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Outing refers to disclosing, and possibly publicizing, a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) person's true sexual orientation or gender identity without that person's consent.

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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 like Mike Howes Out of the Closet" by William A. Henry III in Time (January 29, 1990) introduced the term "outing" to the general public. (Johansson&Percy, p. 4)

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 the "guilty" vulgar.

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, a journal that advocated Greek style paederasty.

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."[1]

Outing may be found to be libel by a court of law. For example, in 1957 the closeted Liberace successfully sued the Daily Mirror for merely insinuating that he was gay. Note, however, that the Daily Mirror's defence was that the words complained of, in a column written by 'Cassandra', did not imply that Liberace was gay. They did not attempt to prove the accusation was true justification: they attempted to prove that they had not made an accusation.

Template:Rquote 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 U.S. President Gerald Ford during an assassination attempt) 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, most 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 as part of an editorial denouncing the group as "cheerleaders for latent campus sodomites".

In the 1980s, the AIDS pandemic led to the outing of several major entertainers, including Rock Hudson.

The first outing by an activist in America occurred in February 1989. Michael Petrelis, along with a few others, decided to out Mark Hatfield, a Republican Senator from Oregon, 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. (Gross, p. 85) 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.[2] 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." (Johansson & Percy, p. 183)

Other people who have been outed include Fannie Flagg, Pete Williams, Chaz Bono, and Richard Chamberlain.

In 2004, gay rights activist Michael Rogers outed Edward Schrock, a Republican Congressman from Virginia. Rogers posted a story on his website revealing 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. Comedian Bill Maher outed former Chair of George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign and then-Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman on Larry King Live in 2006. Mehlman promptly announced his intention to not continue as party leader.[3] John McCain's Presidential Campaign removed images of Alabama Attorney General Troy King from its website after he was outed in 2008.[4]

Often outing is used solely to damage the outed person's reputation, and has thus been controversial.Template:Or Some activists, such as U.S. Congressman Barney Frank argue that outing is appropriate and legitimate in some cases — for example, if the individual is actively working against LGBT rights.[5] 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."[6]

Outrage film

Main article: Outrage (2009 film)

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 focused particular attention on Idaho Senator Larry Craig, an outspoken opponent of gay rights who in 2007 pled 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. The film suggests that Crist's 2008 marriage to Carole Rome was a strategic political decision designed to deflect attention away from rumors about his sexual orientation.

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.

One media personality, Shepard Smith of Fox News, is mentioned.[7] When asked in an interview why Smith was chosen, Dick replied, "his complicity with the network's homophobic agenda rises to a level of hypocrisy that I felt was worthy of reporting."[8]

The film examines the media’s reluctance 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." (Mohr, Richard. Gay Ideas: Outing and Other Controversies, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.)

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." (Signorile, p. 80) "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?'" (Signorile, p. 82)

Virtually all who take a position on outing have qualified the limits to which it is permissible for one to go. The extremes are to out no one or to out everyone. In between, four intermediate positions can be discerned (Johansson & Percy, p. 228):

  1. Hypocrites only, and only when they actively oppose gay rights and interests;
  2. Outing passive accomplices who help run homophobic institutions;
  3. Prominent individuals whose outing would shatter stereotypes and compel the public to reconsider its attitude on homosexuality;
  4. Only the dead.

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. (Johansson & Percy, p. 226)

Outing in the clergy

The recent wave of Roman Catholic sex abuse cases has outed many members of the Roman Catholic clergy.

Outing in the military

See articles Don't Ask, Don't Tell and Sexual orientation and military service

Impact and effectiveness

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).

Support for outing

Many 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! named fourteen bishops of the Church of England as homosexual or bisexual, 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 says. "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."

President of Finland Tarja Halonen released a book for the reelection campaign in 2006, where she mentions her legal work in promoting sexual equality in the effect of the president of SETA, a LGBT rights organization. She criticizes the people in the closet for "not daring to do anything themselves, but being happy when we [SETA] did their work for them".


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 spokesman 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 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." (Signorile, p. 80) In March 2002, singer Will Young revealed he was gay, pre-empting a tabloid newspaper 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 'allegation' that they are gay, transgendered, or transsexual.

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.

In some cases well-known celebrities have been outed as transgender or intersex when no proof to substantiate the claims was presented, e.g., Jamie Lee Curtis.[9]

Depictions in entertainment

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.

Extended meaning

The term can also be used more broadly to mean publicly disclosing other personal characteristics, such as political affiliation, ethnic origin or religion, that someone wishes to keep private.

See also


  1. Brand, Adolph. Political Criminals: A Word About the Röhm Case (1931) Reprinted in Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany, edited by Harry Oosterhuis, 235-240. New York, Haworth, 1991.
  2. Signorile, Michelangelo (March 18, 1990), “The Other Side of Malcolm Forbes”, Outweek (no. 38): 40–45, <> 
  4. McCain's Alabama Chairman Reportedly Outed – Attorney General Troy King Has a Record of Homophobic Rhetoric by Jon Ponder, July 11, 2008
  5. THE OUTING | David Dreier and his straight hypocrisy
  6. "Episode Guide - episode 86" HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. HBO (October 20, 2006). Retrieved on 2008-02-26.
  7. 'Outrage': Kirby Dick kicks open Washington's closet door, Patrick Goldstein, Los Angles Times, April 23, 2009.
  8. Outrage: An Interview with Director Kirby Dick], Brad Listi, Huffington Post, May 13, 2009.
  9. Jamie Lee Curtis rumor

Further reading

  • Cory, Donald Webster. The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach. New York: Greenfield, 1951.
  • Gross, Larry. Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing. University of Minnesota Press, 1993 ISBN 0816621799
  • Johansson, Warren & Percy, William A. Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. Harrington Park Press, 1994.
  • Signorile, Michelango (1993). Queer In America: Sex, Media, and the Closets of Power. ISBN 0-299-19374-8.
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