The term “coming out” represents a defining moment in the lives of most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. Though society has progressed, the disclosing of ones sexual orientation or gender identity continues to remain a challenge for the majority of the world’s LGBT population, and is often met with backlash, discrimination, or even violence – in many cases from family or friends.
In 1869 Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German gay rights advocate, introduced the idea of the disclosing of ones sexual orientation as a means of “self disclosure, emancipation, and as a method to change public opinion” toward homosexuals. It wasn’t until the 1950’s when noted sexologist Dr. Evelyn Hooker introduced the phrase “coming out” in various academic journals, did the meaning of the phrase take shape to represent a momentous occasion for LGBT individuals.
“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,” Hooker wrote. She was referring to gay bars, a safe place for homosexuals to gather.
The phrase “coming out” borrows from the vocabulary of debutante balls, a celebration by aristocratic or upper class families in which a young lady “came out” to society as a mature individual. Originally the purpose was to introduce the young woman to potential suitors for marriage; however, over the years the balls have transformed into more of a social gathering of the elite.
Growing up my sister and I attended these very balls, each event with the usual pomp and circumstance. It was exciting to don the proverbial tuxedo, hobnob with the Texas elite, and actually put to use some of the cotillion dance lessons my mother sent us to. From the cuisine to the dancing, each event was an affair to remember.
My “coming out”, however, was far from extravagant – old friends ceased speaking to me, family members stopped calling or writing. It was one of the darkest periods in my life.
Whereas “coming out” for a debutante is comparatively effortless and marked by a festive occasion, for LGBT individuals it requires much forethought, and above all courage as many face the occasion alone.
My grandfather was my idol, the person I looked-up to the most. This Episcopalian deacon didn’t care that I was gay. A lover of English literature, and especially William Shakespeare, he often would share with me the following passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
This above all:
To thine own self be true,
for it must follow as dost the night the day,
that canst not then be false to any man.
“Coming Out” should be a celebration for everyone in the LGBT community. It’s a time when the individual has matured and fully recognizes and appreciates the person they truly are – “to thine own self be true.”
Hopefully society will progress to a point that the struggle over ones sexual orientation or gender identity becomes a non-issue. Until then, the next time you have a friend or family member who is ready to come out throw them a party; rejoice in the courage they’ve shown to just be themselves. And in the meantime, give thanks during this holiday season to the friends and family members who continue to support you, regardless of what others may say to them.