In this age of unfettered "liberation" -- of unrestrained self-adoration and self-absorption -- "honesty" above all is said to be the best policy, and reticence the worst. The heroes of the age are those who march before the cameras, whether they be Phil Donahue's or Dan Rather's or Jane Pauley's, and invite the world to "share" their secrets. On the path to "self-fulfillment," confession is the first and most important order of business.

Thus we have the congressional odd couple of the summer of 1983, Robert Bauman and Gerry Studds. The former, having spent a couple of years trying to justify his involvement in men's-room homosexual solicitation on the grounds that booze mixed up with "homosexual tendencies" made him do it, suddenly leaped out of the closet and proclaimed not merely his homosexuality but his determination to devote his allegedly legendary political and organizational skills to the homosexual cause. Going public, Bauman told any interviewer within shouting distance, made him feel very good.

At about the same time, Studds was acknowledging the validity of charges that he had once had a relationship--the word for it is pederasty--with a male congressional page. In the course of this acknowledgement he not merely confessed but declared his homosexuality, after which he said he felt "great." This prompted Dana Hornig, a sympathetic journalist from Studds' Massachusetts district, to write an article that eventually found its way into Washington's City Paper. Of Studds' "coming out" Hornig wrote:

"What has come out as well, at least for the moment, is great relief. Gerry Studds today, for the first time since the 10th Congressional District became acquainted with him, can truly be himself. In fact, today he is soaring with a new sense of liberation. He feels wonderful. He feels exhilarated. He feels strong."

That paragraph provides a succinct (and sappy) statement of the new orthodoxy: Keeping one's intimate tastes and proclivities to oneself is bad, trotting them out for public examination is good; the unrevealed person is private and thus mysterious, which is bad, while the person who declares all "can truly be himself," which is good; exercising restraint in the expression of one's "feelings" is bad, letting them go for all the world to see is good. The operative assumption is that the more a person confesses, the more "known" and "liberated" he becomes.

Not merely is this the new orthodoxy, it is the new sentimentality; without it, Phil and Merv and all the other blow-dried sob sisters of videoland would go out of business, because confession brings a tear to the eye and thus keeps the viewer hooked. For a man to give public notice of his preference for boys over girls is regarded not as a gratuitous invasion of the privacy of others but as an act of "courage" in which all of us, as fellow citizens in the land of holistic hugging, are obliged to participate as rapt observers. Indeed, our witness is not enough; our applause is expected as well, and if we fail to deliver it we reveal ourselves as guilty of insufficient empathy.

Which is to say that we fail to distinguish between private anguish and public display; we believe that without the latter, the former cannot really exist. It is not enough now for a homosexual to undergo the process of self-examination--by all accounts a brutally painful one--that results in his private acknowledgement of his sexual nature; it is now necessary to "come out," rather in the fashion of a young woman of station making her way into the ballrooms of society. We seem to think it is insufficient for a homosexual to break the news to his family and friends; telegrams must be sent to Phil and Merv, and the gossip columnists, and the editors of Time and Newsweek.

In this distasteful process, what is more distasteful: The public's insatiable thirst for gossip, for false intimacy, or the individual's yearning for display, for absolution by publicity? It's a tossup. The elaborate rationales by which it is argued that self-display is good for you doubtless have far less to do with society's desire that individuals be helped in conquering their difficulties than with a yearning to legitimize prurience. If it is good for people to let it all hang out, then it is equally good for us to listen to what we want to hear: The most intimate details of the private lives of others, details that at once satisfy our longing for titillation and give us a sense of superiority--in particular moral superiority--to those who confess them.

But the urge for display is no prettier. Confession, no matter how difficult it may initially be, is in certain respects simply another way of being the center of attention. Listening to the more vociferous homosexual-rights pressure groups, it is easy to be convinced that they are less concerned with dragging people out of closets and into the political arena than they are with forcing themselves into the public eye. In this respect, "coming out" is not liberation but exhibitionism--yet another variation on the Me Decade's narcissistic demands for notice, approval and self-celebration.

In the cases of Bauman and Studds, of course, the primary impetus for "coming out" was involuntary: One was in trouble with the law and the other with his colleagues, and both for reasons of homosexuality. But having been forced out into the open, both gentlemen seem to have decided to go the full confessional route; it is difficult for people of the political persuasion to resist the eye of the camera, no matter why it is directed at them, and both of these highly political fellows seem to have gotten the desire to cleanse their linen in public all mixed up with a no less powerful desire to recover, by means of the sympathy factor, as much lost political ground as possible.

Well, it is possible to sympathize with anyone who finds himself in a painful position--whether having to do with sex, or illness, or marital discord, or behavioral eccentricity, or what have you--and still to find it repugnant that he insists on "sharing" these intimacies with the entire family of man. Perhaps, in an age that takes its profundities from Leo Buscaglia and Rod McKuen and Jane Fonda, this is "honesty." But viewed without the tinted glasses of pop psychology it can be seen for what it is: Mere self-indulgence, made all the more distasteful by the complacently arrogant assumption that one is interesting or important enough to force oneself upon the attention of people to whom one has never been introduced.