Two unconnected events recently brought gay men into the public consciousness and prompted much reflection on the value of being open about our sexuality. First, in his Herald Sun column, AFL footballer Jason Akermanis advised any gay footballers thinking of coming out to think again. On the same day, Channel Seven showed secretly-filmed footage of then New South Wales Transport Minister David Campbell leaving a Sydney gay sex venue.
Both Akermanis and Channel Seven have been widely condemned, but the question asked by many during the ensuing debate hasn't really been addressed: why do gay men need to come out? Why do we need to tell everyone about our sex lives?
The first thing that needs to be said is that telling someone I'm gay is not sharing details about my sex life. For me, it typically comes up in conversations about domestic arrangements, and just as a colleague referring to his wife reveals nothing about their sex life, when I mention my partner using the pronoun “he”, there's no intimate information attached. The complaint that when revealing their sexuality gay people are providing too much unwanted sexual information is simply unfounded. There's no information about sex - just honesty about sexual orientation.
Obviously most heterosexuals aren’t ashamed of their sexuality, and neither am I. The big difference is that new acquaintances tend to make correct assumptions about straight people's sexuality, where they don’t about mine. Letting people continue in a false assumption is pretty poor form, and often amounts to lying. It can also lead to the apprehension that I have something to hide, which of course I don't. So for me personally, being open about my sexuality is good manners - it respects others by keeping them informed, and it discourages embarrassing false assumptions.
For the individuals concerned, coming out is personally liberating. Daniel Kowalski recently recounted how it’s been a positive experience for him, and Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas asserts that it has been beneficial both personally and professionally. It's also very empowering. You hear the most hateful things when you’re in the closet, but you’re helpless to engage them. Coming out gives you the power to confront those homophobes who are honest, and to laugh at those who are not.
Being out brings benefits for other gay people and their families, and for society as a whole. In contrast to other victims of discrimination, those in the closet experience prejudice alone, with little or no support. For young gay people, coming to terms with their sexuality is a lonely experience, and the knowledge that others have been able to establish well-adjusted lives makes it less isolated, less painful. To a young person realising that he or she is gay, every out homosexual is walking, talking evidence that a fruitful, meaningful life lies ahead of them.
My nieces and nephews have grown up knowing that their gay uncle lives in a domestic relationship outwardly identical to that of all the other childless couples in our extended family. They are tolerant well-adjusted young people, and they haven't grown up burdened by assumptions about their adult sexuality. They in turn won’t be assuming that their children will grow up straight, as my parents’ generation did.
Importantly, coming out is a personal choice, and none of the benefits of being out override the individual’s right to decide how open they will be about their sexuality. It’s for the individual concerned to determine that coming out is in their best interests, not the press, political opponents or even loose-lipped traffic reporters. Sometimes there are compelling reasons for individuals to remain closeted, such as fear for personal safety, or holding a job that legally discriminates against homosexuals. These individuals' claims to privacy and safety trump the advantages of being open about sexuality.
Politically, laws and customs will only accommodate minorities that are visible. Homosexuals are an otherwise invisible minority, and until recently, laws have been made and customs have been established for the majority, essentially assuming that we don’t exist. Equality for sexual minorities is slowly being achieved, precisely because we're out. Whether it be in the workplace, schools, churches or on the sporting field, the only way for us to achieve complete equality is for everyone to know we are here. Even though in his ham-fisted way Jason Akermanis thought he was speaking in the best interests of gay footballers by telling them to stay in the closet, this simply prevents them from being treated equally.
To some extent those homosexuals who hide their sexuality are complicit in anti-gay discrimination. The title of this piece is from a blog article about the recent case of California state Senator Roy Ashburn: outed after an arrest for drink driving on the way home from a gay bar, Ashburn has gone from being a supporter of anti-gay initiatives, to a cautious backer of equal rights for his gay fellow-citizens. Few travel the distance that Ashburn is covering, but many of us have left regrettable things behind in the closet.
In the wake of Jason Akermanis’ comments, and David Campbell’s outing, the question of why homosexuals need to be open has landed firmly in the public consciousness. The most incisive answer I've seen was in a short letter to the Sydney Morning Herald:
Jason Akermanis tells gay men to live a lie. David Campbell shows us how you're treated when you do. ("Sex scandal rocks Labor", May 21). Adrian Hempel, Camperdown
So why come out? Because living an honest and open life is personally liberating; infinitely better than living a lie. Because coming out has the potential to make life a little better for others. Because being open about our sexuality makes us safer, and helps us to attain equality. Because it promotes a tolerant and inclusive society.
And because once we're out, there's no denying our existence.