Something very controversial was going on around the turn of the 1990s. At the height of the AIDS epidemic and as a new decade dawned, some LGBT activists took to outing gay men still in the closet. It sparked a furious debate in the media and among gays and lesbians about the ethics of forcing people to disclose their sexuality.
This gay outing trend continued for several years. I was a news producer at the BBC when two British government ministers were outed in the late 1990s. They had never been homophobic but they had been in the closet. The question at the time was whether their privacy should be respected or if, as legislators, the public had a right to know.
Many gay people felt that as heterosexual politicians were never required to make a declaration of their sexuality, why should gay politicians be forced to? Others were irritated by those in power passing laws that affected gay people without being open about their homosexuality.
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Risk of gay erasure in history when no outing of gay men
One view was that gays in public life – whether that’s politics, business, or the arts – participate in a kind of gay erasure in history by failing to be open about themselves. Their refusal to be open about their sexuality means that LGBT people lose part of their history – leaving room for others to insist these people weren’t homosexual.
For example, certain past American Presidents were homosexual or bisexual. But now that they’re dead, the hetero-historians can sniffily declare that they were very definitely not gay. Even though it’s screamingly obvious that James Buchanan for example, President before Abraham Lincoln, couldn’t have been anything other than gay.
In the 1980s and 1990s, this erasure extended to omitting the cause of death as HIV/AIDS when high profile people succumbed to the disease. In 1987, the celebrity pianist Liberace was very obviously dying of AIDS but his publicist insisted he was just anaemic from dieting! The American Medical Association declared at the time that unless there was an obvious public health benefit, Liberace’s diagnosis should not be publicised. Worth recalling that in 1959, Liberace successfully sued the Daily Mirror for outing him.
Militant outing resulted in outing posters
In the 1990s, militant outers – determined to expose closeted gays – put up Wanted posters with the faces of politicians or cultural icons inviting gay men to come forward if they had experienced sexual relations with them. The campaigning LGBT organisation ACT-UP used this tactic to expose secretly gay legislators who were supporting anti-gay measures.
The downside of this was that gay people, some of them famous, who went on to the gay scene assuming it was a safe space found themselves betrayed by other gay men. By going to gay bars, they risked having their sex lives plastered all over the tabloid press. In other words, outing was working hand in glove with the trashier end of the media to fill the scandal sheets.
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AIDS stokes the gay outing trend
There was enormous pain and anger in the LGBT community by the end of the 1980s. The media had been horrific in its coverage of the impact of the virus on gay men in particular. Often portraying HIV/AIDS as a well deserved outcome for gay sex. And while the virus was ravaging LGBT people, the United Kingdom government passed legislation against homosexuality being “promoted” that is today mimicked by Vladimir Putin.
Many LGBT people felt as if a war was being waged against them. They were losing friends and partners – watching them die in considerable pain – and yet well-heeled LGBT people in positions of power chose to remain silent and invisible. This was unbearable. There was little sympathy as elite closet cases were forced to admit their sexuality – and in effect, pressured to support the community they so often avoided or even spurned.