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Outing is a term that refers to the public revelation of a person's sexuality without the consent of the person.

Although outing has a long history, until recently it was a tactic. Homophobic organizations such as vice squads and the military, politicians who aimed to smear their opponents, and newspapers that practiced yellow journalism were generally the ones engaged in outing.

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In the 1980s, however, the media began to expose various gay and lesbian celebrities as a way of selling magazines. Then gay men and lesbians joined in the phenomenon as a form of self-defense prompted especially by the AIDS crisis. Outing remains controversial in the community since it violates a fundamental principle of queer etiquette, the respect for privacy.

Queer Invisibility

In the years before the establishment of the gay civil rights movement, very few people dared to reveal their homosexuality. Exposure could mean the loss of employment, friends, child custody, and social status, as well as the risk of physical assault. It meant becoming publicly despised. Consequently, much energy was expended by glbtq people to preserve the secrecy of their queerness.

The invisibility of queers allowed hostile stereotypes and grossly distorted caricatures of gay men and lesbians to flourish. Psychiatrists taught that gay men and lesbians were inherently impaired and too sick to live happy lives. The public imagined queers to be pathetic losers, dangerous child molesters, and promiscuous barflies.

Since heterosexuality is the default sexual orientation, most people assume that others are heterosexual unless someone lets them know otherwise. Gay men and lesbians could, thus, remain hidden by avoiding the stereotypical images of queers. Howard Brown, one of the first physicians to come out in the 1970s, was able to keep his sexuality secret for decades because he appeared too responsible to be gay. The armed forces believed that it could screen out homosexuals by looking for swishy men who expressed a dislike for women or for stereotypically butch women who were disdainful of men. Most gay men and lesbians easily slipped by the screeners.

The History of Outing

Although outing is a practice that has received most attention because of its use in the culture wars of the last decades of the twentieth century, it is a practice with a long history. Homophobic slurs and accusations of same-sex sexual activity have long been a staple of political and religious controversy, dating back to ancient Rome, when opponents attempted to defame Julius Caesar by reminding people of his youthful experience as the passive partner of the King of Bithynia. During the Reformation, religious controversialists regularly accused each other of practicing .

The practice of outing also figured in the scandals known as the Eulenburg Affair, which rocked the German court of Kaiser Wilhelm from 1907 to 1909 and threatened the progress of the early German homosexual emancipation movement. Adolph Brand, publisher of the first homosexual periodical, Der Eigene, issued a pamphlet alleging that an anti-gay leader was secretly homosexual. His associates in the emancipation movement, including Magnus Hirschfeld, condemned the strategy.

Until the last decades of the twentieth century, most gay men and lesbians in the United States did not come out publicly. Many, however, were forced out of the closet. Newspapers published the names of men and women who were arrested by police in raids on gay bars or in cruising areas. Such publicity often had devastating consequences, ruining careers and family relationships. Hence, remaining in the closet was a great priority for glbtq individuals, who also respected the secrecy of other people who were in the closet.

The military frequently conducted witch hunts in search of queers. Queers in the military who were caught in sexually compromising situations were outed in the course of courts martial; others whose sexual orientation was deduced on the basis of letters or possession of periodicals or association with known homosexuals were discharged administratively.

With dishonorable discharges, these victims of outing could not return to their hometowns or easily find employment. With few options, many remained in their place of discharge. San Francisco, a large naval base, became the unofficial headquarters of the American gay community at least in part because outing victims of the U. S. Navy had few other places to go.

Some prominent Americans, including Supreme Court nominees, Congressmen, and politicians, were outed because of sexual indiscretions. In 1980, for example, Robert E. Bauman (R-Md.), an eight-year veteran of the U.S. House of Representatives, became a victim of an F.B. I. outing. Married and the father of four children, the conservative Bauman had a habit of picking up hustlers in gay bars in the Washington, D. C. area. After a year-long investigation, the F. B. I. charged Bauman with visiting gay bars in order to solicit sexual favors from men and transporting these men within the District of Columbia for sexual purposes. Bauman became one of only three Republicans to lose his House seat in the 1980 elections.

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Top: Assistant Secretary of the Department of Defense Pete Williams publicly supported the exclusion of gays from military service. He was outed in 1991.
Above: Senator Barbara Mikulski (D, Md.) was outed by activists disgruntled by her support of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.

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