Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, it's now been revealed, is funding the massive lawsuit against Gawker over Hulk Hogan's sex tape. For Thiel, this seems to be in part a personal crusade: Gawker outed him as a gay man back in 2007, so he has some experience with what the media organization is capable of.
But Thiel told the New York Times it's not just personal, saying his motivation to fund the lawsuits was Gawker's "unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest."
Much of the media debate has focused on the potential consequences of Thiel's actions. As Tim Lee argued for Vox, what he's doing could pose a serious risk to media freedom if, for instance, other billionaires decide to mount expensive legal challenges against media outlets just because they don't like what the outlet is saying. Others (myself included) see what Gawker has done over the years as a particularly extreme example of media irresponsibility, so it's generally hard to apply any worries about what happens to Gawker to other media outlets.
Whatever your feelings about the appropriateness of Thiel's actions, what Gawker did to Thiel by outing him was bad. And for many in the LGBTQ community, Thiel's story brings back memories of people effectively weaponizing a person's sexual orientation or gender identity for blackmail, general embarrassment and shaming, and other threats.
This is not some sort of theoretical problem for LGBTQ people. This was particularly common in the 1980s and '90s, when society was less accepting of LGBTQ rights and outing someone could ruin a person's life and career. And it's a major concern that, as a gay man, I have heard from nearly every LGBTQ person I have personally interacted with in my life. Whether it's the threat of being outed as a teenager or as an adult, the fear that your sexual orientation or gender identity will be used as a weapon against you is a horrifying possibility.
For me, it's one of the reasons I was afraid to come out to anyone until my senior year of high school. I was afraid not only that whoever I told would reject me but that they would turn around and use the knowledge of my gayness to make other people reject me. It was perfectly reasonable in my insecure teenage mind that I would quickly become the laughingstock of the entire school and my family if anyone found out I was gay.
It was one of the reasons I felt the need to seclude myself in online video games where I could anonymously tell people I'm gay — I knew I couldn't be myself in real life, so why bother with the real world? And this seclusion led to depression, which I only managed to free myself of after I came out.
I was fortunate enough that when that happened, no one rejected me. But many people do not live in that reality. Many LGBTQ people live in places, have families, or work in environments that are not accepting of different views on sexuality or gender. These are the kinds of conditions that would push someone to want to remain in the closet, and feel threatened when someone else tries to push his secret out to the public without his consent.
When a media outlet outs someone and potentially ruins his life, it only reinforces the fears — by confirming there are still prominent spaces that aren't afraid to needlessly shred someone's life for traffic. And Thiel isn't alone in experiencing this kind of treatment from Gawker firsthand.
Outing someone serves little purpose — except playing into stereotypes
Gawker itself now seems to know how bad outing people can be. On July 16, 2015, it published (and took down a day later) a controversial story apparently outing a married man who, the story claimed, hired a male escort behind his wife's back. The story had many problems — including the question of whether the subject is prominent enough to be covered at all. And it drew widespread criticism, signaling a shift in how and whether Gawker does these stories.
But before that, Gawker had a long history of outing people, including Thiel. I will not list the stories in the interest of not perpetuating the problem, but suffice to say it's something that Gawker was widely known for.
At least some writers at Gawker didn't always like the idea of making a big story out of someone's sexual orientation, as Tracy Moore covered for Gawker Media's own Jezebel. Moore criticized Grantland's now-infamous 2014 article "Dr. V's Magical Putter" after the subject of the piece, a transgender woman, killed herself because, among several issues, she was afraid she would be outed. Moore wrote in no uncertain terms:
Don't out someone who doesn't want to be out. The end. Everyone has a right to privacy when it comes to their gender identity or sexual orientation, and beyond this, the trans status is not relevant…
This is the sort of stuff that comes up, by the way, in 101 ethics classes: Say you're called to cover the story of a hero who saved a drowning man from an icy river, and in the course of reporting you determine the hero is also gay, and would prefer to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. Do you report on it? The answer, of course, is no, you don't report that detail, because the hero being gay is irrelevant to the story. But real-life scenarios are not so simple.
The second part of Moore's comments gets to the broader point: What purpose does outing someone as LGBTQ serve? Does it give the world any useful information knowing someone's sexual orientation or gender identity? If a journalist wants to break a person's privacy, it needs to be in the public interest in some way — and I'm not seeing how this aspect of a person's life can be relevant (and another Gawker Media writer apparently didn't in another case, either).
While there may be some compelling arguments for outing certain public or elected figures — particularly those who support anti-LGBTQ policies — none of those arguments existed in Gawker's 2015 piece. And to the extent exposing important public figures as gay may normalize gayness by showing that gay people can be in positions of power, the message it sends — that outing people is okay if it serves your interests — is not worth the benefit.
And there are many more reasons to not out someone. For one, it plays into the idea that being gay is something to be ashamed of. There is a subtext to Gawker stories like the one from 2015, and that is that the person committed two major offenses: He cheated on his wife, and he cheated with a man instead of a woman.
The latter, of course, implies that there is something doubly wrong with same-sex infidelity. This isn't usually explicit in these stories, but sexual orientation is often emphasized very heavily — and unless it's something to be ashamed of, there's really no reason to bring it up in a story that is supposed to embarrass someone for doing wrong.
Outing can also literally endanger people's lives. For a segment of the population that already faces a high risk of suicide and discrimination, that should be the primary concern of any ethical journalist.
Fear of rejection literally causes LGBTQ people to commit suicide
The fear of rejection — particularly family rejection — is one of the main fears LGBTQ people deal with before they come out. And there's a good reason for this: By several metrics, family rejection can significantly worsen a person's life.
Take, for example, the homelessness statistics. When LGBTQ people are rejected by their families, they face the real threat of being kicked out of their homes. LGBTQ people make up roughly 4 percent of the population but about 40 percent of homeless agencies' clientele, according to the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ-focused think tank. The top two reasons for homelessness involve family rejection: 46 percent of LGBTQ youth who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless ran away because of family rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and 43 percent were forced out by their parents, the Williams Institute found.
Fears about this type of backlash can follow a young gay or trans person before he, she, or they decides to come out: "What if someone exposes me, and my family rejects me, and I'm left without a home?" While I personally never experienced this fear, it's one I've heard from several LGBTQ people. And this is only one of several concerns LGBTQ people face when they're rejected by friends, spouses, and family — others include the possibility of divorce, physical or emotional abuse, and blackmail.
If someone is outed and rejected, it can even pose a serious risk to someone's mental health. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide and 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression than peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection, according to one study from San Francisco State University researchers. And trans and gender nonconforming people who report family rejection were 59 percent more likely to attempt suicide than those who don't, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
These are the statistics a media outlet should consider before outing someone. It can literally lead to someone's death. In fact, in the case of Grantland's Dr. V story, it actually happened, inspiring several media outlets, including some on Gawker Media, to consider the journalistic ethics of covering LGBTQ people.
It's too easy as a journalist to forget that the subjects you're writing about are real people with real lives, families, and careers. But the troubling statistics and historical examples, especially for LGBTQ people, show that journalists simply can't afford to forget.
Correction: This story originally conflated the publishing date of the Gawker story that outed a married man. It was 2015, not 2016.