QUEER IN AMERICA

Sex, the Media, and The Closets of Power

By Michelangelo Signorile

Random House. 378 pp. $23

CAN I TRUST an author who is eager to "name names" for political purposes? Could I agree with an activist who scorns the right of privacy? How much homophobia do I bring to a book by a gay radical? Queer in America by Michelangelo Signorile pressed me with questions like this at every turn of the page. Mixing rage, reflection and reportage, this unusual book scrambled my suppositions even when it didn't change my mind.

Signorile is a leader in a new generation of gay activists. He has achieved his greatest fame by announcing the homosexuality of prominent-but-closeted gays -- "outing" them -- through his column in the now defunct publication Out Week. And, while Queer in America is much more than a defense of outing, the author works throughout the book to make a case for the political tactic he helped to originate.

Signorile builds his case with care. He begins, in the book's most vivid section, by describing the agony of growing up homosexual. In a world where parents are homophobic and peer culture is violently anti-gay, social experience drives gay teenagers into the closet. The closet, says Signorile, provides a sense of shelter in a culture that attacks homosexuality at every turn. But it stunts even as it shelters, guaranteeing a life of fear and deception. Politically, the closet perpetuates homophobia by allowing charges of homosexuality to smear and shame, instead of providing a moment of pride or an opportunity for education. Worse yet, according to Signorile, is the fact that there are powerful closeted gay men and lesbians in the very institutions that sustain homophobia, and these men and women acquiesce -- or even participate -- in the oppression of other homosexuals.

It is here that the strategy of "outing" plays a part in Signorile's analysis. He argues that the three major institutions sustaining homophobia are "the Trinity of the Closet" -- the news media (which willfully hide the homosexuality of public figures), the political system (which demands closeting and has rarely offered legislative safeguards to gay men and lesbians) and the entertainment industry (which disseminates negative images of homosexuals). Within these very institutions, closeted lesbians and gay men occupy crucial positions -- the "Closets of Power" of Signorile's subtitle -- and thus play an active part in their own oppression, as they help to perpetuate the agony of others like them.

Signorile argues that if gay men and lesbians are ever to have a sense of dignity and public worth, the powerful among them must be routed from their closets, even if it happens against their wishes. To call this tactic "outing," says Signorile, is to misrepresent it. He prefers the term "equalizing," because this is a process that puts the personal lives of eminent homosexuals on the public record, just as the media relentlessly expose us to the personal details of eminent heterosexuals' lives.

It is important to stress that Signorile believes only in the outing of gays and lesbians who occupy positions of power, and then only those who use their power to act against the interests of homosexuals. Although he wants all gays and lesbians to come out, he emphasizes that the vast majority who have no significant power should come out in their own way, at their own pace, by their own means.

Queer in America raises political and moral issues that few of us who live in a presumably heterosexual world have considered carefully, but they are unsettling, vital issues that parallel the hard questions about inclusion and justice asked by earlier social movements. How should we respond to Signorile's attacks on the homophobic status quo? Even as his book has improved my understanding, I retain my own forms of resistance to Signorile's arguments for outing. I was raised to believe in the immorality of McCarthyite tactics, so I balk at any book with a preface titled "On Naming Names." I embrace the liberal belief in the right to privacy and self-definition, and outing certainly runs counter to that belief. Most of all, I worry about what happens if the tool of outing falls into the wrong hands. Although Signorile has fine-tuned principles about who should be outed and who shouldn't, I fear for the people he hopes to protect from outing -- the powerless and painfully vulnerable who are the vast majority of lesbians and gays. If outing becomes widespread and indiscriminate, aren't these the very people who would suffer most?

Though I don't find myself totally convinced by Signorile's argument for outing as a political tactic, I am compelled by the larger social analysis that underlies the argument. The invisibility of lesbians and gays reinforces their marginality. Straight people won't be able to learn how normal, numerous or productive homosexuals are until they discover them among their friends, their families, their colleagues, their leaders and their heroes. The closet prevents change. The right of privacy sounds like a feeble defense for those powerful men and women who visit pain on fellow sufferers from homophobia.

For, in the end, the closet perpetuates the homophobia that creates it. And the suffering wrought by homophobia is truly chilling -- and totally unexcusable. One of every three adolescent suicide attempts is made by a gay or lesbian teenager. That means that homosexual adolescents are (depending on whose figures you use) from three to 30 times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers. In the face of such desperation, Signorile urges desperate measures. The moral urgency of Signorile's tactics are much more comprehensible juxtaposed with the horror of young people losing their lives to homophobia.

While homophobia and outing are the chief concerns of Queer in America, this complex book moves in many directions. It is a journalistic history of gay activism in the AIDS era, a coming-of-age-out memoir, a manual for guerilla politics in the Age of Information and even a utopian blueprint for the high-tech liberation of coming generations of lesbians and gays. Reading this book is a gripping experience. If Queer in America gets the readership it deserves, it will open minds as well as closets.

E. Anthony Rotundo teaches at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and is the author of "American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era."