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“Coming Out”

"Coming out of the closet" (very often shortened to "coming out" in winking reference to the public introduction of debutantes) describes the voluntary public announcement of one's (often homosexual or bisexual) sexual orientation, sexual attractions, gender identity, or paraphilia.

Being "out" means not concealing these characteristics. Being "outed" refers to having these characteristics made public typically against one's wishes or without one's consent. "Outing" is the process of deliberately disclosing these characteristics of another who presumably wants to keep this information private.

People Who Stay In The Closet

Some people who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer, or who might prefer same-gender sexual activities or relationships, have engaged in heterosexual activities or have had long-term heterosexual relationships, including marriage. (Well known examples include Elton John and the late Leslie Cheung.) Such apparently "heterosexual" behavior by people who would otherwise consider themselves gay or lesbian has often been part of being "in the closet," to create an illusion for acceptance by heterosexual surroundings. (They are to be distinguished from "Out" bisexuals in long-term heterosexual relationships.)

Others who are "in the closet" have no heterosexual contact and simply want to protect themselves from discrimination or rejection by not revealing their sexual orientation or attractions (see pronoun game). This practice may be becoming less common as acceptance of homosexuality increases, although there has been a recent and ongoing rise in the number of men on the "down-low" or "DL"[citation needed] (this means they may be straight, married, or simply gay but feel very strongly against anyone knowing about their business).

History Of Coming Out

The idea of coming out was introduced in 1869 by the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs as a means of emancipation. Realizing that invisibility was a major obstacle toward changing public opinion, he urged homosexuals themselves to come out.

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 come out to their heterosexual family members and acquaintances.

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 men and women of rank coming out to the police in order to influence legislators and public opinion. (Johansson&Percy, p.24)

The first important American to come out 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 1951, 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-consciousness and the nascent homophile movement. (Gross, p. 15)

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 1960's 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. (Gross, p. 18) His motto was "Gay is good."

Transgender And Transsexual Usage

Whilst most people try to live according to the gender to which they are assigned at birth (or, in many cases of intersexuality, later), many transgender or transsexual people eventually decide to live according to the gender role with which they more closely identify, and therefore choose to announce their gender identity and their intention of changing their gender role if they wish to transition. Unlike with sexual orientation, coming out as (for example) female-identified rather than male-identified is not optional if one wishes to transition from one sex to another. However, many transgender and especially transsexual people wish to hide their birth sex once they have transitioned. Thus a transsexual or transgender person can come out twice: once before the initial transition, and once afterward to those unfamiliar with their previous sex.

The Coming Out Process

Coming out has an etiquette of its own, developed through the experiences of people who did it in a way they later decided was inappropriate and more stressful than it had to be. It is generally suggested to avoid coming out during holidays and at other stressful times, such as during an argument.

Coming out is a process, and often a gradual one. It is common to come out first to a trusted friend or family member, and wait to come out to others. Some people are out at work but not to their families, or vice-versa. Still, one does not typically "come out" and have it done with; one must continue to out oneself with every new acquaintance and in most new situations.

It is also common to hear the phrase coming out to oneself, meaning to acknowledge to oneself that one is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. This is the very first step in the coming-out process; it often involves soul-searching or a personal epiphany of some sort. Many gay, lesbian and transgender people go through a period prior to coming out when they believe their sexual orientation or behavior, or their cross-gender feelings to be "a phase", to be malleable, or when they reject their own feelings for religious or moral reasons. A tongue-in-cheek slang term applied to such individuals is 'fagnostic'. Coming out to oneself ends that period of ambiguity and begins the process of self-acceptance.

Some studies have found that the degree to which a person can be out in a large number of life situations seems to strongly correlate with lack of stress and freedom from neurosis.


The act of revealing a closeted person's orientation against his or her wishes is known as outing them. Sometimes it is used to prove a political point, or demonstrate a contradiction between private lifestyle and public stance. Outing may be found to be libel by a court of law (for example, in 1957 the closeted Liberace successfully sued the Daily Mirror for merely insinuating that he was gay). Note, however, that the Daily Mirror's defence was that the words complained of, in a column written by `Cassandra', did not imply that Liberace was gay. They did not attempt to prove the accusation was true (justification): they attempted to prove that they had not made an accusation.

Current Viewpoints

Today, more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are out than ever before, and many believe that being in the closet is unhealthy for the individual. A common saying is, "Closets are for clothes". One major gay magazine is titled Out Magazine. Coming out is often seen within gay and lesbian communities as politically healthy, even a duty or necessity, arguing that the more out gay people there are, the harder it will be for opponents to misrepresent, marginalize, and oppress. Others believe that coming out in the traditional, overt manner is not always individually or culturally appropriate. An alternative offered is "coming home", the process of introducing one's same-sex partner to family and friends as a close friend, leaving the queer sexual identity more unspoken. "Coming home" has not worked its way into the public lexicon in the way that "Coming out" has.

Judith Butler (1991) criticizes the in/out metaphor as creating a binary opposition which pretends that the closet is dark, marginal, and false and that being out in the "light of illumination" reveals a true (or essential) identity. Diana Fuss (1991) explains, "the problem of course with the inside/outside that such polemics disguise the fact that most of us are both inside and outside at the same time." Further, "To be out, in common gay parlance, is precisely to be no longer out; to be out is to be finally outside of exteriority and all the exclusions and deprivations such outsiderhood imposes. Or, put another way, to be out is really to be in--inside the realm of the visible, the speakable, the culturally intelligible." In other words, coming out constructs the closet it supposedly destroys and the self it supposedly reveals, "the first appearance of the homosexual as a 'species' rather than a 'temporary aberration' also marks the moment of the homosexual's disappearance--into the closet." Lauren Smith (2000) summarizes, "to be 'out of the closet', then, as either gay or straight, according to Fuss and Butler, is always to contain or cover up another closet."

However, Butler is willing to appear at events as a lesbian and maintains that, "it is possible to argue that...there remains a political imperative to use these necessary errors or category rally and represent an oppressed political constituency." Fuss also argues that deconstructing identities is only positive when it also dismantles differences in power, when the identities are consolidated and naturalized. For "women do not necessarily have the same historical relation to identity...and they do not necessarily start from a humanist fantasy of wholeness." Again, Butler: "It is affirm that gay and lesbian identities are not only structured in part by dominant heterosexual frames, but that they are not for that reason determined by them. They are running commentaries on those naturalized positions as well, parodic replays and resignifications of precisely those heterosexual structures that would consign gay life to discursive domains of unreality and unthinkability."

~ author unknown