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What does It Mean When Someone is Said to "Come out of the Closet"?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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When someone “comes out of the closet,” it means that he or she discloses sexual orientation or gender identity. Classically, this term is used to describe gays and lesbians who openly express their sexuality, although it could also refer to heterosexuals, along with transsexuals, fetishists, and others. When someone's orientation is disclosed without consent, it is known as “outing.”

At various points in history, the open expression of non-heterosexual sexual orientations has been accepted or frowned upon, depending on the society and the era. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, being an “out” homosexual was generally frowned upon in many parts of the world, except in certain social circles. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, gay and lesbian activists started being more open about their sexuality, capitalizing on a growing civil rights movement that was promoting acceptance for women, people of color, and other marginalized populations.

Someone can choose to come out of the closet at any stage in life. Some people are confident about their sexual orientation and community at a young age, and they may be out as early as high school. Others may wait until much later in life; many gay men who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, were very hesitant to be open about their sexuality until they were much older, as are people who grow up in conservative or homophobic environments.

It is not uncommon for people to conceal their sexual orientation for political or employment reasons. Although discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is forbidden in many regions of the world, out homosexuals may still experience prejudice on the job, especially in very traditional fields, and they may find it easier to remain in the closet. Politicians especially tend to conceal their sexual orientation, with a few notable exceptions, such as Harvey Milk, the first modern politician who was fully out.

When someone comes out of the closet, it may be a subtle event, or it may be celebrated with fanfare. Typically, people come out to family members and close friends first, often on an individual basis. In the event of a forcible outing, however, the person may become extremely upset. People have lost jobs and friendships in the wake of being forcibly outed, and outing someone else is generally frowned upon in the gay community for this reason. While the victim of a forced outing may eventually adjust to his or her out status and come to embrace it, or even be thankful that the truth has been exposed, the short-term consequences can be devastating.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon323085 — On Mar 03, 2013

I think we all have a right to live life happy and secure no matter what our sexual orientation. However, if you know you are gay or lesbian, why marry someone straight, under false pretenses, stay with them 8 to 10 years then walk out shattering their lives and dreams?

This is a lie that has devastated spouses and entire families. Why not be honest..instead of wasting someone else's life to hide your "secret"? Walking out the door on your spouse, leaving a note o tell them you want out of the marriage? Coward! You would have still been loved and respected, had you just been honest. This is unacceptable and selfish. It is not just about your happiness. Enough said.

By candyquilt — On Jan 25, 2013

@ysmina-- I agree. Some people are never able to come out of the closet. They spend their whole lives having to hide their true preferences. Some even get married and have children due to family pressures.

By ysmina — On Jan 24, 2013

@burcinc-- Coming out of the closet is not an easy thing. I'm gay and I have expressed my preference to my family and friends but I understand that not everyone can do that. I have an extremely open, loving and understanding family and group of friends. But despite this I was very scared about coming out in the open. I sincerely felt that I might lose a few loved ones by doing this.

I cannot blame or judge anyone who doesn't want to come out of the closet. It's their personal preference. They should do that when and if they feel ready.

Also, let's not forget that many gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals live in very conservative societies where coming out of the closet would put their lives at risk. Even here in the US, there are people who fear and hate gays.

By burcinc — On Jan 24, 2013

I think everyone should come out of the closet. Why hide your sexual preference? People should accept you the way you are. I feel that those who hide their sexual preference are not just lying to others but lying to themselves as well.

By shell4life — On Nov 04, 2012

@cloudel – Oh, that is just so wrong of her! I would never do that to someone. Coming out should be an individual's choice, and no one else should take it upon themselves to do this for them.

By DylanB — On Nov 04, 2012

Sometimes, a person's peers figure out that they are gay before they are even willing to admit it out loud. If those peers are friends, then this can make coming out of the closet more comfortable for them.

I had a friend in high school who constantly got teased about being gay, but he had never come out to anyone. I'm not even sure if he was certain of his orientation at that point, but everyone else seemed sure of it.

Finally, after graduation, he came out. He was so liberated, and though he had been quiet and shy for years while enduring torture in school, he suddenly seemed like a totally different person.

By cloudel — On Nov 03, 2012

Outing someone is frowned upon in any community. This happened to a guy that I worked with, and he was furious.

Basically, rumors got started that he might be gay because he didn't want to be set up on dates with females, which is what my coworkers were constantly trying to do. He told them he wanted to choose his own dates.

Well, one nosy coworker spotted him out one night with another man, and she followed him. She actually confronted him about it at work, so his secret was out.

I couldn't believe she had the audacity to dig into his personal life like this, much less to expose it in front of everyone! Coming out was a choice he should have had the option of making, and she took that away from him.

By croydon — On Aug 20, 2012

@irontoenail - I can see your point, but you can never tell if someone is allergic to peanuts without them telling you (or having an episode right in front of you). If you are in a situation where it's necessary for someone to tell you they are gay (for example, you're flirting with someone and ask them on a date or something) well, I think it's polite to not make that assumption, just like you wouldn't assume someone was necessarily single.

And I can't think of any other situations where it would actually affect someone if the person they are interacting with is gay. So why should it be a big deal? I've never been able to understand why people make it a big deal. When you think of all the suffering people in the world it seems like there are more important things to care about.

By irontoenail — On Aug 19, 2012

@Mor - Unfortunately, I don't think that's ever going to happen. I don't think it's even completely a result of a homophobic society, it's a result of the nature of homosexuality being much more rare than heterosexuality.

In addition it's not easy to see when you first meet someone what their orientation is. So even if a person is completely open about their sexuality, they might need to "come out" to people when they first meet them, to define whether they are a potential partner or not. It would depend on the situation of course and some people might object to that idea, but I don't think it's any different from having to tell someone that you're allergic to peanuts. When it's necessary, it's just something that you have to do because the general assumption is going to be that you're not allergic to peanuts.

This is just the way things are, unfortunately. People will always assume that you're in the majority, because if they took nothing for granted, life would be even more difficult to negotiate.

By Mor — On Aug 18, 2012

I actually think it's a shame that there even needs to be a term for this. People shouldn't need to come "out of the closet" they should be able to exist without being put into a box that they need to remove.

I hope that when I have kids they will feel comfortable to be whatever they want to be for their whole lives and not feel like they need to make a big announcement because nobody has assumed anything about them in the first place, and, more importantly, nobody cares all that much what their orientation is in the first place.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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