It is an accepted fact especially by many members within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community that coming out of the closet (or declaring one's sexual orientation and/ or gender identity) to oneself and others generally contributes to the individual sense of well-being. The argument is derived from the belief that being honest about one's sexuality and/or gender identity contributes to greater individual acceptance. This acceptance is extended to the wider circle when an individual chose to come out to others. As such, coming out is not merely a personal choice but incorporates a social and political dimension. As more LGBT people come out of their closets, it is argued that mainstream society would become more accepting of them. In turn, it becomes less politically correct to discriminate against LGBT individuals. Activists would therefore be able to fight for equal rights in a more hospitable environment.
Despite these arguments, some LGBT activists advocate the reverse when it comes to the issue of outing politicians. Two recent examples show how these beliefs get thrown out of the window in support of the right to privacy.
The first instance occurred in Taiwan when Shih Ming-The, a renowned democracy activist, demanded the current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson, Tsai Ing-Wen to declare her sexuality. Shih argued that Tsai needs to be open about her sexuality towards the voting public as she may become the next President. The argument goes: She is unfit for office if she cannot be honest about her sexuality to herself and the citizenry. Women rights activists have accused him of discrimination and human rights violations for "forcing a woman to confirm speculation that she may be a lesbian is a brutal, inhumane form of persecution".
This outcry is invariably sensational and cheapens human rights since the right to privacy is not absolute and depends on the situation. In this particular case, it is difficult to justify how outing Tsai will lead to her being persecuted given her position and political clout. Surely, rights activists would be better informed that much more serious human rights violations are occurring in other parts of the world such as the physical attacks against LGBT defenders in Zimbawe or Cameroon. These attacks deserve universal condemnation, not the right to privacy in Tsai's case since no potential harm is perceived.
A similar form of mudslinging is occurring in the current Singapore elections when a ruling party candidate, Vivian Balakrishnan, of the Peoples' Action Party, hinted in a media interview that one of the candidates from the opposition, Singapore Democratic Party, Vincent Wijeysingha, is gay and harboured a 'gay agenda'. As insinuated by Vivian, his statement was based on a youtube clip. In the film, Vincent was believed to have attended a forum on the repeal of the 377A, a legislation that criminalises same sex male behaviour. Vivian had also described the forum as one of touching on topics such as sex with boys and age of consent. The SDP has since voiced its support of Vincent, stating that it will not discriminate against anyone regardless of their ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
The online response from the public in Singapore appears to be tilted towards Vincent. Li Shi-En Lisa, 'saddened by the appearance of such gutter politics', has argued that if decriminalising gay sex is considered a 'gay cause', then it is merely a fight for basic human rights. Prominent gay rights activists and blogger, Alex Au of Yawning Bread, has also condemned Balakrishnan's 'contemptuous' politicking. However, he has urged the SDP to allow its candidates to be more open for pragmatic reasons. He argues that these rumours can only be quelled if Vincent is more candid about his sexuality.
Siew Kum Hong, a former Nominated Member of Parliament and lawyer explains thus, "The PAP can try all it wants, but the objective here is transparently clear to everyone: to tell the world that Vincent Wijeysingha is gay, and thereby win the votes of that part of the population that will vote based on just this single wedge issue, regardless of any other issue".
In running for office, it is more or less expected of politicians to 'get their hands dirty' and engage in questionable behaviour to score points and win over votes. In this instance, Vivian's motives appear less than noble.
Nevertheless, in rallying of support for Vincent and his right not to come out (or declare his sexual orientation), political pundits who empathise with his position are caught in a blind. Some believed LGBT individuals should only come out to whomever they chose, depending on how comfortable they are with this notion. While this might sound reasonable in principle, it is not necessarily so in practice.
After all, for many LGBT individuals, coming out is a constant struggle, whether at home or in the workplace. The fear of being rejected by one's immediate family and friends may distort an individual sense of reality and prevent him or her from coming out. Yet, in many instances, this fear has proven to be unfounded.
This analogy can also be extended to the cases of Tsai and Vincent. If doubts about their sexual orientation were true, one wonders if keeping silent, and arguing for personal privacy might be a cop-out, due to fear, and whether it is rational.
If they hoped to be elected into office by keeping their sexual orientation a secret, one can question whether this would do any justice to the LGBT minorities. After all, hasn't the community, more or less, accepted the belief that being out and proud has a significant social and political impact on mainstream society? In both instances, it can be convincingly argued that an out and proud gay or lesbian politician, through leading by example, would hopefully reduce the pervasive discrimination faced by many others in other parts of society.
Furthermore, and this is pertinent to the above examples, it is difficult to see how outing Tsai or Vincent (if indeed they are gay) would lead to some kind of harm (according to critics or advocates of the right to absolute privacy). Sure, such an act might lead to loss of certain voter support base but it is better to win people's confidence through openness rather than appealing to pretenses. It is also a much more preferable option than being discovered and sensationalised by the media if they enter office.
If history is any indication, being an openly gay politician is not as controversial as it is, at least in some Western countries. This would likely come to pass in both societies. The Iceland Prime Minister Johanna Siguroadottir; Australian Greens leader and senator, Bob Brown and Australian's Labor Party Senator, Penny Wong, just to name a few. While it is true that these politicians live in more tolerant societies, all of them probably have to personally struggle with the idea of coming out to the public. I suspect, they have come to the conclusion that it is better to be out in the open rather than keeping the public guessing.
Judging by responses from the above two cases, it would be some time before we will witness out and proud gay politicians in both Singapore and Taiwan. In choosing to stay in the closet (if indeed the allegations are true), both candidates perhaps believed that voters are not rational enough to look pass their sexuality. But, when, one might ask, is the right time?
Charles Tan is a Singaporean, human rights activist and student of politics living in Australia.