Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities.
“Outing” is the deliberate or accidental disclosure of an LGBTQIA person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their knowledge or consent.
Gender and sexuality are intensely personal and, for some people, private feelings. People choose to come out on a timeline that is theirs alone. Some people choose to never come out, or to only share this part of their life with a select few. By sharing this private information, you are doing harm that can have lasting effects. Outing can be malicious or accidental, but no matter how it happens, it takes away a person’s autonomy to tell the world how they identify. It robs them of privacy, and can make things exceedingly difficult for their social, familial, religious, romantic, and work life.
Outing someone looks many different ways. It could be as casual as mentioning that your best friend has a girlfriend over dinner with your family, or as public as leaking photographs of a politician kissing his secret boyfriend. Other examples could be gossiping in the teacher’s lounge about a student who told you about a crush, or posting an Instagram photo of your friend presenting as a woman for the first time.
Simply put, a person’s gender identity or sexuality is not your news to tell. The best way to avoid accidentally outing someone is to ask this person directly who they are out to and how you can best support them.
If someone is out to you, they are out to everyone.
People often come out in stages, or in certain areas of their life. Maybe all their friends know, but they haven’t told their parents yet. It’s possible that everyone knows except the grandparents who are paying for college. Many (most, I’d wager) teachers choose not to be out to their students. I don’t talk about my sexuality in the classroom, though I’m out and proud in every other part of my life.
Don’t assume that just because everyone in your hiking club knows your friend’s trans identity that it’s safe to post on Facebook about it. Always check with your friend before discussing or posting anything that might out them. In general, this is just good social media etiquette—don’t post pictures of anyone without their explicit consent.
Being LGBTQIA is no big deal these days, so it doesn’t matter if you out someone.
It’s true; being out and proud is much easier than it was even just ten years ago. We are making strides in media representation, queer and trans politicians are being elected, marriage equality is a federal right. Being LGBTQIA is a walk in the park—right? Not necessarily.
According to the 2017 Workplace Equality Fact Sheet, in 28 states, you can get fired just for being lesbian, bisexual, or gay. In 30 states, you can be fired for being transgender. The threat of violence for being queer or trans (or even the assumption of such) is very real. Some people are dependent upon family members who would cut all ties if they discovered their kid was gay. Many religious communities do not affirm LGBTQIA identities. For some people, being in the closet is a matter of life or death. Even if it's safe to come out, people might not consider their sexuality appropriate or relevant to the situation. Not everyone wants to explain pansexual polyamory to their 90-year-old great aunt.
Just because you may find it easy to be openly queer or trans in your life does not mean it is the same for everyone. Respect their wishes and maintain their privacy.
It’s okay to out someone if it’s for the “greater good.”
Yes, some people in power are closeted queer folks. Yes, some of them are homophobic and pass legislation that hurts our community. Yes, that is incredibly painful. No, it’s not okay to out them “for the greater good.” Some LGBTQIA activists may disagree with me on this point, but I believe that we need to play by the same rules for everyone.
Outing people as a political act can backfire on our community. It lessens our credibility when we stoop to publishing private photographs or trick someone into going on a date just to write about it on a gossip site. If we are to win the fight against bigotry, we need to fight fair.
Celebrities and politicians have no right to privacy.
Fame is an interesting thing. You may feel like you “know” your favorite actress after binging their series. You may think that since they live their life in the limelight they have given up their right to privacy. Nope. They are dealing with feelings and relationships and sexuality just like the rest of us. If you see a famous actress nestled up to another woman at a restaurant and feel the need to squeal about it all over the internet, stop and think how you would feel if your private moments were suddenly public consumption.
It’s also worth noting here that just because you see a famous person (or non-famous for that matter) hugging/getting out of a car with/walking next to a person of the perceived same gender, it does not automatically mean they are gay. This person could be a cousin, a step daughter, a French friend who greets everyone with kisses. Making an assumption could start a false rumor.
You are doing someone a favor by pushing them out of the closet.
I hear you saying, “But, my friend really won’t be hurt by coming out and his family is super cool and his boss is gay and he would look so cute on my Pride float! He should really be out already!” I GET it. I have some friends who are closeted for reasons I’ll never fully understand. I wish they could feel free enough to be out. But they aren’t. And it’s not my business. This isn’t your business either. Go hop on your Pride float and carry your friend in your heart.
Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!
Teresa Kane is a teacher and writer living in Portland, OR. Her writing often focuses on the intersections of her queer and Muslim identities. She has degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and George Mason University and studied American Sign Language at Gallaudet University. She is passionate about art, feminism, interfaith dialogue, and correct grammar usage.