What We Mean When We Talk About Coming Out (Of The Closet)

Illustrated by Norah Stone.
Every year on National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11), my college hosts Coming Out Stories. After classes are finished, LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and their allies gather in one of the school's auditoriums and watch as queer and transgender people tell their funniest or most emotional coming out stories.
During my time in college, one man told the same tale every year, about how he had to come out to his parents twice: First as a lesbian and then again as a bisexual trans man. His story was often more heartbreaking than others (like the freshman woman who told us that she accidentally came out to a group of new friends when they wouldn't stop asking about her type and she finally shouted "my type is vagina!") But listening to both funny and sad stories is what made the event powerful. We laughed together, we cried together, and we healed together. And, afterward, everyone who told their story lined up behind a fabulously rainbow-painted closet door and danced their way through it. The joyful end-of-event ritual pointed to the phrase, "coming out of the closet," which is commonly used to indicate that someone has started telling people that they're gay, bisexual, transgender, or any other identity that's not 100% straight and cisgender. But how did "coming out of the closet" become such a ubiquitous phrase?
Originally, coming out didn't mean what it means today. Instead of referring to an LGBTQ+ person disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to anyone, "coming out" was first used by gay men only. Historian George Chauncey wrote in his history of gay culture, Gay New York, that gay men adopted the phrase from debutante culture, when young ladies would "come out" into society and that meant they were eligible to date and marry young men. "Coming out" for gay men at the time, meant that someone had told other gay men that they were also gay. They would then become part of gay male culture at the time and (presumably) be available to date. Often, a new group of gay men would come out at drag balls, which were modeled after debutante balls.
So, instead of implying that someone was no longer hiding a grave secret, "coming out" was about proudly joining a community. Drag balls at the time were often covered in newspapers, so coming out into gay society could also mean coming out about your sexual orientation to the world at large. But, the phrase didn't take on the meaning that someone was revealing their sexuality until decades later. The closet metaphor didn't show up until at least the 1960s, according to Chauncey. Before then, he wrote, it didn't show up "in the records of the gay movement or in the novels, diaries, or letters of gay men and lesbians."
While even Chauncey isn't positive how the "closet" came to be, he theorizes that "it may have been used initially because many men who remained 'covert' thought of their homosexuality as a sort of 'skeleton in the closet.'" Being gay back then (and still in some parts of the world) was a shameful and fearful secret. Revealing your "skeleton" could (and sometimes still does) result in losing family or friends and facing homelessness or violence. So, no matter how the phrase got started, it takes guts to come out — even if you get to dance through a rainbow door afterward.

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