There are means, especially those taking the form of violence, that should not be used to fight homophobia. Outing belongs to them.
In August and September 2020 a lively discussion about another case of “outing” of a public figure, i.e. disclosing a person’s sexual orientation against their will, entered Polish public debate.
This time, Jan Kanthak, a MP from the conservative party “United Poland” (Solidarna Polska), was outed by Michał Kowalówka, a local activist of the left-wing party “Left Together” (Lewica Razem) from Kraków. On Twitter, Kowalówka accused Kanthak of “repeatedly and abruptly harassing him with an offer of oral sex” during his visit at a nightclub in 2011. When explaining his decision, Kowalówka pointed out that it was a response to Kanthak’s recent attacks on the Polish LGBTI community, a kind of retaliation for “the hypocrisy and instigation against this minority.”
One does not have to look far for another example of outing a public figure identified with the right side of the political scene. In the article about Kamil Zaradkiewicz, a lawyer associated with the ruling party “Law and Justice” (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), published in May 2020, journalists from Gazeta Wyborcza, the most influential liberal daily newspaper in Poland, described a number of events from his personal life that were supposed to be “stains on his biography”, making him susceptible to political pressure when he was acting as First President of the Polish Supreme Court.
Among these “stains” the authors of the piece mentioned “private excesses”, including a meltdown resulting from a quarrel with a partner with whom – as the piece emphasized – he “lived together”.
Of course, examples of outing do not only include people associated with the conservative side of the political scene. In 2010, Elżbieta Radziszewska, then the governmental plenipotentiary for equal treatment, outed Krzysztof Śmiszek (human rights lawyer and partner of Robert Biedroń, the first openly gay Polish politician). During a joint conversation in one of the morning shows, she indicated that “it is an open secret who Mr. Śmiszek’s partner is.”
However, what is particularly important in the case of Kanthak and Zaradkiewicz’s outings is the moment in which they occurred and the intentions standing behind the decisions to out them. Both situations took place during the unprecedented hate campaign against the Polish LGBTI community, during which politicians of the ruling camp deliberately heated homophobic and transphobic resentment in their electorate, and tried to utilize it during the 2020 presidential campaign. In the context of these events, the actions of Kowalówka and Gazeta Wyborcza can be seen as a response to this campaign, taking the form of strategic resistance aimed at weakening both the outed persons and the political formation behind them.
Thanks to these two cases, outing as an unconventional strategy of political resistance became a topic of mainstream discussion in Poland. This was probably the first time this issue was so openly debated outside the LGBTI community. From the very beginning this discussion was organized around the question of whether such a strategy was acceptable, very quickly leading to strong divisions between its supporters and opponents.
In this discussion, the question of whether outing is an acceptable tool of political struggle is very difficult to answer. We will never find an answer that will go beyond our individual, and thus solely subjective, judgments.
The question of the admissibility of outing is in fact a question about the place where each and every one of us is ready to set their limits, where we are open to compromise, and where we are not.
Each and every one of us resolves these dilemmas individually, based in part on rational arguments, and in part also on our identity, personal experience, as well as emotions and instincts that we engage – often unconsciously – when thinking about social and political life.
Naturally, our opinions can vary greatly and sometimes be incompatible. Some people will be more open to accept outing or even use it. For example, due to prior experience of homophobic violence, especially when it is caused by the to-be-outed person, the aggrieved may treat outing as the only way to deal with the trauma and gain a sense of fair compensation for the harm suffered. Especially in such cases, we can feel sympathy for the decision to out a perpetrator. Other people, perhaps lacking such experience, will be very cautious and not only deny themselves the right to take such actions but also strongly criticize them when taken by others.
Thus, our individual experience is not a decisive criterion when thinking about the admissibility of outing, in individual cases or in general. Therefore, if the discussion on this issue is to move forward, it should focus less on deciding whether the decision of a particular person to out someone was admissible or legitimate, and more on whether persons, institutions and initiatives that shape the public debate in Poland, should support the use of this strategy.
Instead of asking about admissibility of outing, it is worth asking another, slightly more depersonalized question about the usefulness of outing in the fight against homophobia. The question we should be asking is whether outing is a tool able to foster a community that is safe and open to diversity. One in which sexual orientations are not stigmatized or excluded.
To answer such a question, first we need to determine what outing actually does. It leads to the disclosure of at least two important facts concerning the targeted person. The first one is a person’s sexual orientation. In fact, very often outing only reveals information about sexual behavior, which may or may not be an indication of sexual orientation. This may be Jan Kanthak’s case. If the event described by Kowalówka did take place, we still do not know whether it means that Kanthak is a non-heterosexual person or that he has simply experimented in his sex life in the past.
The second piece of information revealed by the outing of a homophobe is the discrepancy between his words and his actions, which results from the desire to secure his interests and benefits. To put it more literally, outing reveals hypocrisy. This is the aspect of outing that is so strongly emphasized by its supporters. It can be summarized as follows: hypocrites say one thing and do another (depending on what is more profitable), thus they are unpredictable; and so each of us has the right to disclose such behavior and undermine the credibility of such people as participants of public life.
People who want to fight hypocrites argue – rightly so – that it is permissible, for example, to disclose that a person fighting publicly for environmental protection burns tires and chipboard in their home fireplace, that an activist of a pro-women’s rights organization is a perpetrator of domestic violence, or that a member of a political party openly fighting against welcoming refugees is at the same time employing a person with unregulated residence status.
It is worth remembering that the disclosure of the sexual orientation of a politician who openly incites hatred toward LGBTI people, and at the same time belongs to this community, does not match with the logic of other examples mentioned above for at least two reasons.
First of all, there is nothing objectively wrong, unacceptable or prohibited by law (with sexual orientation gradually becoming a more protected characteristic in law) about non-heterosexual sexual orientations – as opposed to the other actions revealed in the above examples. It is the dominant social and cultural system of norms that represses some forms of human sexuality, imposes stigmatization on certain people and enables hurting them. What is the scale of this harm? It is shocking: one in two LGBTI people in Poland experience verbal violence, one in five reports physical violence, and more than half of LGBTI youth have suicidal thoughts, as they are unable to cope with the surrounding homophobic environment.
Burning tires in a fireplace is unlikely to bring punishment in the form of being forced to run away from home, treated with “corrective” rape or forced to live in conditions so inhumane that taking one’s own life seems to be a sane option. Instead, these are the situations that gay, lesbian and transgender people regularly encounter in Poland.
LGBTI people who, due to their socio-economic status or access to “power”, seem to be protected against violence also experience harm. Jan Kanthak and Kamil Zaradkiewicz probably don’t feel particularly threatened after being outed. Nevertheless, the violent nature of their outings forcibly deprives them of the right to decide whether to speak publicly (or not) about their sexual orientation. Although this is probably just speculation, for this part of the Polish society that is still unfavorable to LGBTI people, this “stigma” will be permanently associated with them. It will be a “weakness” revealed in the spotlight, a true burden which from now on will accompany them in their further participation in public life.
Secondly, all of the examples of hypocritical behavior mentioned above are largely the result of one’s own wrong actions and decisions which make their condemnation justifiable. After all, no one is born a perpetrator of domestic violence. Sexual orientation, on the other hand, is something that cannot be freely shaped and is largely the result of biological conditions that are beyond our decision-making.
Due to the nature of sexual orientation, outing leads – in practice – to the simultaneous imposition of two penalties. Firstly, punishment for their hypocrisy, and secondly for their sexual orientation. The first punishment is absolutely justified and socially necessary. The second is unfair and at the same time lowers the moral legitimacy of the former. It preys on homophobic prejudice that people who support outing want to fight.
Some proponents of outing acknowledge this problem. They point out however, that homophobes should be outed anyway. They are convinced that the more outings we allow, the sooner diverse sexual orientations will cease to carry a stigma or be a “sensitive point” that can be hit in order to harm someone. However, a tactic in which we cause harm to another person, even if temporarily and for the sake of a noble cause, is one in which we are treating them as a means to an end and not as an end in themselves.
The moment we start seeing another human being – even our worst enemy – as a means to an end, we stop building a world that is wide enough to accommodate us all. This is the only vision of the world worth fighting for.
Besides, are we able to establish any criteria that could be used to decide whether a person’s behavior was homophobic enough to justify outing? Was the mere fact of changing one’s opinion about the interpretation of the Polish Constitution (in the context of marriage equality) a sufficient reason to out Kamil Zaradkiewicz, regardless of the motivation behind such a change of perspective? Allowing outing without establishing precise criteria first is nothing more than an invitation to a witch hunt.
We do not have – with the exception of few rather anecdotal examples – any hard evidence showing that outing does indeed have a beneficial effect, in the sense of reducing the stigma faced by LGBTI people. Therefore, we cannot exclude the possibility that outing works in the opposite direction, strengthening the stigma and deepening the taboo which it intends to tackle by delving in the atmosphere of scandal.
One could therefore argue that this particular form of punishment brought by outing, that is the punishment for non-heterosexual sexual orientations, is like a single rotten ingredient which spoils an entire dish. Even if all the other ingredients are fresh, and we make every effort to follow the recipe, the end result will be inedible anyway, and we can even end up with food poisoning.
A critique of the usefulness of outing is not an appeal to preserve decorum or the principles of good taste when fighting homophobia. Especially in these times, the fight must be relentless, it must lead to the disclosure of and accountability for lies, deceptions and the hypocrisy of the people who fuel homophobia, and should be pursued by both legislative and non-legislative means(e.g. civil disobedience or investigative journalism).
However, there are certain means, especially those taking the form of violence, which should not be used. Outing is one of them. The point is that not only is outing morally questionable, but also that its application makes the strategies used to fight oppression similar to those used to oppress in the first place. If it were possible to separate the reprehensible behavior of a homophobe-hypocrite from their sexual orientation, outing could be seen as a useful tool for social change. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Note from the Author:
This piece was written out of the need to continue the discussion on the phenomenon of outing in Poland, and pushing the conversation in a more reflexive, nuanced direction. In my opinion, this method of analyzing outing is especially useful if we are to acknowledge the multiplicity of aspects of the issue and eventually reach a conscious decision on whether we want its presence in the public life. This debate seems urgent as it is only a matter of time before we hear about another case of outing.
The article was written from the perspective of a heterosexual person who tries to be an ally of the LGBTI community. The shape of this perspective reflects – which is obvious – a specific identity, place in society and experience. As a result, it emphasizes some and neglects other aspects of outing. The publication of this piece is deliberately delayed from the events analyzed in the article. It is supposed to supplement and not replace other voices – both for and against outing – especially those that come directly from the LGBTI community (among the recent statements in the Polish public debate on this topic it is worth mentioning, among others, the voices available HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE).
This piece was originally published in Więź magazine.
Pawel Knut is human rights attorney and former Fulbright visiting scholar at The New School’s Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (2019-2020)