Note: A different version of this post originally appeared on my other blog, Scattered Thoughts.
In March of this year, I presented at my first academic conference. Hosted by my department’s Communication Graduate Caucus, the theme of the 11th annual CGC Conference was Play/Rewind, which focused on the notion that, in order to understand the present and how to shape the future, we must first understand the past.
I presented on YouTube coming out videos. These videos have become hugely popular in the last few years, with some of the more popular videos receiving millions of likes and thousands upon thousands of comments, which many comments coming from young individuals saying the videos helped them find the strength to come out themselves. Yet, for all the positive comments, the negative ones are still there as well, and I wonder whether the negativity, homophobia, and queer shaming hinders the coming out process for some individuals who are still in the closet.
For my conference presentation, I argued that in order to understand what’s happening today on YouTube, it’s essential to first look to the past and learn more about the coming out process itself. As I mentioned before, this research into the past allowed me to learn some new things, like where the term to “come out of the closet” finds its origins.
Here’s some of what I spoke about in my presentation:
Chirrey (2003) defines the phenomenon of coming out as being, “recognized by most self-identified lesbian or gay individuals as an experience they have in common: that moment of recognizing and asserting their gayness” (p.24). Of course, this goes beyond just lesbian and gay individuals and encompasses the whole queer community. When someone comes out, they are challenging the heterosexist view of the world by refusing to accept a negative evaluation of themselves and their lifestyle (Chirrey, 2003).
Coming out is, according to Judith Butler (1990, 1997), a performative process. Liang (1997) calls it a speech act that, “not only describes a state of affairs, namely the speaker’s gayness, but also brings those affairs, a new gay self, into being. By presenting a gay self, an individual alters social reality by creating a community of listeners and thereby establishing the beginnings of a new gay-aware culture. Coming out is, in this respect, a performative utterance that can be seen as revolutionary” (p. 293).
This revolution is extremely significant in the LGBT community. Delany (1999) argues that coming out has acquired extraordinary significance in the gay community—so much so that, “through much of that quarter-century [after the Stonewall riots], when, if you hadn’t ‘come out of the closet,’ many gay men and lesbians felt you had somehow betrayed them, that you couldn’t really ‘define yourself as gay,’ that you had not ‘accepted your gay identity’” (p. 67).
Looking beyond the act of coming out, I also want to briefly touch on where the terminology itself comes from. The use of “coming out” was introduced to the academic community in the 1950s when Evelyn Hooker observed that, “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” (Hooker, 1965).
As Chauncey (1994) explains, coming out is, “an arch play on the language of women’s culture—in this case the expression used to refer to the ritual of a debutante’s being formally introduced to, or ‘coming out’ into, the society of her cultural peers” (p. 7). He goes on to explain that a gay man’s coming out originally referred his being presented to prewar gay society at drag balls that were patterned on debutante and masquerade balls. In those prewar years, gay people did not speak of coming out of a closet, but rather into the, “‘homosexual society’ or the ‘gay world’, a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor, often, so hidden as ‘closet’ implies” (Chauncey, 1994, p. 7).
Both Brown (2000) and Okrent (2013) suggest that the closet metaphor stems from the idea of “skeletons in the closet”. As Okrent says, “It is unclear exactly when gay people started using the closet metaphor, but it may have been used initially because many men who remained covert thought of their homosexuality as a sort of ‘skeleton in the closet’” (Okrent, 2013). Brown (2000) says that, while the exact origins of the metaphor are unclear, “it is clear that between 1968 and 1972 the term [‘closet’] came to signify the concealment and erasure of gays and lesbians” (Brown, 2000, p. 5). Sedgwick (1990) called the closet, the defining structure for gay oppression in the 20th century (p. 71).
According to Tamashiro, “In the 1950s, the term signified a coming out into a new world of hope and communal solidarity. However, by the 1970s, after the Stonewall rebellion, it came to signify not so much coming out into a new world as coming out of the loneliness, isolation, and self-hatred of the closet” (Tamashiro, 2004).
Rhoads (1994) argues that, “The normalization of sexuality created and continues to reinforce the closet. “Because heterosexuality is the norm, most people assume that everyone is straight. This makes leaving the closet an ongoing process, since one continually makes new acquaintances” (p. 61). Of course, this means that I have again left the closet while this presentation is happening.
It’s important to understand the past because that allows us to understand the present and plan for the future. As a young gay man, knowing what has happened in the LGBT community before my time is essential, especially when I hope to research something happening now.
But, if I’m being completely honest, I don’t know as much as I should. That’s something I am working to change. I recently bought a book on 100 years of LGBT activism, which I hope to read soon. Plus, I also just read Merle Miller’s 1971 essay called What It Means to Be a Homosexual, which featured this incredible quote:
“I have never infected anybody, and it’s too late for the head people to do anything about me now. Gay is good. Gay is proud. Well, yes, I suppose. If I had been given a choice (but who is?), I would prefer to have been straight. But then, would I rather not have been me? Oh, I think not, not this morning anyway. It is a very clear day in late December, and the sun is shining on the pine trees outside my studio. The air is extraordinary clear, and the sky is the colour it gets only at this time of year, dark, almost navy-blue. On such a day I would not choose to be anyone else or any place else.”
I too wouldn’t choose to be anyone else, and that’s another reason why it’s important to understand the past, because it helped shape and make way for the world I live in now.
If there’s one thing I learned from this research, from watching the YouTube videos, and most recently from the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, it’s that coming out still matters. Coming out is still an act of defiance, where one stands up in the heteronormative world we live in and dares to be different. I recently read a couple of articles (here and here) about people who chose to come out in the wake of the Orlando attack.
In my opinion, YouTube coming out videos are exceptionally important, as they bring more and more LGBTQIA+ identities into the mainstream. If Orlando proved anything, it’s that, now more than ever, we need to keep queering the mainstream, we need to keep being out and we need to show the world that we’re not going away.
Brown, M. P. (2000). Closet space: Geographies of metaphor from the body to the globe. London: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (1997). Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. New York: Routledge.
Chauncey, G. (1994). Gay New York: Gender, urban culture, and the makings of the gay male world, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.
Chirrey, D. A. (2003). ‘I hereby come out’: What sort of speech act is coming out? Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7(1), 24-37.
Delany, S. R. (1999). Coming/Out. In Shorter views: Queer thoughts & the politics of the paraliterary (pp 67-97). Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
Hooker, E. (1965). Male homosexuals and their “worlds”. In Marmor, J. (Ed.), Sexual inversion: The multiple roots of homosexuality (pp 83-107). New York: Basic Books.
Liang, A. C. (1997). The creation of coherence in coming-out stories. In A. Livia & K. Hall (Eds.), Queerly Phrased (pp. 287-309). New York: Oxford University Press.
Okrent, A. (2013). Where did the phrase ‘come out of the closet’ come from? Retrieved March 04, 2016, from http://theweek.com/articles/464753/where-did-phrase-come-closet-come-from.
Rhoads, R. A. (1994). Coming out in college: The struggle for a queer identity. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Tamashiro, D. (2004). Coming Out. Retrieved March 4, 2016, from glbtq.com.