How outing came in with a vengeance

As Peter Tatchell and OutRage! turn their attention to Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet members, Simon Garfield and Andrew Brown outline how their policy took shape
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The Independent Online
Almost four years ago, a small group of men calling itself Frocs met in the basement of the Lesbian and Gay Centre in Farringdon, central London, to discuss a relatively new form of sexual politicking called outing. Outing was a big issue in America at the time, and Frocs wished to make it a prominent issue in Britain, too: there were gay judges to expose, and gay clergy, and gay MPs, and it was argued that if these people were forced to confront their sexuality publicly, it would further the cause of gay pride and equality.

Frocs stood for Faggots Rooting Out Closet Sexuality, and its members were also members of OutRage! But four years ago outing was not official OutRage! policy. Indeed, the shrill intentions of Frocs were something of an embarrassment to many of those more concerned with the age of consent and reforming other homophobic statutes.

Frocs disintegrated in acrimony. "They intended to release some names to the press," a gay journalist remembers. "But when the tabloids got on their trail and got their home addresses, they bottled out. Basically, they didn't want to go through the same mangle that they were threatening others with."

But one who expressed cautious support for outing was Peter Tatchell, then as now the most visible and eloquent OutRage! spokesperson. Of all OutRage's activities, it is only outing which makes the straight media take notice. It appears that this may be another big week for Tatchell. Earlier this month it was the bishops, the fall-out from a campaign launched at the end of last year. Now the attention has switched to lesbian clergy, and - the big one - outing gay MPs and cabinet members.

For despite the loathing heaped on Tatchell and his group in the media last week, outing has been effective. It has worked in a direct sense: two bishops and a female chaplain have admitted to being gay, or at least sexually ambiguous, though such predilections are not censured even by the Pope: it is only acts, not inclinations, that the churches officially object to, and only one retired bishop has admitted to acting on his urges. Indirectly, outing has also been effective. It has drawn attention to the complex workings of sexual and political hypocrisy.

Why is this? How has OutRage! achieved it? In one way, the methods date back to 1905. It was then that the concept of outing was first detected in Germany, when an attempt to decriminalise homosexuality failed in the Reichstag. A small group gathered to consider outing Kaiser Wilhelm II and his cronies, but their mission never bore fruit; indeed, they may have failed for the same reason that OutRage! has so far failed to out MPs - lack of evidence and fear of establishment revenge. But then, as now, the ideas and justifications were large and vague: hypocrisy and homophobia. Only the passion was tightly focused.

The current phase of outing began when the attempt to equalise the age of consent failed last year. Tatchell threatened recriminations on Newsnight ("if polite lobbying does not work," he said "we have to resort to other more aggressive methods") but only the gossip magazine Scallywag dared to print any names.

Tatchell may be angry, but he is not uneducated in the ways of libel law, and he has been reluctant to out MPs thus far.

The momentum caused by the rumpus over the clergy may push this reticence over the edge. "Good generals do not reveal their plans," Tatchell said yesterday, but he was happy to talk about the letter that he composed hours before addressed to two cabinet ministers and a member of the Shadow Cabinet, among others. "Our aim is to encourage MPs to come out of their own free will. It's unfair that Chris Smith and Michael Brown are the only MPs with the guts to be counted. Chris Smith's majority has only increased after he came out, and he's been promoted to ever higher positions."

Unlike the tabloid newspapers he despises, Tatchell does not wait for hard evidence before he makes his charges. Nor does he often confront his victims before accusing them publicly. But his accusations are not plucked from thin air. They come from the great ocean of gay gossip, where he is an assiduous snapper-up of trifles. Most gays, or anyone who feels himself a member of a hypocritically persecuted minority, will have felt the temptation to do as he does. Even those who disapprove say they understand why he does it.

Tatchell's actions are viewed with some horror by many gays and lesbians. The more sober lobbying group Stonewall distrusts outing as immoral in the short term and imprudent in the long term. Once the easy targets have been picked off - and it is noticeable that OutRage! has always backed off from the sort of target who might sue - there is obvious potential for a backlash. In one recent radio debate, Tatchell (arguing against a representative from Stonewall) was supported by a conservative heterosexual journalist who wanted more gays outed so she could discriminate against them.

Such qualms will do nothing to dissuade him. There are more personal reasons why his campaigns are distrusted, and they are intimately bound up with his strengths. It is odd enough that anyone could write the letters he wrote to the Bishop of London, and to 20 MPs. But it is truly bizarre to publish them with no apparent consciousness of the way they read to outsiders. Tatchell was genuinely shocked when his letters to the Bishop of London ("we know lots about the bishop which we haven't made public") were interpreted as menacing or intimidatory.

The same tunnel vision (or self-righteousness) that makes OutRage! so pitilessly effective makes it distrusted among some gays. Both are bound up with aspects of Tatchell's personality. A former Sunday school teacher, he has brought to his war against the church all the qualities normally associated with the Inquisition. Many people see in Outrage's attacks a psychodrama in which mythical authority figures must be humbled and exposed. Politicians, who are used to a less mythical exercise of power, may well refuse to play their parts as scripted.