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Wednesday, June 16, 1999 Published at 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK

Outing: Revealing other people's secrets

And the revelations keep coming. . .

Cabinet ministers, former cabinet ministers, sports stars, comedians. All have fallen under the news juggernaut in recent months, as it races down its endless motorway.

Now Stephen Gately, above, singer with the Irish boy-band Boyzone has announced to much tabloid fanfare that he is homosexual. The 23-year-old star made his statement reportedly because he believed one newspaper was going to "out" him.

Just this week, former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies announced he was bisexual after allegations in the News of the World about his sexual behaviour while out birdwatching near his home in Draethen.

[ image:  ]
People may tut, they may say how they are not interested in people's private lives. But there's a simple reason why the tabloids are the biggest-selling newspapers - people like to read them.

Society has come a long way from the days of Rock Hudson, whose homosexuality was an open secret in the world of films, but whose career was nevertheless based on being a huge sex symbol for movie-watching females.

Open secrets

Society has come a long way, but it seems that being gay still ranks alongside the likes of adultery or crime in tabloid stakes. It was only last year, after all, that the Sun demanded to know if there was a gay mafia at the heart of the government. It later retracted its demand, saying it would not seek to expose gay ministers.

[ image: Campaigner Peter Tatchell: Outing is about hypocrisy]
Campaigner Peter Tatchell: Outing is about hypocrisy
The tabloids carefully reflect public acceptance of homosexuals by not criticising Stephen Gately. The Sun's "thought" on its front-page is "Brave Stephen".

But the fact remains that "outing" is still on the agenda, however much the gay community may have wished never to see it again.

It is some years now since the threat of having their secret homosexuality revealed was made against figures from the worlds of showbiz, politics and religion. What some people found most disturbing about the threats was that they came from other homosexuals, who said they wanted to reveal hypocrisy.

OutRage! has been the most vocal gay group in the last few years - in 1994 it threatened to out ten Anglican bishops it said were gay but who did not support gay rights from their pulpits.

Peter Tatchell explained last year that he and OutRage! were in fact opposed to outing, "except when public figures abused their power to harm other gay people".

"The aim is to discredit the perpetrators of discrimination by unmasking them as hypocrites," he wrote in The Independent. "Because outing can help destroy the power and credibility of homophobes in high places, it is the right thing to do."

[ image: Boyzone meet Prince Charles last year]
Boyzone meet Prince Charles last year
The newspaper's John Lyttle characterised Tatchell's view as being "it's fine and dandy for him to out homosexuals, while it's disgusting and wrong for the tabloids to do the same".

He wrote: "This is old, tired and very familiar; when the tabloids did over Michael Barrymore and George Michael, the excuse was that - wait for it - the Michaels were practising homosexuality in private and heterosexuality in public and were therefore hypocrites."

Less currency?

But as it becomes more socially acceptable to be openly gay - and as the sheer number of gay public figures increases - surely there will be less currency in outing people?

Max Clifford: Newspapers are the garden fence
Publicist Max Clifford, who through long experience can judge better than nearly anyone what the newspapers will and will not do, says the times are a-changin'.

[ image: Clifford: Only circulation matters to newspapers]
Clifford: Only circulation matters to newspapers
He said: "The one thing that matters to newspapers is circulation. They are out there trying to gauge what their readers want.

"What they write is very much governed by that. The more tolerance, the greater the education and understanding, the harder it is for any tabloid editor to justify outing, unless there's something more involved, like with Ron Davies or George Michael."

People - particularly young people - were far more tolerant nowadays, he said. But he added: "It's also a question of image and what you want to achieve. I think if Rock Hudson were alive today, he would still probably need to cover the truth.

"If I was doing his PR today, my advice to him would probably be the same as it was 30 years ago because his appeal is as the pin-up, the heart-throb, the sex symbol. And once the audience knows it's not accurate, all of the magic, the charisma, and the box office appeal goes."

Individual cases

And although attitudes were getting more understanding, newspaper interest would still depend on who the individual was.

"From my own experience, I never had to cover up Jimi Hendrix and drugs, in fact it helped the image. Whereas if it had been Cliff Richard, it would have destroyed him. Every image is different, so as a PR you have be sure that every image you create is the most positive, the most successful."

While he did not anticipate Stephen Gately's career would suffer at all from his announcement that he was gay, he added: "If he was a footballer his career would be over still. It's not cut and dried, we're not in a situation yet where it just doesn't matter, we're a long way from there. If one of the Royal Family came out, there would be a huge outcry about it, it wouldn't be 'Well, so what?'"

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