Coming Out

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Coming Out

Coming out is an expression used to describe the process of revealing one's nonnormative sexuality. It is most commonly used in reference to homosexuals, but is also applicable to bisexual, transsexual, and transgendered individuals. The term is a shortened form of the phrase coming out of the closet, in which the closet refers to the anonymity of hidden sexual practice or desire. Individuals who have not publicly identified their homosexuality are referred to as being in the closet. An alternate form of coming out is outing, which is an involuntary disclosure of one's homosexuality or other nonnormativity by another person. Outing can also refer to any inadvertent revelation of one's sexuality, whether by another or by oneself. Coming out generally has a positive connotation and is seen by many (but not all) as the foundation of a healthy relationship to one's sexuality, while outing is generally a more negatively valued practice and is seen as harmful and invasive to the individual, and only marginally useful to the larger homosexual community.

Coming out has also traditionally described the moment when a young woman enters formal society, her debut. In this circumstance, the term signifies the end of adolescence (which is a transitional, and thus a nonnormative, period of sexual development) and the emergence into normative heterosexuality, eventually leading to marriage. There is no evidence that the term as it is applied to homosexuality is linked to or derived from its use in formal society, but their complete opposition in meaning is noteworthy.


Coming out functions metaphorically as a moment in time, when the closet door opens and its inhabitant emerges. In practice, it is more often a process over time than a single moment, as a closeted individual usually comes out repeatedly to different audiences and under different circumstances. Even more fundamentally, however, coming out is generally understood as having two primary parts, one internal and one external.

Coming out to oneself involves recognizing one's own desires and choosing to acknowledge them. This phase of the coming out process often happens during adolescence, which is often seen as the primary moment of sexual identity formation, although it can happen at any point in life. This can be an extremely complicated step, primarily because the general expectation of heterosexuality is so strong that nonnormative sexualities are rarely acknowledged to or discussed favorably with children and adolescents, thus providing few, if any, homosexual role models. Youths who question their sexuality, therefore, may not fully understand the nature of their situation or how they might deal with it. People often describe this stage of questioning as a sensation of feeling different without being fully able to specify the difference they feel.

Once this awareness of difference has been achieved, it is possible to come out to others. Although a complicated and multipart process, it is usually referred to somewhat singularly as coming out. When coming out is a voluntary process, individuals often begin by coming out to one or more people who they consider most likely to be accepting of their homosexuality—frequently a friend or a group of friends. From there, they may choose to come out to people whose response they are less sure of, or even to those they feel sure will be unaccepting. Many individuals choose not to come out to everyone, and often make those choices based on the type of relationship they have with each person. For instance, coming out at work might be risky if harassment or discrimination is likely to result, and thus one might choose to remain closeted at work. Conversely, some choose to remain closeted at work not out of fear, but out of a belief that one's sexuality, whatever it might be, is irrelevant to the workplace and thus not a topic for discussion in that venue. Similarly, people generally make highly individual choices about coming out in religious groups they may belong to, as well as in other ideologically based organizations.

Coming out to family seems to be the largest or riskiest step in the coming out process for many, as the consequences are often greatest. To a certain extent, employment, religious affiliation, and friendships are all things that can be discarded and exchanged if necessary after coming out, but family involves a more permanent kind of connection. Many are thus unwilling to risk rejection by their families and remain closeted to them, or at least to certain family members.

The acceptance by friends and family is, like coming out itself, often a process over time, although some relationships are permanently severed as a result. Many people, however, have found their relationships either unchanged or even strengthened over time as a result of coming out. Several organizations such as PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) have arisen as a visible support system for individuals coming out as well as for those they come out to.


It is often claimed that sexuality is unique among human characteristics in that it is not visible in the way that sex, race, social class, and other categories are. Therefore, one's sexual desires and practices cannot be known to the larger community unless one comes out. While this understanding of the invisibility of sexuality versus other characteristics has substantial flaws, it does have a degree of relevance. In fact, all categories to which an individual belongs have certain expectations, and violating those expectations always carries some social risk. Rather than claiming that sexuality is a different kind of characteristic than others, it is perhaps more appropriate to say that it carries more value, that the expectations associated with it are seen as more absolute, and that violating them carries greater risk. It is also for this reason that coming out is seen as a primary means of empowerment in the homosexual community. Announcing one's homosexuality publicly is seen as a means of claiming ownership of it. In this way, homosexuality figures less as an affliction, as it has often been formulated, and more as a right or even a privilege. The fact that the risks associated with coming out can be so great makes the act substantially more powerful and socially meaningful.

Beginning with the shocking, even violent coming out moments such as the Stonewall riots of 1969, the power of publicly coming out has been realized and capitalized upon. Much of the subsequent gay rights movement has held the necessity of coming out as a central tenet; this has led to both the "silence = death" response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and the growth of outing an individual (almost always a figure of power or a celebrity) involuntarily, thus revealing the ubiquity of homosexuality in contemporary culture.


Coming out is viewed as a rite of passage within the homosexual community. It is first and foremost seen as an acceptance of oneself and one's own sexuality. Because coming out potentially involves rejection, it is symbolically important as a kind of exchange of one community for another. The homosexual community largely imagines itself as an alternate, automatically accepting set of relationships that an individual can substitute for family, friends, and colleagues from whom they might be estranged. This is furthered by the self-identification of the homosexual community as a family or as a tribe, indicating both relationships among members and responsibility within the group for each other. This imaginary family is more often like a conventional one, however, in that it has factions, divisions, and internal struggles, all contained within a loose collective.


The coming out experience is seen as central to identity formation, both in the individual and of the homosexual community. For this reason, coming out stories are one of the most common modes of bonding in the community. It is not unusual for people to share their experience of coming out with others as a means of establishing some kind of relationship with them. Because coming out is seen as a process unique to and definitive of homosexuality, there is an expectation that every member does have a coming out story. It is the exchange of these stories that many see as foundational to the idea of community and that creates pressure on individuals to share their stories. These stories are also seen as a source of both individual and group strength, particularly when they involve a painful rejection that is then survived by the individual. Gay and lesbian literature and film are dominated by coming out stories.

The stories most often told, of course, are the more spectacular and painful ones, usually those positioning the homosexual as the consummate victim (rejected by their family and often injured or killed) or as an epic hero overcoming obstacles (who then usually abandons at least part of his or her family and forms a new community). The extremity of either of these models has helped maintain the belief that coming out is a risky process, although there are many who believe that it may be less traumatic in most cases than is popularly believed.

There have been attempts to institutionalize or ritualize coming out in some ways, in an effort to maintain the importance of coming out while also making it seem a less risky and monumental experience. One example is National Coming Out Day, which is sponsored annually by the Human Rights Campaign.

see also Homosexuality, Contemporary: I. Overview.


Califia, Pat. 2000. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Cleis Press.

Chekola, Mark. 1994. "Outing, Truth-Telling, and the Shame of the Closet." In Gay Ethics: Controversies in Outing, Civil Rights, and Sexual Science, ed. Timothy F. Murphy. New York: Haworth Press.

"Coming Out." Human Rights Campaign. Available from

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. 1997. Intimate Matters: A History of Homosexuality in America. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, Bret K. 1997. Coming Out Every Day: A Gay, Bisexual, and Questioning Man's Guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Signorile, Michelangelo. 2003. Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power. Rev. edition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

                                           Brian D. Holcomb