Release notes: coming out
A brief history of coming out
The OED’s June 2017 update sees the publication of another blockbuster entry, come, which follows similar recently updated entries like go (its close cousin), run, and take. A shared feature of these unusually large and complex verbs is that much of their content comes in the form of constructions with adverbs and prepositions such as to go out, to run off, to take on, etc., known as phrasal verbs.
They might sound straightforward, but these constructions can be so useful and versatile that they generate a surprising number of meanings, often representing the main growth area of large verb entries once they’re updated.
When the relevant section of the letter C first came out in 1891 (that’s to come out sense 7, ‘to be made available to the public; to be published, issued, or released’), the OED entry for come included 16 senses of the phrasal verb, to come out. Following revision, today’s updated OED entry contains almost twice as many, with 30 senses, showing water coming out of taps, settlers coming out to different countries, words or secrets coming out, roads coming out at destinations, rashes or bruises or photographs coming out, stains coming out in the wash, people coming out on top, and so on.
One particular group of senses now looks very different to the OED’s original 1891 entry, which included this sense:
To show oneself publicly (in some character or fashion); to declare oneself (in some way); to make a public declaration of opinion.
In the OED’s Second Edition in 1989, an extra clause was added to this definition to accommodate a relatively recent development, which is the meaning that perhaps springs most readily to mind now when we think of someone coming out:
Also spec. to acknowledge publicly one’s homosexuality.
In today’s fully-updated OED Third Edition entry, the strands of this single sense have been split out into no fewer than five different individual senses.
The first of these (to come out, sense 8.a) shows an obscure and now obsolete use meaning, ‘To show oneself in a particular light; to assume a specified guise or role’, which is closely connected to other senses referring to coming out on stage, or making a theatrical or social debut. But the second (sense 12) is much more recognisable, and deals with people coming out in support of, or against, something:
To make a public declaration in support of or against something specified; to declare oneself a supporter of, or act as an advocate for, a particular cause.
Splitting this out to its own sense allows the OED to give a complete individual history of its development, starting in 1836 with reference to an American coming out as a partisan of a presidential candidate. Much of the evidence follows suit, illustrating vocal declarations of political allegiance.
The other three senses are different altogether, and emerge from that added clause from 1989 referring to sexuality. These turned out to be more complex and nuanced than previously shown. Sense 13.b covers today’s familiar use:
To acknowledge or declare openly that one is homosexual.
A direct quote from a 1971 newspaper article about gay life in London provides the earliest clear evidence:
1971 Observer 17 Jan. 3/1 ‘I enjoy my double life,’ said a delicate youth wearing a gold chain belt in a Chelsea pub, ‘I don’t want to come out.’
The reluctance of the Observer’s young interviewee here contrasts with this famous voice, using the noun phrase coming out for the first time two years later:
1973 C. Isherwood in N.Y. Times 25 Mar. 12/1 The idea of declaring your homosexuality in print seems so wonderfully simple.‥ I don’t know why people have doubts about coming out.
The OED cross-refers to the phrase to come out of the closet (in the entry for closet), which developed at the same time as to come out and skeleton in the closet in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The definition also records the sense as being ‘in extended use with reference to other sexual or gender identities’, which covers people coming out as bisexual or transgender. People might not have to come out as being straight, but that would also be covered by this extended use.
There’s only so far a use can extend before it mutates into its own sense, and we see this happening just a few years later in the context of another gay writer and activist, Vito Russo, complaining humorously in this first quotation that the term has been co-opted outside of the gay community:
1976 V. Russo Advocate 19 May 18/3 We now have ‘closet’ opera fans and people ‘coming out’ as vegetarians.
This is defined as sense 13.b:
To acknowledge or declare openly something about oneself or one’s identity which has previously been concealed or suppressed.
Along with people coming out as vegetarians or opera fans, the OED cites examples of people coming out as belonging to particular religions, as suffering from illnesses, even as foreign spies:
1999 Independent on Sunday 10 Oct. (Rev. section) 7 She ‘came out’ on Italian television, and admitted to having been an agent for the KGB.
By this point we see the phrase moving away from its association with sexuality and coming round to resemble that earlier sense 12, about expressing allegiance or support or opinion. Except that it now has an added flavour of positive revelation; after the early 1970s coming out and coming out of the closet describe an affirmative experience where the dominant idea is that of emergence and empowerment, of leaving repression or denial behind and living life openly. They express the hope of liberalizing attitudes of the time, following decriminalization of gay sex in England and Wales in 1967, the Stonewall riots of 1969, and the appearance of organized gay rights movements. The terms gay liberation and gay lib date to 1969 and 1970 respectively, gay pride to 1970.
Yet this isn’t the true beginning of the story. In fact the use of to come out in gay contexts stretches back beyond these watershed moments to the very different environment of the first half of the twentieth century. The OED’s sense 13.a antedates sense 13.b by 30 years, with these examples:
1941 G. Legman Lang. Homosexuality in G. W. Henry Sex Variants II. 1161 Come out, to become progressively more and more exclusively homosexual with experience
1949 ‘Swasarnt Nerf’ in H. Hagius Gay Guides for 1949 (2010) 48 Come out, to be initiated into the mysteries of homosexuality.
Both these quotes come from obscure guides to gay slang of the time, suggesting the term was perhaps in use for some time before it came to be explained in 1941. As is often the case with slang of this period, especially among marginalized or criminalized groups, first-hand evidence is incredibly rare or non-existent and we only have these types of glossarial sources to go on. This is the guarded language of a necessarily secretive community; a specialized insider jargon which is the opposite of open or revealing in purpose or effect.
The OED defines this earlier sense as:
‘slang. Among homosexual men and women: to become socially or sexually active within homosexual circles; to realize that one is homosexual’.
This is much closer in spirit to those other senses referring to a person’s ‘role’, and indeed several historians have linked it to the idea of making an entrance into society, or a social debut. This particular use has a much longer history and is defined fully in to come out sense 8.c, dating to 1782:
Esp. of an aristocratic or upper-class young woman: to make a first formal appearance in fashionable society at a ball or similar social occasion.
The custom, which in the UK involved being formally presented at court, began to dwindle in the late 1950s. The suggested appropriation of this term in the late 1930s and early ’40s, to associate newcomers to gay social groups with glamorous young female debutantes, sounds convincingly close to what we would recognize as the sensibility of camp, with its hallmarks of irony and theatricality.
Although early examples of this use are rare, later evidence shows it filtering through from slang into academic discourse in the 1950s and ‘60s, especially in the contexts of psychiatry and psychology, as this quotation illustrating coming out, n. shows:
1967 Jrnl. Health & Social Behaviour 8 181/2 The phase of homosexuality called ‘coming out‘, which is that point in time when there is self-recognition by the individual of his identity as a homosexual and the first major exploration of the homosexual community.
Here a gay person’s social life is analysed as a process of self-recognition or realization, and this idea of acknowledging something to oneself isn’t so far removed—in theory—to that of acknowledging something more openly or publicly. In this 1967 quote we see to come out at either side of a historic divide: on one side referring to an entrance into a close-knit, marginalized community, on the other to an exit from repression and an emergence into a more liberated world.
It’s a semantic development which neatly shows how a single short phrase can reflect the wider cultural and social concerns of its time. And it’s an excellent example of the sort of insights that can come out from the process of updating the OED (that’s to come out, sense 19, ‘to appear or be found..as the result of investigation’).