OUT FOR WHAT HE CAN GET

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The Independent Culture
2 Outing Yourself by Michelangelo Signorile, Abacus pounds 6.99. Reactionaries are right to carp about the "bad example" set when public figures like Barrymore come out - because their examples really do make it easier for teenagers growing up gay to decide that they have nothing to be ashamed of. But if coming out is uncontroversial in gay circles, "outing" is more complex. Gay activists devoted fruitless hours in the early Nineties to discussing the morality of outing. The justification was that if public figures who come out help the gay cause, then any who chose not to, hindered it. It was all, you understand, in the public interest, just like the tabloids. The leading exponent of this view was Michelangelo Signorile, which is what makes the title of his new book, "Outing Yourself: How to come out ...", so very, very cheeky.

Gay politics aside, the phrase "How to..." on a cover is a clear enough warning; as is a Contents page revealing Steps 1-14. We're getting into self-help territory: abandon irony all who enter here.

Irony, of course, would get in the way. A relentless earnestness is needed for Signorile's project, which aims to produce from even that most unpromising raw material - a nervous, self-doubting closet-case - some sort of paradigm gay. "Say goodbye to the old you," he tells us, and prepare for your "rebirth".

If you're thinking this all sounds a bit chilling, with hints of an almost religious fervour, you're right. Signorile is more than a committed gay: he's a born-again faggot, and his book is about as much fun as The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. What's more, the process of becoming a happy homosexual the Signorile way involves doing such terribly embarrassing things that the closet begins to look almost cosy. The agony begins with Exercise 1:

"Go to your bathroom mirror ... Look at yourself in the mirror and study your face. Take a few minutes to get to know yourself and your face in the mirror. Feel good about this person who is taking charge of himself or herself. When you are ready, say softly and sweetly 'I am gay' or 'I am lesbian'."

It is the sort of thing that might, in some mysterious way, improve results, but it begs the question: are there things so truly ghastly that even a drowning man should think twice before grasping them? Part of the problem with this book - along with its immense dullness and its crass platitudes - is that it is hard for the well-adjusted urban homosexual (or designer dyke) to recall a time when such a book was needed. For those of us who've found our wings, this guide is worse than an irrelevance: it's unwelcome. It's like reminding a ravishing butterfly that it was once something akin to a maggot.

But there are still checks to our flight. Beyond the "liberated" constituencies we inhabit things can get nasty, in a way that severely limits our choice of both career and domicile. We live our lives avoiding, so far as is possible, any danger zones, with an agile grace that becomes almost unconscious, but the fact remains that we can only flourish within certain limits, albeit widening ones.

Of course we're not all pioneer material, but if life is getting bigger and better for gay people, it is the dynamic of people coming out, and being accepted, that is the engine for change. And for some such people, Outing Yourself could prove an effective tool; the young, after all, often take themselves very seriously, so perhaps a sense of irony won't put them off at the first page.

But the realities of the shock tactics of outing advocated by its author give this dose of syrup a peculiarly nasty after-taste. The policy of denunciation is a far cry, indeed, from the positive business of coming out: I fail to see who, apart from Mr Signorile perhaps, who is empowered by it.

James Collard

James Collard is deputy editor of Attitude magazine

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