What are the ethics of outing?

Submitted by cathy n on 20 March, 2007 - 2:40

By Peter Tatchell

Over the last 10 years, only two MPs (out of 650) have come out — Chris Smith in 1984 and Michael Brown in 1994. At this rate we will have to wait 300 years for all 60 or so closeted MPs to pluck up the guts to be open about their homosexuality.
Fed up with this procrastination and cowardice, In January OutRage! wrote to 20 MPs calling on them to “make the morally responsible choice to come out voluntarily”. A collective coming out by several parliamentarians would, the letter suggested, establish lesbian and gay MPs as a fact of live and ease the way for open homosexuals to routinely stand for elected office.
Not content with moral persuasion alone, OutRage! is now considering whether to “out” queer MPs who voted against an equal age of consent for gay men.
What makes “outing” these MPs ethically justified is their hypocrisy and homophobia — they are gay in private but anti-gay in public. By supporting a discriminatory age of consent, these MPs are criminalising 16 and 17 year old gay men (and their partners). They cannot expect other gay people to collude with the infliction of suffering by saying nothing.
Most lesbians and gay men would agree that we should do whatever we can to protect members of our community. If “outing” can help destroy the power and credibility of gay homophobes who harm other lesbians and gay men, then it is arguably the morally right thing to do. By not “outing” gay public figures who are homophobic, we are effectively allowing them to continue to hurt other gay people. Our silence and inaction make us accomplices by default.
However, the ethical justification for “outing” amounts to more than queer self-defence against gay homophobes. Naming names 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. Nevertheless, while some queers may choose to hide their homosexuality, they do not have the right to demand that other lesbians and gay men collude with their deception.
Honesty is a social virtue and “outing” is telling the truth. If we really believe there is nothing wrong with being gay, why is it wrong to mention a person’s homosexuality?
The “anti-outers” say it’s an invasion of privacy. Well, it might be an unjustifiable intrusion if very intimate details about a person’s sex life were revealed, but OutRage! has never done that. Merely saying that someone is gay is no more an invasion of privacy than saying they are Welsh, left-handed or straight. Public figures are constantly “outed” as heterosexual by coded reference to them being “married” or “having children”. No one bats an eye-lid. Why is it legitimate to name those who are straight but not those who are gay?
We all have to make a 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?

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