for office again. “At 37 years old, I don't think I'll ever say never,” he said.

Then he was photographed at the Coachella music festival in California this spring with some hunky dudes, and, in one shot, allegedly kissing one man while his hands were down the guy’s pants.

More than the photos, multiple witnesses, posting their accounts on social media, attested that Schock was there partying with a swarm of muscled gay men. One gay couple who was in the photos with him later posted on Instagram that they’d just met him, didn’t know who he was, “nor would we have associated with him if we had more knowledge of his beliefs and past actions.”

Many people shared the photos, commenting on them. “Normally I wouldn’t comment on something like this, but I am just infuriated by these images of former Republican (and anti-gay) Congressman Aaron Schock partying with a group of gay men at Coachella,” wrote West Hollywood political activist James Duke Mason on Facebook. And then gay news sites picked up the story, from Towleroad to LGBTQ Nation, filtering through the various posts.

For someone who was at the center of outing debates in the early '90s—after I wrote a reported piece in 1990 about the secret gay life of the then-recently deceased multi-millionaire Malcolm Forbes, which came under enormous attack in the media—it was refreshing to see queer people challenging Schock. He never apologized for his votes yet was out and about cavorting in the gay community, and talking about running for office again!

I was glad to see the gay news sites run with it as well, since I’ve always maintained that when it’s relevant to a larger story—and voting anti-gay certainly is—the media has a responsibility to report on the sexual orientation (or speculation thereof ) of public figures.

In those earlier times, many queer people defended the closet more readily—even for those who did harm to the community—and there wasn’t the technology to get the word out far and wide. Media, including most gay media, were firmly opposed to reporting even on anti-gay allegedly closeted hypocrites.

Many more young gay men today appear to believe it’s both their right and their responsibility to expose what they perceive to be a harmful hypocrite, and they have the tools at their fingertips. And so, a couple of weeks ago, after Schock spent some time socializing and sun-bathing at the Standard Hotel pool in West Hollywood with a lot of gay men, photos began circulating on social media, with one Instagram user noting it was like he was “on a gay honeymoon.”

Then came the nude photos and sexuality-explicit video this week allegedly of Schock, in which he appears alone, apparently masturbating. Walsh put them on his site, as did other bloggers, and tweeted out a link, like others, with the tweet: “Disgraced Rep. Aaron Schock’s nudes have finally leaked.”

The following afternoon he was notified by Twitter that his account had been suspended. Walsh appealed, and says he’s been told he can wait for a decision or pull down the post and he’ll regain his account.

Some have speculated that Twitter may view this as a case of revenge porn, which is illegal in most states. But with a public figure seemingly having sent the video to someone else, it’s a weaker claim.

With so much vile content on Twitter, and vicious attacks coming from the President of the United States almost every day on groups and individuals, this smacks of heavy-handedness and homophobia masquerading as a concern for privacy—which is how much of the media attacked outing in the past.

We’ve come far, and yet, to say someone might be gay is still, in some quarters in 2019, seen as a terrible insult. That’s got to change.