May 22, 2009— -- Former Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe -- a moderate Republican who had been mentored by Barry Goldwater -- took a phone call in 1996 that would change his life.
Debate on the defense of marriage amendment was in full swing and a reporter from the gay media was ready to "out" Kolbe, who voted in favor of the measure but whose entire political life had been in the closet.
"I panicked when it was obvious The Advocate was going ahead with this," Kolbe told ABCNews.com Thursday. "Then, there was this moment of extraordinary peace and calm, a feeling that the weight of all these years had come off my shoulders."
Kolbe decided to beat the reporter to the punch, admitting to his close colleague in the U.S. House of Representatives, John McCain, that he was gay.
"It turned out to be a positive thing," said Kolbe, now 66, who works for a Washington, D.C., think-tank. "Basically, he interrupted me and said, 'Jim, don't worry, because it doesn't matter. You were a good legislator in the past and you'll be a good one in the future.'"
That perceived hypocrisy is the subject of the new documentary film "Outrage," which opened to favorable reviews last week in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, and will open in seven more cities this weekend.
"Washington is a very gay town," one person interviewed in the film said. "And it's also a deeply closeted town."
There are no openly gay U.S. senators but three openly gay representatives: Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc.; Jared Polis, D-Colo.; and Barney Frank, D-Mass. Baldwin, who was interviewed for the documentary, was the first to be elected as openly gay.
Polis was elected openly gay and, Frank, like Kolbe, came out in office, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.
Documentary director Kirby Dick, who earlier exposed sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, now takes aim at the perceived hypocrisy of closeted gay politicians, whom he argues are often the most hateful opponents of gay rights in order to hide their own sexual orientation.
In interviews with politicians like Kolbe, former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey of New Jersey and Frank, who came out in office, the film blames the mainstream media with a "brilliant conspiracy" to hide their secret lives.
Those lawmakers "have a right to privacy, but there's no right to hypocrisy," according to Frank, who came out in 1987 and has been a vocal supporter of gay rights.
The film focuses on public officials who Dick said have previously been alleged to be gay: California Rep. David Dreier, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, former Louisiana Rep. Jim McCrery, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose political career ended after an arrest in a Minneapolis men's room.
Dreier, McCrery and Craig have publicly denied being homosexual. Koch and Mehlman have repeatedly refused to answer questions about their sexual orientation.
"When you have someone who is closeted and gay and voting anti-gay, what you are reporting is hypocrisy," Dick said. "If all Americans had civil rights, this wouldn't be an issue."
Politicians in the Closet
"Obviously," Dick said of choosing his subjects, "they had to rise to the level of hypocrisy. We didn't just out closeted politicians."
Besides Craig, the film villainizes Florida's Gov. Charlie Crist, alleging that the divorced politician became engaged to marry again in order to climb the political ladder. The film notes his 2008 marriage to Carole Rome when Republican presidential nominee McCain eyed him for the vice-presidential slot.
Crist, who supported Florida's anti-gay adoption law, recently announced his run for U.S. Senate and is considered a presidential hopeful for 2012.
Crist has denied published allegations that he is gay.
A Crist spokeswoman told ABCNews.com that the governor was unavailable for comment, but his Republican primary opponent, Marco Rubio, told the Orlando Sentinel, "I'm not into that kind of politics at all. I don't want to even talk about it. I don't want to hear about it."
The same newspaper named the sitting governor in its article titled, "Movie revives gay rumors about governor despite his denial."
The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times, among others, offered names in their film reviews, but other respected news outlets did not.
National Public Radio censored the names of purported closeted politicians, citing their editorial policies, and the gay reporter who wrote the review, Nathan Lee, demanded his name be removed from the piece.
The Washington Post mentioned only the names of interviewees who were openly gay.
Michael Hoyt, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, defended those ethical decisions. "I don't care what people do in the bedroom unless there is some issue that makes it relevant -- something illegal like having sex with a minor," he told ABCNews.com.
But, he added, "If somebody was on a virulent anti-gay crusade, it might be relevant."
Frank criticized the media for ignoring such hypocrisy.
"If the leader of the anti-abortion movement has an abortion, you write about it," Frank told ABCNews.com. "In general principle, John Locke [the 17th century thinker who influenced the Declaration of Independence] said the person who makes the rules needs to live under them."
Reporters often shy away from outing those politicians but, Frank said, "It's a recognition that being gay is such a terrible thing.
"A few years ago, it wasn't plausible [to come out]," he said. "But there are plenty of gays who are honest about their sexuality and survived."
Coming Out in Office
"I worried beforehand that I would suffer," said Frank, who came out to the Boston Globe. "I understand why people stay in the closet; I did for the first 15 years in office and then was out for 21 years. You have to decide. But I don't think you have an obligation to come out."
Frank, himself, wouldn't offer any clues to which politicians might still be in the closet. "I've got to work with them," he said, "I have a job to do. I don't think it's a legislator's job to out hypocrites. That's the job of the media or activists."
But former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who survived homophobic campaign slogans when running against Mario Cuomo for governor in 1982, said that public servants should never answer questions about their sex lives or be forced out of the closet, "unless they are engaged in hypocrisy -- demeaning homosexuals while being homosexuals themselves."
Koch, now 84, was alleged in the film to have been closeted his entire political life and to have been unsympathetic to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
"In the case of the film, 'Outrage,' the allegation apparently is -- I have not seen the film -- that those outed have engaged in homophobic statements or actions," Koch wrote to ABCNews.com in an e-mail. "To say that about me is a true outrage."
As the first mayor to walk in New York City's gay parade in the 1970s, Koch said his support of the gay and lesbian community is "well known and documented."
Koch said that as a congressman in the 1970s, he helped introduce federal legislation prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians and did the same in New York City.
"My administration sued a Queens school board that kept an HIV/AIDS-infected child from school, and we prevailed," he said. "My administration closed down heterosexual and homosexual baths that permitted unsafe sex practices -- that is, no condoms. My administration handed out huge numbers of free condoms in bars.
"Where was or is the hypocrisy?" Koch asked.
"I don't discuss my sexuality, as a matter of principle," Koch said. "I believe if people do, they are legitimizing questions on the subject of sexual orientation for all."
As for Jim Kolbe, being asked and then outing himself was "the most liberating experience" of his life.
"I am honest with myself and I don't have to go to elaborate games with others to cover up," he said. "I have so many friends in the military and they go to my workplace and see a picture of my partner on my desk. They have to put a picture of a sister and say it's their girlfriend."
The Advocate "did me a huge favor," Kolbe said. "But the individual has to make that decision and it can't be forced."
The Advocate's latest editor disagrees.
"The mainstream media often thinks it's shameful to report that someone is gay," Jon Barrett said. "But we in the gay press come from a place that there needs to be the same ethical questions raised, whether it's a heterosexual or homosexual."