Instant Expert Kit - Outing

I take it we're not talking about family trips?
Certainly not: these outings are no picnic. The intentional and public disclosure of someone's homosexuality, without permission, can be very damaging to their career; it's pretty much guaranteed to upset the wife and kids as well.

How long has this been going on?
You probably wouldn't have heard the word "outing" before 1991 unless you were a gay activist in New York, where the idea of forcing closet gays "out" for political reasons developed. But the activity itself has been around as long as homosexuality has carried any sort of stigma. Julius Caesar was mocked by opponents as "The Queen of Bithynia", after his alleged romps with the king, Nicomedes - hardly a scoop as it took 130 years to come to press.

So how do you make a sudden disclosure? Call Fleet Street?
Or a court of law. In fact, until the last 20 years, outing was usually a legal affair. Accusations of sodomy have destroyed many a public figure, but the crown prince of the gay prosecution has to be Oscar Wilde, convicted in 1895. Despite having "nothing to declare except my genius", he made the rash error of suing the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, when large numbers of the London working class could be called up as witnesses. The Wolfenden report (which advocated making homosexual acts legal) seemed to cause a spate of high-profile convictions in the 1950s, as the establishment made the most of the existing arrangements.

When was outing first used as a gay activist tactic?
The imperial German chancellor Prince Bernhard von Bulow was forced to sue an activist, Adolf Brand, for "defamation" in 1914. Brand offered the startling defence that being gay was nothing to be ashamed of. Needless to say, he lost. Outing remained unused for decades, largely because its shock value relies on a homophobic response from society. In the late 1980s, as the Aids epidemic tore through the US gay community, outing re-emerged. Activists in New York, furious at prominent officials holding back vital research funds, began to "out" the closet gays among them. The technique then spread to other groups, who began to out figures in entertainment and the clergy to improve gay rights.

Oh, all right. The first "Absolutely Queer" campaign featured Jodie Foster, Tom Selleck, Mel Gibson, John Travolta and Whitney Houston. The most famous British group, OutRage!, only outed those in positions of power who they believed were hypocritically pursuing anti-gay policy - famously ten bishops in 1994. Achieving notable successes in starting church dialogue, OutRage! still managed to upset much of the gay community.

So now the only Sunday outings are in the News of the World?
The media are now undisputed national arbiters of outing. The breakthrough came in 1978, when the BBC directly asked the Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe if he was gay. He angrily dismissed the question but, more importantly, the sky didn't fall down at such impertinence. The press have been flinging open closet doors ever since. A spot of snooping by Nigel Dempster in 1979 revealed Maureen Colquhoun as the first lesbian MP. Further investigations followed: some in the public interest, most not. Allan Roberts in 1981, Harvey Proctor in 1986, Peter Mandelson in 1987 . . .

Did you say 1987?
There's just nothing new under the Sun, is there?

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians