The Ethics of ‘Outing’

When I was fifteen, I went away to a camp. While I was there, I had my first experience of kissing another girl. More than that, I slept with two girls. At once, which was kind of the reason it was a big deal. Of course, because of this, it spread around the camp like wildfire.

Then again, because I was never really going to see them again, and my friends already knew I was bisexual, I thought that everything was going to be okay.

Fast forward a year, and I’m working at McDonald’s in a small town. A guy from the camp walks through the door on training day – and, of course, he recognises me. For about two weeks there was a constant tension. I definitely wasn’t ‘out’ at work, and although I wasn’t particularly well liked at the store anyway I begged him not to tell.

This story wouldn’t really be a story if he’d done as I asked and forgot about what I did last summer. But of course he told everyone; and even if he hadn’t told everyone, telling one person in that store was like telling everyone anyway. I worked at that McDonald’s for 6 hellish months longer.

Girls avoided me did whatever they could to avoid being alone with me and didn’t even want me looking at them – remembering that we were in McDonald’s uniforms, which I assure you, were neither sexy not flattering! Guys on the other hand hit on me every time I turned around and plagued me with inappropriate remarks. Eventually, one night I got so overwhelmed I ended up fainting while I was standing in front of the deep fryer – thankfully, I didn’t hit it, I collapsed to the side.

Not long after, I quit.

Yet… I got off easy. I got to choose when I came out to my friends, I got to choose when I came out to my parents. Sure, I didn’t get to choose when I came out to my workmates, but I could essentially choose my workmates.

The debate about ‘outing’ people is probably never going to stop, and percolates through all stratas and environments of our society. But perhaps nowhere do the implications of ‘outing’ hit home harder than in Hollywood, where money, reputation and social capital are all inextricable intertwined with sexuality. For instance the fate of Ellen Page, who around a year ago had this comment unleashed on her by a blogger:

Where are the Hollywood actors? Don’t they always claim to be outspoken for good causes? Where are all the left wing, liberal artists speaking out for the oppressed gay minority? I tell you where they are. They are hiding in their closets making lucrative business deals like Ellen Page. Page claims to “believe in truth” and to stand for what she believes in. But like many other actors she hides behind her lawyer and manager deep in the closet, while gay teenagers struggle to survive…

The thing that really got me – apart from the fact that someone was outed and didn’t get the chance to come out themselves – was how he was essentially holding a young woman to ransom over her sexuality. How would this feel for Ellen Page herself? Even if she knew about the website as the blogger later claimed, it was essentially a ticking time bomb.

And no matter whether he had outed her directly, or forced her into coming out on his terms, in the end he still would have outed her. While in a perfect world Page’s sexuality would be a mute point, the internet is now abound with rapacious gossip on this subject: indeed when you type the words ‘Ellen Page gay’ into Google, you get over four million results.

On the other hand this isn’t a perfect world, and that’s where the other side of the argument comes in: the side that argues those in Page’s position have a responsibility to come out. Unfortunately, we do still live in a world where there are queer teens being bullied and driven to kill themselves; a world where ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ has only a year dead in the U.S; and where people suffer, hidden in the closet, or suffer after being outed, their entire lives. There’s no way that we can say that people don’t suffer; that life isn’t hard for queer teenagers, and indeed queer people of all ages. So is this something that is owed to those who are struggling?

I don’t think that anyone would say that young queer people don’t need role models. When people are out, it’s easier to see that what you are is both normal and acceptable. Of course it makes you feel more like you can be yourself and not be judged for it; or at the very least that someone understands what you’re going through. It makes you feel part of a group, especially when you feel that there is no group on a local level. Role models and representatives of the queer community being out and proud are, and will always be, a massive asset to the queer community.

Those who have no problems with ‘outing’ people say that there should be no closet anymore and that by remaining in the closet they are perpetuating the stereotype that homosexuality is something to be ashamed of. This is a rather strong argument as on the surface being closeted is directly in opposition to queer liberation. The other prong to this is that if we can’t accept ourselves then why should we be expecting other people to accept us, either?

A proponent of outing, Gabriel Rotello describes it as “equalizing” and argues that “it 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…we were going to do it now.” In this way, advocates of ‘outing’ claim that it acts to claw back ground from a culture of homophobia, to create a movement of allies in the form of the friends, family and lovers of those outed.

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Of course, there’s a third side to this argument. Its proponents say that you have every right to stay in the closet – unless, something. There are four key exceptions relating to firstly hypocrites who actively oppose gay rights and interests; secondly passive accomplices who help run homophobic institutions; thirdly prominent individuals whose outing would shatter stereotypes and compel the public to reconsider its attitude on homosexuality; and lastly the dead.

These are generally applied to people in the public eye and in particular politicians, religious figures and celebrities. Politicians are really those who have the most impact on our rights. To clarify this, we only need to look to the fatal ramifications attached to closeted gay politicians voting against AIDS funding.

One of the key advocates of this third side to the debate is British activist Peter Tatchell. He 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.

Outing is queer self-defence. lesbians and gay men have a right, and a duty, to expose hypocrites and homophobes.” But in the criteria he uses, what exactly constitutes “campaigning against queer rights”? Voting against a gay marriage bill? Expressing that they will be voting against it? Giving a speech against it? As with so many issues, the question becomes where do we draw the line?

The fact remains that it is a hefty matter to be the arbiter of someone’s professional career. My favourite blogger would tell us that Ellen Page is a part of subsection two, that she’s a passive accomplice to the homophobic institution of Hollywood. What I found interesting was what other celebrities said about the topic of ‘outing.’ After Michelle Rodriguez was semi-outed, she was asked about it and said “There are certain things that can close doors between a celebrity and certain audiences. If I were Ellen [DeGeneres] I may get away with the ‘I’m gay’ level of exposure, but I’m not a comedian, I like men and I’ve only been in this business for seven years, not 20.”

In a similar vein, a former friend of Perez Hilton, who claims to be advancing a gay rights agenda through outing celebrities, opined that “spreading gossip is just your average pedestrian variety of immorality. Claiming that you’re doing it to further civil rights is an outright sham.”

This has all been about public outings, though. What about being outed to your parents? To your family? To your friends?

From what I’ve both read and seen, being outed personally is physically and psychologically draining. The repercussions for being outed can, at times, be horrific. Disowning and physical violence may be seen as a more “American” phenomenon, but that’s not to say that Australia is free from such incidents.

In my opinion only Ellen Page can fully know her own sexuality. And even if Ellen Page is queer, it’s her friends and family that know whether she’s out or not. Not everyone has to be on the cover of ‘People’ magazine declaring their sexuality to the world. No one has the responsibility to be an advocate; sure, in a perfect world, people would be – or rather, in a perfect world, there would be no need to advocate for queer rights any more.

I’m going to leave with you two opposing quotes. Roger Rosenblatt stated that “the practice of ‘outing’ homosexuals implies contradictorily that homosexuals have a right to private choice but not to private lives.” Signorile argued back that “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?’”

I hope by that outing my story and opinion you will have deepened your own.

Amelia Kerridge