Do people still need to 'come out'?

David Mundell Image copyright Getty Images

Scottish Secretary David Mundell has received warm words from across the political spectrum after announcing he is gay. But in an ideal world, would anyone have to come out at all?

It was his new year's resolution, the cabinet minister said. All it took, he added in a statement, was a few taps of the keyboard. "How can it be both so easy and so hard to say a few short words?"

Mundell was inundated with good wishes from colleagues and opponents alike. But in online forums some questioned whether this warranted headlines. Why, they asked, did it matter in 2016 that someone happened to be gay?

"Does anyone under 70 who isn't a religious fanatic really care these days?", wrote a commenter on Mail Online's news story. One tweeter remarked: "Why is this even news? Surely in this age, people accept and don't judge... surely?" It was a welcome sign of progress, the Spectator's Alex Massie wrote, that the reaction of many would be: "David Mundell is gay. So what?"

And it's true that public acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people has increased exponentially. There are now 33 openly gay MPs in the House of Commons - the highest proportion of any parliament in the world, according to a study by US academics. Mundell is not even the only senior Scottish Conservative politician to come out, the party's leader Ruth Davidson having beaten him to it.

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Image caption Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson (L) and Jen Wilson in 2015

And yet for all that professions such as politics and showbusiness may be welcoming of this diversity, other fields are less tolerant. There is still wariness about how gay Premier League footballers would be treated if, as has been reported, some are preparing to come out with the support of their clubs.

Reported homophobic hate crime in England and Wales rose by more than a fifth in 2014-15 - though this will have had much to do with LGBT people's increased confidence in the police as well more sympathetic public attitudes. Nonetheless, coming out still remains hazardous in some places. Around the world, people are still persecuted for their sexuality and gender identity - in many cases, under threat of the death penalty.

Nonetheless, public attitudes have undoubtedly shifted decisively towards LGBT acceptance in recent decades, and the introduction of reforms such as same-sex marriage were regarded by many as the final step in bringing the UK to formal legal equality. With cultural norms shifting in the wake of this, an optimist might hope that the need to come out might eventually wither away.

But even in tolerant, progressive environments, coming out can be extremely difficult, says Eleanor Margolis, who writes the New Statesman magazine's Lez Miserable column. "My parents are very liberal - I grew up in a house where nothing was taboo," she says. But when she came out as a 10-year-old, she "was in floods of tears". If it was traumatic for her, she says, what must it be like for someone in a less accepting environment?

Equally, of course, coming out can be a joyful event and a act of liberation. In the US National Coming Out Day has been held on 11 October every year since 1988 to celebrate the act of living openly as an LGBT person.

Others see it as a duty - the argument being that the more visible gay and transgender people are, the more they are normalised. The US writer Dan Savage has argued that LGBT people in the public eye have a "moral responsibility" to come out in order to demonstrate to others that they aren't alone. Some have gone further and adopted the highly controversial tactic of "outing" closeted celebrities who were considered hypocritical.

There's a more practical reason why people come out, namely that most people are heterosexual. And since you can't presume someone's sexual orientation just by looking at someone, "I am quite sure that coming out will be with us for a long time", says gender theorist Judith Butler, a professor at University of California, Berkeley. "People make assumptions, or they ask questions, and then an answer is necessary."

All this is dependent, of course, on living in a society where heterosexuality is the norm. Straight people don't think of themselves as coming out when they mention their partner to colleagues or leave a photo of their husband or wife on their desk, says Stonewall's youth programmes manager Wayne Dhesi, who runs the charity RUComingOut.

Famous people who have come out

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Ellen DeGeneres became the first main character in a TV series to announce they were gay in a scene on the Ellen Show in 1997.

Chris Smith, as he was known before his elevation to the House of Lords, made history in 1984 when he became the first male MP in Britain's House of Commons to announce he was gay.

Steven Davies became the first openly gay cricketer, telling his team-mates just before the 2010-11 Ashes tour

Olympic diver Tom Daley first revealed he was in a relationship with a man in 2013, and says coming out as gay made him feel "more comfortable" straight away

As David Bowie - who used a whole range of labels to describe his sexuality at different points in his life - demonstrates, it doesn't impose an obligation to stick with one sexual orientation forever. And for the vast majority of LGBT people - those who are not public figures who can issue a press release or hold a press conference - coming out isn't a single event but a process.

You might come out first to your family, then your friends, then your colleagues - and, later, to colleagues in your next job, and to friends you meet later in life. In this respect, Dhesi says, coming out isn't about making a big statement or putting one's sexuality at the heart of every conversation, but simply choosing not to self-censor.

Of course, the aim of equality campaigners "is create an environment where being straight, cisgendered isn't assumed", says Dhesi.

But this doesn't change the fact that LGBT people are and will remain a minority, says Darren Langdridge, professor of psychology and sexuality at the Open University.

"The majority of people are heterosexual and that's not going to go away," he says. "There's always going to come a point of recognising you're different. You've got to come out to someone." And that's a good thing, he says. But if coming out will always be a necessary personal statement, it may become less of a political one, he believes.

So while people might always come out, it might come to mean something quite different and rather less dramatic-sounding.

Coming out won't ever disappear "because it's still something that you discuss about yourself. It's something about you that's invisible," says Margolis. "But ideally, one day it'll be as mundane as announcing if you prefer Pepsi or Coke."

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