Outing: Socially Responsible or Socially Reprehensible? Part I


WHAT IS “OUTING?”

Outing means revealing to others that a person is gay, lesbian, or bisexual without that person's permission to do so. Although most of us are aware of celebrity outings—who hasn't heard the rumors about Jodie Foster, Rosie O'Donnell, and Lily Tomlin?—non-celebrities can be and often are outed as well.

CAN A HETEROSEXUAL PERSON BE OUTED?

Yes. Outing is often a favorite weapon of sexism, used to punish people who don't conform to traditional gender roles. Thus, an outspoken woman or a woman who does not appear traditionally “feminine” is likely to find herself labeled a “dyke” no matter what her actual sexual orientation.

ARE ALL LESBIGAY PEOPLE VULNERABLE TO OUTING?

It would be hard to out someone like, say, Ellen DeGeneres or Martina Navratilova, women who have chosen to come out of the closet to the national media and who are all but household names.

Many lesbigay people, though, may be very out in some areas of their lives but not others. A lesbian who is out in the workplace, for instance, might still be closeted to her homophobic family or to her church.

Another way that people who already fairly open about their sexual orientations can be outed is by “upping the stakes” or increasing the level of publicity. For instance, even someone who is fairly out on a local level might not be comfortable being identified as gay in a national publication.

WHY DO PEOPLE ENGAGE IN OUTING?

There are several reasons why people may choose to out others. These reasons range from malicious to relatively benign.

One reason, clearly, is love of gossip. Who doesn't like to hear a juicy story, whether it's about Jodie Foster or Jerilyn, the mail clerk? And sex, of course, is the hottest item of all, especially if the sex is tinged with something popularly considered unusual or abnormal. This sort of outing is not done maliciously or with any conscious type of political agenda. Usually, the speaker (or reporter, or columnist, etc.) has an interesting story to pass along and does so, without stopping to think about how the “outed” person will be affected.

Another reason for outing is to score political points. Lesbigay groups have long used outing, or the threat of outing, to encourage deeply closeted, conservative gay or lesbian politicians to abandon their party line and not vote for anti-gay measures. Lesbigays have also used outing to undermine the credibility of anti-gay groups. When Focus on the Family's “ex-gay” leader John Paulk was discovered soliciting men in a gay salon in Washington, DC, for instance, the lesbigay press quickly disseminated the story, casting even further doubt on the already shaky “ex-gay” ministries.

Ironically, opponents of civil rights for gays and lesbians also use outing for political purposes. In 1998, for instance, the UK's homophobic Sun publication outed three members of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet, speculating that England was being run by a “gay mafia” and that these gay ministers would somehow “work together.” Obviously, the intent was to undermine confidence in Blair and give his opponents an edge.

Outing is also used to embarrass or harass lesbigays and their families. Again, both lesbigay activists and their homophobic opponents have used outing for this purpose. Lesbigays generally tend to use outing against people we perceive as being “traitors,” people who reap the benefits of the gay rights movement, but either do not support it or actively oppose it. The lesbigay community has also used outing to embarrass homophobic public figures who happen to have lesbigay children. The son of rabidly-conservative homophobe Phyllis Schlafly is a case in point. When John Schlafly started turning up at gay bars, the lesbigay press quickly outed him, much to the embarrassment of his mother. Another case in point is Mary Cheney, daughter of “rock solid conservative” Vice President Dick Cheney, whose lesbianism was widely publicized by the gay presses during the 2000 election.

Homophobes, on the other hand, tend to focus less on celebrities (with the exception of Teletubbies' poor Tinky-Winky) and use outing to scare average people away from gay pride rallies, political meetings, etc. One extremely homophobic group in Kansas, for instance, occasionally photographs college students at gay pride rallies, then obtains the student's name and address and sends pictures to his or her family. Students in the military can also expect their commanding officer to get a copy of the pictures. Along the same lines, CBS and MSNBC analyst Laura Ingraham (who has since recanted her homophobic beliefs) once sent a reporter with a hidden tape recorder into a Gay Students Association Meeting. She then published the names of those involved with the group.

Another common reason why lesbigay groups engage in outing is to increase the visibility of the lesbigay community. There is an old joke in the community that homophobia would vanish if all lesbigay people suddenly turned a bright, shocking blue. Then we would no longer be able to hide (or “pass”) and society would be forced to acknowledge our numbers and influence.

It is certainly true that the lesbigay community is one of the few minority groups whose members can, for the most part, pass ourselves off as being non-minorities (i.e., heterosexual). For every woman like Leslie Feinberg (Stone Butch Blues) or every man like Quentin Crisp (The Naked Civil Servant), there are a hundred or more lesbigay people like me, who can, if they choose, live their lives with the majority of people assuming they are heterosexual. Unfortunately, the closet is a luxury we can ill afford if we want to win full acceptance in society. People who use outing to increase the visibility of our community usually focus on celebrities, those who, as the argument goes, are financially and socially secure and don't need to worry as much about losing their jobs, homes, etc. if their sexual orientation becomes known.

Often, and possibly closer to the heart of the matter than any real political motive, one can hear more than a note of resentment in these outings. (E.g., “I work at a conservative company and I risk my job every day as an out lesbian. __________ (fill in your favorite rumored dyke) makes about a million dollars a week and is set for life even if she never works another day, and she won't come out. How dare she?”)

SUMMARY These arguments, then, form the reasons and justifications for outing. Tune in next month to hear the arguments against outing and to look at some ethical alternatives to outing.

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