A national politician, whose marriage seems polished to wholesome perfection and whose voting record on gay rights is "mixed," is described as being gay.

A syndicated columnist is labeled a secret lesbian.

A governor who votes against an issue supported by gays finds pickets leafleting his political events with allegations that he is a homosexual.

Two male movie stars, each a heartthrob for millions of women, are reported to prefer male companions off screen.

In the last few months, these five people have been the targets of a controversial tactic by gay-rights activists called "outing."

The practice -- which means forcing homosexuals "out" of the closet -- has divided the gay community, infuriated many heterosexuals and terrified some public figures.

Moreover, it has forced the media to face a difficult question about when a basic rule of journalism -- i.e., that rumors are not worthy of publication -- can be eroded by the realities of the information age. This newspaper, for example, has decided not to name any of those five, but other news organizations have reacted differently.

The name of the national politician, who has denied vehemently that he is gay, has been published in a number of West Coast newspapers and several Knight-Ridder newspapers, including the Miami Herald and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and aired on National Public Radio.

The columnist's name has been published in Newsweek, where she was quoted as responding: "I am disgusted by these AIDS terrorists."

The movie stars' identities have been revealed in a variety of publications, not only supermarket tabloids but a number of metropolitan dailies including the Oakland Tribune and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Outing" is a clear example of how easy it is for unproved allegations to be published -- at least somewhere. And they are published even though editors of mainstream publications say they do not believe such details should be released without proof.

In interviews for this article, a number of news executives said they were uncomfortable with printing such information about people but believed such decisions had to be made on a case-by-case basis. Several said that one good reason for publishing an allegation is when it becomes so widely known that not to write or talk about it is a form of censorship.

The easiest path into the mainstream publications is through the supermarket tabloids. Once they have picked up charges by gay-rights activists, the establishment press feels less reluctant to follow suit. The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, was among those publications that reprinted the names of a rock star's daughter and a fashion designer as examples of those who have been "outing" targets.

"It was our feeling that the information had been distributed sufficiently widely that it had become part of the general public awareness," said Chronicle City Editor Dan Rosenheim.

Rosenheim said that in another case -- that of a local politician who was called homosexual by the local gay press -- the Chronicle did not print the report.

"Our policy is not to 'out' people," said Rosenheim. Rosenheim said that to name people as homosexuals against their will was similar to naming rape victims against their will.

"I don't think it's our role to compound ostracism or other injuries that gay people may face as a result of their sexual orientation being widely known," he said.

Similarly, the Miami Herald published four names last month in a long story on the "outing" issue. The names appeared even though, as Managing Editor Pete Weitzel put it, "our tendency is to err on the side of not printing, to not disclose someone's sexuality that wasn't already in the public domain."

"I don't see this as an exception to that rule," Weitzel said of the Herald piece. "This was a situation where we were reporting in context of that story and that issue about something that had been widely publicized in the tabloids. ... I did not see this as telling our readers, or most of our readers, anything new."

Reprinting tabloid gossip may seem like a small exception to traditional journalistic standards for those in the news media, but for gay-rights activists the few names that have been widely published have encouraged the "outing" trend.

"Already I've seen the stories about 'outing' change," said Michelangelo Signorili, features editor of OutWeek magazine, a gay publication that has been a proponent of "outing" public figures.

"They {the media} have gone from being very reactionary and against me to engaging in an incredibly intelligent dialogue about the issue," he said of the mainstream media. "I've seen the media loosen up quite a bit. Certainly the supermarket tabs were first to jump on it, and certainly in that case it was for the dollars.

"Then the mainstream media begins reporting what the supermarket {tabloids} were doing," he said.

Names have become public in other ways. When the West Coast politician put up his campaign billboards in late April, two of them were changed by gay-rights activists who believed he was being hypocritical by voting against bills supported by gays.

Under the politician's name, gay-rights activists added their own slogans. One read: "Closeted Gay. Living a Lie -- Voting to Oppress." Another said: "Making AIDS Deaths a Reality." The billboards were quickly restored to their original message but not before news organizations had taken pictures or made note of the incident.

Some news organizations in the politician's hometown published the name. Some didn't.

But word of the billboards circulated, and by the end of June, the name was considered "in play" by some newspapers, meaning that it had become public.

"We were not part of any decision to protect someone's privacy in that case," said Mel Opotowsky, senior managing editor of the Press Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., which published the name. "By the time we got to it, it was a question of whether to prevent our readers from knowing what had already been known."

The Washington Post prepared a story on the same issue several weeks ago but did not run it after Managing Editor Leonard Downie Jr. decided not to use the names of those described as of homosexual by gay-rights activists. He said the allegations did not meet The Post's standards for news.

Those standards, said Downie, are first, that the charge is true, and second, that it is "germane" -- that it affects the official's job or reflects on character in a way that voters would consider important. In addition, Downie said, a story on the same subject had been run by the paper late last year and the new story added little but the names.

"We look at 'outing' questions no differently than questions we have had surrounding extramarital affairs by politicians," said Downie. "All the same things come into play here... .

"This one was not even close," Downie said. "These were just allegations being made by people without any substantiation."

However, The Post and other newspapers did mention the name of the late Malcolm Forbes when Outweek magazine did a story in March contending that the publisher and businessman had led a private life as a homosexual. Some news organizations acknowledged that they felt a little more inclined to print the stories about Forbes after his death, saying he could not be damaged and could not take news organizations to court.

Others felt that the news was "out" -- far beyond the gay community with the publication of a new book on Forbes.

Peter Prichard, editor of USA Today, which printed the report about Forbes 10 days after his death, said: "We didn't do it lightly." Prichard said that before Forbes died in February, a USA Today reporter began asking a Forbes spokesman about an upcoming book that alleged the publisher was homosexual.

After Forbes died, a number of publications printed the charges about his private life -- with one notable exception, the New York Times.

Times spokesman William Adler said the paper would not print "hearsay" even if the subject is no longer living. Further, he said in stories where the sexual preference is incidental or "mentioned purely for revelation's sake," the paper would not print it.

"The thinking at the Times is that in most cases an individual's private sex life should not be the subject of coverage by the newspaper unless the person wishes it to be so," Adler said. "That perspective extends through their lifetime and even after their death."

In a story on "outing" by the Times, the writer made thinly veiled references to Forbes as "a famous businessman who had recently died."

Within the gay community, the debate rages about whether "outing" is proper and useful as a method of expanding political power for the gay movement. Signorili's view that "outing" reveals hypocrites and brings forth new "role models" is still not that of the mainstream gay community, according to several activists.

"It's very self-destructive in a gay community sense," said Don Michaels, publisher of the Washington Blade, a weekly gay newspaper with a circulation of about 30,000 in this area. "If we start doing this to people, I think it reflects poorly on us as a community.

"The question is, who do we pick to determine who should be dragged out of the closet?" Michaels asked. "What lines do we draw? If it's a politician, and it's because they were 'politically incorrect,' then how do we define politically incorrect?"

Some militant gay groups have a very low threshold, he said, for the political trigger that provokes "outing." Michaels said he did a straw poll a few weeks ago of 632 gays -- 46 percent of whom opposed "outing." He said 14 percent favored it, and 34 percent supported it under "limited circumstances."

"The real value to the whole 'outing' controversy is that people are talking about 'the closet,' " said Urvashi Vaid, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Vaid, who opposes "outing" gays involuntarily, said that she still sees the benefits of the storm it has created.

"It has given more exposure and more coverage to the fact that lesbians and gay men live in hiding," she said. "We live in the closet because there is enormous discrimination ... and it is so important that non-gay people understand that 'outing' is the expression of frustration in the gay community about being in the closet."

At a debate on the "outing" issue sponsored by the gay-rights group ACTUP/DC last night at St. Thomas Parish, Gabriel Rotello, editor in chief of Outweek, said that the media have a double standard about covering gays. Mainstream journalists who write about affairs and drug problems of public figures still shy away from talking about homosexuality, he said.

"If the media began treating us as a normal part of life -- even a bad part of life -- the taboo against homosexuality would virtually disappear," Rotello said.