As people begin to identify themselves as homosexual, they must deal with societal beliefs that this sexual preference is shameful, sinful, or pathological. From fear, often but not always justified, that revelation of homosexuality will lead to ostracism, many homosexuals keep their sexual preference secret from friends and family. Keeping such a secret is often called living in the closet; to proclaim one’s homosexuality is to come out of the closet. In the cultural mainstream generally, history, religion, educational institutions, and cultural values and mores all maintain that people are naturally heterosexual and that homosexuality is a failing. As a result, homosexual women and men have powerful reasons not to acknowledge their sexual preferences. As the individual gay or lesbian begins to accept his or her identity, however, the coming out process becomes more compelling. In this sense, the metaphor of “coming out” is quite accurate, since coming out is a process of taking what is within (unspoken sexual identity) and bringing it out to the attention of others. Coming out can be difficult and dangerous, so many people live in the closet, acting as if they are attracted to members of the opposite sex. The distressing feelings of alienation that result from trying to be someone that one is not can motivate one to come out.
Literature shows that coming out is a new concept and word usage. The original usage of the term was associated with the debutante ball, usually given in the spring. The ball was a social event held to announce to society that each of the families involved had a daughter who was eligible as a potential wife. When the custom of such balls was established, a girl of sixteen or so was not considered too young to be engaged. In the later twentieth century, the custom continued, although the debutantes were considered eligible for dating and social autonomy rather than marriage.
Coming out for homosexuals was not mentioned in literature until gay and lesbian novels began to appear in numbers in the late 1960’s and after. After the later 1960’s there was a large increase in writing and publishing of gay, lesbian, and bisexual literature. Coming out (or failing to do so) is perhaps the most universal theme of gay, lesbian, and bisexual literature. Although a work may not recount directly such an event as telling one’s family that one is gay (although many works do relate such stories), it is the rare work in this field that does not deal with the issue of characters’ recognizing and finally either acknowledging or denying their homosexuality.
Caffey, John. The Coming-out Party. New York: Pinnacle Books, 1982.
Gantz, Joe. Whose Child Cries: Children of Gay Parents Talk About Their Lives. Rolling Hills Estates, Calif.: Jalmar Press, 1983.
Herdt, Gilbert H. Children of Horizons: How Gay and Lesbian Teens Are Leading a New Way out of the Closet. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
Jay, Karla, and Allen Young, eds. Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. New York: Pyramid Books, 1972.
Katz, Jonathan. Coming-Out: A Documentary Play About Gay Life and Liberation. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Nolder, Gay A. The View from the Closet: Essays on Gay Life and Liberation. Boston: Union Park Press, 1978.
Pharr, Suzanne. Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism. Little Rock, Ark.: Chardon Press, 1988.
Rodi, Robert. Closet Case: A Novel. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1993.
Sutton, Roger. Hearing Us Out: Voices from the Gay and Lesbian Community. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.