- Coming out
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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; an ordeal; a means toward feeling gay pride instead of shame and social stigma; or even career suicide. Author Steven Seidman writes that "it 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."
Coming out of the closet is the source of other gay slang expressions related to voluntary disclosure or lack thereof. Outing is the deliberate or accidental disclosure of an LGBT person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, without his or her consent. By extension, outing oneself is unintentional LGBT self-disclosure. Lastly, LGBT people labelled as closeted have yet to come out or have opted not to do so.
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 to 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, entreated 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. The decidedly clandestine Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay and other veterans of the Wallace for President campaign in Los Angeles in 1950, moved into the public eye after Hal Call took over the group in San Francisco in 1953, with many gays emerging from the closet.
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." 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. With the spread of consciousness raising (CR) in the late 1960s, 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 1980s, gay and lesbian social support discussion groups, some of which were called “coming-out groups,” focused on sharing coming-out “stories” (experiences) with the goal of reducing isolation and increasing LGBT visibility and pride.
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. This is a celebration for a young upper-class woman who is making her début – her formal presentation to society – because she has reached adult age or has become eligible for marriage. As historian George Chauncey points out:
"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 use of "coming out" to the academic community in the 1950s. The article continues by echoing Chauncey's observation that a subsequent shift in connotation occurred later on. The pre-1950s 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.
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 or childhood, when they first became aware of their sexual orientation toward members of the same sex. Coming out has also been described as a process 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. As 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."
LGBT identity development
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 youth in the United States come out has been dropping. High school students and even middle school students are coming out.
Transgender, transsexual, and intersex communities
LGBT people tend to share a feeling of relief that coming out can provide. However, the act of coming out differs for transgender, transsexual, and intersex people in some fundamental ways:
- By coming out, trans and intersex people disclose their gender identity and, if applicable, their decision to transition to the gender role with which they more closely identify. For trans people, the transition is to the gender opposite their biological sex and for intersex people, to the gender opposite to the one they were assigned at birth or raised as.
- Coming out is a pre-requisite to transitioning particularly if the transition later includes undergoing sex-reassignment surgery.
- For some trans people who pass and are mistaken for being cisgender, coming out occults important parts of their full sense of identity or their complete gender history.
- Conversely, coming out can be viewed as inauthentic or as a self-betrayal for some trans and intersex people who have chosen to live in stealth because the disclosure is at odds with their true gender.
- When trans or intersex people come out, it impacts how they label their sexual orientation and how they interact with communities to which they feel they belong.
- Backlashes or other negative reactions to a transperson’s coming out are caused by transphobia and sexism, with additional homophobia and heterosexism in some cases.
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, prohibited coming out ("a statement that a member is homosexual or bisexual") because it was considered tantamount to "a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts". However, the policy was repealed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, where it was passed by a majority of 63–33, including 6 Republicans voting in favour of gays serving openly in the military. More than 13,500 service members have been discharged from the military under the 1993 law. The repeal was enacted on September 20th, 2011, ending an awkward nine-month period where gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members had to remain cautiously closeted after the passage of the repeal but prior to its enactment.
Because LGBT people have historically been marginalized as sexual minorities, coming out of the closet remains a challenge for most of the world's LGBT population and can lead to a backlash of heterosexist discrimination and homophobic violence.
On the personal and relationship levels, effects of not coming out have been the subject of studies. For example, it has been found that same-sex couples who have not come out are not as satisfied in their relationships as same-sex couples who have. 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. Further, Gay.com states that closeted individuals are reported to be at increased risk for suicide.
In/out dichotomy and analysis
There is a social, political, personal, and linguistic opposition between being "out", meaning "openly gay" or "having come out", and being "closeted", meaning having yet to come out, having decided not to do so, or not identifying as LGBT.
The closet narrative sets up an implicit dualism between being "in" or being "out" wherein those who are "in" are often stigmatized as living false, unhappy lives. Likewise, philosopher and critical analyst Judith Butler (1991) states that the in/out metaphor creates 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. Nonetheless, 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 mistakes...to rally and represent an oppressed political constituency."
In addition 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." 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."
National Coming Out Day
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 Britain on 12 October. 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 Wainwright.
Highly publicized coming-outs
Government officials and political candidates
In 1987, Barney Frank U.S. House Representative for Massachusetts's 4th congressional district publicly came out as gay, thus becoming the first elected official in the United States to do so. In 1988, Svend Robinson was the first Canadian Member of Parliament to come out. Governor of New Jersey Jim McGreevey announced his decision to resign, publicly came out as "a gay American" and admitted to having had an extramarital affair with a man, Golan Cipel, an Israeli citizen and veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, whom McGreevey appointed New Jersey homeland security adviser.
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 and Green Bay) between 1964–72. He came out in 1975 in an interview in the Washington Star. The first professional athlete to come out while still playing was Czech-American professional tennis player Martina Navrátilová, who came out as a lesbian during an interview with The New York Times in 1981.
In 1995 Ian Roberts became the first high-profile Australian sports person and first rugby footballer in the world to come out to the public as gay. John Amaechi, who played in the NBA with the Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and Cleveland Cavaliers (as well as internationally with Panathinaikos BC of the Greek Basketball League and Kinder Bologna of the Italian Basketball League), came out in February 2007 on ESPN's Outside the Lines program. He also released a book Man in the Middle, published by ESPN Books (ISBN 1-933060-19-0) which talks about his professional and personal life as a closeted basketball player. He was the first NBA player (former or current) to come out.
The first Irish professional team-sport athlete to come out while still playing was Dónal Óg Cusack (GAA Hurling) in October 2009. The Cork hurler from the small town of Cloyne is a legend in GAA circles after winning three All-Ireland finals. The star player has lifted the lid off his bisexual past in a candid story of his life that makes him the first senior GAA star to publicly declare his homosexuality. Yet, in what may shock the sporting establishment, he admits to sleeping with both women and men before accepting his sexuality as a gay man in his autobiography Come What May: The Autobiography (ISBN 978-0141044514). Followed two months later by Gareth Thomas, a professional rugby player.
Artists and entertainers
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.
On March 29, 2010, Puerto Rican pop singer Ricky Martin came out publicly in a post on his official web site by stating, "I am proud to say that I am a fortunate homosexual man. I am very blessed to be who I am." Martin said that "these years in silence and reflection made me stronger and reminded me that acceptance has to come from within and that this kind of truth gives me the power to conquer emotions I didn’t even know existed."
Depictions of coming out
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.
"Coming out" applied to non-LGBT contexts
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", "coming out of the broom closet" (as a witch), and "coming out about plastic surgery".
With its associated metaphors, the figure of speech has also been extended to atheism, e.g., "coming out as an atheist." A public awareness initiative for freethought and atheism, entitled the "Out Campaign", makes ample use of the "out" metaphor. This campaign is endorsed by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins, who states, "there is a big closet population of atheists who need to 'come out.' "
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