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Do We Have An ‘Outing’ Problem?

Guessing a person's sexuality has become a lot of people's business. If you're someone who doesn't perform masculinity or femininity in the "right" way, there are others out there who take great pleasure in letting you know about it.

Illustration by Ben Thomson.

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

Guessing a person's sexuality, for some reason, is a lot of people's business. If you're someone who doesn't perform masculinity or femininity in the "right" way, you'll know there are others out there who take great pleasure in letting you know about it.

But it's not just the bigots calling out slurs from passing cars or the back rows of classrooms—progressives are just as involved. It can be well-intentioned (like when we proactively support a friend we suspect is queer but hasn't said so themselves) or otherwise. One example is when homosexuality is used to ridicule those putting out anti-gay agendas. In the past week, media outlets and left-leaning readers lapped up the poetic irony that Nick Jensen—the Canberra man who said he'd divorce his wife if gay marriage passed in Australia—could've been gay.


But the question is, are we still tolerant when we shame others for being in the closet, or casually define another's sexuality for them?

For Dion Kagan, lecturer in gender and sexuality studies at the University of Melbourne, this behavior links into the maintenance of normativity.

"We're pretty tied to the 'born this way' idea of sexuality which totally reinforces a fixed, stable model of sexuality," he said.

In many respects, the greater visibility of queerness in the mainstream has led to greater normalization, one that privileges straight and gay binaries. For people who don't fit into either, this implies there's little choice in whom we decide to fuck.

This is why being supportive of people still unsure about their sexuality is a problem that's caught in a myriad of good intentions. For some people, assistance is welcomed when you're figuring out who you are. On the other hand, our need to demonstrate our empathy to our ambiguous peers could be getting our ethics in a twist. Is it our right to tell them who we think they're into when they're not ready yet?

This is something that could be pegged to the experience of Australian Olympian, Ian Thorpe. Despite fame, fortune, and even national worth, questions over his sexuality plagued his career. For years straight and gay allies either rebuffed his queerness, or jumped to a seemingly harmless, "we already know, come out already!?" invitation. While for some, coming out is an easy process; the process can often be a tortured, long one. In one sense the impatience for someone's 'coming out' could do as much damage as repressing it.


By the time Thorpe came out in mid-2014, it seemed the public taboo had been gone for a long time. Australian Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham was openly gay prior to the 2008 games, and English Olympic diver Tom Daley came out via video in late 2013. Meanwhile shows like Glee and Modern Family brought queerness into the domain of family television. In a world where a former Jonas brother performed at this year's Sydney Mardis Gras, it naturally begs the question: What was the hold up?

"Poor old Ian Thorpe's disavowal of his queerness just became all the more embarrassing as more and more mainstream figures confessed their sexuality. But who knows? He might've been vaguely asexual but was too busy being an Olympic swimmer," Dion said.

After centuries of queer discrimination, it's difficult to acknowledge that you're in fact the "other." It's this presumption that is a subtle form of discrimination. While most people usually aren't fully conscious of this, the idea of tapping your feet, rolling your eyes, and saying, "come out already" may just push others back in the closet. Coming out is a deeply personal process, and doing so because of someone else isn't really the best reason to do it.

"Outing is a controversial practice, and it's largely defunct now. The people 'outing'—or speculating about the sexuality of—certain public figures have other agendas, mostly around filing journalistic copy space," Dion said.


But in the grand scheme of things, Australia is a funny place to explore sexuality. While we valorize the kind of campiness that's propelled Priscilla and Kylie abroad, we've also got states where you can get off murder thanks to 'gay panic.'

Related: Gay Conversion Therapy

And for a lot of straight men who don't subscribe to Australian masculinity, it's no surprise they've been called a 'fag' a fair few times.

Sydney-based writer and teacher Jay* is one of these men. Despite being "resigned to the fact that he's straight," he's still left wondering why people think he's "obviously gay." He's someone who doesn't fit the archetype of the Australian bloke; this means he's constantly having to answer why he ticks certain queer boxes.

"It was always down to the way that I dressed, my mannerisms, and the way I talked. When I made new friends, some had been surprised that I was straight, or had already gone to 'outing' me. They'd casually drop, 'oh you're gay aren't you?' expecting I'd confirm their presumptions," he said.

But confirm he didn't. For Jay, it underlined to him the spheres of privilege that run throughout Western society.

"We've got centuries of homophobic conditioning to pick apart, and it's multi-layered. You don't need to be slinging hate speech at the supermarket, because if you're a straight white person you get to define what queer looks like from film and television," he said.


Jay went on to explain that he eventually found himself, though he's always wondered if things could have been different. For him, and a slew of people who readily fall between the boxes which society has made for them, they live in world where their sexuality's ambiguity is open to analysis—regardless of their consent.

"I guess the end-game for me with this—as a straight man who no longer questions my sexuality after doing so for a long time—was asking the question: Have I arrived at this because of homophobic conditioning?" he said.

But the simplest reason we should keep our suspicions to ourselves is this: sexuality is a massive deal. As Dion puts it, "Telling people that 'your sexuality doesn't matter' is a liberal platitude. Being queer isn't inconsequential—it's fundamental to how we organize and understand social and intimate relations."

*Jay's named has been changed for privacy reasons.

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