There's such a thing as ethics, over which you ride rough-shod
I have always believed that an elected official's private life is not a part of the public record. Before and after the Mayor Jim West episode, I have heard colleagues discuss outing legislators who oppose gay rights but are rumored to be gay. What are the ethics in this case? State Senator Ken Jacobsen, Seattle Your colleagues may ethically out an official only if that official's being gay is germane to his policy-making. A person who seeks elected office, voluntarily entering the public arena, does surrender some claims to privacy. (Financial disclosure comes to mind.) Some, but not all. An official's private life should remain private unless he or she makes it relevant to a public position freely taken. A cross-dressing secretary of agriculture who voiced no opinion on the sexual high jinks of soybeans -- do legumes engage in high jinks? -- would not meet this standard; a gay state senator who opposed gay civil rights would. Similarly, the assault weapons stockpiled by a gun-control advocate would be pertinent; his nude trout-fishing would not be. Identifying when this ambiguous standard has been met is admittedly difficult. Is a single vote on a single bill enough? My guideline is this: the more aggressively, the more centrally, an official participates in a policy struggle, the more reasonable it is to out him. A counterargument could be made in defense of hypocrisy, or at least for its irrelevance: a policy should stand on its merits, not on its advocates' behavior. That may be so in the dispassionate discourse of academe (at least idealized academe), but in the hurly-burly of political life, the human factor is meaningful and often invoked by politicians themselves -- their military service, their religious observance. Neither of these positions permits the spreading of rumors; the obligation to be truthful remains. And it should be noted that Spokane's mayor, James E. West, is in hot water over accusations of favoritism and of having molested two boys (which he denies), not for being gay per se (which is, of course, not remotely discreditable). One last thought. My outing protocol would also apply when an official unhypocritically supports a policy. It would be worth mentioning if a senator who champions, say, tax breaks for cattle ranchers is himself a rancher (or a cow). Self-interest is noteworthy in public debate. But it is hypocrisy that more often inspires the urge to out; it is denying others the right to do what we ourselves do that provokes disdain. I think your take on outing rumoured-to-be-closeted officials is misguided, if not actively malicious. It presumes too much, too vaguely. Let's take that example of a gay state senator nebulously "[opposing] gay civil rights" - what does that mean? Is it presumed to be prima facie hypocritical for that closeted state senator to sincerely be opposed to the notion of, for instance, same-sex marriage, on philosophical or legal grounds? If our hypothetical senator were endorsing institutional mistreatment - opposing decriminalization of "unnatural acts" in a district where such laws are still on the books, or actively supporting re-criminalization of homosexuality where such laws have been struck down - then hypocrisy would be clearly evident. Anything short of that, however, is enough of a grey area to merit caution for those who imagine themselves ethical. Indeed, your position seems unclear on whose private lives should get a pass on the basis of irrelevance. Say that closeted state senator strenuously avoided taking a public position at all on gay issues, but quietly voted in a way that you imagine to be hypocritical in a less than dramatic (as above) way, voting against something as dull as civil partnership benefits or other such non-glamourous (if important) legalisms? What if he has, in his mind, a perfectly good reason for voting in that way, such as the wishes of his constituents? What you recommend seems to be nothing less than the mob-based enforcement of identity politics via blackmail, even on the unwilling: vote for the interests of the most activist members of the gay community, and you can stay in the closet, but vote against them, and your private life is fair game. Moreover, what happens if we extend the metaphor? Consider a (straight) senator elected on a reputation of social conservatism and traditional morality. That you may have it on good authority he enjoys - with his wife, in the privacy of his own home - the most elaborate sexual fetishes is irrelevant; it's still his private life, and not yours to judge, unless he, as above, very specifically and vocally argues against the legality or propriety of his particular kink. Not actively endorsing in public whatever such private behaviour may entail is altogether different from arguing against it, which is, I suspect, the point from which your muddled ethical advice stems. Finally, you seem not to have considered the ethical implications of the outers' behaviour. What if it's blatantly self-serving to publicize that closeted senator's sexual identity - say, if he's a Republican from a conservative district, and the outers are Democrats salivating at the thought of repelling some of his core supporters? Not only would outing him in that premise be unethical, seeking to play on perceived bigotry of his constituents, but can backfire; remember the vice-presidential debates, and John Edwards' bizarrely introducing Dick Cheney's daughter, "who is a lesbian," into the argument? That came off as a supremely cynical attempt to pander to the imagined biases of Republican voters, and seems not to have worked very well. (Caveat: I realize Mary Cheney's life is and was no secret, merely not very well publicized. Same principle.) As long as a politician's sex life is not predicated on illegal or abusive acts, or on abuses of his office, it's no business of yours or anyone else - least of all his rivals, or the public at large. The comparison to financial disclosure is, frankly, ludicrous; voters have a right to know if a candidate happens to be in the back pocket of a particular industry or interest group. There is no right to know exactly, in private and as a consenting adult, with whom the candidate shares a bed. To pretend otherwise is to assume supreme arrogance, and more than a bit of repellent self-righteousness. Thanks for the interesting note (only a litle longer than the column to which it replies). Let me just say this: I think it was not only permissable but admirable that the spokesman for Sen. Rick Santorum was recently outed. And if you can't enjoy the irony of Sen. Santorum bloviating about how inappropriate it is to mention someone's private life, after he built a career out of legislating restrictions on just that, then I feel just terrible for you. I could enjoy the irony if it was some embarrassing indiscretion of Santorum himself that had been revealed, and one which he's specifically made a reputation of misguidedly crusading against. But a staffer? A communications director without an evident hand in policy? And one, reports indicate, whose sexual identity was well known to the senator and his office? While I disagree with the socially conservative Christian belief of "hate the sin, love the sinner," that seems to be Santorum's attitude, and it's not one terribly ripe for mocking - nor does it contradict any of his political positions, seen through that prism. Presumably Traynham has reasons for continuing to serve in the position he does that are logical to him, and Santorum logical reasons for continuing to employ him, as well as endorse the policy objectives he does; to assume hypocrisy on the part of either is rather shallow. Now, hypothetically catching Santorum in bed with Traynham, that would more convincingly validate your position. Insist on the public right to invade the privacy of the man whose name is actually on the ballot, if you must. But to take joy in engaging in those sorts of tactics with staffers, justified with the premise that most anything is fair to "get" political opponents whom you have decided to be hypocritical...well, I think, likewise, I feel sorry for you.
Endorsing invading the privacy of political rivals, equivocating on extramarital affairs...for the Times, it seems, ethics are just the continuation of politics by other means.