Advice on how to cope if you're outed before you're ready

On Friday, a statement was released by Stephen Parkinson, former Vote Leave official and political secretary to Theresa May, which referred to his 18-month “personal relationship” with Brexit whistle-blower Shahmir Sanni.

This statement was written first on a blog, and then officially distributed by Number 10’s Press Office in what has been condemned as an appalling oversight and severe breach of Sanni’s privacy. Why? Because Sanni was forcibly outed as gay, against his consent.

A media frenzy has since swarmed the outing and Sanni has been forced to confirm his homosexuality to his family and friends against his will. In a recent interview he explained, “this is possibly the worst thing a gay Muslim can go through,” detailing that he had to take security precautions for his family in Pakistan, where homosexuality remains punishable by imprisonment.

While many people don’t see the fuss or the difficulty in coming out into a world that is now apparently far more accepting to those of us with a non-heterosexual orientation or cisgender identity, being outed against your will or knowledge remains an incredibly violent and hurtful act.

Jeff Ingold, media manager at Stonewall, told indy100:

The severity of this breach of confidence cannot be underestimated.

Telling someone about your sexuality or gender identity must always be a personal decision. No person has the right to take that decision away.

Publicly outing someone robs that person of the chance to define who they are in their own terms, if they even want to. In extreme cases – as in this one – it can also put the lives of that person and their loved ones in danger.

Outing someone ignores the many valid reasons a person may have for not choosing to be open about their sexuality to every person in their life.

Concerns about personal safety to fears about discrimination at work or in their place of worship all play part in someone's decision to come out. It can be difficult, takes courage and is not necessarily a one-off event.

For many, coming out is a process of reclamation, self-empowerment and affirmation, but that doesn’t mean that the consequences can't also be severe. To be outed takes the power out of your hands and puts it into someone else's, someone who can’t understand the impact their actions might have on you.

This an experience very familiar to Sarah Moore, who was outed by her best friend.

“When I was 19 I fell in love for the first time with someone I met after moving to London for uni," she explained. "My first queer relationship was ground-breaking to me. I was so excited to finally understand why I’d felt so out of place my whole life – this was the single most important, most precious thing that I’d ever experienced in discovering who I am and where I belong in the world."

She added:

It should have been me to tell my family that everything was going to be OK, and I’m going to grow up to be strong and bold and proud.

But instead, my ‘best friend’ and housemate drove home to the village we came from, picked up my mum and walked her through our front door to catch me with my girlfriend. I was ambushed.

My mum was so shocked and upset when I was forced to prematurely confront her about my sexuality that she didn’t speak to me properly for months.

"My position is one of total privilege," Sarah continued. "And I’m so grateful that my identity being revealed to them didn’t put them in any kind of position of danger or fear, even though, as it transpires, some of their closest friends think my ‘way of life’ is ‘disgusting’.

"Being outed was painful and confusing, and I can now see that it was done out of emotional manipulation, not ‘concern’. But despite this, coming out was the best thing that I ever did. It just should have been my conversation to have, not someone else’s.”

Sarah’s experience is heart-breaking, but not all too uncommon. Outing someone both removes their agency and breaches their ability to control how others receives them, especially pertinent in a world where LGBT+ people continue to face hugely disproportionate levels of abuse: with 21 per cent of LGBT+ people experiencing a hate crime or incident in the last year, or with 12 per cent of trans employees being physically attacked by a colleague or customer in the last year In over half the globe, LGBT+ people remain unprotected from discrimination by workplace legislation, and 72 countries still outlaw homosexual activity.

Wayne Dhesi, founder of LGBT+ charity R U Coming Out, which gives specialist advice on coming out, said:

If you are outed you may feel you want to gain control of the situation, but you don't owe anyone anything so don't feel pressured into confirming what's being said about you if you're not ready to.

Speaking to someone about what's happened will make the situation easier and if you choose someone close to you who you trust, they will hopefully be happy to listen rather than pry.

The most important thing to consider is both your physical and emotional wellbeing.

You might choose to use the opportunity to come out but only do this if you have people around you who can support you and if you feel emotionally prepared to do so.

You also have the absolute right to say nothing. Always remember, you have done nothing wrong by either being LGBT+ or by being outed. You are not obliged to defend yourself or confirm rumours.

Take time to work out what is best for you and take a look at how other people came out by visiting rucomingout.com.

If you’ve been outed without your consent remember the advice of Wayne at R U Coming Out. If you’re planning to out someone: don’t. When the world still takes so much from LGBT+ folk, don't take this from them too.

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