Last week it was reported by Insider that a number of LGBTQ athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics were being publicly outed — having their sexual or gender identity disclosed without their permission — on social media.
Athletes were reportedly found on the gay hookup app Grindr using the app’s “Explore” feature, which allows users to interact with others from far distances. From there, users were then sharing screen recordings of their interactions with athletes’ Grindr profiles on TikTok and Twitter.
The outlet discovered at least 10 Twitter posts and four TikTok videos, one of which was seen over 140,000 times and revealed 30 users’ full faces before the platforms removed them for violating community guidelines.
At least one male user reportedly signaled on his profile that he was from a country known for discriminating against LGBTQ people. (The posts have since been removed and could not be verified by Yahoo Life.)
Grindr later issued a statement condemning those who created the videos, acknowledging that they breached the app’s terms and conditions, which “prohibit them from publicly displaying, publishing, or otherwise distributing any content or information that are part of the Grindr services.”
That’s especially important at this year’s Games, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is hosting 11 nations where being LGBTQ is criminalized, according to Human Dignity Trust: Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Pakistan.
In some of those countries, being LGBTQ is punishable by death.
Queer activists have pressured the IOC to ban such countries from competing in the Games in the past, but it has yet to come to fruition — despite similar bans, like in 1964, when the IOC barred South Africa from competing due to apartheid, which lasted until 1994.
And this year’s host country, Japan, has zero out gay athletes (queer advocates surmise that’s due to fear of backlash from fans and sponsors, notes the New York Times) and ranks poorly among LGBTQ rights globally, with zero protections against employment and housing discrimination. It is also the only member of the G-7 industrial powers that hasn’t legalized same-sex marriage.
Despite these realities, the Tokyo Olympics is historical in its own right: Over 160 out LGBTQ athletes are competing, a record for the Games, according to data collected by OnlineGambling.ca. U.S. skateboarder Alana Smith, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard and Canadian soccer player Quinn, among others, are blazing a trail for trans and nonbinary visibility. In fact, it was announced last weekend that the IOC will be updating its transgender athlete policy, which will create new opportunities for trans Olympians around the world.
Still, while queer visibility is at an all-time high, the ramifications of being outed on the public stage can often be detrimental to those involved.
Outing: The good, the bad and the ugly
Historically, disclosing someone’s sexual orientation or nontraditional gender identity without their consent, and with no regard to ramifications, has been used to weaponize and exploit the LGBTQ community.
It was especially sensationalized in the 1950s with the “Lavender Scare,” a moral panic during which the federal government began a massive purge of gays and lesbians from government service. At its core, the purge was the government’s response to the growing pride and visibility of gays and lesbians in society, and ultimately contributed to McCarthyism. This type of sentiment bled into all walks of life.
Following the Stonewall riots in 1969, though, the LGBTQ community turned the idea of outing on its head. Prominent activists, including San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, argued that outing gays and lesbians — especially public figures — would benefit the community by showing homophobes that gay people are not deviants or child molesters or evil (common tropes believed by many at the time), but rather good, abiding citizens that deserve equality and fairness just like everyone else.
While many disagreed, raising issues of privacy, personal choice and what constitutes common good in efforts to fight homophobia and expose hypocrisies in society, the idea of outing public figures resonated well into the 1990s.
Longtime journalist and activist Michelangelo Signorile, widely considered a pioneer of outing public figures, weighed in on the recent Tokyo Olympics outings for Yahoo Life, pointing out that this is clearly not an example of something being done for the greater good (whatever one may think of the tactic). “It’s not journalism,” he says. “It’s an attempt to destroy someone or titillate people.”
In the early ’90s, Signorile was well known for putting pressure on celebs — including David Geffen, Malcolm Forbes, Jodie Foster, Richard Chamberlain and Liz Smith — to come out. From a journalistic perspective, Signorile argues the only people who should be targeted are public figures, not private individuals, and even then, only in cases “when it’s relevant,” which he believed applied to the celebrities, and also to closeted politicians who routinely vote for anti-LGBTQ legislation — for example, former Rep. Ed Schrock of Virginia, former Alabama Attorney General Troy King and former Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois.
At the end of the day, he says, it’s about respecting the privacy of a person’s data, which in this case was exploited by some Grindr users.
“When you’re using private data and private information, these are private interactions,” he says. “Those people have chosen not to make that public, and there’s no relevancy. Why does it need to be made public?”
Signorile points out that the “naive” way in which some users online have outed people is “almost a measure of our success” as LGBTQ people.
“People might think that being gay is so excessive [today] that there are no ramifications for doing something gossipy, that people are so out now and so accepted that nothing will happen,” he explains. “Of course that’s not true. It’s certainly not true in this country and definitely not true for people in other parts of the world.”
Michael Musto, a renowned columnist who was also well known in the ’90s for pressuring celebrities (including Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres) to come out, says that 30 years ago it wasn’t about ruining people’s lives, but rather an attempt to move the media’s taboo understanding of gay culture forward.
“Gossip columns readily delved into public figures’ personal lives and also their problems without permission, but those same columnists considered gay the last taboo — virtually unspeakable,” Musto tells Yahoo Life of that era. “Writers like Signorile and myself were trying to remove that taboo while also urging celebs to come out at a time when many gays were dying awful deaths from AIDS, homophobia was rising and more visibility was desperately needed.
“Outing was called ‘McCarthyism’ by some, but it was the opposite,” adds Musto. “It was telling the icons to be out and proud and stop pretending.”
Outing in 2021
One thing Signorile and Musto agree on is that social media has created unsafe avenues for queer people to be exploited — and that these platforms should implement measures to fix it.
“We need real protections of data and laws that allow people to be able to protect their privacy,” Signorile says. “Data that people use on apps where they believe and are told that information is private, and somehow it’s accessed by people, that’s very dangerous. It has real ramifications and we need stricter laws.”
“Social networks complicate things because every person on earth is a potential gossip columnist and has access to all kinds of information and innuendo,” adds Musto. “Apps like Grindr are the new gay bars, and many public figures are risking exposure by going on them. I doubt that the TikTokers have any noble motivations — it seems purely salacious, and they’re putting some athletes at great risk in their countries.”
“But,” Musto is quick to point out, “on some level they’re saying, ‘Well, this stuff is out there. We’re just sharing it.’”
While platforms have been slow in solving the problem, there are some resources available. GLAAD’s Social Media Safety Index report, released in May, advocates for regulatory frameworks to begin to address these problems.
“Platforms need to do a much better job enforcing their existing community guidelines,” Jenni Olson, Social Media Safety Program director at GLAAD, tells Yahoo Life. “Those guidelines only go so far without enforcement, and in the meantime most social media platforms are categorically unsafe for LGBTQ users.”
When it comes to Olympic sports, specifically, being outed incites fears of potentially losing endorsement deals — the main source of income for most Olympians. But in recent years, there’s been a visible shift.
“In the 2018 Winter Olympics, the most endorsed athlete was an openly gay athlete, Gus Kenworthy,” Cyd Zeigler, founder of Outsports, tells Yahoo Life. “We know corporations are looking to wrap themselves around values of courage and strength and determination — and these are the very values that our athletes represent.”
Zeigler, who has made a career highlighting success stories of not only professional LGBTQ athletes but also high school and college stars, says that for too long the media focused on the challenges of coming out rather than the rewards of it.
“Journalists are always asking me negative questions of pre-coming out instead of the positive questions of post-coming out,” he says. “They focus on fear instead of joy. I don’t fault them because these stories have been staring them in the face. That’s the way it’s been for so long, but this dynamic changed years ago. Finally, the media is starting to catch up to it.”
In fact, Zeigler says the majority of stories of young athletes coming out to their teammates are overwhelmingly positive.
Joanna Hoffman, director of communications at Athlete Ally, an organization whose mission it is to end homophobia and transphobia in sport, agrees.
She explains that while social media has certainly created trolls, it has also built a platform for people like NFL player Carl Nassib and Canadian hockey player Luke Prokop to come out on their own terms.
“Athletes often feel able to come out when they know they have a support system around them,” Hoffman tells Yahoo Life. “We all should have the right to choose how, when, where and with whom we share intimately personal details about our lives. When that choice is taken from someone, it’s an act of violence in many ways.”
For the record: No one is endorsing the outing of Olympic athletes. But perhaps, in the future, we’ll be living in a world where being LGBTQ is a nonstarter on the world stage.
“For many LGBTQ+ athletes and fans, you have to see it to be it,” Hoffman says. “I know what it meant to me as a young queer girl to see out queer people on TV and in the movies. These trailblazing out LGBTQ Olympians and Paralympians are showing the world that LGBTQ+ people are in and belong in every part of life, especially and including sports.”