Remaining in the closet reinforces the idea that there is something shameful about being gay and that we are a tiny, insignificant minority who can be ignored and marginalised. Heterosexual people who don’t know and mix with out lesbians and gay men are much more likely to be bigoted and to oppose gay civil rights.
For these reasons, it is important that queers come out. But when and how people reveal their sexuality is up to them. It should be personal decision.
The only exception is closeted gay public figures who abuse their power to condemn and harm other gay people, such as MPs voting for homophobic laws or bishops denouncing queers from their pulpits.
In these limited circumstances, outing is ethically justifiable. Otherwise not. That's why I condemned the outing of singer George Michael. He was not harming the queer community.
But queer homophobes in positions of authority do cause pain and suffering. They are hypocrites and their hypocrisy deserves to be exposed. Why should anyone feel sympathy for those who publicly preach homophobia while privately practising homosexuality?
When closeted, powerful queers misuse their influence to harm other gay people, their duplicity and bigotry is a matter of legitimate public interest.
Outing is, of course, a measure of last resort, when all attempts at persuasion have failed. The aim of outing is to discredit the closeted perpetrators of discrimination in high places by unmasking them as hypocrites. Because outing can help destroy their power and credibility – and thereby stop them causing further damage - it is the morally right thing to do.
The alternative - not outing closeted homophobes – is tacit collusion with the oppressors of lesbians and gays. People who refuse to out influential homophobes are, in effect, allowing these bigots to continue to hurt us. Their silence and inaction makes them accomplices to homophobic prejudice and discrimination.
Outing is a form of queer self-defence against homophobia. Like every victimised minority, the gay community has a right to defend itself against those who cause it harm.
Most people agree that a person who is attacked in the street is entitled to fight back. The outing of homophobes is a similar response. We are defending our community against those who attack us. Do the critics of outing expect queers to let themselves be attacked with impunity by shameless hypocrites?
Outing is provocative, but it is, on balance, a measured response to the suffering caused by anti-gay prejudice. The real extremism is not outing, but the homophobia that makes outing necessary.
Homophobes have a choice. If they don't want to be outed, all they have to do is stop supporting homophobia, then no one will out them. The choice is theirs. If they choose to carry on bashing the gay community, they have wilfully put themselves in the firing line and have only themselves to blame if they get outed.
Critics condemn the outing of homophobes as an invasion of privacy. That's rich. These bigots invade the lives of gay people by supporting laws that rob queers of human rights. They and their apologists then have the gall to demand that we respect their right to privacy. Do these hypocrites think we are fools? There can be no tolerance of intolerance. When homophobes invade the privacy of others, they forfeit the right to have their own private lives respected.
Naming names gets results. In 1994, OutRage! famously urged 10 Anglican bishops to “Tell the Truth” about their sexuality. Since they preached that the rest of us should tell the truth, surely we had a right to ask them to practice what they preach?
This outing campaign had many positive effects. Within four weeks, Anglican leaders began their first serious dialogue with the gay community and the House of Bishops issued its strongest ever condemnation of homophobic discrimination. The dismissal of gay clergy fell sharply. Congregations all over the country discussed gay issues. According to the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, outing the bishops achieved more in three months than polite lobbying had achieved in 17 years.
More info on Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns can be found at www.petertatchell.net