Coming out, also known as coming out of the closet, refers to the disclosure of one’s sexual orientation. In Spanish, the phrase is salir del clóset and Portuguese, estar assumindo. French forms are sortir du placard, sortir du garde-robe, faire son coming out, and le coming-out. In other languages, the simple English form “coming out” or “coming-out” may be used, and may be written phonetically in non-Latin alphabet renderings. The term has been more loosely adopted to refer to any sort of disclosure, such as coming out as HIV positive. In terms of Gay folklore, the act of coming out becomes a narrative that LGBTQ people share as an important means of bonding.
The roots of coming out are in a heteronormal tradition originating in seventeenth-century Britain. Young upper-class women would be formally presented to the royal court so that eligible noblemen could consider them for marriage, a custom abolished by Queen Elizabeth II in 1958 but continued in modified form in the USA as the debutante ball.
The custom was reinvented in the early twentieth century by the Gay community as the drag ball, grand dance parties in which gender-crossers would make their debut in society dressed in drag. The notion of coming out-as-debut was combined in the mid-twentieth century with the notion of the closet, a metaphor for hiding scandalous things about oneself, one’s family, or one’s community, taken from the folk phrase, skeletons in the closet.
Iconic Moments of Coming Out
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs believed that revelation of orientation was a necessary step towards equal rights. As editor of the early Lesbian journal, The Ladder, Phyllis Lyon came out in print in 1957, declaring that Anne Sullivan (her former pen name) was dead.
Whether initially forced to do so or not, the public coming-out of media favorites has had a profound effect on the LGBTQ community. British singer Elton John officially came out in the 1970s, and comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997 (the pivotal nature of these events have inspired two LGBTQ blogs, AfterEllen.com and AfterElton.com). Rock Hudson came out as both Gay and HIV+ in 1985 after being diagnosed with AIDS, giving the dreaded disease a recognizable and beloved public face, and Orthodox Rabbi Steve Greenberg came out in 1999. Various athletes, such as American Football player David Kopay (1975, three years after retiring), Czech tennis player Martina Navratilova (1981, 15 years before retiring), Australian rugby player Ian Roberts (1995, three years before retiring), and Samoan American football player Esera Tuaolo (2002, three years after retiring) came out, generating tremendous controversy in the popular press.
In the much smaller world of folklore studies, Gerald Davis publicly revealed his orientation when presenting the 1995 President’s Invited Lecture during the annual American Folklore Society conference in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Not all the people with controversial coming-outs actually exist in real life. In the comic book world, superheroes Northstar (French Canadian man who can fly at great speeds), Karma (Vietnamese American woman who can telepathically take over the minds of sentient beings), Colossus (or at least one version of Colossus, a Russian man who can change his body into strong organic metal), and Batwoman (American with agility, intelligence and gadgetry) have all come out.
Coming Out in Theory and Practice
Coming out is a unifying topic for members of LGBTQ communities, and coming-out narratives focus on the moment of first disclosing one’s sexual orientation. This initial disclosure is rarely the last, and one can be out in some areas of life – to particular groups of friends, coworkers, neighbors, or family members – without being out in other areas. Describing the moment of first disclosure (and the poignant, humorous, or traumatic events that follow) features prominently in the narratives of LGBTQ communities.
The strategy of coming out has been adopted widely by activists around the world who consider sexual identity to be distinct and immutable, and is one of the most ubiquitous concepts being transmitted among Gay movements around the world. Nonetheless, the idea of disclosure does not always take the form of the idiom of the closet. Sexual minorities in the Philippines talk about magladlad, or “unfurling one’s cape” (the Filipino LGBTQ political party Ang Ladlad takes its name from the term), and other culturally resonant idioms of secrecy and disclosure may replace the closet in transnational contexts.
The idea of coming out is also used in other social movements, especially those where a given identity or propensity for a behavior are not immediately apparent. One may therefore come out as a member of a religious, political, medical, or social group. The idea of “coming out” publicly has been adopted by those who are HIV positive in efforts to acknowledge the prevalence of HIV infection. Coming out is often associated with stigmatized identity or behavior. People come out as survivors of domestic or sexual violence, practitioners of BDSM (Bondage/Dominance/Sado-Masochism), religious (such as Wiccan), having Asperger’s syndrome, or coming out in the Gay community as Republican.
Coming out is best understood as a performance within an open frame rather than a pre-set piece. As an intensely personal act, any number of conditions may be set before coming out to lessen potential disaster should the news be taken badly. A typical element in the performance of coming out is the assumed unawareness of the chosen audience until the moment the performer announces, “I am Gay,” so that the audience may be observed in terms of initial reaction to the news.
At the moment of the announcement, the roles of audience and performer are switched without prior warning so that the out-comer may observe the (assumed) unvarnished reaction of the recipient. Coming out may be presented casually as if it is regular conversation, or it may be prepared in advance and situated within an intensely personal frame, signaling to the audience that the following announcement is very important.
Internal struggle prior to coming out can be intense. Such was the case for Kai Bailey, a transwoman who came out to her friends via social media (Facebook) in June 2012:
I couldn’t think of any other time in my life where a single click would result in changing so many friends’ perspectives of me in such a drastic way. In that moment, I believed a twitch of my finger could end a hundred friendships in an instant… Leigh [Kai’s partner] grabbed my hand, and together we clicked the mouse. With that startling quickness, my milestone was suddenly available on the screens of over a hundred friends. To ensure nobody missed the hint, I immediately updated my gender selection, profile picture and cover photo. The seconds that followed were adrenaline-soaked, and my eyes flicked to the notification bar to wait for some tiny binary token of acceptance from a friend. [facebookstories.com/stories/3790/essay-coming-out-in-a-single-click]
Encouraging People to Come Out
LGBTQ people have been encouraged for some time to come out as a strategy for maximizing visibility and political power. After the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987, Robert Eichberg, William Gamble and Jean O’Leary decided to establish an annual event to encourage people to publicly embrace their sexuality. Since 1988, National Coming Out Day (NCOD) has been celebrated in the USA every October 11 to encourage those who are not yet out as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, or Ally to make themselves known to those around them. The day is now celebrated in a number of other countries. In the United Kingdom, a similar event takes place on October 12.
Part of the emphasis on this strategy is the influence of those prominent individuals who have come out in a way that influenced public opinion – formerly against their will in many instances, but increasingly as a voluntary move. This list includes politicians as well as entertainers and others whose disclosure of their sexuality was then used to sway public opinion on LGBTQ issues.
Coming out is not only an individual performance. In Zimbabwe, for example, the LGBTQ community first came out in 1990, but was driven back into the closet due to governmental oppression – the vast majority of the organization, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) fled the country. But there was a resurgence in 1995, in part due to the insistence of Gay people that the AIDS crisis be addressed. Similar movements are occurring in other African countries such as Uganda, where a movement to legislate the death penalty and life imprisonment for homosexuality in 2009-2014 (encouraged by homophobic Christian organizations in the USA) has been challenged by international outcry and local LGBTQ activists at great risk to themselves.
Outing and Controversy
Forced outing has historically been used against the LGBTQ community, and can still be used to discredit or blackmail those who fear disclosure of their sexual orientation. For those who lack protection against discrimination or are at the mercy of public opinion – for example, teenagers, public figures, members of anti-Gay communities or municipalities, and those under guidelines like the American military’s former policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – the threat of outing often generates considerable fear and anxiety. In organizations like the US military, the threat took on specific forms like lesbian baiting, the practice of using accusations of female homosexuality as a threat to sexually harass or otherwise control female service members.
Chabot, Sean and Jan Willem Duyvendak, “Globalization and Transnational Diffusion Between Social Movements: Reconceptualizing the Dissemination of the Gandhian Repertoire and the ‘Coming Out’ Routine,” Theory and Society 31 (2002): pp. 697-740.
Jensen, Karol L. Lesbian Epiphanies: Women Coming Out in Later Life. Binghamton, NY: Haworth, 1999.
Outland, Orland. Coming Out: A Handbook for Men. Los Angeles: Alyson, 2000.
Sauerman, Tom and P-FLAG. Coming Out to Your Parents. Los Angeles: Federation of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, 1984.