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Coming Out  
 
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"Coming out" is commonly defined as a revelation or acknowledgment that one is a member of a sexual minority. The phrase, which borrows the vocabulary of the debutante ball in which young women are presented to society, is used in a number of ways.

While it is often employed as a shorthand for "coming out of the closet" and living openly as a lesbian or gay man, the term also frequently refers to a person's first same-sex sexual experience, his or her self-acceptance as a homosexual, a person's participation in the gay and lesbian community, and an individual's revelation of his or her sexual orientation to others. Perhaps most significantly, coming out is a process that is both personal and social, as individuals move from discovery to acceptance to revelation. In a society, the process of coming out also takes on a political hue.

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Changing Meanings

The term "Coming Out" is believed to be of early twentieth-century origin. In the earlier decades of the century, gay men used the term to describe their acculturation into the gay subculture, a sense that lesbians also adopted shortly thereafter.

This meaning was introduced to the academic community in the 1950s when Dr. Evelyn Hooker observed that "very often, the debut--referred to by homosexuals as the coming out--of a person who believes himself to be homosexual, but who has struggled against it, will occur when he identifies himself publicly for the first time as a homosexual, in the presence of other homosexuals, by his appearance in a bar."

In her explanation of "coming out," Hooker stresses self-acceptance, public acknowledgment, and the role of the gay bar as a safe space for homosexuals to be themselves.

In the 1950s, the term signified a coming out into a new world of hope and communal solidarity. However, by the 1970s, after the Stonewall rebellion, it came to signify not so much coming out into a new world as coming out of the loneliness, isolation, and self-hatred of the closet.

Precisely because homosexuals can easily "pass" as heterosexuals, hiding in the closet was considered a viable option for gay men and lesbians in a homophobic society. But in the new political awareness fostered by the gay and lesbian political movement, the closet came to be regarded as a stultifying and stifling place that itself contributed to the sense of shame and stigma that homosexuals experienced.

Moreover, no mass movement for glbtq equality could form if people remained in the closet. Gay men and lesbians were thus urged to "Come out of the Closet and into the Streets," not only for greater self-fulfillment and healthier self-regard, but also as a means of helping to improve the conditions of life for all gay men and lesbians.

The Political Aspects of Coming Out

The political aspect of coming out is apparent in the National Coming Out Project of the Human Rights Campaign. Shortly after the 1987 March on Washington, National Coming Out Day--October 11--was declared an annual holiday for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and people. Observed particularly on college campuses, National Coming Out Day urges glbtq people to reveal their sexual orientation to others. "Coming out" has become a form of political activism that participants hope will increase support for glbtq causes.

Another political aspect of coming out is the practice of "outing," in which an individual's homosexuality is disclosed by others against his or her wishes. Those who have been targeted for outing have usually been celebrities and politicians, especially those who have worked against gay and lesbian causes.

Although the practice is deeply controversial within the glbtq community, outing represents a marked change in attitude from that of the pre-Stonewall period when the paramount value among homosexuals was respect for privacy. Supporters of outing contend that prominent individuals should be outed to illustrate that homosexuals are everywhere and that those who lead secret gay and lesbian lives, while publicly working against gay and lesbian causes, deserve to be embarrassed for their hypocrisy.

Identity Development Models

Stage models are traditionally used to outline major milestones in the social and cognitive development of an individual. Because homosexuality was assumed to be a mental disorder, development as a homosexual used to be regarded as an offshoot of the "normal" sexual development. However, with the acceptance of homosexuality as a normal sexual orientation by the psychological community, models have been developed to outline the transformation of a homosexual from a person imbued in self-hatred to one radiating the aura of self-acceptance.

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