The topic of outing others (i.e., sexual orientation, gender identity, or even an HIV status) is quite subtle. So far, I have not seen it being discussed anywhere in literature or academic settings, but I have witnessed such discussions in my personal life. I find it important to raise the subject, because we are not taught or trained to be aware in this area and, often, we learn through mistakes. But, perhaps, we can avoid some of them in the future.
Outing others involves inadvertently revealing LGBTQIA person's gender identity or sexual orientation without his or her permission. Outing can range from blatantly revealing someone's gender identity or sexual orientation to asking provocative or revealing questions in the presence of other individuals. Some blatant examples include "Oh, Bob's boyfriend just got in town" or "Are you taking hormones?" Recently, I heard a subtle example in a conversation among two individuals, one of whom said "Oh yeah, I went to [insert name] college with him years ago!" It turned out that it was an all-women's college; therefore, that the person was outed as transgender. Another unexpected situation occurred a week ago at a diner. My friends and I were sitting at a table, when one of our (trans)friend's friend joined. He was publicly out as transgender. After some small talk he said, "So who else is trans here?" Everyone looked at each other in confusion; then his (trans)friend pointed out to one of the women at the table. It shook me a bit, because (a) outing occurred without permission, (b) outing occurred by a trans person, and (c) the question came from a trans individual, who is presumably supposed to be attuned to outing issues. Later, the outed woman stated that she was very bothered by the inquisitions and by being outed, even among the community members. Imagine how she would feel among those who don't have knowledge or understanding of trans issues! That day I learned that being a member of the LGBTQIA community doesn't necessarily mean sensitivity. However, as counselors, we need to increase our sensitivity, so here are some cues to minimize the risk of outing others and causing harm:
- Do not, ever, call a person by his or her past/previous name.
- Do not use a person's past pronoun, when referring to him or her in the past. For example, when speaking of a transgender man when he was a child, refer to him as "he," even though he has only recently started transitioning.
- When referring to gay, lesbian, or bisexual person's significant others, do not use "wife," "husband," "girlfriend," or "boyfriend." Use "partner."
- If someone asks you, "Is she trans?" or "Did he used to be a girl?" (avoid these inappropriate questions yourself), educate the person that such questions are inappropriate to ask, especially from someone else.
Outing others is not acceptable for various reasons - aside from basic disrespect for individuals' privacy, it is also a potential endangerment of one's personal safety and social or familial relations.
P.S. Another unfortunate aspect about outing is that often, when partners of LGBTQ individuals become angry, they decide to strike back by outing LGBTQ individuals or calling them by their past pronoun and/or name. I have witnessed emotional devastation after such vindictive acts. The main issue is that LGBTQ individuals often live with that subtle or strong fear of their partners' revenge, especially if they are in an abusive relationship.
Evelyn Pavlova is a counselor and an Ally, whose preferred population is LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, invisible minority, asexual, and ally) individuals. Her areas of interest are eating disorders, mood disorders, mindfulness, and spirituality. Read more about her new counseling journey at www.curvyroad.weebly.com