Today the phrase ‘‘come out of the closet’’ is known to many people outside the LGBT+ community. You probably know it too. Or the shorter, more popular version of it – ‘‘coming out’’ Maybe your knowledge of that expression expands beyond.
However, not everyone knows how this phrase appeared, or that has different meanings. In her new book, Abigail C. Saguy explains the concept of coming out, it’s the origin and how it has changed as the history unfolded.
To share and not to share
You may be thinking that the gay society was hidden up till the 21st century. Well, it had its highs and lows, but at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, this subculture was alive and vibrant.
The term ‘‘coming out’’ originally existed to describe young girls. As they reached the appropriate age, they were presented to society. They ‘‘came out’’. Similarly, gay men of that time ‘‘came out’’ into the gay community. The Baltimore newspaper in 1931 described men coming out as homosexual society debutantes. The article was titled accordingly.
But in the following decades of the 1930s-1950s gay society became much less visible due to the social nonacceptance of homosexuality.
One of the earliest pro-gay organizations The Mattachine Society was named after a French medieval and renaissance masque group. It was a part of a so-called homophile movement, a predecessor of the gay rights movement. There and then, to come out meant to admit to yourself that you are gay. You could share with gay society, but the rest of the world wouldn’t know.
Like a lot of secretive organizations, The Mattachine Society had code phrases. Gays were referred to as ‘‘family’’ ‘‘one of ours’’ or ‘‘a member of the club’’. All of these phrases and more could be referred to when talking about a gay person in a company of strangers.
The word ‘‘gay’’ wasn’t used as we know it now up until the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion when movement adopted it. Originally, it was used by prostitutes to refer to their colleagues.
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Finally Coming Out
The turning point for a gay rights movement was the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969. Clients of a known New York gay bar rebelled after a police raid. After than ‘‘coming out’’ was a more of a political move, as what followed the Rebellion itself were long riots. Today gay people and those who support gay movement commemorate this event in an annual march known as ‘‘gay pride’’.
The year after the Stonewall riots the first Gay Liberation March was held in New York. One of the organizers then said that to gain rights gay community deserves, gay people had to ‘‘stop hiding in the closet’’ of their anonymity.
In the late 1960s, hiding one’s true identity wasn’t considered a well-respected move. ‘‘Closeted’’ queer people were labeled ‘‘a closet case’’. Gay men who pretended to be straight were called ‘‘closet queens’’.
Initiation |Coming Out Through The History
As the 1970s unfolded, coming out of the closet became something more familiar to us. A way to declare one’s identity and self-acceptance and live a happier life. It was still unsafe to some extent to come out, but the LGBTQ community encouraged fellow members to risk. It was a proclamation of fearlessness as well as solidarity.
In the 1970s, spontaneous events supporting the movement were organized all over the country. In 1978 in California there was an initiative to officially ban gay people from working as a teacher in a state public school. The initiative was defeated nor in the least thanks to Harvey Milk. An openly gay and an elected government official, he encouraged people to come out.
He argued that outing themselves to those around them, gay people would gain more supporters. At a time, gays couldn’t express themselves freely, so no one would really know whether their acquaintance was or was not straight. Milk supposed that many more people would protest against the resolution if they knew that their loved one is gay or a lesbian.
The 1980s were another decade of the rapid evolution of the gay rights movement. It faced others, less liberal communities’ dissent, for example, some Christian organizations. And there was the growing awareness of AIDS, mixed with no known cure or treatment. In these complicated years, LGBT activists urged gays and lesbians to share their identity. Coming out was no longer a euphemism.
Out and proud
In the last decade of the 20th century, coming out became all about owning one’s sexuality.
Queer Nation, an LGBT activist organization, made an unforgettable input in the coming-out narrative. Their actions were unusual, aggressive, and definitely achieved their goal. And the main goal was to catch the eye of heterosexual society, to make them acknowledge the existence of LGBT people. But most of all – to gain basic human rights, which in the 1990s still weren’t granted to everyone. Queer Nation members wore bright T-shirts with ‘provocative’ slogans. They came as publicly as possible: in straight bars, in shopping malls, and elsewhere not private.
Following this tactic of coming out, the gay community attracted the world’s attention and made itself a figure no one could just ignore. Thanks to the activism of that and previous decades, gay people finally gained protection by law. Marriage equality is one of the most important positive consequences. Nowadays gay people are visible, not only one street but onscreen, too. One of the many examples of a popular TV-series “Modern family”.
Unfortunately, homophobia isn’t gone. It’s alive and thriving, but so does the LGBTQA+ community.
The show goes on | Coming Out Through The History
The definite success of the LGBT community inspired other minorities to come out. Now we see different movements gaining power – body-positiv, the undocumented youth movement, and more.
The latter is young but popular in the States. It is a movement of young people who are striving to be real citizens of this country. Often they are of immigrant descent or immigrants themselves. They argue that if they don’t come out and declare that they are real, no one’s going to know about them. And that, the lack of visibility, leads to nothing but life in the shadows.
Thus, the phrase “come out” is no longer a specific LGBTQ slang, but an encouraging and empowering narrative. New movements emerge and develop rapidly, and they are not easily silenced. Nowadays activism exceeded the boundaries of one movement, creating a new political agenda.
Marilyn Wann, a body-positivity activist, tells about her experience. She says that for her coming out as fat was a move of self-acceptance rather that a declaration to the public. In her opinion, being fat is similar to being gay. These things are still heavily stigmatized in the eyes of society.
The main conclusion of Abigail C. Saguy’s book is that some social movements pave the way for others. And in 20thcentury, it was the gay rights movement.