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Is “Outing” Homosexuals Wrong?. Is “Outing” Homosexuals Wrong?. I. I. Background. 1994: Congressman Steven Gunderson is outed on the floor of the House by Congressman Robert Dornan.

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is outing homosexuals wrong

Is “Outing” Homosexuals Wrong?

Is “Outing” Homosexuals Wrong?





  • 1994: Congressman Steven Gunderson is outed on the floor of the House by Congressman Robert Dornan.
  • 1996: Arizona Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe is outed on the Internet in response to his voting for the Defense of Marriage Act.

Background (cont’d)

  • OUT magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America” issue (May 2007) includes in its list celebrities who are not openly gay, including Jodie Foster (#43) and Anderson Cooper (#2).

Background (cont’d)

  • Traditional arguments about the ethics of “outing” tend to appeal to utilitarian concerns: whether the benefits (with regard to happiness, pleasure, etc.) of outing outweigh its costs.
  • Rather than appealing to utilitarian concerns, Mohr focuses instead on the issue of dignity, a heady philosophical concept with varying applications:
  • Immanuel Kant (whose philosophical view is meant to compete with that of utilitarianism) considers dignity central to ethical decisions, and defines human dignity in terms of human autonomy and capacity for rational decision-making.
  • For Kant, dignity is not the sort of thing that can be outweighed by utilitarian concerns.

Background (cont’d)

  • For Kant, it does not matter that lying to someone might produce good consequences (increased happiness, for instance). Rather, lying to someone does not respect that person’s rationality, and thus that person’s inherent dignity.
  • On Kant’s view, you do someone a moral harm by lying to them, regardless of any good consequences measured in utilitarian terms.
  • Mohr’s use of “dignity” appears less technical and more in line with everyday usage than Kant’s, connecting “dignity” to being “dignified”—to simple respect for a person’s being.

Richard D. Mohr: “The Case for Outing”

Mohr’s Central Argument

P1 To refrain from outing a closeted gay person is to reinforce the convention of the closet.

P2 To reinforce the convention of the closet is to degrade homosexuality as subhuman.

P3 It is morally wrong to degrade homosexuality as subhuman.

C It is therefore wrong to refrain from outing a closeted gay person.


Who is Mohr’s Audience?

  • We learned from Levin’s paper, “Why Homosexuality is Abnormal” that the audience for your argument can be as important as the argument itself.
  • First, Mohr’s argument is not aimed at the same audience as Levin’s, an audience consisting of those who find the notion of homosexuality intuitively repulsive.
  • Mohr’s argument seems not even aimed at a general audience that is tolerable to homosexuality.
  • Rather, Mohr’s argument seems specifically aimed at gay men and women who are already “out”.
  • As such, Mohr takes it as a given assumption that the issue of the morality of homosexuality is off the table.

Outing and the Media

  • In the cases of Congressmen Kolbe and Gunderson, the outings seem to have been vindictively motivated—aimed at punishing and incapacitating the closeted gay individuals—to varying effects.
  • These cases of outing “legitimates the use of anti-gay forces as a political tool and, in that very use, strengthens them.” (201)
  • In many cases, this is news (though such outings (and those of OUT magazine) seem to ride the line of making and reporting news).
  • Where the press used to uphold a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on the sexual orientation of public figures, this policy seems to have been largely abandoned. Such a policy represents “a phony belief that to discuss unasked someone’s sexual orientation (as opposed to his or her sexual acts) is to violate that person’s privacy. It is time to carry over these trends into their daily lives as well.” (202)

“The Secret”

  • There is an unspoken rule that each gay person is bound to keep every other gay person’s secret a secret.
  • But “the closet” is the site where “anti-gay loathing and gay self-loathing mutually reinforce each other.” (202)
  • The closet is a mutually-shared “dirty little secret” that degrades all gay people.
  • People who are out of the closet demean themselves when they maintain other people’s closets.
  • “[L]iving by the convention of the closet—whether one is closeted oneself or not—is a commitment to viewing gayness as disgusting, horrible, unspeakably gross, in short, as abjection.” (202)
  • Compare this with the case of flatulence in a crowded elevator: “no one tells; no one asks; everyone acts as though nothing is amiss, and so this behavior reinforces the abject thing’s status as loathsome.”

The Real Problem

  • The real problem with the closet as a social institution is not that it promotes hypocrisy or that it causes unhappiness.
  • The real problem with the closet is that “it treats gays as less than human, less than animal, less even than vegetable—it treats gays as reeking scum, the breath of death.” (202)
  • The gay person (whether out or not) who views the closet as an acceptable institution degrades himself as gay as well as others by failing to respect the dignity of himself and others.
  • “In consequence, the openly gay person, in order to live morally, must not play along with the convention of the closet, lest he degrade himself. He must allow gayness to come up in conversation when it is relevant.” (202)

James S. Stramel: “Outing, Ethics, and Politics”

Outing and Social Stigmas

  • Regardless of motivations, many acts of outing seem petty and vindictive.
  • Because homosexuality carries social stigmas, acts of outing seem like acts of punishment.
  • “Rather than serving to dismantle antigay attitudes, outing utilizes and reinforces the notion that homosexuality is shameful.” (203)
  • Outing wrongly diminishes the dignity of the outee.

Outing and Dignity

  • Outing steals from the outee a major opportunity to take control and assume responsibility for his identity, integrity, and dignity—“to come out on his own principles.”
  • While there may be situations where failure to identify a person as gay would involve the loss of one’s own dignity, to fail to do so does not, as Mohr claims, indicate one regards homosexuality as shameful.
  • Dignity has many sources: a gay person can live a highly dignified life without engaging in outing.
  • “One’s dignity as a given type of person does not require outing every person one knows to share the relevant characteristic.” (203)

Outing and Dignity (cont’d)

  • Compare the case of outing a fellow homosexual with outing a fellow rape victim: “Through no fault of their own rape victims are saddled with a status that is not inherently disrespectful, but that often prompts disrespectful treatment. […] If Anne knows that Brenda was also raped but remains “closeted,” how does Anne’s failure to out her cause a loss of Anne’s dignity?” (204)

Individual and Group Dignity

  • Mohr grants that outing can diminish the outee’s dignity, but claims this will rarely outweigh the dignity of gays as a whole.
  • But Mohr seems to too readily trade the concrete and significant harms and indignities to the individual with hypothetical and incremental increase in the abstract quantity of the dignity of the group.

Outing and the Closet

  • Objecting to outing should not necessarily be taken as a defense of the institution of the closet.
  • As long as homosexuality carries social stigmas, being publicly gay risks personal danger and political volatility.
  • Individuals should by and large be allowed the freedom to decide for themselves whether to join the sociopolitical fray.
  • “What being gay means to a person and whether, when, and to what extent one shall be publicly identified as gay are decisions properly left to the individual.” (204)

David J. Mayo & Martin Gunderson: “Privacy and the Ethics of Outing”

Recap of Mohr’s Argument

  • According to Mohr, the closet is an institution so evil that one cannot morally—as a matter of dignity—participate in its existence or continuation.
  • Mohr contends that the closet is the primary mechanism for gay oppression.
  • Mohr notes that gay individuals generally recognize a code of respecting “The Secret” of sexual orientation, and that doing so makes them willing agents of their own oppression by continuing the view that being gay is something that should be hidden from view.

Problem 1

  • While some closeted gays may stay in the closet with a sense of shame, it doesn’t follow that any gay person who remains closeted thus shares or accepts homophobic values.
  • Rather, an individual may respect the institution of the closet out of a concern for individual welfare or rights.
  • He or she may keep “The Secret” out of love or compassion for a gay individual’s homophobic straight acquaintances: “Imagine a gay man who is comfortable with himself, who loves a frail, elderly parent who is of another age and homophobic.”
  • Outing involves issues of competing values, and it is naïve of Mohr to insist that values other than the dignity of the gay community as a whole should never prevail.

Problem 2

  • Mohr’s discounting of utilitarian concerns (the happiness of oneself or others) is unjustified.
  • “[Mohr] does acknowledge that many gays remain closeted for economic reasons or even to retain custody of their children, but he finds this morally irrelevant.” (205)
  • Thought experiment: The murderer at the door!
  • “We would hope […] that Mohr would lie not only to save another’s life but that he would be willing to do so simply as a matter of compassion, without having to reconstruct it as a matter of dignity.” (206)