If you haven’t the foggiest notion of what this headline refers to and want to sail smoothly into an uncomplicated weekend, just stop reading right now. But if your equanimity is already shot, let me get you up to speed on the latest episode of The Internet Is Terrible. Back in December, Twitter user @Jamie_Maz found some insensitive, mildly homophobic posts that MSNBC anchor Joy Reid had written on her now defunct blog, The Reid Report, between 2007 and 2009. Reid apologized, and the matter went away. Then, the same Twitter user found other, more explicitly homophobic posts from the same blog, time stamped between 2005 and 2009. Reid has denied writing those entries, saying that her blog had been hacked, a claim that several writers have expressed skepticism about, citing sources from the Internet Archive, among others. An FBI investigation is reportedly underway.
I don’t know if Reid did or did not write these posts, and I do not have the technical expertise to comment on the central question about hacking around which this controversy now revolves. But I was a gay blogger and a prolific reader of blogs, gay and political and otherwise, during the period in question. And when I forced myself to review the posts, many of them were instantly recognizable to me as something a liberal blogger in those years could have written. In fact, the more I put on my 2006-ish hat, the more unexceptional they seem to me. To my mind, the homophobia expressed falls into four different categories:
1) Ridiculing and recirculating rumors about purportedly closeted politicians and celebrities, including Charlie Crist, Queen Latifah, Tom Cruise, Clay Aiken, Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, Karl Rove, Rick Santorum, John Roberts, Harriet Miers, and Anderson Cooper.
I know it’s hard at a moment when Adam Rippon is blinding us all with his dazzling gayness, but it’s important to recall how powerful the closet still was as an institution back then—and how flummoxed the country was by its spectacular rupture. At the time, only one person had ever been newly elected to Congress while out (Tammy Baldwin); the first gay man to be newly elected while out (Jared Polis) would follow in 2008. There was only one out gay anchor on TV (CNN’s Thomas Roberts). Actor Sean Hayes, for Christ’s sake, had finished eight whole seasons of playing the flamboyantly gay Jack McFarland on Will & Grace and was still not out and would not be until 2010.
Still, something was breaking. The masquerade of the open secret, which had protected pols and celebrities alike, was becoming increasingly risible. It’s in this specific moment, during a fraught national debate over same-sex marriage, that the lie of the closet began to stink, especially when it came wrapped in hypocrisy.
Gay bloggers like Mike Rogers and John Aravosis began outing Republican officials and staffers in 2004, the same year that New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey confessed to being a “gay American” and then promptly resigned. Rogers routinely mocked people as “closet cases” and “beards” and bestowed upon even relatively obscure staffers, whose e-mail addresses he would publish, a “Roy Cohn Award” for “faithful service to homophobes.” When Rogers and Aravosis attempted to out RNC chair Ken Mehlman in 2006, based in part on the fact that “he’s single at 38” even though he has “all those beautiful eligible Republican activist women at his beck and call,” Republican strategist Steve Schmidt emphatically told Jake Tapper that “Ken Mehlman is not gay” (Mehlman came out in 2010). In September 2006, Florida Congressman Mark Foley was caught sexting a former page. Later that year, evangelical pastor Ted Haggard was outed by a sex worker. In August 2007, Republican Senator Larry Craig was arrested for soliciting sex from an undercover cop in a bathroom at the Minneapolis airport.
All of this was greeted at the time, in both the blogosphere and the straight press, with a mixture of voyeurism, titillation, pity, and contempt. I remember watching one local network reenact Craig’s airport bust, complete with horror-movie music. It was not that uncommon to find on gay blogs paparazzi shots of allegedly closeted male celebrities with graffiti dicks in their mouths or graffiti beards drawn on their female dates. Adult people did this.
Which is to say that this shit was in the air then. Of course, none of this is evidence that Reid did or did not write the posts in question. And I’ll leave aside the complicated ethics of outing and whether or not a straight woman would have the same license as a gay activist to indulge in these tropes. But when I saw in these posts derisive comments about “Miss Charlie” (Crist) and “Miss Piggy” (Rove) and a list of “totally not gay celebrities of the year” (Cruise, Aiken, Oprah and Gayle, Anderson Cooper) and digs at a “hellified lesbian hair-do” (Harriet Miers)—none of this struck me as particularly unusual for 2006. In fact, it’s entirely plausible that a liberal gay activist could have written much of it.
2) Using the trope of gay sex to mock politicians and journalists for being biddable and sycophantic. The posts in question, for example, deride John McCain for having “sucked up to Bush so forcefully” that “it’s a wonder that he and Dubya haven’t eloped to Massachusetts” and mock Sean Hannity for “getting a good topping off from his very favorite orgrish love sponge, Vice President Dick Cheney.” There is little to say here, except that such language was lazy and banal back then, and is even lazier and almost as banal today—as writers of all persuasions continue to use sex as a metaphor for cozying up to power.
3) Opposition to same-sex marriage as a policy and as a political priority for Democrats. In one post, apparently in response to a 2006 referendum in Colorado that would have amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, the writer declares, “I’m not a proponent of gay marriage, but to say this issue is important to the country given what else is going on in the world? Priceless…” and “I’m not even in favor of gay marriage and this crap would make me vote no on that Colorado amendment.” Other posts castigate the left for “pushing an agenda of stupid issues like gay marriage.”
The point is crudely made here, but it reflects the consensus view of the Democratic Party back then, including folks like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Chuck Schumer, who all opposed state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage but who also said that marriage should be between a man and a woman. There is also nothing particularly exceptional about seeking to de-prioritize gay rights at the time. Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example, blamed Gavin Newsom’s decision to hold same-sex weddings in San Francisco for contributing to John Kerry’s defeat in 2004—and pretty much nobody except Gavin and the gays cared. And does anyone remember Ralph Nader in 1996 on “gonadal politics”?
4) Revulsion at gay sex. These are the more painful posts to look at because they express actual animus toward ordinary gay people. One typical example, titled “Tim Hardaway is a homophobe (and so are you),” is pegged to the basketball player’s response to former player John Amaechi’s coming out in 2007. Hardaway said at the time, “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic.” (Interesting update: Hardaway himself has had a change of heart and was the first signer of a petition in 2013 to overturn Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage.) The writer of the post notes that it was stupid for a public figure to make these remarks, but then goes on to affirm them, claiming that “most straight people cringe at the sight of two men kissing” and admitting to not watching Brokeback Mountain (2005) because “I didn’t want to watch two male characters having sex.”
Of course, by 2018 standards, these remarks are appalling. And even by 2006 norms, I suspect, there’s a juvenile callousness to them that would have stung. But in many ways, they aren’t categorically different from how many people in the mainstream reacted to LGBTQ visibility back then, which was to accept the individual while expressing panic over the sex. “What was it like to have to kiss another man?” was the question that dogged Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal at practically every press interview for Brokeback, because kissing someone who looked like either of them was obviously so revolting that only the utmost dedication to one’s art could overcome the gag reflex. In one typical exchange from 2008, James Franco tells David Letterman that he didn’t want to screw up his kissing scene with Sean Penn in Milk. Letterman quips back, “See, if it’s me, I’m kinda hoping I do screw it up… I mean, do you really want to be good at kissing a guy?” as his audience breaks out into hysterics. My point: It is only extremely recently that Instagram helped bring about images of same-sex intimacy that were affirmed rather than denigrated by large numbers of Americans.
Again, none of this should be construed as evidence that Joy Reid wrote the posts in question. But reading them against the blogosphere of 2005–09, a few things became clearer to me. First, if someone had recently hacked Reid’s defunct blog, it would have required not just technical savvy, but also a fairly sophisticated cultural understanding of the memes, moods, and dustups of those years. Who today remembers Harriet Miers, never mind her hairdo? Or that Tim Hardaway’s outburst was a 15-second story in 2007? Or that particular lists of allegedly closeted celebs only made sense in 2006, but not, say, in 2009? If a hacker hijacked or fabricated these posts in 2017 and retrofitted them into a decade-old blog, that person did a lot of work, and it’s crucial to get to the bottom of how and why.
Second, for a hacker to have slipped these posts into Reid’s blog in real time, from 2006 to 2009, with the malicious intent of smearing her one day far in the future, that would have required an unnerving prescience. Much of what is included in these posts was simply not disqualifying back then, and there was no indication that they ever would be any time soon.
Which brings us to the possibility that Reid or someone who wrote under her handle did, in fact, write these posts in those years. And that nobody noticed or cared to remark upon them because they were—especially when encountered in isolation rather than in aggregate, as they would have been back then—exactly that: totally and wholly unremarkable. It would have been fascinating to have had a conversation about how much has changed, and how a writer and political activist came to change with the times. And maybe that conversation could still be had.
But for now, there’s a more pressing matter at hand: Is Joy Reid telling the truth? There’s nothing I find in the posts from 2006 to 2009 that can’t be understood or forgiven. It’s dissembling about them in 2018, as a journalist, that would be disqualifying.