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.