I was thinking today about the abuses of the phrase “coming out” in recent years. Some of this discussion was prompted by reading half of John D’Emilio’s essay “After Stonewall.” In that writing, he identifies a shift in the queer usage of that phrase: prior to Stonewall, “coming out” was used by queer culture much the same way it was used by debutant society, as an indicator that one had “entered into” adult society and was available for suitorship. The queering of this term, then, naturally implies one’s entrance into queer culture/society. After Stonewall, the phrase became a political term used to denote that one had identified one’s sexuality to both gay and straight societies in an effort to create greater queer visibility (D’Emilio).
Unlike debs, though, queer folks come out of somewhere, and it’s not their mother’s house. The locus origin of out-coming became known as the “closet,” that shadowy place where one hides skeletons, lycra, blue eyeshadow, and other shameful personal habits and vices. I believe this is a post-Stonewall development. Since post-Stonewall queers don’t just come out into queer society, the come out into heterosexual society, they are coming out of a queer closet, a space that restricts the expression of their sexualities and sexual identities. Coming out, then, became the sloughing-off of the perceived shamefulness of queer sexualities and the embracing of the self as a queer person.
The obvious political bias of the heterosexual community is evidenced by their perverse understanding of “coming out.” In their circles, to “come out” is to admit/confess to an activity or trait that is socially undesirable or looked down upon. It does not carry with it any positive aspects among straight people, and their usage of the term in their subculture shows a greater tendency to devalorize queer sexualities and genders.
I get angry when I hear people say they “came out” as a fat person. (This was a frequent instance on talk shows a few years back.) You CAN’T come out as a fat person. People already KNOW you are fat: it is a physical trait. However, you can begin to “own” your fatness, which I believe is how this usage works. Ownership of traits perceived to be undesirable by the majority is a political act that re-valorizes the trait in question. But I think it also begs: is there a fat closet? And what’s in it? Can culture create a closet for a visible trait, devalorized or not? I think not, but the discussion remains open.
The expression “coming out” has morphed into several different usages since it became a maintream way to identify the process through which a queer person requests to be seen as a queer person. It became a transitive verb as people like Michaelangelo Signorile started to “out” people—to “expose” their queer sexualities to the public without their knowledge or consent. “Out” also became an adjective, as in, “Is he out yet?” Interestingly enough, this is one of the first occasions, I think, where it’s cooler to be “out” than “in.”
I read today on the cover of the most recent issue of DETAILS magazine: “Exposing Hollywood’s Closeted Young Republicans.” The Republicans have a closet now too? How much more can our cultural closet hold? Here again, the usage indicates shamefulness—”exposing” is never something we really hope will happen to us, right?
All of this relates back to queer culture and reinforces the shamefulness of homosexuality. If there was nothing wrong with queerness, if our culture didn’t devalorize it and devalorize queer people, there wouldn’t be any need for coming out. We’d already BE out.
In fact, we’d just be.