Coming out `in reverse' provokes shock and anger in the homosexual community, writes Vanessa Thorpe
STAFF at the gay men's magazine Attitude are preparing for an onslaught of calls from puzzled readers. The latest issue of the glossy, thrusting title has thrown down a challenge to the precepts of gay culture. On the first page is a discordant statement from the magazine's erstwhile acting editor, Ian Tucker. "I just woke up one morning," he writes, "and realised I was straight as a pussy."

Now this is the kind of sudden proclamation of proud heterosexuality which raises a lot of eyebrows in the gay world. "We can see, even from the reaction so far, that people are intrigued by what Ian wrote and what they thought he was saying," says Adam Mattera, the man now temporarily at the helm of the magazine. "For some gay men, when they hear someone whom they imagined was part of the gay scene saying they are not homosexual, it shocks them."

Ideally, he stresses, no one should ever be "chided" for what they are. "But it does happen sometimes, perhaps because the gay community is a bit closed and incestuous."

The impact of Mr Tucker's backwards version of publicly coming out, set as it is within the pages of the publication dedicated to gay culture, is revealing. Not for him the cry of "bravo" that greets a gay outing. Cold lips and sneers from his gay contemporaries are more likely, especially if they are the kind of men who still contemptuously refer to heterosexuals as "breeders".

"Ever since the fairly recent introduction of the idea of the modern homosexual, such a person has been defined by his rejection of marriage and of sex with women," says Mark Simpson, the controversial editor of Anti-Gay, the 1996 collection of essays, and someone who has recently disowned the label "gay".

Beyond the glamorous world of amorphous sexuality peopled by rock stars like David Bowie and even Tom Robinson, the question of who you sleep with is still a crucial part of how people view you, Simpson complains. He feels he no longer wants to play by such strict rules. Everything is defined too negatively, he says.

"Who you don't want to have sex with becomes the biggest part of how you are defined. If you become gay, you swap to defining your identity around not sleeping with women and you end up with just as much of a cartoonist's idea of yourself," he says. "I don't really believe in sexual identities, although I think people find them socially useful."

Even within the conservative British establishment sexuality is secretly mutable, he argues. "Look at life in prisons, in the armed services, or in the public schools that most judges have been to," he says. He goes on to quote the old naval rubric, "It is never queer unless you are tied to the pier," which means that gay acts carried out while at sea do not "count".

Like other formerly gay men and women, Mark Simpson's own rejection of the term has sprung partly from the hope of finding family life. "Men may turn to women, frankly, because those relationships stand a better chance. If you want something stable and nurturing then everything points to making a woman the centre of your life rather than a man."

Women who back away from the gay label often experience the same shock and distress from lesbian friends. The criticisms is often worse when those involved view lesbianism as a political stance. Anyone who starts to see a man is potentially a traitor. Theresa Flynn, a 30-year-old HIV counsellor, has suffered in this way. She went out with a woman for six years and is now looking for a relationship with a man. "I started to realise I wasn't finding any women at parties that I was attracted to," she says. "I started to think about men and their more muscular, bigger bodies."

Theresa did nothing for a year and then confided in a straight friend who unfortunately blurted it out. "I was upset. It had all come out back to front and my gay friends were confused because they had met me as a lesbian and never questioned it. One of them hurt me by saying she saw me in a completely different way now and would not feel so easy talking to me."

Theresa realised she had expected lesbians to be more accepting of changing sexuality. "I felt I was being pushed out of a group," she recalls. "I was very linked into the lesbian and gay scene and suddenly I had no one to go out with."

The embattled nature of life for male and female gays will mean for some time that a decision to come out publicly deserves to be applauded. Channel 4, for example, plans to dedicate an entire evening of programming on 25 April to a celebration of the act of coming out. The centrepiece of the schedule will be the first terrestrial screening in Britain of the famous "Coming Out" episode of Ellen, the American sitcom. Such festivities may well be justified, but meanwhile those who come out in reverse feel there is nobody with whom to mark their own commitment to a new-found identity.