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Opinion Piece

The politics of coming out

Originally published in FUSE, July 2010

On the 20th of May, AFL player Jason Akermanis caused a storm after writing an article arguing that queer AFL players should not come out. Apparently, the league isn’t ready for it.

A few days later Seven News publicly outed the NSW transport minister David Campbell by showing film of him exiting a gay sex club.

Within this week, an issue that all queer people have to grapple with, coming out, entered the political sphere in an extremely public way. In doing so, these stories opened up the questions; why is it still so hard for many people to come out and is it ever okay to publicly out someone without their permission?

Coming Out

Coming out has always been an integral part of queer identity. It is something all queer people have to deal with, whether it is a decision to come out, or one not to come out. Unlike our straight counterparts, if queer person wants to be open about their sexuality they have to go through the process of coming out. In doing so, coming out is something that can cause a lot of pain, a lot of joy and a lot of growth as a human being.

I will always remember when I came out to my family and friends. It was an important and empowering time for me. Coming out made me feel accepted and loved by the people around me, in turn making me feel extremely comfortable with who I was. Telling my friends and family lifted a weight off my shoulders, not because I believed that it would ever be a problem, but because I felt like I could finally be myself.

Unfortunately however, not everyone has such a positive experience. At the same time I came out, many people I knew faced serious problems because they came out. I know of a number of people, whose family and friends had real problems with their sexuality, causing major grief in their lives. For these people coming out was a terrible experience and for many others it is considered something that is simply impossible to do.

Jason Akermanis’ Article

The week of ‘coming out’ discussion began when AFL player Jason Akermanis argued in a newspaper column that any gay AFL player should refrain from refrain from revealing their sexual identity. Akermanis argued that the AFL was simply not ready for a gay player and that any player who did come out would find life very difficult. He recounted a story of an out player he knew during his early years and the awkwardness that his sexuality apparently caused with the team. This player, whilst apparently a well respected man, causes problems in the club as uncomfortableness from other players around his sexuality was prominent.

Akermanis argued that this sort of culture had not changed in the AFL and that the public outing of a player would still make players uncomfortable, and could “break the fabric of the club”.

Akermanis’ comments revealed a lot about much of the underlying homophobia that still exists within our society. Whilst his comments weren’t overtly homophobic (i.e. he didn’t argue that all gay players were bad people), they were underlined by deeply held homophobic beliefs about what okay for people to think about queer people. Akermanis’ underlying assumption was that it was okay for AFL players (or other people) to feel uncomfortable around queer people as there are certain things about queer people that inherently make other people uncomfortable. It would therefore be the queer players fault if the ‘fabric of the club’ was broken, because he did something that made other players uncomfortable.

Therefore, whilst I can agree with Akermanis that there is a lot of underlying homophobia in the AFL, which would make it difficult for any AFL player to come out, his article was homophobic because it blamed queer people for this. Instead of arguing that it was the straight players who were in the wrong, Akermanis blamed gay men for making situations uncomfortable. By criticising anyone who wanted to come out, Akermanis was simply accepting the homophobia inside the league rather than challenging it.

Seven News and David Campbell

A few days after Akermanis’ column, the NSW transport minister, David Campbell resigned suddenly after it was revealed that Seven News had footage of him leaving a gay sex club, which they planned to show on their nightly news.

The breaking of the story brought outrage across the country as people argued that Seven News’ actions crossed an ethical line. Seven News argued that the story was legitimate, using a Christmas card that Campbell sent to constituents using a photo of his family as the reason. They argued that by using his family in his card he was campaigning on ‘family values’; something that his visit to the club apparently contradicted. This quite clearly ignores the fact that one is able to be a family person, whilst still visiting sex venues. Just because Campbell was visiting a sex club, that doesn’t mean he didn’t love his family. The fact that he has been with his wife for almost 30 years should be proof of that.

The Question of Coming Out

Within this week, the underlying homophobia that still exists within our society was brought to the front of the political sphere as people’s sexuality was put on to show for everyone to watch. In doing so these issues opened up the key question of why coming out is still such an important and difficult thing for many queer people.

Quite clearly for many people, coming out is still very difficult. Prejudice and discrimination still exist within our society and many still suffer when they come out. Given this, one can easily understand why someone may decide not to come out. For many it is a question of life or (metaphorical) death, with coming out still being something that is just too hard.

That doesn’t, however make it okay to blame queer people for that fact. Discrimination against queer people is never the fault of queer people and it should never be told that way. The only people to blame for discrimination, is those who are doing the discrimination, not those who are suffering because of it.

One the other side though, many people can actually cause damage through not coming out. People who a well known as being queer, but refuse to publicly acknowledge it, actually hurt other queer people. These refuse to publicly challenge homophobia in our society when they have an opportunity to do so, leaving many to suffer in silence. In these cases it can be argued that publicly outing people is okay as it shows that queerness in the public sphere can be considered acceptable.

As such an important part of many people’s identity, coming out is a key issue for the queer community. However, we cannot just assume that it is only a personal manner. Coming out is inherently political and whilst what Jason Akermanis and Seven News did was terrible, it at least brought this manner out into the public where it should be.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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