A Despicable “Outing” In Minneapolis

Once again we visit the always despicable practice of punitive “outing,” when gay activists, gay advocates, or the generally self-righteous decide that some individual deserves to have private matters, that he or she has an absolute right to keep private, made public. This particular instance is especially notable, because it involved an especially odious brand of unethical investigation, followed by a series of arrogant rationalizations by the offending party that would make a good, if easy, pop quiz in an ethics exam.

Lavender Magazine, a biweekly for Minneapolis’s gay and lesbian community, reported that an outspokenly anti-gay local pastor attended meetings of Faith in Action, the local affiliate of Courage, an international program of the Catholic Church that offers support for people who want to remain chaste despite same-sex attraction.
As a result of the report, the pastor was placed on leave by his church, which is looking into the matter.

Stephen Rocheford, the chief executive of Lavender, said the magazine received a tip that the pastor attended the meetings, and that the staff  “thought that [was] kind of curious given his pronouncements against the gay community for years and years and years.”  For example, the pastor, who was also  cable and radio commentator, once  suggested that a 2009 Minneapolis tornado was a sign of God’s displeasure because it struck as a Lutheran Church body was voting to approve the ordination of practicing homosexuals in committed relationships.

After getting the tip, Mr. Rocheford said that Lavender sent freelance reporter John Townsend “undercover,” meaning that he falsely gained access to a “12 Step” program and support group in order to publicize the confidential activities there and the supposedly protected identity of one participant in particular.

There is no ethical theory that rationally supports such conduct by Lavender and its reporters. Among the grievous ethics fouls that they committed are these:

1. The pastor, gay or not, has a right to his express his opinion about homosexuality and his church, however offensive or idiotic it may be. The ethical response is to argue with him and counter his statements with logic and facts. Setting out to embarrass him personally or destroy his reputation is vindictive and cowardly.

2. There appears to be nothing hypocritical in his position, if he is indeed a chaste gay man. What anyone thinks or feels is not unethical, and seeking to punish someone for his feelings is making thoughts a crime. The pastor publically opposed “practicing homosexuals,” an admittedly offensive term, but a clear one. He wasn’t a practicing homosexual, and a chaste homosexual who believes that gay sex is sinful is not in any way a hypocrite. Indeed, his attendance at the support group proves that he was determined not to be a hypocrite.

3. Even if his sexual orientation and his public position were in conflict, “outing” is unjustifiable, as it is cruel, a violation of privacy, and a bright line violation of the Golden Rule. And yes, even those who violate the Golden Rule themselves are entitled to ethical treatment by others.

4. Gaining access through misrepresentation to a 12 Step program—any 12 Step program—jeopardizes a spectacularly successful method of treating addiction by undermining faith in the programs’ ability to keep the identity of participants private. The reporter was interfering with a process of treatment, and gaining access to private communications that he was no entitled to hear. This would be unethical journalism if the reporter was investigating a crime or a conspiracy; to commit this kind of willful breach of the confidences of people seeking emotional assistance in order to harm the reputation of a political foe is indefensible.

Considering the rationalizations and tortured arguments offered as  defenses by Lavender, however, it can come as no surprise that the magazine stomped multiple ethical principles—fairness, respect, honesty, empathy, confidentiality, respect for privacy and autonomy, kindness, trust, responsibility, candor, and more—into the dust.

For example:

  • “Reporters do that all the time,” Rocheford said.  “Everybody does it!” The reporters that do this every time are what we call unethical reporters.
  • “He didn’t do anything unethical…I consulted with our libel attorney and because this man is a public figure it’s a legitimate news story.” “It’s legal!” The last dodge of the unethical scoundrel, Marion Barry’s rule: anything that isn’t against the law is ethical. This is the height, or depths, of ethical cluelessness. No, Mr. Rochford, you won’t go to jail for this, and can’t be sued for libel. It’s just legal, rotten-to-the-core dishonest and mean-spirited conduct, that’s all.
  • Absurdly, Rocheford said the magazine has a policy against “outing” homosexuals, but explained that the one exception to the rule are public figure who make public pronouncements against the gay community while being a homosexual.  This was the only time that exception has been used. Translation: we don’t “out” homosexuals as policy, unless we want to because the homosexual in question does or says something we don’t like, in which case we will make “an exception.” Integrity is not on Lavender’s list of valued principles.
  • As his final excuse, Lavender’s leader argued that Faith in Action was not a legitimate 12 Step program, and thus was not due the same respect for it members confidentiality, saying “Those are there to help people with addictions and since when is homosexuality an addiction?”  To begin with, he is factually wrong: 12 Step programs are used successfully for emotional problems other than addiction, such as victims of incest, neurotics, and especially the friends and family members of addicts. He is also presumptuous to decide that a method of treatment that is regarded as helpful to those undergoing it isn’t “legitimate.” What gives Lavender the right to make an uninformed judgment that a support group doesn’t deserve the same anonymity as other 12 Step? Nothing—nothing but arrogantly and selfishly putting its own interests over the welfare and needs of others.

This is an easy ethics verdict. The publication’s conduct, both in “outing” the pastor and in dishonestly gaining access to a 12 Step program to do it, violating the legitimate confidentiality of the meeting and everyone in it, is professionally unethical, and just plain wrong. It would be encouraging if members of the Twin Cities’ gay community would put their political passions aside and show that they recognize this. The ends don’t justify unethical means, especially when the end is unethical too.

4 thoughts on “A Despicable “Outing” In Minneapolis

  1. Jack, it occurs to me that nowhere in the linked-to story does it state why this pastor attended the Faith in Action meetings. Was Lavender’s original story more explicit? It matters because it speaks to the overall accuracy of the story.
    If the pastor was attending because he does in fact feel same-sex attractions, which is the implication we’re left with in the follow-up story, then nothing really changes. But, if the pastor was attending the meetings for some other purpose, to learn more about the program for example, then things change.
    I do volunteer work with a program here in Texas. While not a twelve-step program, confidentiality is nevertheless key to our process. That having been said, we have nonetheless allowed print and other media journalists, as well as other observers to attend some of our sessions. This is ethical because we know who they are, they know that there are things that they will not hear, and anything that’s confidential simply will not be spoken of in their presence.
    If the pastor was there as an observer, with appropriate restrictions, then he is not a hypocrite—at all—because he is not saying one thing while doing another to begin with. In such a case, the Lavender story would be especially vile.
    I would like to assume that because Lavender hasn’t issued a correction, or that anyone else has come forward with appropriate clarifications, that the story is accurate as far as it goes. But in today’s media climate that would be an unwise assumption.

    • Thanks for that perspective. I suppose it is worse to be inaccurately “outed” for an action that doesn’t really indicate one is gay than to be unfairly outed for an action that the outer thinks is hypocritical but which really isn’t, even though hypocrisy is the justification for that publication waiving its policy against outing.

  2. Pingback: The Ethics of Outing the Movie Star | Ethics Alarms

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