25 June 2002

Outing: Socially Responsible or Socially Reprehensible? Part II

Équipe -Pose ta question!-


People oppose outing for a variety of reasons.

The first argument is that outing constitutes a violation, a form of “psychic rape.” Much as in physical rape, when the victim's wishes are disregarded in favor of the perpetrator's agenda, people who are outed have no choice in the matter. Their right to control information they consider deeply private is ripped away, often leaving them vulnerable to ridicule, abuse, and discrimination.

Another argument against outing is that it makes being gay seem like something shameful or scandalous. As discussed in last month's article, both anti-gay and gay rights activists have a history of using outing to deliberately humiliate closeted gays and/or their families. On the surface, this kind of outing can be gratifying. (I'd be lying if I said I didn't get an extraordinary amount of pleasure out of watching the ultra-conservative Phyllis Schlafly hem, haw, and backtrack like mad after her son was outed.)

But what is the real message here? It's an old one, one most of us ingested for breakfast along with Rice Krispies and orange juice. The message is that homosexuality is something to be embarrassed about. The message is that having a gay child is a tragedy (having a gay child who gets caught is even worse!), or that being gay is something which must be kept hidden at all costs.

A final argument against outing is that it doesn't work. One argument for outing is that the lesbigay community needs greater visibility and more celebrity role models. But think about your role models in the lesbian community. Do I hear any votes for Martina Navratilova? Ellen DeGeneres? kd Lang? Melissa Etheridge?

Now, how many votes for Lily Tomlin? Jodie Foster?

Yeah, that's what I thought. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, people who are dragged kicking and screaming from the closet do not become powerful voices for the lesbigay community. Often, they do the community more harm than good, implying by silence or repeated denials that their sexual orientation is a source of great shame to them.

Furthermore, the heterosexual community is generally very reluctant to believe that celebrities they have embraced—perhaps even turned into sex symbols—are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. (My mother still has trouble believing that Liberace was gay.) Thus outing is perceived as an attempt by those “militant” homosexuals to “smear” the reputation of a “good” person. However you look at it, we're the bad guys.


Okay, so for a lot of us, outing is…out. But we still want the lesbigay community to be visible. What are our options?

One alternative is continuing our work to make this world a safer place for lesbigay people. People don't remain closeted because they love the thrill of hiding an important part of themselves. They remain closeted from fear. And often, their fears are valid. Some families do reject their gay children. Some employers do fire gay employees. Some communities do harass, assault, and even murder gay citizens.

But, things can and do improve. The world I inhabit now is much more friendly to lesbigays than the world I inhabited as a scared (and closeted) teenager. With each improvement, more lesbians, bisexuals, and gays will feel safe enough to abandon the closet in favor of living their lives openly and honestly.

Making the world a safer, better place for lesbigays is a slow recipe for visibility, but it's the surest one I know.

A second alternative is encouraging, but not forcing lesbigay people to come out. A few supportive words from a friend—or a psychic kick in the tail, for that matter—can go a long way in coaxing people out of the closet. And once people take that first step, the second step is less scary, the third step easier yet, and so on.

My biggest hurdle, for instance, was coming out to my mother. A group of very supportive (and patient!) friends held my hand through that first terrifying phone call. My mother wasn't delighted, but she didn't disown me either, and once she knew I was a lesbian, I didn't much care who else found out or what they thought about it, so I started writing about my experiences for local newsletters, and, several years later…here I am!

A third alternative to outing is offering better support to the people who are out. Rightly or wrongly, the lesbian (and to a lesser extent, the gay male) community has the reputation of being almost impossible to please. Let's be blunt—we smother our own. Every word is analyzed and critiqued, every project picked apart, every date examined with a magnifying glass. If a lesbian celebrity confines herself to lesbian-themed works, she's “too gay.” If she takes part in a mainstream project, she's “too commercial.” If she doesn't appear on television endorsing big-name products, she's “hiding;” if she does, she's a “sellout.” And if, heaven forbid, she actually critiques the lesbigay community, she's suffering from “internalized homophobia.” That's a lot of pressure. (After listening to at least the millionth blow-by-blow description of Ellen and Anne's break-up, a friend of mine, a longtime lesbian activist, remarked that she'd rather join the 700 Club than face the lesbian community as a queer celebrity.)

I'm not saying we shouldn't expect our celebrities to be decent human beings. But let's remember they are only human. Just like the rest of us, they're occasionally going to become involved in unhealthy relationships, make poor career decisions, or say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It happens. Let's give them a break.


The last two articles have discussed the pros and cons of outing. Now, I'd like to hear what you think.

Be sure to take part in the poll and add your two cents (or is that two bucks, with inflation?) to the discussion section.

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