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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A new documentary film claims that many politicians in Washington are not honest about their sexuality.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Outrage")

Unidentified Man: I remember when I first moved here, thinking how gay it was.

Unidentified Woman: Capitol Hill is packed with gay staffers. There are so many of them.

SIEGEL: The film is called "Outrage." It contends that some closeted gays in politics are hypocritical. They vote against gay rights while privately being gay. NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on how the movie is being received in Washington.

ANDREA SEABROOK: If "Outrage" had been released a decade or two ago, it might've been a lot more explosive. Well, the issue of gays in Washington has always been sensitive. Homosexuality became a focal point for angry conservatives in the '80s and '90s. Part of what presidential contender Pat Buchanan called the culture war at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Mr. PAT BUCHANAN (Former Presidential Contender): There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. But this war is for the soul of America.

SEABROOK: At the time, the political influence of Christian conservatives was on the rise. People like James Smith of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Mr. JAMES SMITH (Southern Baptist Convention): We think that it undermines the society in America to openly condone and sanction homosexuality.

SEABROOK: And the Reverend Jerry Falwell, whose television program, "The Old-Time Gospel Hour," rallied his flock to the cause.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Old-Time Gospel Hour")

Reverend JERRY FALWELL ("The Old-Time Gospel Hour"): As a god-fearing American taxpayer (unintelligible), I strongly oppose the following. Granting to known practicing homosexuals a policy-making position on your White House staff. Number three, promoting a national…

Representative JIM KOLBE (Former Congressman): It was inconceivable back then that there would be openly gay people in government, certainly at any high levels.

SEABROOK: This is former congressman, Jim Kolbe. He's a Republican from Arizona and he's gay. Kolbe notes that today five states allow gay marriage. And Washington, he says, has changed a lot.

Rep. KOLBE: Today it's a total ho-hum that Obama appoints a gay person to this position or that position. Nobody even raises the question. It's just not an issue.

SEABROOK: At least not for some people. The movie "Outrage" says even today many politicians in Washington live private lives very different from their public ones. Congressman Barney Frank, one of the first gay lawmakers to come out, says he understands why people stay in the closet. There are many places in the United States, he says, where you just can't get elected if you're out.

Representative BARNEY FRANK (Democrat, Massachusetts): It's certainly clear that if I had been out in 1980 I would've lost. I almost lost because people were guessing. If I'd made it explicit, it wouldn't have been close. I then got to Washington and said, okay, I'm gonna - partly - I'll be publicly ambiguous, privately I'll be gay. Didn't work.

SEABROOK: For years, when Frank was asked about his sexuality, he told people he was married to his job.

Rep. FRANK: Frankly, when you are living this kind of life in which expressing your normal physical desires for sex is so difficult, it makes you sort of more obsessive about it - that you don't have a normal physical life, you don't have a normal emotional life. And I found that instead of the job being a way to deal with the frustrations, the frustrations impinged on the job.

SEABROOK: Frank says today he lives a normal life. He's out, he has a boyfriend — it's no big deal. But it's not that easy for everyone, says Rich Tafel, a former leader of the gay group the Log Cabin Republicans.

Mr. RICH TAFEL (Log Cabin Republicans): So if you're a politician, one of your two big forces in your life is ambition and being liked. That tends to be a pretty good recipe for staying in the closet.

SEABROOK: Especially, says Tafel, if you're a Republican. In recent years, as opposition to gays became an overt rallying point in the GOP, Tafel says a schism happened in the gay community in Washington. If you were a Democrat you came out. If you were a Republican, Tafel says, you probably went deeper into the closet.

Mr. TAFEL: So it created a out of balance, in a way, beucase now as a political weapon, knowing that you're gay and you work for a Republican could be something that I could exploit against you politically. And there's very few weapons in this town that partisan politics on both sides don't use.

SEABROOK: Most of the movie, "Outrage" is spent making the case that several high-ranking politicians, almost all of them Republicans, are gay — despite those individuals' denials or refusal to discuss the matter. The tactic of outing someone against his or her will is opposed by most national gay advocacy groups. But Congressman Barney Frank supports the film, arguing it's justified because the movie goes after people it contends are closeted gays who vote against gay rights.

SEABROOK: He says it's akin to exposing an anti-gun politician who owns an Uzi. Or someone who works to make abortion illegal, but still wants to have one.

Rep. FRANK: Being gay is the only area where you give people a pass — where they are allowed to advocate one set of policies and live totally differently from it. And I think that's the issue. It's not whether or not you're gay, but hypocrisy.

SEABROOK: Then again, former Congressman Jim Kolbe says it isn't always that simple.

Rep. KOLBE: They can have other reasons for casting the votes that they do. They don't have to be supportive, necessarily, of the entire gay agenda.

SEABROOK: But so long as being gay remains a political liability, the threat of exposure will be a weapon. And those who try to keep their sexuality secret will be vulnerable to enemies on both sides of the issue.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.

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