Outing hypocrites is justified

Last week a US magazine outed a number of well known people including an anchorman and an actress. H

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

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

Show Hide image

Puffins in peril

Britain’s best-loved seabird is vulnerable to global extinction.

The boatmen helped us scramble ashore and soon there were 50 people wandering on an uninhab­ited slab of sea-battered dolerite called Staple Island. It is one of the National Trust-owned Farne Islands in Northumberland and among England’s most spectacular wildlife locations. There are 100,000 pairs of breeding seabirds here and they were everywhere: at our feet, overhead, across every rock face. The stench of guano was overwhelming.

While the birds seemed to be boundless, the human beings converged on the grassy knoll where the local star attraction resides. It’s the creature that adorns the boat company’s publicity and is emblazoned on the National Trust’s website for the island, the bird that possesses what the poet Norman MacCaig called the “mad, clever clown’s beak”: the pint-sized, parrot-faced puffin.

The British love for this creature is so intense that it is, in essence, the robin redbreast of the sea. Nearly all of its breeding colonies around our coast are tourist attractions. Just across the water, along the shore from Staple Island, is the town of Amble, which holds an annual festival devoted to the puffin. From Lundy in Devon and Skomer in Pembrokeshire to the Isle of May off the Fife coast, or Fair Isle in the Shetlands, trips to puffin colonies are frequent, sometimes daily, events.

“Every tourist shop on these islands sells puffin merchandise – knitwear patterns, tumblers, carvings, coasters, cuddly toys, clothes and, of course, puffin hats,” Helen Moncrieff, the area manager in Shetland for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), told me.

While the love affair is unquestionable, what seems in doubt is our ability to help the bird now that it is in trouble. Fair Isle once supported a puffin colony of 20,000 birds. In less than three decades, that number has halved. Similar declines have been reported at Britain’s most important puffin site on St Kilda, Scotland, where millions are said to have bred. Now there are fewer than 130,000 pairs, half the total recorded as recently as the 1970s.

The national picture is alarming but the news from elsewhere is even worse. Continental Europe holds more than 90 per cent – five million pairs – of the global total of Atlantic puffins but they are shared primarily between three countries: Denmark (the Faroe Islands), Iceland and Norway. Across this subarctic region, losses have been estimated at 33 per cent since 1979, when monitoring began. But the most striking figure comes from a colony on Røst, Norway, where there has been a fall over this period from nearly 1.5 million pairs to 285,000.

The Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland hold a substantial proportion of the country’s puffins. Since 2005, breeding success there has been almost nil, and a similar failure has recurred on the Faroe Islands for more than a decade. In both places, where hunting puffins was once a staple of cultural life, catchers today have initiated a self-imposed moratorium.

Puffins are long-lived species and a life­span of between 20 and 30 years is not unusual, yet Euan Dunn, principal marine adviser to the RSPB, explains the implications of persistent breeding failure. “Puffins on Shetland or the Westmans may go on attempting to breed for years, even decades, but eventually all those old adult birds will die off and, if they haven’t reproduced, then the numbers will start to plunge.”

BirdLife International, a conservation network that classifies the status of birds worldwide, has reached the same conclusion. It judges that the Atlantic puffin is likely to decline by between 50 and 79 per cent by 2065. The nation’s most beloved seabird has been declared a species that is vulnerable to global extinction.

To unpick the story of puffin losses, marine ecologists have examined the bird’s oceanic ecosystem and looked particularly at changes in the status of a cold-water zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus. This seemingly insignificant, shrimp-like organism plays a crucial role in North Atlantic biodiversity and has experienced a huge decline as sea temperatures have risen steadily since the 1980s. While the decline of the finmarchicus coincided with swelling numbers of a close relative, this other zooplankton species is less abundant and nutritious.

As the finmarchicus has suffered, so, too, has one of its main predators, the lesser sand eel. And it is this formerly superabundant fish that is the staple food of puffins in many areas of the Atlantic. At the root of the disruption to marine life are the hydra-headed effects of climate change.

Though no one disputes that an important shift is under way in the sea areas of northern Britain and beyond, not everyone agrees that the present puffin situation is a crisis. A leading British expert, Mike Harris, thinks it is premature to designate the bird an endangered species. There are still millions of puffins and, he says, “We need numbers to plummet before we even start to assume that things are terminal.”

Similarly, Bergur Olsen, one of the foremost biologists studying puffins in the Faroe Islands, believes that the talk of extinction is over the top. “The food situation may change and puffins may well adapt to new prey, and then their numbers will stabilise and perhaps increase,” he says.

***

On Staple Island, the extinction designation does appear bizarre. The Farne Island puffin population has increased by 8 per cent since 2008 and there are now 40,000 pairs. This success mirrors a wider stability among puffin colonies of the North and Irish Seas. The distinction in feeding ecology which may explain the birds’ varying fortunes is that, in the southern parts of the range, puffins can prey on sprats when sand eels are scarce. Sprats appear to have suffered none of the disruption that assails the other fish.

But Dunn says it is important to look at the whole picture. “It’s fantastic that puffins are doing well in places like the Farnes, but remember: Britain holds less than 10 per cent of the world total. Also, the declines that have beset puffins in Shetland and St Kilda are even worse for other seabirds.”

The numbers of a silver-winged gull called the kittiwake have fallen by 90 per cent in Shetland and St Kilda since 2000 and by 80 per cent in the Orkneys in just ten years. Shetland’s guillemot numbers have also halved, and the shag, a relative of the cormorant, has experienced falls of over 80 per cent on many islands since the 1970s – 98 per cent, on Foula. Most troubling is the fate of the Arctic skua, which feeds mainly on fish it steals from other seabirds and is reliant on their successes. Its declines are so severe that Dunn fears its eventual loss as a breeding species in Britain.

While there is disagreement about what to call the puffin predicament, there is unanimity on one issue: much of the data that informs the discussion in Britain is out of date. All of these seabirds, which are of global importance, have been monitored decade by decade since the 1970s. Yet the most recent big audit of our cliffs and offshore islands was concluded in 2000. The full census data is now 16 years old. The organisation that underwrites this work is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; it is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has suffered deep budget cuts since the 2008 financial crisis. There is no certainty that another comprehensive census will be mounted any time soon.

“Much is made on wildlife television of how special these islands are for wildlife and how much we care about it,” Dunn says. “In the case of our seabirds, one of those claims is indisputably true. Britain holds populations of some species that are of worldwide significance. But if we lack even basic information on those birds and how they’re faring, especially at a time when our seas are in such flux, what message does that send about how much this country cares? And how can we ever act effectively?”

The plight of the puffin is shedding light on the fortunes of our marine wildlife generally and the shifting condition of our oceans as a result of rising carbon-dioxide levels. Now, puffin politics is also starting to show
this government’s indifference to nature.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue