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Outing is the act of disclosing an LGBT person's sexual orientation or gender identity without that person's consent. Outing gives rise to issues of privacy, choice, hypocrisy, and harm in addition to sparking debate on what constitutes common good in efforts to combat homophobia and heterosexism. A publicized outing targets prominent figures in a society, for example well-known politicians, accomplished athletes or popular artists. Opponents to LGBT rights movements as well as activists within LGBT communities have used this type of outing as a controversial political campaign or tactic. In an attempt to pre-empt being outed, an LGBT public figure may decide to come out publicly first, although controlling the conditions under which one's LGBT identity is revealed is only one of numerous motives for coming out.
It is hard to pinpoint the first use of outing in the modern sense. In a 1982 issue of Harper's, Taylor Branch predicted that "outage" would become a political tactic in which the closeted would find themselves trapped in a crossfire. The article "Forcing Gays Out of the Closet" by William A. Henry III in Time (January 29, 1990) introduced the term "outing" to the general public.
While the term is recent, the practice goes back much further. Outing was a common put-down of Greek and Roman orators. Before the Christian era, sodomy was not illegal in Greek or, most believe, in Roman law, between adult citizens, but homosexual acts between citizens were considered acceptable only under certain social circumstances. Both Romans and Greeks sneeringly deemed vulgar the persons engaged in those acts.
The Harden–Eulenburg affair of 1907–1909 was the first public outing scandal of the twentieth century. Left-wing journalists opposed to Kaiser Wilhelm II's policies outed a number of prominent members of his cabinet and inner circle —and by implication the Kaiser —beginning with Maximilian Harden's indictment of the aristocratic diplomat Prince Eulenburg. Harden's accusations incited other journalists to follow suit, including Adolf Brand, founder of Der Eigene.
Left-wing journalists outed Adolf Hitler's closest ally Ernst Röhm in the early 1930s, causing Brand to write, "when someone —as teacher, priest, representative, or statesman —would like to set in the most damaging way the intimate love contacts of others under degrading control —in that moment his own love-life also ceases to be a private matter and forfeits every claim to remain protected hence-forward from public scrutiny and suspicious oversight."
In the 1950s during the Lavender Scare, tabloid publications like Confidential emerged, specializing in the revelation of scandalous information about entertainment and political celebrities. Among the political figures targeted by the magazine were former Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles and Arthur H. Vandenberg, Jr., who had briefly served as President Eisenhower's Appointments Secretary.
Outing may be found to be libel by a court of law. For example, in 1957 American pianist Liberace, successfully sued the Daily Mirror for merely insinuating that he was gay. The newspaper responded that columnist William Connor's words (written under his byline 'Cassandra') did not imply that Liberace was gay. Their defence contended that there was no libel as no accusation had been made, rather than arguing that the accusation was true. Following Liberace's death from an AIDS-related illness in 1987, the paper asked for the award to be refunded. In a 2011 interview, actress and close friend Betty White stated that Liberace was gay, and that she often served as a beard to counter rumors of the musician's homosexuality.
|“||I outed Rosie and Ellen, and it's hard to even imagine now that they ever were in the closet. You have to educate the new people and say, 'Guess what, they were in the closet at one point.' It's hard to believe that Rosie was doing this delicate dance on her talk show where she was the 'Queen of Nice' and the single mother who had a crush on Tom Cruise and I was pointing out the absurdity of it.||”|
|— Michael Musto, one of the original journalists outing celebrities.|
After the Stonewall riots of 1969, swells of gay-libbers came out aggressively in the 1970s, crying out: "Out of the closets, Into the streets!" Some began to demand that all homosexuals come out, and that if they weren't willing to do so, then it was the community's responsibility to do it for them. One example is the outing of Oliver Sipple, who saved the life of United States President Gerald Ford during an assassination attempt. Stipple was outed by gay activists, most prominently Harvey Milk. The negative impact the outing had on Sipple's life later provoked opposition. Some argued that privacy should prevail, and felt it was better for the movement to protect closeted gays, especially in homophobic religious institutions and the military. Despite their best efforts, many gays and lesbians were still unwilling to come out.
Some political conservatives opposed to increased public acceptance of homosexuality engaged in outing in this period as well, with the goal of embarrassing or discrediting their ideological foes. Conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza, for example, published the letters of gay fellow students at Dartmouth College in the campus newspaper he edited (The Dartmouth Review) in 1981; a few years later, succeeding Review editor Laura Ingraham had a meeting of a campus gay organization secretly tape-recorded, then published a transcript along with attendees' names as part of an editorial denouncing the group as "cheerleaders for latent campus sodomites."
One of the first outings by an activist in the United States occurred in February 1989. Michael Petrelis, along with a few others, alleged that Mark Hatfield, a Republican Senator from Oregon was gay. They did this because he supported legislation initiated by Jesse Helms.At a fundraiser in a small town outside of Portland, the group stood up and outed him in front of the crowd. Petrelis later tried to make news by standing on the U.S. Capitol steps and reading the names of "twelve men and women in politics and music who ... are secretly gay." Though the press showed up, no major news organization published the story. Potential libel suits deterred publishers.
OutWeek, which had begun publishing in 1989, was home to activist and outing pioneer Michelangelo Signorile, who stirred the waters when he outed the recently-deceased Malcolm Forbes in March 1990. His column "Gossip Watch" became a hot spot for outing the rich and famous. Both praised and lambasted for his behavior, he garnered responses to his actions as wide-ranging as "one of the greater contemporary gay heroes," to "revolting, infantile, cheap name-calling."
In 2004, gay rights activist Michael Rogers outed Edward Schrock, a Republican Congressman from Virginia. Rogers posted a story on his website alleging that Schrock used an interactive phone sex service to meet other men for sex. Schrock did not deny this, and announced on August 30, 2004, that he would not seek re-election. Rogers said that he outed Schrock to punish him for his hypocrisy in voting for the Marriage Protection Act and signing on as a co-sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment.
New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey announced that he was a "gay American" in August 2004. McGreevey had become aware that he was about to be named in a sexual harassment suit by Golan Cipel, his former security advisor, with whom it was alleged McGreevey had a sexual relationship. McGreevey resigned, but unlike Schrock, McGreevey decided not to step out of public life. John McCain's Presidential Campaign removed images of Alabama Attorney General Troy King from its website after he was outed in 2008.
Often outing is used solely to damage the outed person's reputation, and has thus been controversial.[original research?] Some activists, such as United States Congressman Barney Frank argue that outing is appropriate and legitimate in some cases — for example, if the individual is actively working against LGBT rights. Frank clarified, during the 2006 Mark Foley scandal, "I think there's a right to privacy. But the right to privacy should not be a right to hypocrisy. And people who want to demonize other people shouldn't then be able to go home and close the door and do it themselves."
In 2009, Kirby Dick's documentary Outrage argued that several American political figures have led closeted gay lives while supporting and endorsing legislation that is harmful to the gay community. The film was based on the work of Michael Rogers and BlogActive.com. The film focused particular attention on Idaho Senator Larry Craig, an outspoken opponent of gay rights who in 2007 pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a public bathroom. Outrage featured interviews with several people who claim that Governor of Florida Charlie Crist has led a private gay life while publicly opposing gay marriage and gay adoption.
Other politicians discussed in the film include former Virginia Representative Ed Schrock, California Representative David Dreier, former New York City mayor Ed Koch, and former Louisiana Representative Jim McCrery.
The film argues that the mass media is reluctant to discuss issues involving gay politicians despite the many comparable news stories about heterosexual politicians and scandals. Outrage describes this behavior as a form of institutionalized homophobia that has resulted in a tacit policy of self-censorship when reporting on these issues.
Gabriel Rotello, once editor of OutWeek, called outing "equalizing", explaining, "what we have called 'outing' is a primarily journalistic movement to treat homosexuality as equal to heterosexuality in the media...In 1990, many of us in the gay media announced that henceforth we would simply treat homosexuality and heterosexuality as equals. We were not going to wait for the perfect, utopian future to arrive before equalizing the two: We were going to do it now. That's what outing really is: equalizing homosexuality and heterosexuality in the media." ("Why I Oppose Outing", OutWeek, May 29, 1991)
Their aim is not only to reveal the hypocrisy of those in what Branch termed the "closets of power" but also a gay person awareness of the presence of gay people and political issues, thus showing that being gay and lesbian is not "so utterly grotesque that it should never be discussed." (Signorile, p. 78) Richard Mohr noted, "some people have compared outing to McCarthyism...And vindictive outing is like McCarthyism: such outing feeds gays to the wolves, who thereby are made stronger....But the sort of outing I have advocated does not invoke, mobilize, or ritualistically confirm anti-gay values; rather it cuts against them, works to undo them. The point of outing, as I have defended it, is not to wreak vengeance, not to punish, and not to deflect attention from one's own debased state. Its point is to avoid degrading oneself." Thus outing is "both permissible and an expected consequence of living morally."
Further, outing is not the airing of private details. As Signorile asked, "How can being gay be private when being straight isn't? Sex is private. But by outing we do not discuss anyone's sex life. We only say they're gay." "Average people have been outed for decades. People have always outed the mailman and the milkman and the spinster who lives down the block. If anything, the goal behind outing is to show just how many gay people there are among the most visible people in our society so that when someone outs the milkman or the spinster, everyone will say, 'So what?'"
There is no widely agreed definition of fair outing nor even clear consensus in most organizations on when it can occur. Virtually all who take a position on outing have qualified the limits to which it is permissible for one to go - often quite idiosyncratic. The extremes are to out no one or to out everyone. In between, four intermediate positions have been discerned to justify so-called fair outing:
Assessing to which degree the outer goes allows insight into the goal striven towards. Most outers target those who support decisions and further policy, both religious and secular, which discriminate against gay people while they themselves live a clandestine gay existence. A "truism to people active in the gay movement [is] that the greatest impediments to homosexuals' progress often [are] not heterosexuals, but closeted homosexuals," said San Francisco journalist Randy Shilts.
The effectiveness of outing as a political tactic depends on the willingness of the media to report that a person has been outed. The advent of the internet has made outing public figures much easier. Twenty years ago Michael Rogers would have had to persuade a newspaper or other media outlet to risk legal action by reporting his allegations about Congressman Ed Schrock. Today he can publish them himself on his website and other media will then report that he has done so.
Signorile argues that the outing of journalist Pete Williams "and its aftermath did indeed make a big dent in the military's policy against gays. The publicity generated put the policy on the front burner in 1992, thrusting the issue into the presidential campaign," with every Democratic candidate and independent Ross Perot publicly promising to end the ban. (ibid, p. 161).
The military forces of the world have differing approaches to the enlistment of heterosexual, asexual, and bisexual individuals. Some have open policies, others prohibit, and some are ambiguous. The armed forces of most developed countries have now removed policies excluding non-heterosexual individuals (with strict policies on sexual harassment).
Nations that permit gay people to serve openly in the military include the 4 of the 5 members of the UN Security Council (United States, United Kingdom, France, and Russia), the Republic of China (Taiwan), Australia, Israel, Argentina, and all NATO members except Turkey.
In the United Kingdom the Ministry of Defence policy since the year 2000 is to allow homosexual men, lesbians and transgender personnel to serve openly, and discrimination on a sexual orientation basis is forbidden. It is also forbidden for someone to pressure LGBT people to come out.
In the United States lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are allowed to serve openly in the United States military, this however excludes transgender people who are in the process of gender transition. Military policy and legislation had previously entirely prohibited gay individuals from serving, and subsequently from serving openly, but these prohibitions were ended in September 2011 after the United States Congress voted to repeal the policy. The first time homosexuals were differentiated from non-homosexuals in the military literature was in revised army mobilization regulations in 1942. Additional policy revisions in 1944 and 1947 further codified the ban. Throughout the next few decades, homosexuals were routinely discharged, regardless of whether they had engaged in sexual conduct while serving. In response to the gay rights movements of the 1970s and 1980s, the Department of Defense issued a 1982 policy (DOD Directive 1332.14) stating that homosexuality was clearly incompatible with military service. Controversy over this policy created political pressure to amend the policy, with socially liberal efforts seeking a repeal of the ban and socially conservative groups wishing to reinforce it by statute.
Some gay rights activists defend outing as a tactic. The British activist Peter Tatchell says "The lesbian and gay community has a right to defend itself against public figures who abuse their power and influence to support policies which inflict suffering on homosexuals." In 1994 Tatchell's activist group OutRage! alleged that fourteen bishops of the Church of England were homosexual or bisexual and named them, accusing them of hypocrisy for upholding the Church's policy of regarding homosexual acts as sinful while not observing this prohibition in their personal lives. "Outing is queer self-defence," Tatchell said in a 1995 speech to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement conference. "Lesbians and gay men have a right, and a duty, to expose hypocrites and homophobes. By not outing gay Bishops who support policies which harm homosexuals, we would be protecting those Bishops and thereby allowing them to continue to inflict suffering on members of our community. Collusion with hypocrisy and homophobia is not ethically defensible for Christians, or for anyone else."
Some gay activists, however, continue to disapprove of outing as a political tactic, arguing that even anti-gay conservatives have a right to personal privacy which should be respected. Steven Fisher, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, the largest advocacy group for gay and lesbian issues in the United States, commenting on the Schrock outing, said he opposed using "sexual orientation as a weapon." Christopher R. Barron, political director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group representing gay and lesbian Republicans said: "We disagree strongly with the outing campaign, but we also strongly disagree with President Bush's sponsorship of the anti-family Federal Marriage Amendment."
Roger Rosenblatt argued in his January 1993 New York Times Magazine essay "Who Killed Privacy?" that, "The practice of 'outing' homosexuals implies contradictorily that homosexuals have a right to private choice but not to private lives." In March 2002, singer Will Young revealed he was gay, pre-empting a tabloid newspaper (reportedly News of the World) that was preparing to out him.
Other criticism concerning outing centers upon the harm that outing individuals as homosexual, transgender, or transsexual does to them personally and professionally and upon the fact that some individuals have been erroneously outed or have been outed when there is no proof to substantiate the claim that they are gay or transgender.
Christine Jorgensen, Beth Elliott, Renée Richards, Sandy Stone, Billy Tipton, Alan L. Hart, April Ashley, Caroline Cossey ("Tula"), Jahna Steele, and Nancy Jean Burkholder were outed as transsexuals by European or American media or, in the case of Billy Tipton, by his coroner. In many cases, being outed had an adverse effect on their personal lives and their careers.
Outing has been featured in comedy films as well, such as the French comedy Le Placard (The Closet), where a heterosexual man is falsely outed, or in the 1997 comedy In & Out where Kevin Kline stars as a small-town teacher who gets outed on national television, and is then forced to come to terms with his own unrecognized homosexuality.
In Season 5 the television series The L Word, the issue of public outing is addressed in the form of Alice Pieszecki, a web-journalist, outing a basketball player who made offensive comments toward gay people while himself being gay. She also ambiguously outs lesbian actress Niki Stevens while guest-hosting a fictional talk show called The Look.
In the television series The Office (US) there is an episode Gay Witch Hunt in which fictional character, Oscar Martinez (The Office) is outed by his boss, Michael Scott (The Office). Oscar is notable for being one of the very few LGBT people of color on American television at the time.
The highly popular Liberace, who died in 1987 at the age of 67 of AIDS-related causes, publicly denied being gay or bisexual.
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