Comes out as gay

If you’re reading this website, chances are someone, at some point, has asked you how you came out. And maybe you’ve told them. Maybe you’ve shared the story with a close friend as part of the bonding process. Maybe you wrote it down in our open thread. Maybe you reenacted it in front of a campfire to howling applause. Coming out — and its supposed opposite, being in the closet — are major plot points in the stereotypical queer narrative, so much so that it took me a while to realize that someone, at some point, must have actively differentiated and named them. After all, it seems so obvious, right? But if I’ve learned anything from writing this column, it’s that the metaphors that seem most natural are just as constructed as the rest. So I decided to throw coming out a coming out party.

The idea of “coming out” is much older than the phrase, and so are its much-touted psychological and political benefits. German gay rights activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichshas been called “the first gay man in world history” — hyperbolic, but hey) was forced to resign his position as a public legal adviser in 1857, after a colleague found out he was hooking up with guys. This gave him pause, and he devoted the rest of his life to gay rights, publishing a variety of papers under the pseudonym Numa Numantius, coining a bunch of (now-outdated) phrases to describe his own feelings and observations, and speaking out against discriminatory laws. One of these papers urged queer people to “self-disclose,” that they may lead freer lives and make the whole concept less publicly invisible. Heinrich himself had done so in 1867 in front of the German Association of Jurists, asking his colleagues not to adopt Prussian anti-gay sanctions when rewriting their constitution. Although he was unsuccessful and eventually exiled himself to Italy, he was forever happy that he had “found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”

Iwan Bloch, a Jewish-German doctor, counseled his older patients to come out to their family members in 1906 (Bloch did a lot of other cool things too — he’s often considered the first sexologist, and Freud credits him as the first person to study same-sex attraction from an anthropological standpoint, rather than a pathological one, which makes him decades ahead of his time). And in his 1919 classic The Homosexuality of Men and Women, Magnus Hirschfeld, a sexologist and gay rights activist, describes several efforts by activists to try to leverage coming out for political reasons:

“Homosexuals and their spokespersons have repeatedly tried to move Urnings to give their names to the police voluntarily. One lady wrote from America, “Inverts should take courage and independently declare themselves as such and ask for an examination and an investigation”… In Vienna, K. Kraus considered these thoughts more seriously, saying: “I am of the opinion that a victory can be won over the [law] if the most famous homosexuals openly admit to their fate.” Hirschfeld agrees that it would work well, but says that these suggestions ignore the fact that gay peoples’ “internal and external inhibitions” will prevent them from actually following through.

(Long sidenote: In 1905, members of The Scientific Humanitarian Committee (which was started and run by Hirschfeld) “proposed that one thousand homosexuals denounce themselves to the district attorney because of crimes against [anti-gay laws]… but at the same time make conviction impossible by witholding [details].” The reporter covering the story suggested instead that “one thousand nonhomosexual friends of the movement should get together and denounce themselves at the district attorney’s office for [the same crimes]. The district attorney’s embarrassment would be the same — but the safety and confidence of the persons denouncing themselves would be significantly greater.” Sounds like the same arguments about ally’s actions have been going on for hundreds of years.)

The first already-famous person to publicly come out for its own sake, rather than to accomplish something else, was poet Robert Duncan, who did so in 1944 in the context of an essay called “The Homosexual in Society,” which was published in the magazine Politics. Duncan, in an introduction to a reprint a fifteen years later, wrote that the essay “had at least the pioneering gesture, as far as I know, of being the first discussion of homosexuality which included the frank avowal that the author was himself involved,” setting the precedent for later generations’ award acceptance speeches and tweets and Sports Illustrated articles and television episodes nominally about puppies.

But none of these early people called what they were doing coming out — they, and others outside of the public eye, talked instead of “wearing a mask” and/or letting that mask fall away, wearing their hair up or letting it down, or “dropping hairpins” — clues that only other gay people would pick up on. In his book Gay New York, historian George Chauncey traced the phrase “coming out” back to American gay society in the 1930s, when it had a very different connotation than it does now:

“Like much of campy gay terminology, “coming out” was an arch play on the language of women’s culture — in this case the expression used to refer to the ritual of a debutante’s being formally introduced to, or “coming out” into, the society of her cultural peers. (This is often remembered as a ritual of WASP high society, but it was also common in the social worlds of African-Americans and other groups). A gay man’s coming out originally referred to his being presented to the largest collective manifestation of prewar gay society, the enormous drag balls that were patterned on the debutante and masquerade balls of the dominant culture and were regularly held in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, and other cities.”

So originally, “coming out” wasn’t about leaving a dark, secret closet, or exposing yourself to the larger world — it was about entering a welcoming society of your peers, and all the partying that implied. As the GLBTQ dictionary puts it, before the Stonewall Riots, “the term signified a coming out into a new world of hope and communal solidarity.” Even straight people knew it in this way — psychologist Evelyn Hooker, whose research helped persuade professionals that being gay isn’t a mental disorder, introduced the term to the academic community in 1965, describing it as “when [a gay person] identifies himself publicly for the first time as a homosexual, in the presence of other homosexuals, by his appearance in a bar.”

After Stonewall, though, the mood changed. New political awareness reintroduced the urgency recorded by Ulrichs and Hirschfeld. The closet was born, a place full of skeletons. Protesters came up with a chant — “out of the closets and into the streets!” — and Harvey Milk gave his Hope Speech. We eventually got a National Coming Out Day, in 1988. The Human Rights Campaign has a Coming Out Center (at least on their website). If it’s safe, people encourage, help yourself, leave the scary closet, and change the world by doing so.

All of that is, of course, really valid. Coming out is a powerful political tool. Hirschfeld’s wish, that “one thousand homosexuals” show their faces en masse and render the laws against them ridiculous, is slowly but surely coming true. Watching people come out earlier and more often, and watching reactions grow more and more positive, is a great societal barometer. The process continues to be an extremely important part of personal queer narratives. And studies have shown that, in most situations, it’s healthier and less stressful to be out.

But learning its more celebratory history, which surprised me greatly, made me think that we should try to get a little of the party back. People who come out, no matter on what scale, are brave and strong and hopefully will change the world. But they also get to join an awesome community. That part of it often gets lost in the billions of thinkpieces about what it means to have a queer football player, a queer news anchor, another queer Ellen. Maybe it’s time to reclaim coming out.

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Parents throw daughter the best pride party ever after she came out to them

coming out to your parents about your sexuality probably isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially if you’re only 17 years old, and have a strong fear of rejection and homophobia. But for Kinsey Ratzman from New Jersey coming out of the closet about her sexual orientation turned out to be the most awesome experience ever. Why? Because her parents responded to the news by deciding to throw her a surprise “Pride Party!”

They told her that they were going to be having an early 4th July party, and then while she was at the mall with her cousin her sneaky parents got busy with the preparations. They covered the entire house with rainbow-themed decorations and they even made a bunch of rainbow-colored food. Her aunt even baked her a “vegan gay cake” because Kinsey is the only vegan in her family.

It’s been a pretty dark time for the gay community recently due to the devastating Pulse nightclub shootings in Florida, but Kinsey’s family could not have responded to their daughter’s sexuality in a more amazing way. If only everybody had parents like this!

9 comments

What an incredible piece to wake up to! Thanks for this Cara

I’ll bake the cakes if you grab the alcohol – lets put the party back into it for all the baby gays!

This is probably weird, but I honestly am not sure who I first came out to or exactly when it was – and it was only within the last 3 years or so! It was probably my sister. Or my mom. Or maybe a friend? I can’t remember! I do remember that it was scary the first few times, but now feels (usually) pretty casual and relaxed, which is nice. I’m still not 100% out because of work-related reasons (for instance, I’m not officially out on FB, though I did post a celebratory status about Ellen Page!) But all of my close friends and medium-close friends know, as well as quite a few other people.

I would like a party, though. I do think that tradition should be revived.

Amen! I wish someone had thrown me a party or something when I came out, because that shit ain’t easy. From now on, coming out parties for everyone.

I’ve actually been thinking about this kind of thing recently. When I came out I felt very much on my own: my friend group was entirely heterosexual, my father was suspected to be homophobic, I only knew a handful of gay people and none of them were people I really knew enough to turn to… and when I did start meeting and befriending gay people there was this huge disconnection that made me think something was wrong with me. It wasn’t until over a year after I came out that I started to find my place within the queer community.

It sucks because sexuality should be this cool, fun thing and not just a battle. There should also be cake (preferably with rainbows and possibly vegan).

THIS! For me, coming out was an individual and lonely experience, even though pretty much everyone I told was supportive and accepting. I was so shell-shocked–I hadn’t just been in the closet; I thought the closet was the whole world–and nervous about my family that I wasn’t quite ready to celebrate anything. And the queer folks I already knew weren’t really connected to each other in one big community, so I’m not sure who I would have had a party with. Reading Autostraddle filled a lot of that “omg me too!” void for awhile (and still does), and going to A-Camp last fall finally felt like the celebration stage of this process and like I’d found a community to celebrate my identity with. I’m still working on creating that kind of community for myself here in Boston.

Ugh, html tag fail. The above comment is my own words in response to this quote from the article:

“we should try to get a little of the party back. People who come out, no matter on what scale, are brave and strong and hopefully will change the world. But they also get to join an awesome community. That part of it often gets lost in the billions of thinkpieces about what it means to have a queer football player, a queer news anchor, another queer Ellen. Maybe it’s time to reclaim coming out.”

I love that we get to come out. That, at some point, we get to choose to be our most authentic selves. It makes me so thankful sometimes, when I’m with my girlfriend, that while being queer wasn’t a choice, voicing it was. And with it comes love. Not just of my girlfriend, but of the queer community too.

I love this piece! I agree, the choice to be who I am has been so freeing. I have the most supportive girlfriend in the world. When I am with her the world is a better place. I love us and I love me. I don’t have a gay community to be apart of. I live in a small southern town and there would be consequences for my family if I were to fully come out, so when I’m here I have to be more closeted, but when I’m with her I can be 100% open about who I am. She has an amazing support system in her family and friends who have welcomed me with open arms and I am blessed to have her in my life.

Why can’t all families be this awesome?

This lazy panda forgot to write something about itself.

Total acceptance of the human being who is their daughter. Awesome parents…

When my daughter came out I said, that’s nice. I didn’t and dont care. It’s not an issue. Can you imagine celebrating someone’s sexuality? No, I can’t either. I long for the day when this doesn’t have to be celebrated and no one cares. That’s equality.

Good point. Let’s hope that day comes. In the meantime, have a nice day Chritian!

I don’t understand why its so important for express their sexuality in this day and bear-magazine.com cares if you are gay or straight. I just don’t see why people have to do this. as long as you are loved by your family and bear-magazine.com do you have to make it so public about your sexuality.

Spoken like someone who’s never had to hide their sexual identity because to openly express who they are would expose them to violence or rejection. Enjoy your privilege.

You beclown yourself with the same type of judgmental attitude that you claim to abhor. People make choices, deal with it. Enjoy your first world problems

I agrre. Presenting to your family your girlfriend (if you’re a girl) or your boyfriend (if you’re a boy) should be as natural as presenting your girlfriend/boyfriend when you are straight. „Hey family, may I introduce the love of my life? Yes? Awesome, now let’s go back to our lives.“ People make to much of a fuss about their sexuality. Live your life naturaly instead of making it such a big deal and people will be more accepting than if you look like a deer caught in the lights or if you make it the most important thing in your life.

What the hell are you talking about? „Love of the life“..??? He are some facts about gay relationships:Male sexuality, whether oriented toward females or other males, craves variety. But whereas almost all heterosexual men, perhaps after “sowing wild oats,” settle down with one woman, homosexual men do not settle down. Ever. A classic, large-scale study by Bell and Weinberg conducted during the 1970s and published by the Kinsey Institute found that forty-three percent (43%) of white male homosexuals had had sex with 500 or more partners, and twenty-eight percent (28%) had had sex with 1,000 or more partners. Seventy-nine percent (79%) said that more than half of their sexual partners had been strangers.[i]

Never claimed to be non-judgmental; I judge stupidity and cluelessness pretty harshly. It’s my choice, deal with it. But I like your made-up word, though. I’ll have to use „beclown“ in some way soon. It’s pretty awesome.

What you fail to realice is that homosexuals are hated and in same places hunted and puished (even killed) for their bear-magazine.com it is a real big thing for these people to be able to muster up the curage to tell their loved ones (family) about their sexuality instead of living with hiding their true selfs.

many people are hated for many reasons, challenges build character or weed out the weak, welcome to evolution baby

I understand how you feel: it’s a family matter, not a public matter, but many people aren’t so cool about homosexuality, and with so many stories about parents being dicks about their son or daughter… well, telling the world that yours are ok with your choice seems ok with me. Have a nice day Brandon!

..bear-magazine.com the beginning of your sentence „I don’t understand…“ pretty much says it all.

Total acceptance of the human being who is their daughter. Awesome parents…

When my daughter came out I said, that’s nice. I didn’t and dont care. It’s not an issue. Can you imagine celebrating someone’s sexuality? No, I can’t either. I long for the day when this doesn’t have to be celebrated and no one cares. That’s equality.

Good point. Let’s hope that day comes. In the meantime, have a nice day Chritian!

I don’t understand why its so important for express their sexuality in this day and bear-magazine.com cares if you are gay or straight. I just don’t see why people have to do this. as long as you are loved by your family and bear-magazine.com do you have to make it so public about your sexuality.

Spoken like someone who’s never had to hide their sexual identity because to openly express who they are would expose them to violence or rejection. Enjoy your privilege.

You beclown yourself with the same type of judgmental attitude that you claim to abhor. People make choices, deal with it. Enjoy your first world problems

I agrre. Presenting to your family your girlfriend (if you’re a girl) or your boyfriend (if you’re a boy) should be as natural as presenting your girlfriend/boyfriend when you are straight. „Hey family, may I introduce the love of my life? Yes? Awesome, now let’s go back to our lives.“ People make to much of a fuss about their sexuality. Live your life naturaly instead of making it such a big deal and people will be more accepting than if you look like a deer caught in the lights or if you make it the most important thing in your life.

What the hell are you talking about? „Love of the life“..??? He are some facts about gay relationships:Male sexuality, whether oriented toward females or other males, craves variety. But whereas almost all heterosexual men, perhaps after “sowing wild oats,” settle down with one woman, homosexual men do not settle down. Ever. A classic, large-scale study by Bell and Weinberg conducted during the 1970s and published by the Kinsey Institute found that forty-three percent (43%) of white male homosexuals had had sex with 500 or more partners, and twenty-eight percent (28%) had had sex with 1,000 or more partners. Seventy-nine percent (79%) said that more than half of their sexual partners had been strangers.[i]

Never claimed to be non-judgmental; I judge stupidity and cluelessness pretty harshly. It’s my choice, deal with it. But I like your made-up word, though. I’ll have to use „beclown“ in some way soon. It’s pretty awesome.

What you fail to realice is that homosexuals are hated and in same places hunted and puished (even killed) for their bear-magazine.com it is a real big thing for these people to be able to muster up the curage to tell their loved ones (family) about their sexuality instead of living with hiding their true selfs.

many people are hated for many reasons, challenges build character or weed out the weak, welcome to evolution baby

I understand how you feel: it’s a family matter, not a public matter, but many people aren’t so cool about homosexuality, and with so many stories about parents being dicks about their son or daughter… well, telling the world that yours are ok with your choice seems ok with me. Have a nice day Brandon!

..bear-magazine.com the beginning of your sentence „I don’t understand…“ pretty much says it all.

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