Leading Article: Why the practice of 'outing' is wrong

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The Independent Online
NO ONE knows how many MPs are homosexual or bisexual. There is not even an accepted national average from which an educated guess could be made. Studies of human sexuality have produced estimates that inspire little confidence. If the proportion were as high as one homosexual for every 10 adults, a figure launched by the Kinsey report of 1948 on male sexual behaviour and still frequently bandied about, there could be a notional 65 in the Commons. That does not seem likely.

If it were as low as 1 per cent, there would be six, which seems possible, if on the low side. Only Chris Smith, Labour's environmental protection spokesman, has acknowledged his homosexuality. Although he is widely respected for having done so - as well as for being an exceptionally decent and competent MP - his example has not been followed.

There is a danger that the coincidence of the present 'back to basics' crisis in the Conservative Party and the forthcoming vote on lowering the age of consent for male homosexual intercourse could lead to the 'outing' of homosexual Tory MPs. Tomorrow's newspapers may, it is suspected, carry one or more such revelations. If those suspicions are justified, public life will be the loser. It is up to individuals to decide whether they wish to talk about their sexual orientation, not to be dragged publicly out of the closet, against their own wishes.

Only the most exceptional circumstances would justify that sort of disclosure. If, for example, a senior politician had sought to increase his popularity by making homophobic speeches and posing as a pillar of family values, disclosure that he was regularly using the services of rent boys would arguably be justified. To reveal such gross hypocrisy among those in whom the public places a measure of confidence is part of the press's task.

Such extreme cases are unlikely. The more probable victims are MPs who have kept a low profile in the current debate on private and public morality. If their careers are blighted, the loss to public life will extend well beyond their individual contributions. Heterosexuals of either sex who doubt their ability to observe all 10 commandments may already be wondering whether a career in politics is worth the risk. A press campaign against homosexuals could keep gay men and women out of the Commons for years. That would reduce the representativeness of Parliament, to the nation's loss.

The practice of 'outing' came to prominence in 1991, needless to say in the United States. There an extremist homosexual group calling itself Outpost put up a series of flyposters featuring photographs of celebrities, with captions crudely summarising their careers and labelling them variously as 'absolutely het', 'absolutely queer', 'fag' or 'dyke'.

The justification was that it was dishonest and against the interests of homosexuals as a whole for gays not to reveal that they belong to an oppressed minority. A few months later a shadowy organisation in Britain calling itself Frocs (Faggots rooting out closet sexuality) threatened to 'out' 200 closet homosexuals, allegedly including 52 MPs. It never happened, and the entire exercise was suspected of having been a hoax.

Since then, the tabloid press in Britain has shown a declining interest in celebrities who do not share the majority preference for the opposite sex; and there have been other signs that homophobia is waning. It would be sad if the Government's present crisis of confidence over its 'back to basics' campaign were to be used by newspapers to undo that progress.

The question of the age of male consent should be considered on its own merits, unaffected by a climate of fear. The present minimum age limit of 21 is way out of line with practice in the rest of Europe and the US, and should - as we argued on 23 December - be equalised with the female age of 16. It would be a bad day for democracy if MPs' voting decisions were affected by fears of unwarranted intrusion into their private lives.

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