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Tribeca Talks: Outrage

After the final TFF screening, director Kirby Dick talked with gay activists Larry Kramer, Michelangelo Signorile, and Rodger McFarlane about outing, hypocrisy, and the power of history.

Rodger McFarlane, Michelangelo Signorile, Larry Kramer, Kirby Dick.   ©Getty Images, photo credit: Andrew H. Walker

Documentarian Kirby Dick’s new film, Outrage, has been jumpstarting conversation since its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 24. In the film, Washington insiders, political bloggers, and gay rights activists expose the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who inhibit gay rights through direct votes and indirect political influence. In some cases, politicians—about whom rumors have often swirled for years—are publicly outed, providing the film with inherent controversy and sparking discussions about the moral justification of such a practice. (Among others, the film outs former NYC mayor Ed Koch, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, and Florida governor Charlie Crist.) The film, which was heavily researched and took about three years to make, is set to premiere in theaters this month.

After the final TFF screening of Outrage on May 2, the director sat down with radio talk show host Michelangelo Signorile and longtime activist icon Larry Kramer, for a spirited discussion with the audience about the issues highlighted in the film.

Moderator Rodger McFarlane, the activist and author, opened with, “I’m the moderator, but there will be no moderation tonight. Kirby, you got a great New York welcome this week. You landed on Page Six with Ed Koch up your ass!”

Kirby Dick: Ed Koch was outraged!

Larry Kramer: Ed Koch and I live in the same building. I can’t wait to see him. [In Page Six] he defended a record, [but] he didn’t even defend himself against having the lover that he’s denied ever having had. “Oh, Dick Nathan was a nice guy.” That’s all he said. The interesting thing was, he did have a good record up until 1981, when AIDS happened. Suddenly he didn’t have a good record anymore. That’s truly when he became Public Enemy Number One in my book. I can’t tell you how hard it was to get this city to pay attention to GMHC or anything to do with AIDS at all. I couldn’t get that fucker on the phone.

Rodger McFarlane: Michelangelo, you [visibly] drew first heat [by exposing hypocrisy through outing]. You started publishing and you wrote a book about it, and now you have a great radio show about it. What do you think about this film?

Michelangelo Signorile: Seeing the film—with a span of 20 years—to see that now reverberate up from the streets and out to Hollywood and back here… To me, it is just remarkable. What I still think is the threshold is the media, and what they are going to do. In 20 years, they still haven’t figured out how to talk about closeted people in power who are working against the gay community. Every now and then, you see something pop up, but they are still afraid. They ultimately believe homosexuality—I think—is still something dirty and bad that they should never report. I think this film is going to be a test of how they are going to deal with it.

Audience Question: Does the movie provide the hook to have these conversations publicly? Why not talk to more mainstream media to get their stories?

©Getty Images, photo credit: Andrew H. Walker

Kirby Dick: The reporters from the mainstream outlets want to engage this, but they are actually getting heat from higher up—they say their legal department will not allow this stuff to go out… We did talk to others in the mainstream media, and found them—although very interesting, and actually supportive, in a lot of ways—also very careful. They really hedged their positions when it came to talking about their news organizations. And that’s what I needed. I needed them to be specific. Otherwise, it’s just a general, feel-good statement. So that was the problem. They weren’t willing to stick their neck out, because there are people above them who can fire them.

Audience Question: Why did you select [Fox News anchor] Shepard Smith in the media and not others? There were a lot of people you could have picked on, or chosen. Or no one.

Kirby Dick: Fox News has been instrumental in the drumbeat of this anti-gay hysteria. And Shepard Smith makes $7-8M/year, according to the New York Times. He’s a very important person in that organization, and I think that rises to the level of hypocrisy. And this direct experience [related in the film] was just too good not to put in, [since] our film focuses on hypocrisy.

Rodger McFarlane: In the film you articulate an ethic about what’s outing and what’s reporting on abuse of power or lying to constituents. Why does Shepard Smith reach that level and not somebody else? Because of Fox?

Kirby Dick: Because of Fox News, absolutely. This is not a film about outing closeted politicians. This is a film about reporting on the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who vote anti-gay.

Audience Question: In the film, you talk about moral justifications for outing: hypocrisy, potential for good, defending against harm… I want to seek some advice from the panel. When is outing okay? [The questioner specifically referred to cases where women are about to unknowingly marry gay men.]

©Getty Images, photo credit: Andrew H. Walker

Michelangelo Signorile: What we are talking about are public figures: people who make a deal with the public that their lives are open for dissection by the media. And in return for the money, the power that they are going to wield—and for me, it’s bigger, it’s about Hollywood, it’s about all of it—their lives are open for dissection. Everything to me, that is relevant, when it’s relevant, should be reported.

When you are talking about private individuals, people in their own lives, I certainly don’t think it’s something people should be doing in a newspaper. But in terms of your own interactions with people, if you care about these women, these people involved, certainly speak to them. That’s not broadcasting it to the whole neighborhood, that’s not ruining someone’s life in that sense… That’s saying, “Look, I want you to know this. You make your own decision.”

[Regarding women who are marrying gay men:] Everybody makes their own decisions in this regard. A lot of women, I know we dealt with Dina McGreevey in the film, and certainly others—[Senator] Larry Craig’s wife—I mean, they know what’s going on. Sometimes you might tell those women, and they’ll say, “I don’t care.” But at least you know you told them.  But I think there’s a difference between private individuals and public figures.

Audience Question: Is there such a conspiracy of silence that of all the old boyfriends and tricks of these people, no one speaks out? I mean, we have to assume Charlie Crist’s been around for 30 years, right? In that time, is it conceivable that there’s that much silence?

Larry Kramer: When [Koch's alleged boyfriend] Dick Nathan came to New York from California, prepared to speak out against Koch, he came here, somebody got to him, he got terrified, and he ran. And he said, “I’m scared, they are after me, I will not be able to do this,” and he left.

Rodger McFarlane: And the two sources in the film who named Charlie Crist also disappeared during the election.

Kirby Dick: They were hustled out of Florida, yes. What I found was people surprisingly afraid to talk. Even those who just knew people who had had firsthand relations with these people, they were afraid. These people are very powerful. And the governor of Florida, if you live in Florida all your life, you take that very seriously.

Michelangelo Signorile: [People are afraid that] in the end, the media will not really tell their story, they will side with the politicians. In the end, they will be destitute and have nothing, besides the physical threats and everything else that may come.

Audience Question: Ed Koch is no longer in power, and is therefore no longer harming people. Does that make a weaker justification for outing him? How close does it just come to gossip-mongering?

Rodger McFarlane: Let’s be clear, that conversation was going on in 1981. Those things were being said when he was in power. No one took on this “old man out of power.”

Michelangelo Signorile: And a historical record is power. Just because Koch is out of power, it doesn’t mean what he did and how he’s remembered is not power. I wrote about Malcolm Forbes after he died. I was not going to let that man be held up by William F. Buckley and these other right-wingers as the great capitalist who was Elizabeth Taylor’s boyfriend. Legacy is power. History is power.

©Getty Images, photo credit: Andrew H. Walker

Larry Kramer: [Mentions in passing that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were gay. When the audience laughs, Kramer gets fired up and angrily yells at the audience.] Why are you laughing?! That drives me up the fucking wall. George Washington was gay. He was in love with Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette—the three of them. It is going to come out more and more. Abraham Lincoln, we know was gay. The number of people who were gay in this history of our country is huge. Why are you laughing? We need to know our history. They would treat us better—Republicans—if they knew for a fact that Abraham Lincoln, their great savior, was one of us.

Our history has been taken away from us by straight historians who have no concept of who we are or will not let us be who we are.

Michelangelo Signorile: It’s not just Republicans who need to know. President Obama honored Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial while he invited [conservative pastor] Rick Warren to come to speak at the invocation. So it’s Democrats, Republicans, everyone.

Rodger McFarlane: [Nodding at Dick] I do want to point out there’s at least one heterosexual documentarian who is doing his part about setting this straight. [Wild applause.]

Audience Question: How will this film affect issues and votes coming up?

Michelangelo Signorile: This film is enormously relevant to what’s going to happen in Congress, where we know there are still people who are closeted. We just had a vote on hate crimes, we're going to be voting on employment discrimination, probably voting on the military, probably voting on the Defense of Marriage Act. This film becomes a tool, I hope, for a lot of the media in how to go about reporting on these issues. I think it’s important that reporters see this film, because I think a lot of the media are at a point where the civil rights movement was back in the '60s—when the media finally came aboard and showed the pictures in the streets. These are the pictures in the streets for us. This is the reality—these stories are out there, and this is what’s got to happen next.



Check out the official website, and find out when Outrage will screen in a theatre near you.

Have you seen the film? What did you think? Log in to My Tribeca and comment here.

See Kirby Dick's interview on CNN about the practice of outing and his views on the film.



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