Outing is a term among English speakers for the act of revealing that someone is homosexual without the consent of that individual. It is derived from the phrase “out of the closet,” which further comes from a saying, “skeletons in the closet” (gato encerrado en el armario or “cat buried in the closet,” and un cadaver dans le placard or “ body in the cupboard/closet” in Spanish and French, respectively), suggesting that a person, family, business, political party, or nation has something to hide.
Outing can be seen as a form of theatrical and written performance in LGBTQ activism. Questions concerning the ethics of such performance, however, have been raised among activists, some of whom condemn the practice as being unnecessarily harmful to those who are outed (French: outé), and harmful to the good standing of the Gay community in the public eye.
Although both women and men have been outed in history, obsession with male homosexuality worldwide has made the outing of men much more frequent than that of women.
Homophobic Outing, Before and After Stonewall
One of the oldest examples of outing can be found in records from ancient Egypt. Fragments dating back to 1300 BCE describe Pharaoh Neferkare (also known as Pepi II, 2300 BCE) as having a secret and scandalous romantic relationship with his male general, Sasenet.
One of the earliest modern cases of outing occurred in 1907 Germany, when journalists opposed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and his politics outed several members of his cabinet as homosexual people. The trend continued in the 1930s, with opposition journalists outing allies of Adolph Hitler, most notably Ernst Röhm, which did little to quell the rise of the Third Reich and its oppression, torture, and murder of LGBTQ people.
Stonewall (1969) and Gay Liberation led to an unprecedented degree of acceptance of Gay people in several European, North American, Latin American, Pacific, and East Asian countries by the year 2012. In much of the world, however, outing can have severe consequences. Throughout the Middle East and Africa, being labeled a homosexual person implicates one as a criminal and an AIDS carrier. In 2005, two teenage boys were executed in Iran for being homosexual. In 2010, Uganda considered passing a law condemning homosexuals to death.
In 2008, a picture of two men getting married in Senegal led to an upsurge of homophobic violence there. A young man in the picture spoke out in an article in www.afrik.com under the condition of anonymity about how he feared for his life after being outed by the magazine Icône. Under the pseudonym “Moussa,” he described how he fled to Mauritania and stayed with a Gay friend until the violence in Senegal subsided. Unlike other members of his family, his mother was steadfast in her support, saying to him, “Toi et moi, c’est jusqu’à la mort” (“You and me, [together] until death”). Moussa reported that the formerly benign yet underground Gay scene in Dakar was severely disrupted by the exposé, saying that when his best friend died, the body was first refused entry to the cemetery, and then it was beaten.
Gay Activist Outing and “Gossip Watch”
Modern American outing, like so much of LGBTQ folklife, has its roots in the Stonewall Uprising. Gay-rights advocates began coming out publicly, with the slogan, “Out of the Closets, Into the Streets!” Despite the pleas of these early activists, most homosexual people were unwilling to come out. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s led to a resurgence of outing, as activists tried to draw attention to the Gay men who were afflicted with the disease but were ignored by the authorities.
One of the first recorded outings in America by an LGBTQ organization was in February 23, 1989. Activists with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) outed Mark Hatfield, a Republican senator from Oregon, because he supported homophobic legislation initiated by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. At a fundraiser in a small town outside of Portland, the group stood up and outed him in front of the crowd. ACT UP member Michael Petrelis later tried to make news by standing on the Capitol steps and reading the names of twelve people in politics and music who were homosexual. Though the press showed up, no major news organization published the story, most fearing libel lawsuits or being stifled by homophobic publishers and owners.
Outing became a weapon of activist writer and journalist Michelangelo Signorile in the late 1980s. His column, “Gossip Watch,” became a regular site for outing the rich and famous, and laid the groundwork for gossip columnists in the first decade of the twenty-first century such as Perez Hilton.
Outing as Ethical, Outing as Unethical
Outing has both supporters and opponents. Supporters cite reasons that outing is appropriate – some even say necessary – for the LGBTQ community. It is critical, they say, to out important people, show that Gays are everywhere, and add legitimacy to the Gay rights movement. Opponents maintain that outing is a violation of personal privacy. Many argue that outing can destroy careers and families, that it is unnecessary – and in many cases, simply wrong – to out people who are not doing direct damage to the LGBTQ rights movement. Criticism of outing focuses on the potential harm that outing someone can do to an individual personally and professionally, and to the damage sometimes caused by erroneous outing.
One tragic example was the catastrophic outing of Oliver Sipple, a retired US Marine and severely wounded Vietnam veteran who saved the life of President Gerald Ford. Harvey Milk outed Sipple for political reasons, hoping to create a Gay military hero that would subvert hurtful stereotypes. The outing led to Sipple’s estrangement from his mother, and eventually drove him to alcoholism, severe anxiety, suicidal inclinations, and death at the age of 47.
Outing as Last Resort
Most Gay people believe that outing is appropriate when closeted homosexual people – primarily politicians, journalists, and religious leaders – are doing direct damage to the LGBTQ community. Everyday people, however, should be allowed to remain in the closet if they so choose.
American politicians such as Hatfield or Idaho Senator Larry Craig (who actively voted against the GLBTQ community on issues of equality, but was arrested for soliciting sex from a male police officer in a Minneapolis airport bathroom) are considered by most to be candidates for outing to expose their hypocrisy. Likewise, the same rule applies to those who preach anti-Gay sermons from the pulpit, such as Roman Catholic clergy caught up in sexual abuse scandals and the Fundamentalist Protestant leader Ted Haggard, who confessed to having crystal methamphetamine-fueled sex with a male prostitute. Some supporters of outing would extend it to the immediate family members of the vehemently anti-Gay.
In politics, being outed regardless of whether one is homosexual is still a common tactic in many countries, including the USA. Such was the case of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s supposed “outing” in 2010 by a homophobic member of his own party who thought Graham was too liberal. In Bulgaria, confirmed bachelor and prime minister Sergei Stanishev was likewise “outed” in 2009 and given the nickname, “Ser-Gay” despite (or perhaps because) his opposition to Gay rights.
Although women and politically-progressive people have been outed in the USA, the most scandalous outings are those of macho male actors, male athletes in team sports, and religiously conservative men, implying that American preoccupation with homosexuality is much more pronounced when the homosexual person in question is male, perceived to be masculine, and on public record for being homophobic.
Outing as Humor
Straight men often tease each other about being too affectionate with each other, implying that such closeness is a sign of homosexuality. With the popularity of text messaging, one favorite joke is to get a man’s phone and send out a text in which that man outs himself and declares he is Gay. In men’s team sports, physical proximity captured in photographs is sometimes coded as “gay” (synonymous with “homosexual”) and broadcast throughout the internet as a farcical outing.
Bangré, Habibou. “Sénégal: confidences d’un homosexuel ‘outé’.” January 31, 2009. www.afrik.com/article16141.html, accessed June 2010.
Gross, Larry, Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993.
Gauquelin, Blaise. “Le Premier minister outé par le chef de l’opposition.” Têtu. January 8, 2009. www.tetu.com/actualites/international/Le-Premier-ministre-oute-par-le-chef-de-lopposition-13880, accessed June 2010.
Johansson, Warren and William A. Percy. Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. New York: Haworth, 1994.
Signorile, Michelango, Queer In America: Sex, Media, and the Closets of Power. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 2003.