The Gay Liberation pamphlet
With Downcast Gays (1974)

by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter

Part 3 of 8 Parts


The phrase "coming out", as used by gay people, has three meanings: to acknowledge one's homosexuality to oneself; to reveal oneself to homosexuals to other gay people; and lastly, to declare one's homosexuality to everyone and anyone.

Homosexuals are unlike any other oppressed group in that their identity is almost always invisible to others. They can even conceal their identity from themselves, for such is the disgust attached to the word 'homosexual' that many people who have need of homosexual experience never acknowledge it. and sometimes even those who quite frequently seek out such experience manage to convince themselves that they are not really "one of them". Behind so much that has been expressed in the gay movement lies the awareness that there exist these people who are so oppressed that they have not come out in the first sense of 'admitting' their gay feelings even to themselves. Many are marrried with their children and throughout their lives have been totally denied any sexual pleasure. They raise no protest at their deprivation, for they cannot admit that it exists, and they can never be reached by openly gay people, for it is openness they fear. There are happy exceptions, for the establishment of gay counselling organisations such as Icebreakers or Friend has enabled many such people to break a lifetime's silence --- men of middle age who would say that they never knowingly talked to a homosexual but that they always think of other men while fucking their wives; women who realise after their children are grown up that they have always wanted to love another woman. There are a number of organisations trying to end the isolation of such people, but self-oppression so profound is unlikely to be ended by a few telephone conversations or by the arguments of this booklet. This essay is only about those who identify themselves as gay among gay people, but do not come out to the outside world.

Under plain cover

If asked, closet gays often say that, although they "don't shout about it on every street corner", their friends know and their parents "must have realised by now", but "they've never asked me about it, so I haven't brought the subject up". Pressed further, they add that they "don't see the point of telling people at work," as "what I do in bed is my own business, and anyway I might lose my job". Some gay people go to considerable lengths to fake up a heterosexual image, devising tales of suitably remote fiancees, passing appreciative or disaparaging comments on women (or men), and laughing heartily at the usual stream of jokes about homosexuals.

Actually these strategems are unnecessary, because unless there is some reason to believe otherwise, it is always taken for granted that people are heterosexual. Deception need not be a positive act; one can deceive by default. At work, camp jokes will not demonstrate that one is gay; they will be accepted jus as jokes. and one kiss at the Christmas party will be sufficient to wipe out a whole year's subtle hints and innuendoes.

The fear of putting a job at risk is often deliberately exaggerated by those who need a convincing excuse for secrecy. If they really wanted to come out and were prevented only by the threat of economic deprivation, they would be bitterly angry about discrimination rather than, as is usual, passively accepting it as inevitable. Most homosexuals would suffer little loss in purely material terms by coming out. It is the loss of a protective shell which is the real barrier.

Gays expose the fact that they are merely looking for excuses for remaining in the closet when they plead their purely voluntary activities as reasons for secrecy. apparently we are expected to see their hobbies as some inescapable, unchangeable aspect of their lives. When they say that if they came out they could not continue with their Church or youth work, one can only question the value of commitments which involve supporting organisations apparently so homophobic. It would be truer to say that their self-hatred lies so deep that they leap at any chance to hide their real nature.

Privileged gays

Many ordinary gays respond to their oppression by gravitating to jobs where they can be fairly open with the people they work with. Women may become ambulance drivers or join the Forces; men tend to work as nurses, telephone operators, in travel agencies or department stores. The acceptance of a restricted range of employment my be self-oppressive, but how straightforward and honest it is compared with the web of deception woven by those work gives them a position of social prestige.

By a curious coincidence one of the writers of this essay has found himself on two separate occasions attended by a homsoexual doctor. In neither case was he aware of this until told by a third person. In each case, by making no secret of his own homosexuality he gave every opportunity for his doctor to be frank and open, but both doctors continued to behave as though homsexuality were an abnormality they had only otherwise encountered in medical textbooks. It was an amusing but saddening experience to see a homosexual attempt the role of the detached heterosexual adviser, asserting the authority he felt would be his due were he a 'normal' man talking down to a 'queer'. Leaving aside the wretched negative attitudes these doctors must have had to their own homosexuality, we can imagine the innumerable opportunities to help confused and anxious gay people that were allowed to slip by. Doctors have a prestigious position in our society, and it would be helpful to any young gay to find that his doctor readily and openly shared his homosexuality.

The determined secrecy of privileged homosexuals induces situations of pure farce. Today, while liberal Christians solemnly discuss the possible ordination of homosexuals, and education officers consider whether they might employ gay people as schoolteachers, many High Church priests run their churches and theological colleges as virtual gay clubs,* and the State school system would collapse with the loss of its gay teachers.

*With jaw-dropping innocence, the Church Times once carried in its 'For Young Readers' column an article about the cats at the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, with their quaint names of Faggot and Dyke.

Self-oppression or self-interest?

Passing as heterosexual is by no means a private matter, for one self-oppressive deceit generates a thousand others. Friends and lovers are all included by being told what they may say on the telephone and how to behave in the street. The selfishness of those with privileged positions to defend seeps through the whole gay community, and the demoralising message is absorbed by the great number of ordinary gays who have no privileges whatever to protect.

Homosexuals who have access to the media and refuse to come out allow those who condemn or pity us to dominate the stage. When the reactionary Cyril Osborne was attempting to defeat the 1967 homosexual law reform bill, he rested much argument on the belief that the House of Commons had no homosexual members. Gay M.P.'s who remained silent allowed all his stupid assertions to stand.

It is not that people of status should come out in order to make a propaganda point about how important or talented gay people are. It is simply that gays in the public view are ideally placed to give society a truthful view of its homosexual component.

Privileged closet gays are traitors to the gay cause, but as yet they are never referred to as such. We so lack any sense of common identity that the notion of treachery is scarcely formed. It is almost as if our bitter oppression were merely an elaborate game of pretence, the winner being those who perpetrate the cleverest frauds.

Borrowed plumes

Gay people who pose as heterosexuals are not just deceiving others but, if they take pride in affection or esteem which is conditional on their wearing a mask of heterosexuality, also deceive themselves. Only self-oppression could allow us to value the friendship of those who, if the cards were on the table, would be revealed as our enemies. The reply to all this is likely to be "Oh, but my sex life is so unimportant; why make an issue of it?" If it's that unimportant, why make a secret of it! "Better to be hated for what one is," said Andre Gide, "than loved for what one is not."

If, furthermore, our homosexuality is never discussed with those heterosexual friends who know us to be gay, more harm is done than if we deceive them into accepting us as heterosexuals. To share the knowledge of one's homosexuality with non-gay people but never to speak of it is to tacitly agree that, like bad breath, homosexuality is something embarrassing, best left unmentioned. Why should we discuss heterosexuals' relationships with non-gay friends while allowing our own loves and fantasies to be passed over as unsuitable for general conversation?

Against the grain

To state explicitly that one is homosexual goes against a lifetime's conditioning. The shame we have been taught to feel is deep and real. The words "I am homosexual" stick in the throat. But coming out is essential. While the majority of gay people continue to hide their 'shameful' secret, the achievements of the gay movement are bound to remain insubstantial. Lobbying the political, medical or educational world will ultimately serve to reinforce their view of homosexuality as something remote from everyday reality, and gays as being other people somewhere else, if homosexuals within those worlds so not play their part. Nor would it be possible to give a distorted picture of gays if people could simply see us is all our variety. While most gays hide their identity, the greater will be the problems of those who have come out, were prised out, or by virtue of their evident homosexual traits were always out. How often do discreet homosexuals stand by while their more obvious brothers and sisters are made the butt of heterosexual mockery.

All that we have said reflects the idea of the formation of a sense of community. Coming out is even more meaningful now trhat the existence of the gay movement allows us to think in terms of coming out together. Ripples of self-disclosure reinforce each other within a wave of social change. A community can only exist when we identify with each other's needs. So often identification is purely negative; gays cannot ally with those who reflect what they hate in themselves; fearing to come out they are unwilling to unite with those who have the power to expose them. Once one does regard other people as part of a genuine community demanding support, coming out becomes a meaningful way of giving that support.

By coming out with people they already know, gay people can demonstrate that homosexuals are real people whose lives cannot be tramnpled on. "We are the people you warned us against" captures the effect. If they can discuss their feelings and lovers when heterosexuals discuss theirs, this have far more effect than any amount of propaganda about the 'validity' of homosexual relationships. By coming out indiscriminately (by wearing a badge, for instance), gays oblige everyone to see that there are people who feel no shame in being known as homosexual. 'Gay Pride' is the concept formed in opposition to the shame that all gay people are conditioned to feel, a shame that society demands as the condition for its limited tolerance; to deny this shame is to demand unconditional acceptance. It is pointless to limit coming out to "those who will understand"; only by public, indiscriminate, indiscreet self-disclosure can this shame be denied.

A conspiracy of silence

Even within the gay movement change is slow and reluctant. The many lecturers and teachers within it are invariably conceded a need for secrecy, and no-one questions the value of an educational career dependent on dishonesty. It is probably widely assumed thay dismissal will follow swiftly and surely upon the self-disclosure of any schoolteacher, and certainly teachers have been dismissed or lost chances of promotion after having been 'discovered'. But we know of a number of teachers whose careers so far remain unprejudiced by the fact that they have disclose their homosexuality, and one --- Robert Sterry, at the Somerset School, Tottenham --- was particularly open in that he explained to his class how he met other homosexuals, and invited his own friends to attend the school play in drag. The heavens did not fall!

It might be imagined that good news such as this would pass through the gay community with the speed of fire; we can only explain its actual sluggish progress by the supposition that such examples of honesty cast too strong a light upon the grubby lies and deceits of those who might be instrumental in passing on the news. To speak of openness is to deny the need for secrecy.

The kind of news that does spread rapidly is that such-and-such a celebrity --- bishop/singer/M.P./tennis star --- is homosexual. That this knowledge should be kept safely within the confines of the gay world points to the fact that such secrecy is not only the choice of the individual, but also that of the gay world. No homosexual can be secret without being celibate; the fact that the real nature of such people is not known to the population at large is because gay people keep each other's 'guilty' secrets lest in telling them they reveal their own. Helping to shore up each others' deceits is almost the only recognition most homosexuals give to the idea of a gay community. But ironically this false support prevents the community from operating as such and enjoying any sense of genuine mutual support. So often any victimisation suffered by those who come out in difficult circumstances is simply dismissed by other gays as being the inevitable reward for 'exhibitionism'. "What can they expect," they say, "if they insist on flaunting themselves?"

Introduction | Preface and Links | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

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Andrew Hodges

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