Since the 1950s, "coming out of the closet" has been the commonly accepted expression for a gay or lesbian person revealing their sexual orientation since the 1950s. Though many advances in gay rights and gay pride have been realized since then, coming out of the closet remained a major milestone in any gay person's life into the late 1990s.
The expression "coming out" originated in the early twentieth century when stylish drag "debutante" balls were popular society events. Especially in African American communities, the drag queen in-the-know aspired to be presented at these balls, just as young heterosexual women "came out" to society at their debutante balls. It was only later, in the 1950s atmosphere of hiding the abnormal, that the connotation came to be that of coming out of a dark closet. Perhaps playing on the expression "skeleton in the closet," meaning a guilty secret, homosexuals themselves were the sinister skeletons lurking behind the closet door. In the decades since gay liberation began, the expression has slipped into popular usage, and "coming out of the closet" is used in a lighthearted way for any admission of a slightly guilty secret.
The closet remains a metaphor for the shame and oppression that forces many gays to hide their identities. "Closeted" or "closet-y" are also used as adjectives, sometimes derisively, to describe gays who pretend to be heterosexual. "Closet case" refers to someone suspected of being gay but unaware of it or hiding it. "Coming out" is used among gays to signify the first time they acted on their sexuality (as in, "I came out when I was fifteen with my best friend") as well as the traditional means of announcing their sexuality "to the world." "Outing" has gained usage as a verb meaning the exposure of someone else's gayness, particularly someone who is well-known and closeted.
Because of the widespread assumption of heterosexuality in American society, coming out of the closet is a lifelong endeavor for gays. Gay men and lesbians must decide whether to come out to friends, to immediate family, to extended family, at work, and so on, and each decision involves a new set of worries and consequences. Even relatively well-known gays must continually assert their identity in new situations or remain in the closet by default.
Gay activists have long touted the importance of coming out of the closet, insisting that much of the oppression gays experience would be diffused if their true numbers were known. In this spirit, the first National Coming Out Day was declared on October 11, 1988, the first anniversary of the second gay and lesbian March on Washington, D.C. The idea behind National Coming Out Day is to encourage gays to come out of the closet to at least one person on that day. Some organizations have even distributed printed cards for gays to give to bank tellers and store clerks announcing that they have just served a gay client.
Though in the days of gay sitcom characters, noted gays on magazine covers, and many openly gay organizations, the closet may seem like a quaint remnant of a former time. Yet gays who do not live in urban areas, do not have protected jobs, or do not have understanding families still fear the repercussions of coming out. It may be true that tolerance will come only when the public realizes how many gay people there are, even among their friends, family, and most respected public figures. However, to gays who have been harassed or beaten, or gays who have lost or had to fight court battles to keep their children, gays who have lost their jobs, coming out of the closet may seem a luxury they can ill afford.
Bono, Chastity, and Billie Fitzpatrick. Family Outing. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 1998.
Day, Nancy E., and Patricia Schoenrade, "Staying in the Closet Versus Coming Out: Relationships between Communication about Sexual Orientation and Work Attitudes." Personnel Psychology. Vol. 50, No. 1, Spring 1997, 147.
Harbeck, Karen M., editor. Coming Out of the Classroom Closet: Gay and Lesbian Students, Teachers, and Curricula. New York, Haworth Press, 1992.