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Openly gay

Agoraphobic bishops

An article in the Times reports: “Anti-gay bishops vote to split the evangelical church in two”. The bishops in question say that they would be “failing in our apostolic witness” if they didn’t speak out (it is of course well known that Jesus hated gays: he could barely be prevailed upon to shut up about the matter). The article reports further:

The conservatives are also angry that the Episcopal Church has stood by the election of the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

Which led me to wonder about the term openly gay. One way of thinking about a piece of language is to see what happens if you substitute terms, perhaps opposite terms. Do we ever hear anyone spoken of as being openly heterosexual? We do not. It is true that there is a spatial metaphor of interiority vs exteriority in “coming out of the closet”. Still, openly gay can sound odd, as though expressing astonishment (if not actual offence) that a person could have the cheek not to hide his or her homosexuality, as common decency surely would demand. On the other hand, openly gay could be positively celebratory of having nothing to be ashamed of. Does it depend who is saying it?

  1. 1  WIIIAI  September 25, 2006, 1:38 am 

    There are in fact 1,510 Google hits for “openly heterosexual.” There are also 22,700 hits for “openly bisexual” and 458 for “openly asexual,” for whatever all that is worth.

    “Openly” is a rather broad term. “Avowedly gay” refers to speech, self-identification, but openly gay can refer to clothing or mannerisms, without a specific verbal act.

    Do you have an alternative that is more neutral than openly gay? Let’s see, admittedly gay, no that’s worse, posing as a sodomite, no…

  2. 2  Adam  September 25, 2006, 2:46 am 

    There’s something about the ‘open’ prefix that calls to mind images of people intent on imposing their sexualities on the public, with little or no restraint – like one might be open about their love for Phil Collins and be eager to tell anyone within earshot; to my mind it conjures the image of a full-length mackintosh, opened wide by some flasher idly stalking dark woods.

  3. 3  sw  September 25, 2006, 4:46 am 

    I quite like the alternative mentioned above – “posing as a sodomite”, although perhaps the original, “posing somdomite”, would be even better. The problem is that many people who are not “openly gay”, or gay in any other way, have posed as sodomites, or somdomites. I hardly think that David Bowie would consider it libellous if I were to sum up his career with “David Bowie, Posing Somdomite”. But, though often a posing somdomite myself, IANAL, so I don’t know much about libel laws. I am a desperate Bowie fan, and would be willing to defend the label, “David Bowie, Posing Somdomite” if challenged. If, however, someone were to counter with “Morrissey, Posing Somdomite”, I would be happy to accept that and discuss it further. Indeed, I suspect that many, if not all, in the Unspeak community would agree with me that we have spent far too little time discussing either Bowie or Morrissey on this site.

    I had tended to think of “openly” gay as quite celebratory, for the reasons you state above; and also because it has a hint of defiance in it, that active step in opening what some decent folk consider should be closed. But you are also right to note that however much we may like the term, we should be cautious about it. For example, the only time I would ever describe someone as “openly gay” rather than “gay” is if I was discussing them in a context in which I would expect them to have some sort of pressure not to be gay. One can hardly talk about someone being “openly gay” in a gay disco, whereas one can talk about being “openly gay” in a church hierarchy or the military, right? This doesn’t necessarily make it unspeak – but it does provide an insight into the milieu in which the person is living at that moment, and how that milieu perceives homosexuality.

    Okay, I’m already going to take back what I’ve said. Perhaps one can say “openly gay” in a gay disco – perhaps that would be an environment where people, bishops, etc. can actually be “openly gay”.

    It’s too complicated I think we should just go back to that other term: “flamboyantly”.

  4. 4  minerva  September 25, 2006, 5:40 am 

    I think it would be amusing to describe the guys eating at Hot ‘N Hunky (a burger joint in the Castro in San Francisco) as openly gay.

    But maybe this comes out of a rather sad version of ‘tolerance’ some Christians have advocated where one can be gay–in the sense of having homosexual desire–and that’s just fine as long as you never act on those desires. This is a (none too successful) attempt to avoid hateful prejudice while still remaining within the Christian tradition about sexuality. The problem then IS being openly gay, or living the gay lifestyle, whatever the hell that is. Primarily, I think it means–having a boyfriend or telling anyone that you are gay or happily sleeping with other men rather than doing so with great remorse. What’s even sadder is that this looks kind of good compared the current policy of the Catholic Church with respect to priests–they are now supposed to have only heterosexual desires that must be struggled against. Somehow it matters which desires you are not supposed to act on as a celibate priest. Previously, it was supposed to not matter.

    Anyway, that’s why the openly part might not operate entirely as unspeak here–I don’t think it is an attempt to conceal or it is redundant. For some, the real problem with seeing Gene Robinson as a legitimate bishop is his open gayness rather than his gayness per se.

  5. 5  WIIIAI  September 25, 2006, 6:05 am 

    Which is a difference that (somehow) allows them to think of themselves as open-minded and not bigots at all.

    Once when a friend was visiting the Bay Area on a business trip, I insisted we eat at Hot ‘N Hunky, just so that he would have to put it on his expense form.

  6. 6  SP  September 25, 2006, 7:45 am 

    At least the first page of the google hits for “openly heterosexual” (thanks for doing my research for me) seem to be using the phrase ironically in comparison to “openly gay”. I still think there’s something about “openly gay” that could imply that by default gayness should be concealed. The neutral term would not be some other epithet but merely the word gay. As Adam notes, “openly” can even hint at imposition on an unwilling public (“they’re shoving it down our throats!”) Minerva makes a good point, but I tend to think the gayness per se is the real problem for the bishops, if they ever get to hear about it. (Isn’t it rather like “don’t ask, don’t tell”?)

    Meanwhile, although David Bowie makes a cameo appearance in Unspeak, it is entirely possible that we don’t discuss him here enough.

    Would I say that last time I went to G.A.Y in London, it was full of “openly gay” people? I don’t think I would.

  7. 7  Andrew Brown  September 25, 2006, 10:13 am 

    In the particular context of the American Episcopal church, and of large chunks of the Church of England, “openly gay” has a very precise meaning. You have to remember the tacit knowledge that everyone professionally involved with those churches has, that the priesthood is full of gays. But it is knowledge that remains tacit. And because of the distinction drawn, with some hypocrisy, between practice and inclination, it is possible not to enquire about what goes on in the bedroom. An openly gay person, in that context, is one who tells you that something is going on in the bedroom even when you haven’t asked.

    There is, at least in the Church of England, a second oder hypocrisy here. It is not just that gayness is a real problem for some bishops if they aever get to hear of it. It is a problem for all bishops if they are known to know about it.

  8. 8  DF  September 25, 2006, 12:16 pm 

    Though he may have been “flamboyant” (Pet Shop Boys: “Every day/ All the public must know/ Where you are, what you do/ Cos your life is a show”), Wilde wasn’t in every sense “openly gay”. Understandably, he lied in court and swore he had never performed “indecent” acts with males.

    What had Queensberry’s note said? “Posing as a somdomite” (as it was interpreted in court, making its suggestion easier to justify), “Posing somdomite”, or “Ponce and somdomite”, as Wilde seems to have read it? We don’t really know. The handwriting was execrable. But had Wilde been “open” (he couldn’t have been, or course), it wouldn’t have mattered: he would never have brought his libel action in a disastrous attempt to prove the suggestions untrue.

    SP, last time I was in G.A.Y, I saw people who were, I noticed, gay, but they may or may not have been “openly gay” in all the other aspects of their lives. It’s a dubious phrase, I agree, but it still, sadly, has a pertinence.

  9. 9  SP  September 25, 2006, 12:35 pm 

    The comparison with Wilde’s court denial is interesting if you compare it with another famous denial. If I say “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, am I failing to be openly heterosexual?

  10. 10  DF  September 25, 2006, 1:06 pm 

    Clinton wasn’t saying he had never in his lfe had “sexual relations” with any women at all, so it’s rather a different case from Wilde’s.

    In Clinton’s mind, he has argued, that line wasn’t a lie, but a tactical adoption of the rather odd definition of “sexual relations” that lawyers in his various cases had adopted. We can make of that what we will. But Wilde certainly knew he was lying when he told Carson that he had never loved a young man madly (though the name of that particular young man was never mentioned by the prosecution).

  11. 11  SP  September 25, 2006, 1:10 pm 

    Perhaps he considered that his love was not madness, in which case I see no lie there.

  12. 12  DF  September 25, 2006, 1:15 pm 

    He certainly didn’t think it was mad to love boys, but he knew his love for Bosie was madness, as he admitted in De Profundis.

  13. 13  sw  September 25, 2006, 1:22 pm 

    “Would I say that last time I went to G.A.Y in London, it was full of “openly gay” people? I don’t think I would.”

    But even you might say that G.A.Y. was a place where people “could be openly gay”, without implying that you think that they should be in the closet elsewhere – just that they are or that others think they should be. And, DF is right: that in drawing attention to how people can be openly gay at G.A.Y., you would be recognising that this urban utopia of sweating twinks bouncing shirtless to the new Madonna single is a Saturday night indulgence for many, who return to being less than “openly gay” come Monday morning.

    It is hard to imagine how Oscar Wilde could have be “openly gay” for any number of reasons. I find it somewhat distasteful to compare his lying about it to Clinton’s – not that the comparison is _necessarily_ unfair, but the stakes are so different, not to mention the manner in which it was done.

  14. 14  sw  September 25, 2006, 1:23 pm 

    I think that we can all agree: Bosie was bad news.

  15. 15  SP  September 25, 2006, 1:27 pm 

    To be specific, he said in De Profundis:

    Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both.

    The essay distinguishes “desire” from “love”; in no wise does it call love mad. If he had been asked whether he had ever desired a young man madly and said no, that would indeed have been a lie. But that was not what he was asked.

    In fact, what he was asked was not whether he had “loved”, but whether he had “adored” madly, and his answer makes my point clear:

    Carson: But let us go over it phrase by phrase. “I quite admit that I adored you madly.” What do you say to that? Have you ever adored a young man madly?
    Wilde: No, not madly; I prefer love – that is a higher form.

  16. 16  DF  September 25, 2006, 2:10 pm 

    This is a very interesting point.

    We can’t get away from the fact that Wilde perjured himself throughout his trials.

    [“Is there any truth in the accusations made against you?”
    “None whatever!”]

    But, as you demonstrate, we find in his denials something much richer than Jesuitical casuitry of the Clintonian variety – as SW writes, the comparison is almost distasteful.

    Perhaps he was, after all, an artist of the first rank.

  17. 17  DF  September 25, 2006, 2:33 pm 

    And what of Wilde’s most resplendent inheritor, Morrissey? We certainly can’t call him “openly gay”. And we can’t call him “gay” (really, we can’t, IAAL). And yet calling him “not gay”, I don’t know… “Not openly gay”?

    Why does he adopt a Wildean equivocation in an age when this is no longer so necessary – at least not for rich English pop stars?

  18. 18  DF  September 25, 2006, 3:03 pm 

    May I suggest that, among a number of reasons, are these: a desire to express human solidarity with his long-dead (killed?) hero, and a knowingly perverse nostalgia for an era of greater repression?

  19. 19  SP  September 25, 2006, 3:49 pm 

    I don’t see how the comparison itself is distasteful. Perhaps the idea of W.J. Clinton getting a blowjob is “distasteful” to some, as the idea of men loving men is “distasteful” to others.

  20. 20  sw  September 25, 2006, 4:12 pm 

    SP, that’s rubbish. The comparison is clearly not between the sexual acts, but rather the type of deceit, how and why the deception occurred, the stakes involved, the overall circumstances, and the way in which the deceit was phrased.

  21. 21  SP  September 25, 2006, 4:29 pm 

    I don’t think it’s rubbish that the idea of Clinton getting a blowjob is indeed “distasteful” to some people, many of whom also find it “distasteful” to think of men loving men.

    But if you believe the comparison between two men who lied about sexual acts in court is thoroughly inapt, or as you said “distasteful”, you are welcome to ignore it and talk about Morrissey.

  22. 22  sw  September 25, 2006, 4:41 pm 

    DF, regarding your mention of Morrissey, is it libel to call somebody “not openly gay”? For example, if I called Tony Blair or, say, the author of Unspeak “not openly gay”, would that be libel?

    And is Morrissey really not openly gay? Perhaps he always has been openly gay, but in a different way: open to lyrical interpretations rather than public pronouncement and daily rag headlines; open to the sexual decadence of music and dance rather than the decadence of monolithic, immobile identity politics; open not to the closure of uncloseting but to the possibility that his sexuality would one day be understood as “openly gay”, just as Liberace was pretty “openly gay”, though still closeted. He has been “openly gay” insofar as he has always made it possible for any fan to look back and to say, “I always knew he was gay . . . of course, he was gay”. This is the way in which Morrissey’s elusiveness and obtuseness has always made it more possible for his fans to know him.

  23. 23  sw  September 25, 2006, 4:45 pm 

    SP – What a peculiar response!

    Of course, I never said that it was rubbish “that the idea of Clinton getting a blowjob is indeed “distasteful” to some people, many of whom also find it “distasteful” to think of men loving men.” How silly of you to think that I would say that, and to suggest that I would say that!

    And do you not see a difference between “thoroughly inapt, or as you said “distasteful””? It is not thoroughly inapt; it remains distasteful.

  24. 24  SP  September 25, 2006, 5:17 pm 

    Maybe we can compare “openly gay” to “practising homosexual”.

  25. 25  DF  September 25, 2006, 5:47 pm 

    When an (I think) English newspaper recently called Moz, without qualification, “gay”, it was asked to publish a retraction by his lawyers. So he still doesn’t seem to like being described _by others_ in that way, and in that sense is not “open”.

    As to whether calling someone “not openly gay” is actionable or not, it would depend on the context – both on whether the piece you had written, when taken as a whole, made it clear your innuendo was in fact that the person _was_ secretly gay, and on whether the person you were describing traded on a reputation for being, for example, a “family man”. The extraordinary English singer-songwriter Robbie Williams recently won damages in relation to a claim that he was gay, the basis of the injury not being the suggestion in itself, but that if really was gay he would be lying to his fans. I was a little disappointed that Williams brought that case.

    As for Morrissey, it is unlikely he could bring a successful suit. The retraction by the newspaper in his case was probably not motivated by a fear of damages, but out of respect for the paper’s policy on outing.

    To return to your point about his “open”-ness, whatever his feelings about things others say about him, he has declared his own queerness (along with his genius, goddamit) in a hundred songs.

    “As Wilde listened to [prosecution counsel’s] appalling denunciation […] he felt ‘sickened with horror at what I heard. Suddenly it occurred to me, _”How splendid it would be, if I was saying all this about myself!”_. I saw then at once that what is said of a man is nothing. The point is, who said it.'” (Ellman p448)

  26. 26  sw  September 25, 2006, 6:06 pm 

    I think that the comparison of “openly gay” to “practising homosexual” is apt, but loaded with its own problems. We can lay aside jokes about “practising” and see why. First, if one announces one’s celibacy (like Snr. Fry), or, during those dull daylight hours when one is engaged in practices other than homosexual ones, like much work, blogging, and even eating, one can be “openly gay” without actually “practising homosexuality”. Second, it renders queerness just an act, or series of acts; while this may be true for some, for others, notions of homosexuality extend beyond such practices. And while “openly” can resonate with defiance, pride, and freedom, “practising homosexual” sounds more like a medical and/or legal transaction. So, I think the two can be compared; I would tend to reject the latter.

    As DF points out, it is a matter of context. Indeed, the claim that, say, a particular megamillionaire movie star known for his toothy grin and boyish looks is not gay can, in a certain context, be attesting to his homosexuality. Thank you for that lovely quote. C’est vrai.

  27. 27  cv  September 26, 2006, 10:36 am 

    I was wondering if it would be possible for, say, Peter Tatchell to bring a successful libel action against a newspaper that described him as “not openly gay”.

    Setting aside, for the moment, the probability that such a description would no doubt be seen as a mistake, rather than a kind of reverse outing, this hypothetical libel action might bring a couple of things to light.

    Firstly, that the description ‘not openly gay’ would be offensive to a gay rights activist suggests that the word ‘open’ inherently conveys an acceptance and pride of one’s homosexuality.
    Secondly, the fact that such an action would be seen as quite ludicrous (but i’m no lawyer) sets it in stark opposition to a similar action by a toothy-grinned movie star or premiership footballer. Whilst both contest perceived falsehoods in the offending newspaper, it is sadly seen as far more socially acceptable to have to hide one’s sexuality than one’s pride in it.

  28. 28  Steven  September 26, 2006, 10:57 pm 

    It’s awfully confusing and dull that people continue to choose two-letter names to post here. I blame SW. Please, people, think of more evocative nicknames.

    Anyway, good point cv. I think calling someone “not openly gay” might be seen in some quarters as comparable to saying someone was “not openly a wife-beater” – literally true, perhaps, but with an implication that the subject would not necessarily like aired.

    And why would they not want it aired? I think the accusation of “lying to the fans”, as DF brings up, is not necessarily a trivial one. Would Julian Clary be right to sue if someone claimed he was heterosexual?

    SW, your tact in not bringing certain bald French dudes into the conversation is much appreciated.

  29. 29  sw  September 27, 2006, 12:39 am 

    First, of behalf of the entire Unspeak community, I reject Steven’s hostile approach to two-letter names.

    Second, I don’t think that the point made by cv (or “Curriculem Vitae”, if Steven gets his way) was exactly the same point I was making, i.e., that the implication of “not openly gay” hangs like an odour even as the air freshener of denial is spritzed. CV’s point that it is sad that people have to hide their sexual identity, however, is nicely re-framed by Steven’s point about Julian Clary suing for libel if someone claimed he was heterosexual: only certain sexualities are so forcibly hidden, and only certain sexualities could be considered libellous. Now, IANAL BIHFWA, and I would be curious to ask them whether a gay man or woman could sue somebody for libel, if that person is suing someone else for libel on account of being called gay. In other words, why is it not libellous that someone should state that being called gay is libellous? (I suspect that this question could be answered by pointing out how I am misunderstanding the word “libel”, not to mention libel law, but I hope that the idea behind my misunderstanding is not so easily rejected).

    By the way, I was chatting with Mario, owner of an Italian cafe that I frequent, and he was telling me that there are plans afoot for a reconciliation between Zidane and Materazzi in South Africa in 2010 . . . in the prison where Mandela was held, on Robben Island. Mario, who is not openly gay, chuckled with outrage as he told me this, but I chided him for his lack of sensitivity. What the world really needs is the healing and the hope that a formal reconciliation between Zidane and Materazzi on Robben Island could bring. For us to have to wait until 2010 is simply disgusting.

  30. 30  sw  September 27, 2006, 12:40 am 

    PS, Excuse me, I meant “Curriculum Vitae”.

  31. 31  Steven  September 27, 2006, 1:30 pm 

    I prefer to think of him or her as Chav Voldo.

    IANAL but I think you cannot libel a class of people, form of behaviour, preference etc. You libel a specific person or persons.

  32. 32  sw  September 27, 2006, 2:15 pm 

    I suspect you might be right. I believe that Doubletooth Forgetmenot recently wrote “IAAL” and so perhaps can confirm your accuracy. The point I was making is: to call somebody part of a group that that person claims he or she is not part of, can be libel; to say that being part of that group is a bad thing is surely disparaging to that specific person who believes himself part of that group? Ah well, that may not make it “libel” – although I await confirmation of your point by a legal expert – but it certainly explains why one does not bandy around such terms as denigrating epithets.

  33. 33  Steven  September 27, 2006, 3:29 pm 

    I think, as Donald Fumblefield pointed out, that the basis for a libel action on account of being called gay is not that being gay is a bad thing but that it would be injurious to the reputation and commercial success of a pop-singer whose oeuvre is marketed at pubescent girls, though it may also be appreciated by metrosexuals.

  34. 34  DF  September 27, 2006, 4:39 pm 

    To imply a person was homosexual certainly used to be defamatory in itself. Liberace brought an action against the The Mirror for calling him “fruit-flavoured”. (The paper would have had a defence if they could have proved that he was in fact gay. They lost, naturally.)

    Modern times, calling someone gay is probably only actionable if there is in addition an unavoidable implication of dishonesty, infidelity, hypocrisy or the like. (See Jason Donovan v the Face, the Williams case cited above.) Robbie’s key submission was that calling him gay did not just upset his fans (because they would never marry him, etc.), it implied he had misled them.

    Steven is right. You don’t commit an actionable libel against every single member of an unquantifiable category of persons by saying you don’t like them. (You can libel a group of people, if the group is relatively clearly defined, and what you say is truly defamatory, rather than an expression of opionion. For example, if you said everyone in the Shadow Cabinet regularly attended cross-burnings, they could all sue, assuming it’s not true. AND IT IS NOT TRUE.)

    DF (Dylan Falsifiah)

  35. 35  Steven  September 27, 2006, 4:42 pm 

    I’m glad that not everyone in the Shadow Cabinet regularly attends cross-burnings.

  36. 36  Steven  September 27, 2006, 4:53 pm 

    (Or that they all do, but only sporadically.)

  37. 37  sw  September 29, 2006, 6:10 pm 

    I was deeply concerned by this headline:

    “Wife, closeted lover guilty of husband’s murder” – available at (

    It turns out the closeted lover was . . . actually hiding in the closet. It is slightly disconcerting that the term “closeted” is here used by CNN to mean “hiding in the closet” – but if you read the rest of the piece, you will notice that it is in fact a smorgasborg of insinuation and sensationalism, including this comment by one of the policemen, who had found a towel on the scene “containing both of their DNA”:

    “Maybe they were lying on their towel having sex when Jeffrey Freeman came in and caught them in the act,” Hupp said. “Or maybe the sex on the towel was to celebrate the fact they murdered Jeffrey.”

    Hupp might go on to say: “Perhaps they had solo sex in different rooms, but used the same towel to clean themselves after reaching orgasm, and then they did a pagan dance around the towel as a type of satanic ritual of consecration.”

    In any case, at least the headline wasn’t “Prosecutor openly gay over conviction of closeted man and his lover”.

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