Photo courtesy of Rex Images
On Sunday, the New York Times published an amusing profile of Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and either Woody Allen or Frank Sinatra. In a lengthy feature on the Farrow clan in Vanity Fair earlier this month, Mia tantalised readers with the possibility that Ronan is actually the son of Sinatra, her first husband and intermittent lover. In any event, Farrow is a cherubic 25-year-old boy-genius who graduated from Yale Law School at the age of 21, won a Rhodes scholarship, served as a diplomat for the Obama administration, signed a major book deal with Penguin and is now hosting a weekday show for MSNBC.
He’s also gay, according to friends of mine who have slept with him, but you wouldn’t know that from reading either Vanity Fair or the New York Times. Why the reticence? Neither publication seems very interested in protecting Farrow’s privacy – the articles reveal bracingly personal details about Farrow and his family, including lurid speculations about paternity and painful references to the drawn-out custody disputes with Allen. Why a veil of secrecy for this particular detail? Is “outing” even a thing that publications worry about anymore?
In December of 2010 and January of 2011, the New York Times and New York magazine each published major profiles of wealthy media magnate Martin Peretz, the former publisher of the New Republic. The articles went into detail about Peretz’s then-recent divorce – but failed to mention that Peretz left his wife for a man. That seemed like clear journalistic malpractice, a problem exacerbated by the fact that, as Gawker pointed out, the articles included dog-whistle hints – noting, for example, that Peretz lives in a high-rise with a 26-year-old Israeli ex-soldier – so that insiders could read between the lines.
It's not as obvious to me that Farrow's sexuality needed to be mentioned in the Times profile, though again there's a dog-whistle issue: "When he wasn’t busy navigating world events, [Farrow] was adding some panache to the Washington social scene, often appearing at political fetes with Jon Lovett, a former Obama speechwriter”; and "he is guarded about his private life, suggesting a persona more carefully calibrated than he lets on." OK, maybe that's a little louder than a dog-whistle. It’s possible that the piece’s author, Michael Schulman, who often writes about gay celebrities, couldn't get anyone to verify Farrow's sexuality on the record. Farrow himself didn’t cooperate with the article, so the omission was not part of some brokered deal to get access. According to Google, Lovett is Farrow's long-time boyfriend, though for all I know the situation is more complicated and Farrow and Lovett are in a four-way relationship with an older woman and her female cat.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic, when "silence equaled death", there were good arguments to be made that staying in the closet was actually killing people and that “outing” was a moral imperative, despite the havoc it could unleash on someone’s professional life. The stakes today are not as elevated for either individuals, who in most cases don’t have much to lose, or for society at large, which arguably doesn’t have much to gain: the kids will be all right without a Ronan Farrow It Gets Better video.
Still, in the context of a profile, sexuality is a pretty big puzzle piece to miss. If Martin Peretz had left his wife for a 26-year-old female Israeli soldier, I suspect the press would not have been so timid – the story of their relationship would have been recounted in titillating detail. Gay readers deserve to be titillated, too. As a gay man, I find Farrow's sexuality highly relevant – he's literally the gay Mia Farrow! It’s only by accepting a homophobic logic that we can perform the mental acrobatics required to decide sexuality should be off the table. It’s just as interesting as any other detail, and no more embarrassing. As a New York court ruled last year, outing is a banality – identifying someone as a homosexual never qualifies as defamation, even if it isn’t true.
One might wonder why anyone who was young and famous and liberal would want to stay in the closet, but maybe that's naive. Nate Silver remained in the closet all the way through the 2008 and 2010 elections, arguably for good reason. There can be no doubt that the loony right would have made an issue of his sexuality, as if gayness could somehow discredit statistical analysis. Better to slam dunk twice in a row, he might have considered, before giving anyone an excuse to kick you off the team. Is it possible that Farrow worries the public will take his political commentary less seriously if it knows he's gay? Unlike Rachel Maddow, Andrew Sullivan or Anderson Cooper, Farrow has worked as a diplomat in the Middle East and Africa, and may do so again. Even if you accept that his sexuality isn't a liability in the US, it might be a different matter abroad.
When the profiles of Martin Peretz came out, I remember thinking that the New Yorker, where I was working at the time, might have fired a reporter for missing or covering up such a big part of the story. When I discussed the profiles with an editor, though, he said he sympathised with the dilemma faced by those reporters. “We have the same issue with the Scientology piece,” he told me, referring to a 20,000-word article by Lawrence Wright. “Do we publish the rumours about John Travolta?” I replied that if we were publishing a profile of Travolta, then yes, it would be crazy not to mention rumors about his sexuality; a piece about Scientology, though, didn’t need to go there. (In the event, mention of Travolta’s sexuality didn’t make it into the magazine version of Wright’s piece, though it does figure in Going Clear, the book that grew out of it.) Another editor said he felt that outing was only called for in cases of hypocrisy. “It’s not as if Martin Peretz opposes gay marriage,” he pointed out.
But this seemed to utterly miss the point. The motivations for outing aren’t only moral or political – they’re also narrative. While it’s true that allowing celebrities to remain closeted probably enhances the stigmatization of homosexuality at the margins by making it appear rare or shameful, what was shocking about the Peretz pieces was how two different reporters managed not only to bury the lede, but to completely erase it. In comparison, the issue with Gawker's "exposure" of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith last week was simply that Shepard Smith himself is uninteresting, not that homosexuality is – a point lost on David Carr in his recent analysis of the incident in the Times.
Ronan Farrow has every right to try to hide his sexuality, just as he has every right to try to hide the embarrassing fact that his real first name is Satchel. The press, though, is primarily obligated to the truth. Do we discover something pertinent about Farrow and his motivations when we learn that he’s gay? Does it reveal something about his character – whether slipperiness, self-loathing, a knack for grand strategy, or simply immaturity – that he chooses to hide it? Maybe, maybe not. But those are determinations that readers deserve to make on their own.
Follow the author on Twitter at @seeglazek.