Filmmaker Kirby Dick caused quite a stir a few years back with This Film Is Not Yet Rated, his incendiary documentary about the secret inner workings, and often glaring double standards, of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings classification system. Now he’s back with Outrage, a name-dropping indictment of the hypocrisy of closeted homosexual politicians with appalling gay rights voting records, and the media’s complicity in blanching at reporting on the matter. I recently had the chance to chat with Dick by phone; the conversation is excerpted below:
Brent Simon: To your mind, why is the mainstream media squeamish about exploring potential disconnects between public and private personae?
Kirby Dick (below): Actually, I think they’re afraid to write about
issues that deal with gay sexuality. I think they’re concerned with
their readership — which [is presumably] mostly straight, with maybe
some fundamentalists — finding it offensive, or just uncomfortable. Now,
that’s kind of homophobia in my mind. I don’t think the individual
reporters are homophobic, but the policy breeds homophobia because as
Barney Frank has said, they’ll write everything about his personal
life, but they won’t write the fact that he’s gay. What is the message
that gets out? That there’s something wrong with being gay. That
message gets disseminated, and instills homophobia. And I think there’s
another reason. In terms of reporting on the
hypocrisy of specific politicians, these news outlets are reluctant to
do so because they’re often owned by major corporations that have a lot of
business, if you will, running through Congress. So these members of
Congress might be voting on legislation that has to do with things that
might very much effect these corporations’ bottom lines. And so they
just see no upside in telling the truth or doing this sort of
reporting, because they’re just going to anger these politicians.
BS: Is it perhaps also an issue that hypocrisy is just a relatively nuanced “sell” in a soundbite-driven media age?
KD: I think hypocrisy is often too tough of a sell, but that’s
no reason not to do it. I think you’re right; people would like to
gloss over the more complex issues, of which this is certainly one. In
some ways it’s uncomfortable to write about these things, but that’s
the job of the press.
BS: What was the genesis of the idea for this film — was it the 2004 election?
KD: Well, it was actually from August, 2006. I was in Washington, D.C. promoting This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which was a story I knew about primarily because I was in the film business. So in D.C. I said, OK, there’s probably a number of stories that people inside the Beltway know would make great subjects for a documentary, and I started talking with folks and very quickly learned about these closeted politicians, many of whom were voting anti-gay. And again, when I realized that this wasn’t being covered in the mainstream media, I thought it was the perfect opportunity.
BS: What were your feelings, then, about the 2004 presidential election, and specifically all these marriage-protection constitutional ballot measures, which didn’t seem to have a lot of feeling behind them, but instead seemed designed almost solely for political gain?
KD: In some ways it makes it worse. The fact is, here’s George W. Bush, who has gay friends and gay staff, who by all accounts of people we’ve talked to who’ve interacted with him personally is not homophobic, and yet he decides to pass an amendment that restricts the rights of millions of American citizens solely to maintain power and be elected again. That is one of the most cynical and crass uses of the legislative process ever.
BS: I expected its tough-minded investigative nature, which is considerable, but I was surprised a bit by the strength of Outage‘s emotional component, and in particular the powerfully articulated reflections of former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey. How tough of an interview get was he, and did you know or suspect going in that he was going to have some of the heartrending insights that he did?
KD: You’re right, he was incredibly eloquent. It took some time to get him, but we were able to. This is what happens when someone comes out of the closet; they have a story to tell about the anguish of being in the closet, they have a story to tell about how great it is to be out of the closet, and I think they want that story shared not only with the public, but with politicians and young people going into politics. It’s kind of a cautionary tale — don’t make the same mistake I did, I’m much happier now, I wish I was out from the very beginning. So for both (former Arizona Congressman) Jim Kolbe and Jim McGreevey, it is a very personal and emotional story, even still, and you can tell in the way that they talk about it.
BS: There’s a lot of talk, given the beatdowns that they have suffered in the last two election cycles, about more inclusive language and even issue stances within the Republican party, but so far there doesn’t seem to be a gene for shamed silence, let alone much honest introspection. Do you think there will be an intra-party come-to-Jesus, for lack of a better phrase, with regards to the issue of gay marriage?
KD: I would hope so, and I think you’re seeing that debate. I don’t think it’s by any means definite. Reactionary elements in the political arena will always use this technique of demonizing the minority, particularly if there’s some sort of morality or health issue that they can pull into it. This will come up again, so I don’t think we should be surprised to see if in 20 or 30 years down the road there isn’t another attack on the rights of gays and lesbians. Right now things are trending positively, but let’s see what happens with the Supreme Court decision on the case in California. I’d heard that before Iowa legalized same-sex marriage, they were almost certainly going to vote to uphold Proposition 8, but now I think they’re looking at the situation and realizing how the trend is going, and realizing maybe that if they vote in support of Proposition 8, they may be the last major court in this country to support this kind of bigotry. Hopefully they’ll realize that it’s the right thing to do, and the wrong thing in terms of their legacy. But it’s a very important decision, and I really hope they make the right one.
BS: What do you make of, in the wake of [Supreme Court Justice David] Souter’s recently announced exit, the Republicans’ attack on the word empathetic… that it’s coded language that Obama is using to prick the ears of liberal foot soldiers and activists? What of the notion, as I believe Laura Ingraham opined, that empathy is a singularly ridiculous, loopy and disqualifying quality to aspire to have in a judge?
KD: Yeah, that’s absurd. I think Republicans are struggling, and still operating in the arena of counter-attack, in that I think they’ve been so trained, certainly since Newt Gingrich in 1994, their modus operandi is to just hit, and it’s hard for them to get out of that. I think they’re continuously looking for anything that they can mount a charge on, and somehow damage the president. They were very successful with the whole impeachment, and this is what the whole far right-wing of the Republican party has grown up with, this strategy of [destruction], and so I think that’s what you’re seeing, a knee-jerk reaction to strike even if there’s no logic to it.
BS: The film touches on something I found interesting — the so-called “nine families,” and The Heritage Foundation, which I was familiar with in name, but not inception. I hold no illusions that a lot of what is talked about in politics is insincere; you’re trying to vote-wrangle, looking for a wedge issue that you can push and exploit, so we pass through entire administrations where nothing happens on truly pressing matters like Social Security, fuel efficiency, energy or global warming. But was there more that you learned about the genesis of gay marriage as a political issue?
KD: Well, I think there was and are two strands of the Republican party over the last several decades, and one is a more fundamentalist and religious, and one is more economically-oriented. So these nine families were looking for a way to platform capitalism, particularly after the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. And for a long time, they didn’t see any benefit in aligning themselves with the fundamentalist movement, which they didn’t seem to share many interests with. But I think a calculation was made in the late 1980s and particularly early ’90s that the issue of gay marriage could be used to get Republicans elected who [would] then support this pro-capitalist agenda. That’s related to George Bush’s decision in many ways. The constituency and the power behind him really didn’t care about gay marriage. In fact there’s a lot of revelation that they viewed fundamentalists as kooks. But they saw that they could use them. Again, it’s incredibly cynical, because it’s one thing to make a political calculation, it’s another thing to demonize American citizens in order to do so.
BS: Given t
he many subjects, from Larry Craig (above) to Charlie Crist, what was the process of winnowing down Outrage like, and was Mike Rogers, the blogger at the heart of the movie, someone you latched onto at the beginning of production?
KD: Certainly, he was one of the major forces in the second or third wave of outing. What was happening in 2004, with this incredible build-up of anti-gay hysteria leading to the Federal Marriage Amendment, was that a lot of people, paricularly gays and lesbians, both Republicans and Democrats, were working to derail it behind the scenes. But because D.C. is such a closed town, people weren’t coming out and operating in the public arena, and that’s when Mike Rogers stepped out and said, “Look, there’s a lot of closeted gays and lesbians who are supporting this, and I’m going to expose this hypocrisy publicly.” And he tapped into a great deal of anger across the country, got these tips, particularly around Ed Shrock and Larry Craig. So certainly that was extremely important for us to show.
BS: I think I was most struck by some of the thoughts of Rich Tafel, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, when he talked about friends and colleagues who embraced “the strength and stamina” required to stay in the closet. Was that something you encountered in your interviews — this willful pride at leading secret lives?
KD: In particular with closeted staffers; we just couldn’t get people to speak. We were actually very surprised, but we couldn’t. That statement by Rich Tafel is one of the most fascinating things in the film. When I first heard it it seemed absurd, but the more I thought about it, it made sense. These people have made the decision to put their political ambition ahead of anything in their personal life, and you what? It probably works.
BS: Kirby, thanks for your time. Wrapping up, is there anything else definitively on tap?
KD: No, I’m working on another closet, so to speak, but I can’t really talk about it yet because I don’t want them to know that I’m coming their direction.