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Why do we use the term ‘openly gay’?

A recent twitter exchange with a well-regarded science writer, who had asked the hive mind for help in figuring out how many heads of state were openly gay, got me thinking about the term ‘openly gay’ and questioning its widespread use.

It seems to define someone who is, more often than not, in the public eye and who is known to be gay but who importantly, is happy for it to be known that they are gay, as opposed to someone who is reluctant to have that level of scrutiny.

It’s a term that confers secondary status, with the whiff of not quite making the mark; of not being brave enough, and this was a point I made to him. When I explained my take (in 140 characters or less) he asked, not unreasonably, if I knew of a better way of expressing the same concept. Alas, I did not and told him so, asking at the same time why he felt there was a need to qualify the state of being gay in the first place. I heard nothing more but did not presume for a moment that it was because I had in anyway bamboozled him with my reply, although I did get the sense that he may have felt that he was being told off.

There are times when the term is used helpfully, to make clear that people aren’t talking in absolute terms, for example: ‘so and so is an openly gay’ footballer’, can give the sense that there are other gay footballers and the speaker has no wish to deny their existence but is aware only of the one that is the subject of the statement.

People talk of being openly gay and of having no regrets, although once you’ve stepped out of the closet it’s pretty hard to go back in. There are others, see Rupert Everett, who have nothing but regret for being open about something that was no one’s business and which was used to put them in a box marked gay for which they have forever tried to escape. You really are more than your sexuality folks!

Among all the talk of gay marriage and the extent to which it signals a massive stride in the direction of equality, for me, full equality in terms of gay rights, will arrive the moment the media and wider society no longer feels it necessary to define someone in terms of their sexuality, thus removing any need for their sexuality to be qualified in the first place.

By the way, the answer to the openly gay heads of state question is Belgium and Iceland.

Award yourself two points if you got both right; two bonus points if you can name them.