In Defence Of Outing – The Ethics Of Naming Names

Before February 21 last year, there was little support for “outing” within the lesbian and gay community. But since that night, when parliament voted against an equal age of consent for gay men, more and more queers have become convinced that “outing” is legitimate self-defence against a hypocritical and homophobic society.

Although the gay community presented a rational, poignant case for equality, the majority of MPs remained unmoved by reason or compassion. The parliamentary process failed to uphold our human rights. Democracy proved to be a licence to discriminate.

Even worse, the vote for equality was lost, in part, by closeted gay and bisexual MPs who voted against sixteen.

Since polite lobbying has not succeeded, increasing numbers of lesbians and gay men are now convinced that “outing” (and the threat of “outing”) can, in certain circumstances, be a very effective way of putting pressure on the political establishment to support equal rights.

While there is still relatively little backing for the indiscriminate “outing” of all gay MPs, the mood among queers is definitely shifting in favour of exposing closeted homosexual MPs who endorse anti-gay policies, such as the unequal age of consent. By supporting a discriminatory age, they are criminalising 16 and 17 year old gay men (and their partners). These MPs cannot expect other gay people to collude with their infliction of suffering.

In these circumstances, “outing” is queer self-defence. Many of us feel a moral duty to do whatever we can to protect members of our community against victimisation. If “outing” can help destroy the power and credibility of gay public figures who harm other lesbians and gay men, then arguably it is the morally right thing to do. By not “outing” influential gay people who are homophobic, we allow them to continue to hurt other homosexuals. Our silence and inaction make us accomplices by default.

Furthermore, “outing” (or the threat of “outing”) may help persuade some homophobic closet gays to stop doing damage to other gay people, and thereby prevent considerable suffering. It can also very effectively pressure homophobic institutions to reconsider their anti-gay policies.

This is what happened when OutRage! named ten Anglican Bishops last November. Suddenly, for the first time ever, the Church of England began high-level dialogue with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. In January, the Bishops held a previously unscheduled re-examination of their stance on homosexuality, which resulted in a strongly-worded condemnation of homophobic discrimination and anti-gay violence. Church officials have privately admitted that none of these developments would have occurred if OutRage! had not “provoked a crisis” by naming the Bishops.

However, perhaps the most significant effect of calling on the Bishops to “Tell The Truth!” is that the whole homophobic establishment is now aware that “outing” is not just an idle threat. OutRage! has ripped open the closet doors of the Church of England. We can, if we decide to, also expose hypocritical and homophobic closet gays in politics, business, the military, judiciary and the police. These people now understand that all those who abuse their power to harm other lesbian and gay people are potential targets. This will probably encourage at least some of them to think twice about being homophobic in the future.

Having said this, the ethical justification for “outing” amounts to more than queer self-defence against gay homophobes. Being truthful about homosexuals in high places is also the honourable refusal to be part of the squalid, deceitful conspiracy of silence which keeps homosexuality hidden and invisible.

Invariably, the critics of “outing” plead that people have a right to be invisible if they wish. Not so. While some queers may choose to hide their homosexuality, they do not have the right to demand that other lesbians and gay men are complicit in their deception.

Honesty is a social virtue and “outing” is telling the truth. Yet those who oppose “outing” turn these normally cherished values of integrity upside down. They elevate collusion with a closeted person’s lying and deceit into an act of high moral principle and righteousness. In contrast, those who decide to be honest about their own, and other people’s, homosexuality are castigated, as if truthfulness was a monstrous immorality.

Who is really acting immorally? The “outers” who name names for selfless ethical reasons, such as ending the shame surrounding homosexuality? Or those who, for selfish personal motives like advancing their own career, stay in the closet?

Closet gays contribute little or nothing to the advancement of lesbian and gay human rights, but they benefit immensely from the gains won by those with the courage to be “out”. Nevertheless, the pursuit of naked self-interest merits no moral outrage from the critics of “outing”. They reserve all their denunciations for those who dare to challenge, for the sake of the collective welfare of the lesbian and gay community, the social pressure to keep homosexuality invisible.

Ultimately, if we genuinely believe there is nothing wrong with being gay, it cannot be wrong to mention a person’s homosexuality.

The “anti-outers” respond by saying it’s an invasion of privacy. Well, it’s true that revealing very intimate details about a person’s sex life without their agreement would be an intrusion. However, merely saying that someone is gay is no more an invasion of privacy than saying they are Scottish, left-handed or straight. Public figures are constantly “outed” as heterosexual by coded reference to them being “married” or “having children”. No one says this is an unreasonable intrusion. Why, then, is it an invasion of privacy to say someone is gay but not an invasion to say they are straight?

Then there is the argument that “outing” is wrong because it causes pain to the individuals named. However, the pain inflicted on “outed” queer homophobes is insignificant by comparison to the pain they cause to the wider homosexual community by their support for anti-gay policies.

Moreover, why does the relatively minor discomfort caused to a handful of “outed” individuals generate such hysterical condemnation, while the far greater hurt they cause to vast numbers of lesbians and gay men passes almost unremarked? And what about the pain inflicted on the “outers”? For the sake of their conscientious belief in the importance of being honest and exposing hypocrisy, they suffer public vilification, death threats and hate mail. No one gets irate about that.

The “anti-outing” arguments are riddled with inconsistencies and double-standards, just like the lives of the closet gays they defend. In the end, the whole “outing” controversy revolves around a very simple moral choice. Are we going to be part of the web of lies and hypocrisy which sustains the view that homosexuality is a shameful secret? Or will we tell the truth and help break open the closet doors which are the single greatest cause of lesbian and gay oppression?

* Peter Tatchell is a member of the gay rights group, OutRage!, and the author of “Safer Sexy: The Guide To Gay Sex Safely” (Freedom Editions, £14.99).