Out, proud and bowed

Every public outing means a meltdown for some family, somewhere. Hester Lacey reports on the trauma behind the headlines

If the people who compile those lists rating life events in order of their degree of trauma were more gay literate, then being "outed" would surely be up there with divorce and bereavement. Last week, Agriculture Minister Nick Brown spoke out about being publicly exposed as gay. "What's happened is enormously embarrassing for me, and it's hurt me, and I'm sad that my family, my friends, my constituents have all had to read today's press," he said. Mr Brown is the third Cabinet Minister in a fortnight to face allegations about his sexuality; first was Welsh Secretary Ron Davies, who resigned after an incident on Clapham Common, then Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson was outed by journalist Matthew Parris during a live television interview.

There are signs that outing may be going out of fashion. David Yelland, editor of the Sun newspaper, last week issued a statement saying that in future the newspaper "will not out homosexuals unless there is a major public interest reason to do so". In 1997, the Association of Chief Police Officers issued instructions to chief constables that surveillance operations of cottages (public lavatories used for gay sex) and cruising areas was no longer acceptable: any problems should be discreetly resolved by the police acting in cooperation with gay community organisations. David Northmore of the Pink Paper points to a marked fall in the number of men convicted of gross indecency. "In 1996, offences fell by over 24 per cent to an all-time low."

However, outing does still happen; and public figures are not the only ones to suffer when forced to reveal their sexuality. Earlier this year, several of the Bolton Seven, a group of men who had videoed themselves having consensual sex and were subsequently prosecuted, were assaulted and their homes were attacked by firebombs.

Jack, an architect in his 30s, remembers with great bitterness his experience of being outed. "I had moved to the west coast of America on a one-year contract, and everything was going brilliantly - I was really enjoying myself and thinking of staying on longer," he recalls. "Then I was caught out. I don't want to go into the details of what exactly happened. I'll just say it wasn't something I was particularly ashamed of. I'm not ashamed of being gay at all, but I am very discreet about it except with close friends."

Jack's initial reaction was one of relief that his family were on the other side of the world. "At first I felt quite calm about it, because I'm only out to my sister in my immediate family - my father doesn't know, and I knew there was hardly any chance that he would find out. I didn't, to be honest, expect much reaction from my colleagues at work - they were all quite young and trendy, and I thought they would take it in their strides."

However, he found that he was ostracised in the office. "I was amazed, quite frankly. People would move away from me. Someone took to leaving packs of extra-strong condoms on my desk. A few people I'd got on well with still spoke to me but I felt very unhappy. I just couldn't believe it and my time over there was ruined. My contract only had a few weeks to run and at the end of that time I decided to come back over here."

Julienne Dickey is the director of the Project for Advice, Counselling and Education (Pace), a lesbian and gay counselling and mental health organisation. A report published by Pace earlier this year discovered that outing is a concern for people using mental health services. "People might confidentially tell one person, it goes into their case notes, then everyone involved in their care knows it," she says. "It is not necessarily malicious, but I'm afraid it does happen."

One man told Pace: "I am aware that a lot of stuff about my sexuality has been written up [in my case notes]. The reason I know is various staff members have said 'Oh, you know, you're gay...' and this that and the other thing, if something gay comes up. So you know they know you're gay."

Another woman's doctor outed her to her parents. "He told my parents, which wasn't a very good idea because they're very anti-gay. They reacted very badly."

Ideally, says Pace's Julienne Dickey, sexuality would be of no significance, but being gay or lesbian does lead to abuse. "We see the effect all the time in our clients. Being lesbian and gay in itself is not a problem, but how people are treated because they are lesbian and gay can cause low self-esteem, depression and self-harming. No one but the person themselves is in a position to gauge the consequences of their coming out and how they would deal with those consequences; we are the last people in the world to suggest anyone should take the liberty of outing anyone else."

Similarly, gay campaigning group Stonewall regards outing as beyond the pale. "We never out under any circumstances," says Stonewall's Mark Watson. "We want to create an atmosphere where people will be happy about coming out, but it is a personal decision." Coming out, he says, is one of the biggest decisions a gay person will make. "Most want to come out gradually, to close friends first, and few are out to everybody in their lives. Most tell one person at a time and being forced to do it all in one go is wrong. When you want to teach someone to swim you don't throw them off a pier."

Being outed, he says, has even led to suicides. "Particularly in smaller towns, where everyone knows you and there is no support network, it can have a devastating effect. There are recent cases of gay men who have been caught cottaging or cruising being done for gross indecency, which sounds terrible - some members of the public think that it means something like raping a child. But the equivalent for heterosexuals would be a public nuisance offence."

Outrage, the gay non-violent direct action group, is also opposed to outing. "Outrage's principle is quite clear," says spokesman David Allison. "If a person chooses to stay in the closet they are entitled to make that choice. We would only support outing if an MP was living a gay lifestyle but attacking gays - none of the MPs in the recent spats has behaved in a hypocritical fashion."

For those outside the public eye, he says, outing can be as devastating as being splashed over the press. "At least public figures have the PR machinery to back them up. Private figures don't have that. Many who go cottaging are married with kids and jobs. It seems an unnecessary punishment for someone who's committed a victimless crime."

There is a "cottage" near the south London home of Richard, who lives with his partner. "It's on the southern approach to Tower Bridge, in a little park near a statue of Ernest Bevin," he says. "From time to time in the local rag you read reports from the courts that so-and-so from such-and-such has been caught in a 'lewd act'. This part of London is still very tight-knit and it must have a terrible effect on them." Every so often, he says, a car-load of policemen turn up and bundle into the lavatory. "I once asked them why they were doing it and they said it was because of complaints from local residents. I said, 'Well, I'm a local resident and I'd rather complain about the three burglaries last week'. There is lots of crime in south London - gangs and house crime and drugs. I see the police concentrating on this and wonder if it's a sensible use of public money."

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