August 31, 2013

Name Calling vs. Public Outing

Renee Montoya is outed. Art by Michael Lark.
Renee Montoya is outed. Art by Michael Lark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Assume for a moment that you are a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individual who is not yet completely open about your sexual orientation or gender identity. You are employed as an elementary school teacher in a religiously conservative region. After much deliberation, you have decided that it is not in your best interest to disclose this information to everyone yet because you this information becoming public knowledge would likely have adverse consequences. With me so far? In such a situation, would you rather:
  1. Be publicly outed against your will or
  2. Have a stranger make some disparaging comments about you on Twitter without revealing anything about you personally
If you had to have one of these things happen to you, which would you pick and why?

I would pick #2 in a second. I have little reason to care about what a particular stranger on the Internet thinks about me. But what if I did? What if I was sensitive enough to be genuinely bothered by the comments? I could easily block the offender. Problem solved. On the other hand, #1 would be scary because it could cost me my job, could change how my co-workers treated me, result in complaints from the parents of the children I teach, and so on. These things would be out of my control (i.e., I have no ability to control what my employer, co-workers, family, friends, and others would do with this information). Is there any doubt that someone in such a situation who was publicly outed might not face adverse consequences?

Change the situation now to focus on atheism. You are an atheist individual who is not yet completely open about your atheism and your views on religion. Your immediate family knows, but not all of your extended family does. Your close friends know, but many of your other acquaintances do not. You have not disclosed your atheism at work because, once again, you are employed as an elementary school teacher in a religiously conservative area. In this situation, would you rather:
  1. Be publicly outed (as an atheist) against your will or
  2. Have a stranger make some disparaging comments about you on Twitter without revealing anything about you personally
If you had to pick one of these things to happen to you, which would you pick and why?

Again, I'd pick #2 all day long. If the name calling gets old and I can no longer ignore it, I can block the person doing it. However, being publicly outed as an atheist in this situation is likely to result in a number of adverse consequences over which I would have no control. I might lose my job in such a situation, and I might not. But even if I was not fired, it is easy to imagine many ways in which my job would become harder to do, my relationships with co-workers would become strained, and so on. Once again, I'd be unable to control how my boss, co-workers, friends, and family would do with this information.

I'm not suggesting that name calling is harmless, cannot have real world effects or should be ignored in a community in which it occurs. I believe I'd been quite clear that I am not in favor of the name calling (no matter who is doing it). I'd hope that reasonable adults could disagree with one another without having to engage in name calling. What I am suggesting is that being publicly outed as LGBT or atheist against one's will may result in worse consequences to the victim. If I had to choose between having 10 Elevatorgate style blogs spring up over night and Storify everything I ever Tweeted interspersed with silly name calling or being publicly outed (i.e., doxxed), I'd take the former. Doxxing and public outing may seem like a good idea from time-to-time, but such actions may have unintended consequences that are difficult to foresee.

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