The idea of coming out was introduced in 1869 by the German homosexual rights advocate Karl Heinrich Ulrichs as a means of emancipation. Claiming that invisibility was a major obstacle toward changing public opinion, he urged homosexuals themselves to come out.
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, besought elderly homosexuals to come out to their heterosexual family members and acquaintances.
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 men and women of rank coming out to the police in order to influence legislators and public opinion.
The first important American to come out was the poet Robert Duncan. In 1944, using his own name in the anarchist magazine Politics, he claimed that homosexuals were an oppressed minority.
In 1951, 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-consciousness and the nascent homophile movement.
The decidedly clandestine Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay and other veterans of the Wallace for President campaign in Los Angeles in 1950, also moved into the public eye with many gays emerging from the closet after Hal Call took over the group in San Francisco in 1953.
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."
Several models have been created to describe the coming out process (i.e.: Dank, 1971; Cass, 1984; Coleman, 1989; Troiden, 1989; Clayton Snyder, 2004) Of these models, the most widely accepted has been the one established by Vivienne Cass commonly known as Cass identity model. This model outlines six discrete stages that individuals who successfully come out go through. These are identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis.
Coming out is a gradual process and a journey. It is common to come out first to a trusted friend or family member, and wait to come out to others. Some people are out at work but not to their families, or vice-versa. Still, one does not typically "come out" and have it done with; they must continue to make the choice to out themselves upon making every new acquaintance and in most new situations.
It is also common to hear the phrase, "coming out to oneself," meaning to acknowledge to oneself that one is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. This is the very first step in the coming-out process; it often involves soul-searching or a personal epiphany of some sort. Many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people go through a period prior to coming out when they believe their sexual orientation or behavior, or their cross-gender feelings to be "a phase", to be malleable, or when they reject their own feelings for religious or moral reasons. Coming out to oneself is one way to end that period of ambiguity and thus begin the process of self-acceptance.
However, many transgender and especially transsexual people find that unless they actively and semi-regularly re-announce their complicated gender history people begin to assume that they are cisgendered. In some cases this state of affairs is felt to be constraining or to erase important parts of the trans person's sense of identity. This can be characterized as a "new closet" and the phrase "coming out" can once again apply to trans people in a different way.
For others, as medical procedures fade into the past, a "slide into normalcy" is understood as a healthy and happy state of affairs that helps the trans person be seen for who they authentically are despite outright transphobia and simple societal misunderstandings that would quite onerous to educate out of existence, given the small number of trans people relative to cis people. In such cases, the positive connotations of "coming out" ring false, as though being seen uncontroversially as one's true gender was somehow inauthentic. For this kind of trans person to be "out" would substantially involve things like correcting the notion that they were being "out" in a way that had any reason other than abstract political goals (as opposed to a felt emotional need for full and prideful recognition). The first time it really was happy and felt like "coming out". Among those who prefer to assimilate they tend to use terms like "disclosure" for the later, much more emotionally ambiguous process.
The term "stealth" is sometimes used to describe complete discretion, but in practice disclosure is practiced in a manner perhaps reminiscent of disclosure about abortion or cosmetic surgery... it's a highly personal decision that doesn't exactly involve shame, and yet the non-disclosing party would not want their acquaintances to think of that procedure each time they interacted. This issue can be further complicated because disclosure can only be chosen by trans people with "passing privilege".
Today, more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are out than ever before, and many believe that being in the closet is unhealthy for the individual. A common saying is, "Closets are for clothes". One major gay magazine is titled Out Magazine. Coming out is often seen within gay and lesbian communities as politically healthy, even a duty or necessity, arguing that the more out gay people there are, the harder it will be for opponents to misrepresent, marginalize, and oppress. Others believe that coming out in the traditional, overt manner is not always individually or culturally appropriate. An alternative offered is "coming home", the process of introducing one's same-sex partner to family and friends as a close friend, leaving the actual sexual relationship perhaps implied, but unspoken. "Coming home" has not worked its way into the public lexicon in the way that "coming out" has, because of a concern that homophobic family members may blame the partner for turning their relative gay.
Judith Butler (1991) criticizes the in/out metaphor as creating 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. 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." Lauren Smith (2000) summarizes, "to be 'out of the closet', then, as either gay or straight, according to Fuss and Butler, is always to contain or cover up another closet."
However, 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." Fuss also argues that deconstructing identities is positive only when it also dismantles differences in power, when the identities are consolidated and naturalized. For "women do not necessarily have the same historical relation to identity...and they do not necessarily start from a humanist fantasy of wholeness." Again, Butler: "It is important...to affirm that gay and lesbian identities are not only structured in part by dominant heterosexual frames, but that they are not for that reason determined by them. They are running commentaries on those naturalized positions as well, parodic replays and resignifications of precisely those heterosexual structures that would consign gay life to discursive domains of unreality and unthinkability."
In 2005, the Oscar-nominated film Brokeback Mountain depicted the consequences of two gay men living in the closet, while 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. Coming out has been featured in comedy films as well, such as the French comedy Le Placard (The Closet), where a heterosexual man is falsely outed, or in the 1997 comedy In & Out where Kevin Kline stars as a small-town teacher who gets outed on national television, and is then forced to come to terms with his own unrecognized homosexuality.
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 confesses 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.
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 has been prominently featured in the storylines of multiple characters. In season 5, the issue of public outing is addressed in the form of Alice Pieszecki, a web-journalist, outing a basket-ball player who made offensive comments toward gay people while himself being gay.
"Coming out" was once used to refer to debutantes.