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social sciences

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The mainstream media generally refused to report on the homosexuality of people who were not charged with a crime. This reticence resulted chiefly from fear of libel lawsuits and a loss of respectability from publishing "sleazy" news. Because homosexuality was considered a shameful condition, to allege that someone was gay or lesbian could constitute slander or libel; and to dwell on homosexuality in a family newspaper could lead to protests from proponents of family values.

Tabloid newspapers, however, thrived on sleaze and reported on the sexual habits of many well-known people, especially if they could be made to sound scandalous. Gay and lesbian film stars in the 1950s lived in terror that they might be outed by Confidential magazine.

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The risks of exposure meant that the few celebrities who came out did so unwillingly. In 1981, the media exploited an outing when Marilyn Barnett exposed tennis star Billie Jean King. Barnett, once King's lover, sued the athlete in an effort to obtain "palimony." Some entertainers, such as George Michael, were outed as a result of arrests while cruising; others, such as Rock Hudson, were outed by their diagnosis with AIDS. Liberace was outed by a coroner after his 1987 death from AIDS. Like many others, he went "out of the closet and into the morgue."

The Politics of Outing

With the rise of the gay rights movement, it became easier to come out. Still, despite urging glbtq people to come out, no activists suggested dragging them out of the closet involuntarily. Extortionists and blackmailers threatened gay men and lesbians with exposure; respectable members of the queer community did not. The harm that could result from outing made it a reprehensible act.

On the other hand, the closet was itself an impediment to building a successful civil rights movement. As long as glbtq people could remain comfortably in the closet, it was very difficult to build a mass movement for glbtq equality. The gay liberation slogan, "Out of the Closet and Into the Streets," seemed to contradict the traditional respect most gay men and lesbians paid to the privacy of their friends and colleagues.

The first modern instance of outing as a political tactic occurred in 1982 when a conservative, straight-owned magazine used outing in an effort to destroy the influence of liberal politicians. Deep Backgrounder, a small Washington, D. C. publication that had a brief life, exposed a number of queer congressmen who leaned to the left. Large mainstream publications, such as The Washington Post and New York Times, refused to reprint the allegations. The magazine had negligible impact.

In 1994, conservative Congressman Robert Dornan (R-Calif.) became the first to use the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to conduct an outing. (Other congressmen, such as Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Gerry Studds (D.-Mass.), had more or less voluntarily come out themselves on the House floor.) He referred to the "revolving closet" of fellow representative Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.). The sleazy innuendoes of the homophobic Dornan were, however, simply echoing the earlier outing of Gunderson by gay activists, who complained that in his eleven years in office he had never supported gay issues.


AIDS changed the attitude of the queer community towards outing. In 1989, ACT UP in Portland, Oregon carried out the first pro-queer outing. Its members exposed the sexuality of Mark Hatfield, the powerful conservative Republican U. S. Senator from Oregon. Hatfield had supported various homophobic initiatives, including the Helms Amendment, which aimed to prevent the federal government from paying for any AIDS education or prevention materials that would "promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual sexual activities."

The mainstream media did not report the Hatfield outing and few Americans learned of it. Despite this failure, this action of ACT UP helped change the face of queer America by using outing, and the threat of outing, as political tactics.

Queer Visibility

Outing grew out of the frustration felt by many gay men and lesbians in the 1980s over the reluctance of the straight community and closeted queers to support glbtq civil rights. Anger over government indifference to the AIDS emergency also contributed powerfully to this new form of queer activism.

In 1982, investigative reporter Larry Bush used the pages of New York City's Village Voice to call for the exposure of gay politicians and officeholders who worked against the common good of queers. Bush wanted to neutralize such people by revealing their hypocrisy and making it impossible for them to enjoy heterosexual privilege by hiding behind the assumption of heterosexuality.

The gay men and lesbians who began to out others believed that they had a moral right to do so. Those who were forced out of the closet would have to back the gay rights movement or be discredited as hypocrites.

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