In the late twentieth century, outing became a common term for taking someone "out of the closet"—that is, publicising that someone is gay. The term can also be used more broadly to mean publicly disclosing other personal characteristics, such as political affiliation or religion, that someone wishes to keep secret.
It is hard to pinpoint the first use of outing in the modern sense. In a 1982 issue of Harper's, Taylor Branch predicted that "outage" would become a political tactic in which the closeted would find themselves trapped in crossfire. "Forcing Gays like Mike Howes Out of the Closet" by William A. Henry III in Time (January 29 1990) introduced the term "outing" to the general public. (Johansson&Percy, p.4)
While the term is recent, the practice goes back much further. Outing was a common put-down of Greek and Roman orators. Before the Christian era, sodomy was not illegal in Greek or, most believe, in Roman law, between adult citizens, but homosexual acts between citizens were considered acceptable only under certain social circumstances. Both Romans and Greeks sneeringly deemed the "guilty" vulgar.
The Harden-Eulenburg affair of 1907-1909 was the first public outing scandal of the twentieth century. Left-wing journalists opposed to Kaiser Wilhelm II's policies outed a number of prominent members of his cabinet and inner circle - and by implication the Kaiser - beginning with Maximilian Harden's indictment of the aristocratic diplomat Prince Eulenburg. Harden's accusations incited other journalists to follow suit, including Adolf Brand, founder of Der Eigene, a journal that advocated Greek style paederasty.
Left wing journalists outed Adolf Hitler's closest ally Ernst Röhm in the early 1930s, causing Brand to write, "when someone - as teacher, priest, representative, or statesman - would like to set in the most damaging way the intimate love contacts of others under degrading control - in that moment his own love-life also ceases to be a private matter and forfeits every claim to remain protected hence-forward from public scrutiny and suspicious oversight. After the Stonewall riots of 1969, swells of gay-libbers came out aggressively in the 1970s, crying out, "Out of the closets, Into the streets!" Some began to demand that all homosexuals come out, and that if they weren't willing to do so, then it was the community's responsibility to do it for them. Such radical measures provoked opposition. Some argued that privacy should prevail, and felt it was better for the movement to protect closeted gays, especially in homophobic religious institutions and the military. Despite their best efforts, most gays and lesbians were still unwilling to come out.
Some political conservatives opposed to increased public acceptance of homosexuality engaged in outing in this period as well, with the goal of embarrassing or discrediting their ideological foes. Conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza, for example, published the letters of gay fellow students at Dartmouth College in the campus newspaper he edited (The Dartmouth Review) in 1981; a few years later, succeeding Review editor Laura Ingraham had a meeting of a campus gay organization secretly tape-recorded, then published a transcript as part of an editorial denouncing the group as "cheerleaders for latent campus sodomites".
The first outing by an activist in America occurred on February 23 1989. Michael Petrelis, along with a few others, decided to out Mark Hatfield, a Republican United States Senator from Oregon, because he supported legislation initiated by Jesse Helms. At a fundraiser in a small town outside of Portland, the group stood up and outed him in front of the crowd. Petrelis later tried to make news by standing on the Capitol steps and reading the names of "twelve men and women in politics and music who ... are secretly gay." Though the press showed up, no major news organization published the story. (Gross, p.85) Potential libel suits deterred publishers.
OutWeek, which had begun publishing in 1989, was home to activist and outing pioneer Michelangelo Signorile, who stirred the waters when he outed the recently deceased Malcolm Forbes in March 1990. His column "Gossip Watch" became a hot spot for outing the rich and famous. Both praised and lambasted for his behavior, he garnered responses to his actions as wide ranging as "one of the greater contemporary gay heroes," to "revolting, infantile, cheap name-calling." (Johansson & Percy, p.183)
In 2004, gay rights activist Michael Rogers outed Edward Schrock, a Republican Congressman from Virginia. Rogers posted a story on his website revealing that Schrock used an interactive phone sex service to meet other men for sex. Schrock did not deny this, and announced on August 30, 2004 that he would not seek re-election. Rogers said that he outed Schrock to punish him for his hypocrisy in voting for the Marriage Protection Act and signing on as a co-sponsor of the Federal Marriage Amendment.
New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey announced that he was a "gay American" in August 2004. McGreevey had become aware that he was about to be named in a sexual harassment suit by Golan Cipel, his former security advisor, with whom it was alleged McGreevey had a sexual relationship. McGreevey resigned, but unlike Schrock, McGreevey decided not to step out of public life.
Their aim is not only to reveal the hypocrisy of those in what Branch termed the "closets of power" but also a gay person awareness of the presence of gay people and political issues, thus showing that being gay and lesbian is not "so utterly grotesque that it should never be discussed." (Signorile, p.78) Richard Mohr noted, "some people have compared outing to McCarthyism...And vindictive outing is like McCarthyism: such outing feeds gays to the wolves, who thereby are made stronger....But the sort of outing I have advocated does not invoke, mobilize, or ritualistically confirm anti-gay values; rather it cuts against them, works to undo them. The point of outing, as I have defended it, is not to wreak vengeance, not to punish, and not to deflect attention from one's own debased state. Its point is to avoid degrading oneself." Thus outing is "both permissible and an expected consequence of living morally." (Mohr, Richard. Gay Ideas: Outing and Other Controversies, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.)
Further, outing is not the airing of private details. As Signorile asked, "How can being gay be private when being straight isn't? Sex is private. But by outing we do not discuss anyone's sex life. We only say they're gay." (Signorile, p.80) "Average people have been outed for decades. People have always outed the mailman and the milkman and the spinster who lives down the block. If anything, the goal behind outing is to show just how many gay people there are among the most visible people in our society so that when someone outs the milkman or the spinster, everyone will say, 'So what?'" (Signorile, p.82)
Virtually all who take a position on outing have qualified the limits to which it is permissible for one to go. The extremes are to out no one or to out everyone. In between, four intermediate positions can be discerned (Johansson & Percy, p.228):
1) Hypocrites only, and only when they actively oppose gay rights and interests;Assessing to which degree the outer goes allows insight into the goal striven towards. Most outers target those who support decisions and further policy, both religious and secular, which discriminate against gay people while they themselves live a clandestine gay existence. A "truism to people active in the gay movement [is] that the greatest impediments to homosexuals' progress often [are] not heterosexuals, but closeted homosexuals," said San Francisco journalist Randy Shilts. (Johansson & Percy, p.226)
2) Outing passive accomplices who help run homophobic institutions;
3) Prominent individuals whose outing would shatter stereotypes and compel the public to reconsider its attitude on homosexuality;
4) Only the dead.
Signorile argues that the outing of Pete Williams "and its aftermath did indeed make a big dent in the military's policy against gays. The publicity generated put the policy on the front burner in 1992, thrusting the issue into the presidential campaign," with every Democratic candidate and independent Ross Perot publicly promising to end the ban. (ibid, p.161).
President of Finland Tarja Halonen released a book for the reelection campaign in 2006, where she mentions the her legal work in promoting sexual equality in the effect of the president of SETA, a LGBT rights organization. She criticizes the people in the closet for "not daring to do anything themselves, but being happy when we [SETA] did their work for them".
Roger Rosenblatt argued in his January 1993 New York Times Magazine essay "Who Killed Privacy?" that, "The practice of 'outing' homosexuals implies contradictorily that homosexuals have a right to private choice but not to private lives." (Signorile, p.80)
Other criticism concerning outing centers upon the harm that outing individuals as homosexual, transgender, or transsexual does to them personally and professionally and upon the fact that some individuals have been erroneously outed or have been outed when there is no proof to substantiate the 'allegation' that they are gay, transgendered, or transsexual.
Christine Jorgensen, Beth Elliott, Dr. Renée Richards, Sandy Stone, Billy Tipton, Alan Hart, April Ashley, Caroline Cossey ("Tula") , Jahna Steele, and Nancy Jean Burkholder were outed as transsexuals by European or American media or, in the case of Billy Tipton, by his coroner. In many cases, being outed had an adverse effect on their personal lives and their careers.
In some cases, individuals have been outed as transsexual or intersex when, in fact, there is no proof that they were ever members of the opposite sex. Two examples are actress Jamie Lee Curtis, beauty contestant winner Elodie Gossuin (Miss France 2001).
The rumors that Curtis was intersexed seems to be based on the facts that her name, Jamie Lee, is androgynous, and that she has opted to adopt rather than to bear children. However, there is no proof that she was born male or intersexed.
Days after winning the Miss France crown, Gossuin became the victim of a rumor posted on January 8, 2001 on a French language website that wrote that the 20-year-old Gossuin was in fact a 27-year-old male transvestite named Nicolas Levanneur. Although the story provided no proof, it evolved to state that she might be a post-operative transsexual. While she at first dismissed it as nonsense, the news article made its way to other websites around the world and Gossuin became the butt of numerous jokes, cartoons, and wildly enhanced fabrications to the original story.