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Diva Worship

On a Deadline

The assault on the closets of power escalated dramatically in 1990, changing the way the media and the gay movement would look at the "open secret" of many a public figure—as well as how you would look at your own closet, past or present.

It's hard to believe, in this age of blogs that name living and breathing closeted gay celebrities daily (and often inspire yawns), that less than 20 years ago there was shock and outrage over the outing of a dead man.

It was in March of 1990 when my cover story for the now-defunct OutWeek magazine, "The Secret Gay Life of Malcolm Forbes," was published within weeks of the publishing tycoon's death. I quoted people who knew the icon of American capitalism as gay, or had had sex with him themselves, even as he covered it up to the world. How could someone be so powerful, yet still so hostage to homophobia? Certainly that needed to be discussed. And as far as I was concerned, the historical record needed to be corrected before the postmortem whitewash got too far.

That wasn't going to be easy. Forbes was a media darling—someone from within their world who feted journalists in return for their dutiful ass kissing, including their reporting that Forbes and his platonic friend Elizabeth Taylor were "dating." Just months before his death, Forbes spent $5 million on his 70th-birthday bash at his palace in Tangier, chartering private jets to fly in 800 of the rich and famous—and much of the media—from around the world.

Mostly, though, the obstacle was media bias. The press had always decided what was private (homosexuality) and what was public (heterosexuality) among public figures. Editors and reporters saw homosexuality as the worst thing imaginable—worse than boozing, divorces, affairs, and out-of-wedlock babies, all of which were grist for the mill, whether relevant or not to a story.

Years before the internet and the blogs would further push the limits, I and my colleagues at the scrappy OutWeek magazine in New York were taking on the media's control of the issue. We began a year prior to the Forbes story, when we founded the magazine after working in the AIDS activist group ACT UP. Amid the height of the AIDS epidemic and government indifference, we believed invisibility, particularly among the powerful, was hurting us. I regularly identified closeted Hollywood and media figures in my weekly column, Gossip Watch. And a couple of times we printed the names of famous individuals in a box, simply titled, "Peek-a-boo." That got people to notice—and got an angry Time magazine to coin the term "outing."

But it was the Forbes story in 1990 that exploded the debate, forcing the media to engage and, eventually, to evolve. The nastiness of the closet, and the perennial discussion over who controls information about it, have been on the front burner ever since.

Michelangelo Signorile hosts a daily radio program on Sirius Satellite Radio.