Gays have long gossiped about which public figures of past and present might be secret homosexuals. Publications from the scholarly to the semi-scabrous have speculated about the likes of Alexander the Great, Shakespeare, Willa Cather and James Dean, with hundreds of others cited along the way. This name dropping is defended as a way of giving the gay community role models and a sense of continuity. When the rumors involve living people, however, discussion about who is "in the closet" has generally been held to a discreet murmur -- partly in deference to libel laws but mostly in defense of privacy. That consensus is fast breaking down with the spread of a phenomenon known as "outing," the intentional exposure of secret gays by other gays.
Frustrated at the slow pace of gay civil rights legislation and what they consider governmental indifference to the AIDS epidemic, growing numbers of gay activists now claim a moral right to "rip people out of the closet" -- either to force them to help the movement or to nullify them as opponents. The main targets are elected officials and religious leaders who may enjoy a gay life in private but who endorse antigay measures to safeguard their careers. Radical gays go further, pointing the finger at entertainment and media figures and even ordinary citizens.
Among conspicuous victims within the past year have been an East Coast big- city mayor, a Midwestern Governor and a West Coast U.S. Senator, none of them incontrovertibly known to be gay. In each case, the official was identified as a homosexual via leaflets or noisy demonstrations. The rationale for exposing the politicians' alleged secret lives was that they were guilty of malicious hypocrisy on matters of life and death. One outing victim had endorsed legislation allowing hospitals to test patients for AIDS without their consent. Another backed a ban on funding to school programs that describe homosexuality as normal. A third supposedly failed to provide adequate public AIDS services. Yet in an odd twist that underscores the uneasy position of gays in society, the demonstrators were attacking enemies by embracing each as one of their own.
Similar action against leaders of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy has been threatened, although not yet taken, by prominent members of a gay Catholic group. Whereas the political leaders have been under attack for specific personal acts, the clergy is a potential target because of the church's general, institutional opposition to gay sex.