Unlike most other identity variables, homosexuality is invisible. Western culture may have developed a complex and elaborate range of codes by which we identify homosexuality—from voice (lisps) and gestures (limp wrists) to hair styles and clothing (gay male flamboyance, lesbian dungarees)—but these remain only suggestions. The codes are transient and could, indeed, be adopted by anyone. This means that homosexuality can easily remain hidden and that its revelation can truly come as a shock. Outing is the activity of exposing someone's homosexuality; the shifting forms it has taken over the twentieth century are indicative of changing attitudes towards sexuality.
Given that lesbians and gay men have endured a history of persecution due to their sexual orientation, the ability to "hide" homosexuality is a useful survival tool. Over the course of the twentieth century, homosexuality has been culturally conceptualized as, variously, an illness, as "unnatural," and as a moral weakness. Such widespread views, with their core notion of homosexuals as "lesser" individuals, have led to bullying and acts of violence against individual lesbians and gay men. They also enable the reputations and statuses of individuals to be instantly tarnished; accusations of homosexuality supposedly expose inferiority. Outing can thus be employed as a political smearing device. For example, Senator Joseph McCarthy's attempts in the 1950s to uncover all subversive anti-American activities took the form of witchhunts for communist sympathizers. This included homosexuals; McCarthy conflated homosexuality with communism in his paranoid drive to expunge political and moral minorities from the United States.
It is difficult to think outside of the dominant (negative) conceptualizations of homosexuality because they have been (and remain) so prevalent. The birth of the gay rights movement in the late 1960s, however, proposed an alternative—a positive conception of homosexuality; lesbians and gay men claimed that they were "glad to be gay." "Gay is good" proclaimed sloganeers; lesbians and gay men outed themselves in order to publicly demonstrate that they were not degenerates and that, in fact, they were little different from "normal" heterosexuals (historically, there had previously been more minor attempts to garner acceptance for homosexuals, such as the efforts of the American "Mattachine Society" of the 1950s; the scale of organization, among other factors, prevented success). Again, this form of outing has a political dimension. For the gay rights movement, as with other civil rights movements, the personal was/is political; outing oneself was a way of expressing solidarity with other, similar, marginalized individuals. Although a risky process, outing oneself enabled participation in a burgeoning lesbian and gay community.
But despite the best efforts of the gay rights movement, homosexuality has continued to be widely conceived in a negative way. Thus, even as individuals continue to find group solidarity in coming out, still particular groups (the political right and Christians, particularly) out homosexuals in order to imply inferiority. The gay rights cause has not been helped by the emergence of the AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) epidemic. The spread of the virus that causes AIDS was initially highly concentrated amongst gay men and particular black minorities, and was thus sometimes seen as (divine?) judgement exacted upon the marginalized. AIDS often manifests through cancerous facial scarring and thyroid problems, altering facial appearance; suddenly, the invisible homosexuality of gay men was readable in physical symptoms.
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw an additional twist added to the history of outing: the formation of a more radical group of gay rights activists. "Queer" activism, as it became known, believed that the perspective of the 1970s gay rights movement had been too assimilationist; that is, it was looking for acceptance by the (hetero-sexual) mainstream. With a chant of "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" queer activists loudly proclaimed their difference from, rather than similarity to, heterosexuals. The underlying drive, however, was similar … to reduce the stigma against sexual minorities. For queer activists this involved outing themselves, but also, notably, public figures. This included individuals seen as hypocritical, such as priests and politicians who publicly preached against what they performed in private; but it could also include media celebrities. The argument mustered was that if all "hidden" homosexuals were outed, the widespread prevalence of homosexuality would be recognized and the stigma would be removed. Arguing along these lines, Michelangelo Signorile's book Queer in America thus included a lengthy section outing John Travolta.
This imposed form of outing carries problematic moral, ethical, and conceptual implications. For many people, the outing of oneself should be a personal decision, not one forced upon them by a group of activists with a particular political agenda. Perhaps more problematically, outing serves to reproduce rigid sexuality boundaries—you are either gay, straight, or bisexual—whereas a great deal of evidence would seem to suggest that sexuality is a much more fluid variable. In the 1990s, then, we find that the differences between queer activists, tabloid journalists, and religious/political groups, all of whom out people for particular reasons, are more complex and confused than they were only 20 years previously.
Gross, Larry. Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Johansson, Warren, and William A. Percy. Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. New York, Haworth Press, 1994.
Murphy, Timothy F., editor. Gay Ethics: Controversies in Outing, Civil Rights, and Sexual Science. New York, Haworth Press, 1994.
Signorile, Michelangelo. Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power. London, Virago, 1994.