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Coming out of the closet, or simply coming out, is a figure of speech for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people disclosing their sexual orientation and gender identity. Framed and debated as a privacy issue, coming out of the closet is described and experienced variously as: a psychological process or journey; decision-making or risk-taking; a strategy or plan; a mass or public event; a speech act and a matter of personal identity; a rite of passage; liberation or emancipation from oppression; a means toward feeling gay pride instead of shame and social stigma. In light of this, "[I]t is the power of the closet to shape the core of an individual's life that has made homosexuality into a significant personal, social, and political drama in twentieth-century America".
In the context of LGBT people being historically marginalized sexual minorities, coming out of the closet remains a challenge for the majority of the world's LGBT population and can lead to a backlash of heterosexist discrimination and homophobic violence. Consequently, many LGBT people feel required to conceal certain aspects of their sexuality in order to manage social stigma: sexual orientation (same-sex attractions), sexual behavior, and sexual and gender identity. Individuals may enter into a lavender marriage or avoid certain jobs or social situations in order to avoid suspicion and exposure. Some effects of remaining closeted or not coming out have been the subject of studies. For example, it has been found that same-sex couples who are closeted are not as satisfied in their relationships as same-sex couples who are openly gay. Findings from another study indicate that the less people know about a lesbian’s sexual orientation, the more anxiety, less positive affectivity, and lower self-esteem she has. Lastly, Gay.com states that closeted individuals have also been reported to be at an increased risk for suicide.
The present-day expression “coming out” is understood to have originated in the early 20th century from an analogy that likens homosexuals’ introduction into gay subculture to a débutante’s coming-out party: a celebration for one young upper-class woman making her début - her formal presentation to society - because she has reached adult age or has become eligible for marriage. History professor George Chauncey of Yale University points out in his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994) that:
"Gay people in the pre-war years [pre-WWI]... did not speak of coming out of what we call the gay closet but rather of coming out into what they called homosexual society or the gay world, a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor... so hidden as closet implies"
An article on coming out in the online encyclopedia glbtq.com states that sexologist Dr. Evelyn Hooker’s observations introduced the early use of "coming out" to the academic community in the 1950’s. The article continues by echoing Chauncey's observation that a subsequent shift in connotation occurred later on. The pre-1950’s focus was on entrance into “a new world of hope and communal solidarity” whereas the post-Stonewall Riots overtone was an exit from the oppression of the closet. This change in focus suggests that “coming out of the closet” is a mixed metaphor that joins “coming out” with the closet metaphor: an evolution of “skeleton in the closet” specifically referring to living a life of denial and secrecy by concealing one’s homosexual or bisexual orientation. The closet metaphor, in turn, is extended to the forces and pressures of heterosexist society and its institutions.
In 1869, one-hundred years before the Stonewall Riots, the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs introduced the idea of self-disclosure as a means of emancipation. Claiming that invisibility was a major obstacle toward changing public opinion, he urged homosexual people reveal their same-sex attractions.
In his 1906 work, Das Sexualleben unserer Zeit in seinen Beziehungen zur modernen Kultur (The Sexual Life of Our Time in its Relation to Modern Civilization), Iwan Bloch, a German-Jewish physician, besought elderly homosexuals to self-disclose to their family members and acquaintances.
Years later, Magnus Hirschfeld revisited the topic in his major work The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1914), discussing the social and legal potentials of several thousand homosexual men and women of rank revealing their sexual orientation to the police in order to influence legislators and public opinion.
The first prominent American to reveal his homosexuality was the poet Robert Duncan. In 1944, using his own name in the anarchist magazine Politics, he claimed that homosexuals were an oppressed minority.
In 1961, Donald Webster Cory published his landmark The Homosexual in America, exclaiming, "Society has handed me a mask to wear...Everywhere I go, at all times and before all sections of society, I pretend." Cory was a pseudonym, but his frank and openly subjective descriptions served as a stimulus to the emerging homosexual self-awareness and the nascent homophile movement.
The decidedly clandestine Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay and other veterans of the Wallace for President campaign in Los Angeles in 1950, also moved into the public eye with many gays emerging from the closet after Hal Call took over the group in San Francisco in 1953.
In the 1960s, Frank Kameny came to the forefront of the struggle. Having been fired from his job as an astronomer for the Army Map service for homosexual behavior, Kameny refused to go quietly. He openly fought his dismissal, eventually appealing it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a vocal leader of the growing movement, Kameny argued for unapologetic public actions. The cornerstone of his conviction was that, "we must instill in the homosexual community a sense of worth to the individual homosexual," which could only be achieved through campaigns openly led by homosexuals themselves. His motto was "Gay is good."
With the spread of consciousness raising (CR) in the late 1960’s, coming out became a key strategy of the gay liberation movement to raise political consciousness to counter heterosexism and homophobia. At the same time and continuing into the 1980’s, gay and lesbian social support discussion groups, some of which called “coming-out groups”, focused on sharing coming-out “stories” (experiences) with the goal of reducing isolation and increasing LGBT visibility and pride.
When coming out is described as a gradual process or a journey, it is meant to include becoming aware of and acknowledging one’s same-sex desires or gender identity. This preliminary stage, which involves soul-searching or a personal epiphany, is often called “coming out to oneself” and constitutes the start of self-acceptance. Many LGBT people say that this stage began for them during adolescence, when they first became aware of their sexual orientation toward members of the same-sex.
Coming out has been described as a process also because of a recurring need or desire to come out in new situations in which LGBT people are assumed to be heterosexual or cisgender, such as at a new job or with new acquaintances. Diana Fuss (1991) explains, "the problem of course with the inside/outside rhetoric...is that such polemics disguise the fact that most of us are both inside and outside at the same time."
Several models have been created to describe coming out as a process for gay and lesbian identity development, e.g. Dank, 1971; Cass, 1984; Coleman, 1989; Troiden, 1989. Of these models, the most widely accepted is the Cass identity model established by Vivienne Cass. This model outlines six discrete stages transited by individuals who successfully come out: identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis.
However, not every LGBT person follows such a model. For example, some LGBT youth become aware of and accept their same-sex desires or gender identity at puberty in a way similar to which heterosexual teens become aware of their sexuality, i.e. free of any notion of difference, stigma or shame in terms of the gender of the people to whom they are attracted.
Regardless of whether LGBT youth develop their identity based on a model, the typical age at which they come out has been dropping. High school students and even middle school students are coming out.
In areas of the world where homosexual acts are penalized or prohibited, gay men, lesbians and bisexual people can suffer negative legal consequences for coming out. In particular, where homosexuality is a crime, coming out may constitute self-incriminating evidence.
Mandated by federal law Pub.L. 103-160 (10 U.S.C. § 654), the U.S. armed forces’ policy on homosexuality in the military, commonly known as Don’t ask, don’t tell, prohibits coming out ("a statement that a member is homosexual or bisexual") because it is tantamount to “a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts”.
Observed annually on October 11, by members of the LGBT communities and their straight allies, National Coming Out Day is a civil awareness day for coming out and discussing LGBT issues among the general populace in an effort to give a familiar face to the LGBT rights movement. This day was the inspiration for holding LGBT History Month in the United States in October.
The day was founded in 1988, by Dr. Robert Eichberg, his partner William Gamble, and Jean O'Leary to celebrate the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights one year earlier, in which 500,000 people marched on Washington, DC, United States, for gay and lesbian equality. In the United States, the Human Rights Campaign manages the event under the National Coming Out Project, offering resources to LGBT individuals, couples, parents, and children, as well as straight friends and relatives, to promote awareness of LGBT families living honest and open lives. Candace Gingrich became the spokesperson for the day in April 1995.
Although still named "National Coming Out Day", it is observed in Canada, Germany, The Netherlands, and Switzerland also on October 11, and in the United Kingdom on October 12.
To celebrate National Coming Out Day on October 11, 2002, Human Rights Campaign released an album bearing the same title as that year's theme: Being Out Rocks. Participating artists include Kevin Aviance, Janis Ian, k.d. lang, Cyndi Lauper, Sarah McLachlan, and Rufus Wainright.
In 1988, Svend Robinson was the first Canadian Member of Parliament to come out.
In 1998, the United States' youngest campaign manager Jon-Marc McDonald came out voluntarily via a press release when he resigned from conservative Republican candidate Brian Babin's congressional campaign. McDonald stated that "There comes a time when your convictions take precedence over your job, your title, and your status." McDonald's story received widespread media attention because of the sensationalistic way it transpired.
In 1997 on The Oprah Winfrey Show, actress Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian. Her real-life coming out was echoed in the sitcom Ellen in "The Puppy Episode" in which the eponymous character Ellen Morgan played by DeGeneres outs herself over the airport public address system.
The first professional team-sport athlete to come out was former NFL running back David Kopay, who played for five teams (San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, New Orleans, Green Bay) between 1964-72. He came out in an interview in the Washington Star.
In 1996 the acclaimed British film Beautiful Thing had a more positive take in its depiction of two teenage boys coming to terms with their sexual identity. An episode of a popular Quebec television series L'Amour avec un Grand A called Lise, Pierre et Marcel focuses on the life of a homosexual man who is married and reveals to his wife and kids that he is attracted to another man. In the Emmy Award-nominated episode "Gay Witch Hunt" of The Office, Michael inadvertently outs Oscar to the whole office.
In 1999, Russell T Davies's Queer as Folk, a popular TV series shown on Channel 4 (UK) debuted and focused primarily on the lives of young gay men; in particular on a 15-year-old going through the processes of revealing his sexuality to those around him. This storyline was also featured prominently in the U.S. version of Queer As Folk, which debuted in 2000.
The television show The L Word, which debuted in 2004, focuses on the lives of a group of lesbian and bisexual women, and the theme of coming out is prominently featured in the storylines of multiple characters.
In political, casual or even humorous contexts, "coming out" means by extension the self-disclosure of a person's secret behaviors, beliefs, affiliations, tastes, and interests that may cause astonishment or bring shame. Some examples include: "coming out as an alcoholic", "coming out as a conservative",, "coming out as multiple", and "coming out of the broom closet" (as a witch), and "coming out on/about plastic surgery".
With its associated metaphors, the figure of speech has also been extended to atheism, e.g. "coming out as an atheist". Furthermore, a public awareness initiative for freethought and atheism, entitled the "Out Campaign", makes ample use of the "out" metaphor. In addition, this campaign is endorsed by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, who states:
|“||... there is a big closet population of atheists who need to come out.||”|
The expression "coming out", meaning when a LGBT person discloses his or her sexual orientation or gender identity, has spread to other languages. It is transliterated, used as a loan translation or simply borrowed as-is.