When someone you love lets you know about their identity as part of the LGBT community, they are sharing their thoughts and feelings and how they feel about themselves. It’s an honest and vulnerable moment, and it’s important that everyone feels respected and seen. It could happen through conversation, sharing their pronouns, or displaying any of the rainbow themed jewellery that celebrates the LGBT community.
With this in mind, we thought it might be helpful to talk through some of the terminology around ‘Coming out’. While the movement for LGTBQ+ equality progresses, there are some who feel that the language used referring to self-disclosure would benefit from a more empowering tone.
Where Did ‘Coming Out’ Come From?
The phrase ‘coming out’ originally referred to debutante balls where upper-class young women were introduced to society and prospective bachelors. This then led to early 20th century debutante-inspired drag balls in big US cities where groups of gay men would ‘come out’. ‘Coming out’ as we know it today is more personal and holds the connotation of someone having hid away in some manner.
Historically, the secrecy that came with homosexuality was a direct result of the persecution and prosecution of gay people in society. This went as far as gay men being sent to concentration camps during WWII. Even more recently, in the post-war era, gay people were punished through mutilation, chemical castration and imprisonment. The dark past of society and the law’s treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals are enough explanation for why gay people hid their sexuality, hence then ‘coming out’ of hiding.
This phrase has had its value, however. When, in 1978, there was a Californian initiative to ban gay teachers from working in state public schools, Harvey Milk (openly gay government official) started an empowering campaign entitled ‘Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are’ to urge ‘closeted’ gay people to reveal their sexuality to loved ones. The idea behind this was that if more people realised they had a gay loved one, there may be more opposition against a homophobic initiative. Harvey Milk’s campaign succeeded in this.
New Ideas for Self-Disclosure.
Self-disclosure for the LGBTQ+ community has evolved over the decades, to the point where some people consider the phrase ‘coming out’ is no longer appropriate. Karamo Brown is one of those people who advocates against ‘coming out’. He believes that:
“The term ‘coming out’ is a bit antiquated and outdated in the sense [that] it gives the power to someone else to accept or deny you what the process is, is that we’re letting people into our lives. When you do that, it gives the person the courage to know that you could set boundaries and decide who you want to let in your life … I think it takes some of the pressure off. It gives the power back to the person who needs it”.
In 2020, ’Coming out’ was also described as being reductive and rooted in the assumption that everyone is heterosexual or cisgender (identifying as the gender they were registered with at birth). Like Karamo, an article by the Advocate suggested the phrase be abandoned and instead the phrase ‘inviting in’ be introduced. The connotation of ‘coming out’ suggests LGBTQ+ people have confessions to make to the people around them, which again perpetuates elements of shame; to confess something is usually to admit to something bad. This is an experience heterosexual cisgendered people never had, as there is no expectation of someone to come out and declare they are straight to their loved ones.
“With coming out, we give others the opportunity to reject our visibility, as if it's their choice” - Rodney S. Williams Jr
A Little Less Pressure.
There are countless stories of LGBTQ+ people who had come out and were then rejected by those close to them. By changing the concept to ‘inviting people in’ the person who is disclosing their identity is more empowered and has the choice who to include in their life as their authentic self. This change in framing may do wonders for the LGBTQ+ community, with less pressure to expose themselves and feeling more empowered when and if they choose to do so.
When it comes to any discussion about self-disclosure in the LGBTQ+ community, it’s important to remember that there is no obligation to disclose your sexuality, nor does it make a person’s identity any less valid. The idea that gay people owe others the truth and are otherwise being deceptive is outdated and unhelpful. It is important to allow space for everyone to conduct their journey at their own pace.
For more information on how to respond to someone disclosing their true self, have a read of this article.
Stories of ‘Inviting People in’
“‘Inviting in’ gave me back power. It was the agency I needed. Any disrespect in my home meant you were no longer allowed” - George M. Johnson
Karamo Brown’s own experience with inviting people into his life as his true self is both heart-warming and uplifting:
"My grandmother said this, and I loved the way she put it: Imagine if somebody came to your house and knocked on your door and you said, 'Hey, come into my fabulous home. It represents me'. And they were like, 'I don't like it'. You're not gonna cry. You're gonna close your door and feel comforted, because you're in your house. And that was the same way [with] me. When I was letting people into my life, if they didn't want to come into my life, I knew that was OK because I still had my home. I felt safe about myself".
Karamo also encourages LGTBQ+ people to have their own zero-tolerance policy for any disrespect they may face when inviting others in.
While ‘coming out’ has been a well-known and understood phrase for decades, there are valid arguments for replacing it with a more empowering version. ‘Coming out’ itself has had its own moments of empowerment, like the Harvey Milk campaign, however like the evolution of the LGBTQ+ history, self-disclosure may also be due to evolve.
However, your loved ones decide to “come out” or “invite you in”, hopefully you’ll feel like you understand the situation in more detail. And whether you are part of the LGBTQ+ community as well, or simply want to be the best ally you can be, keeping an open and honest line of communication is a great way to start.
If you have any thoughts or experiences that you would like to share, please leave a comment below, or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s always great to hear from you.
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