Where does the phrase ‘coming out’ come from?

By Natalie Morris

Today is the 30th annual National Coming Out Day – a day to celebrate the act of coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer. But why do we call it ‘coming out’? Where does the term come from? ‘Coming out’ is short for ‘coming out of the closet’, and is a metaphor that is widely used and accepted by the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s considered to be a hugely important moment in someone’s life, a marker of self-acceptance and liberation. The origins of ‘coming out’ date all the way back to 1869, when German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs came up with the idea that disclosing your sexual orientation was a form of self-liberation.

This school of thought suggests that hiding your sexuality is a form of imprisonment – being in the closet. The actual phrase ‘coming out’ is said to have originated from a comparison to debutantes in the early 20th Century. Back then, young women from aristocratic families would have ‘coming out’ parties to celebrate their formal entrance into society. The gay subculture adopted this term and re-purposed it.

In the 1950s the term became more widely know after sexologist Evelyn Hooker introduced it to academic circles. Since then it has been used frequently by the LGBTQ+ community and by allies to describe the process of deciding to live openly.

The decision to come out is still incredibly difficult for lots of people. Many face homophobia, discrimination and risk losing the support of their family and friends.

That’s why National Coming Out Day exists. The annual celebration aims to promote a safer world for LGBTQ+ people to live truthfully and openly. But there’s still work to do to achieve this.

The organisers of National Coming Out Day say they still need support and allies to make the transition of coming out safer and simpler. ‘Coming out – whether it is as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or allied – STILL MATTERS,’ the organisers wrote on the website.

‘When people know someone who is LGBTQ, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other.’

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