June 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, when a group of patrons at a dive bar on Christopher St. in lower Manhattan — known then to be a hangout for homosexuals, transvestites, and other deviants — fought back against the police who routinely harassed them. The resistance kicked off a six-day uprising that summer of 1969 and the historic social movement then known as gay liberation. The site was declared a national monument in 2016, and a sculpture and informational markers have been installed there to memorialize the history that Stonewall symbolizes. The narrative feels complete now, with a beginning, a middle, and, perhaps, an end.
In opposition to generations of concealment and shame, the story goes, the Stonewall protesters came out of the closet and into the streets, agitating for the decriminalization of homosexuality, but more broadly, for the social transformation of gender and sex. Indeed, “coming out” was a core strategy for the achievement of these goals. Gays affirmed with pride their violation of a deep taboo until it was eroded. The Gay Liberation Front, an activist group formed in New York City soon after the Stonewall riots, titled their newspaper Come Out, every issue enjoining readers to make their sexuality publicly known. In San Francisco in 1978, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in American politics, struck the same chord: “Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets … You must come out.” Parents and relatives, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, must learn that they personally knew a homosexual, he explained, in order to “break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake.”The practice was formalized as an annual ritual when the first National Coming Out Day was observed in 1988. The date of October 11 was chosen in honor of a massive march on Washington by LGBTQA activists the previous year, suggesting that individual declarations of queer identification were acts of protest analogous to collective demonstrations, and with similar import for the movement.
“Coming out” has been a cornerstone of gay culture and activism in part because it’s a distinctive and defining queer experience. Queers publicly own a social stigma that otherwise might be invisible, declaring our difference, in most cases, from families and other early contexts of care. As gay historians have shown, this terminology was in circulation before Stonewall, although its meaning was different. According to George Chauncey, it was used to describe the occasion of coming out into “homosexual society” or “the gay world” as early as 1931. Like debutantes, except at a “pansy ball,” gay men came out not into the marriage market but rather out of the whole marriage system. Lillian Faderman has shown that homophile organizers started using the phrase to mean disclosing one’s sexuality to the straight world in the 1950s. As Chauncey notes, “The critical audience to which one came out had shifted from the gay world to the straight world” by the 1970s.
But the etymology of “coming out” is older and more complex than these established accounts suggest. Though the idea of coming out as an act of differentiation from the mainstream is now inseparable from modern gay experience, it has ancient Biblical roots. A verse from Corinthians commands: “come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord. Touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you.” In a similar verse in Revelations, God tells his people to come out of Babylon, “that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” Previous generations of Americans were very familiar with these texts. Ministers preached sermons and penned articles about the importance for Christians of “coming out from the world” to live a life of prayerful devotion, detached from worldly affairs.
But for many who took up this scriptural injunction as a personal mission, “coming out from the world” did not mean disengagement from social issues, but the opposite. Indeed, gay liberation was not the first American protest movement to make “coming out” a core tactic. A variety of radical activists in the nineteenth century adapted the biblical usage to describe their political “secession” from the inequality and corruption of the American mainstream and to form communities of dissent. In 1817, James Forten, a leader in Philadelphia’s free black community, wrote to Paul Cuffee, who was recruiting emigrants for the new colony of Sierra Leone, that African Americans “will never become a people until they come out from amongst the white people,” extending the Biblical injunction to describe a black nationalist disentanglement from an oppressive mainstream.
In the 1840s, abolitionists argued that it was the moral duty of all Christians to come out from churches that remained silent on the issue of slavery. And many of these “Come-Outers,” as they called themselves, were not satisfied merely to let their memberships lapse and sleep in on Sundays. Stephen S. Foster was particularly infamous for his Sunday morning protests. He would enter a church along with the congregation, sit quietly through the opening prayer, and then before the minister could begin his sermon, Foster would rise and deliver as much of an anti-slavery lecture as he could until he was physically seized. He would then go limp, forcing his detractors to carry the awkward bulk of his long frame down the aisle while he continued to hold forth on the slave’s cause. He would be thrown out the door, or occasionally a window, and then usually roughed up as he lay on the ground where he landed. The New Hampshire legislature passed a law in response to his activities, making it a crime to interrupt a church service. But he continued his protests anyway, spending time in jail in that state and others.
Coming out from the world was also an important strategy for anti-capitalist activists of this period. A major economic depression racked the country in the late 1830s; starvation was widespread, as was suicide. This galvanized a wave of socialist projects in the early 1840s led by those who wanted to come out from the exploitation of industrial capitalism into a more cooperative life. George Ripley, for example, the founder of the Transcendental Club and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cousin, quit his job as one of Boston’s leading Unitarian ministers. His farewell sermon in March 1841 served as his confession, a kind of “coming-out” in the contemporary sense, in which he addressed his congregation in order “to give a full disclosure of all my heresies.” No longer willing to muzzle his social justice commitments, he told his parishioners that he was done with passive preaching, that he must aim more actively to end war, overthrow slavery, labor oppression, and poverty.
He and his wife packed their bags and moved nine miles out into the country, founding a commune that Ripley trusted would eventually serve as the model for a new global economic system. He joined with a group of men and women who felt it necessary, as he explained, to “come out from the world” to claim a truer life, no longer benefitting like hypocrites from the system they critiqued. Brook Farm was perhaps the most famous of around forty communes formed by tens of thousands of Americans who came out from American society in that decade, around the same time that the building that would eventually house the Stonewall Inn was built as stables. After this time, a sense of conflict and agitation was built into the term: “to come out on strike” dates from 1841, and “to come out fighting” or “swinging” were both widely used in the early twentieth century.
In a contemporary social landscape that includes same-sex marriage and a gay presidential candidate, where are we now with coming out? The term may have lost some of its power as it bled from gay argot into mainstream usage to describe nearly any kind of confession. And some have long been dubious about the liberatory potential of personal declarations. Judith Butler and other post-structuralists observed that coming out promises a revelation that it can’t deliver, that in announcing one’s identity one simply comes out into a larger enclosure. In 1981, Michel Foucault advised that we approach “this need that Americans call ‘coming out,’ that is, showing oneself,” with care. We must resist, he claimed, “the tendency to relate the question of homosexuality to the problem of “Who am I?” and “What is the secret of my desire?” Perhaps it would be better to ask oneself, “‘What relations, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?’” Rather than seeking inner truth in this construction called sexual identity, he held that homosexuality presented a historic opportunity to imagine new networks beyond the narrow set of relations traditional society offers. He hoped that queers would come out from that world and invent a new one.
Although the process still operates powerfully and with profound material consequences in many lives, coming out no longer constitutes a radical politics in itself. Indeed, for some privileged gays and lesbians, the idea seems increasingly irrelevant. Some have called for the end of the practice, holding that the movement’s goal was mainstreaming – decriminalization, destigmatization, assimilation – and that this has been largely accomplished. But the idea that there is no longer anything to come out about would effectively mean the end of gay identity; it would suggest that homosexuality is now a socially meaningless variation, beneath announcement or notice. If that sense of distinction has vanished, if, for some, queerness is no longer a significantly divergent “lifestyle,” then the tradition proverbially born fifty years ago with the Stonewall riots may be at its end, a history to be honored but not an ongoing struggle to engage.
Although the term seems to be less circulated of late, the tactic has been revivified and expanded in recent years on social media, where waves of coming-out campaigns such as #metoo and #youknowme apply the method to issues like sexual assault and abortion, motivated by the belief that individual disclosures of a stigmatized status can transform public discourse and advance social change. While this hews relatively close to the version of coming out we have known since the Stonewall era, it might offer a bridge back to the activist history coiled inside the familiar phrase. James Forten, Stephen S. Foster, George Ripley, and many others came out from the world in the name of dissident collectivity rather than personal identity, some physically separating themselves and others announcing a more symbolic ethical separation from institutions and practices that they found intolerable and corrupting.
The historical marker now installed at the Stonewall site proclaims it to be the birthplace of “the Modern Lesbian & Gay Rights Liberation,” conflating two names for the movement with significantly different implications. If the movement was for “rights,” for coming into American society, then indeed, much that was then unthinkable has been realized, although significant challenges remain. But liberation is something different entirely; it requires coming out from normal life instead. Reclaiming coming out would mean acknowledging the ongoing violence against sexual and gender deviants here and around the world, of standing with them in separation even if we are among those less sharply delineated against the mainstream. It would mean defining oneself not on the basis of an essential identity but rather by a set of commitments, joining a long tradition of protest that opens possibilities for collaboration across and in the name of difference, coming out from the world as we know it.
Holly Jackson is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of the forthcoming narrative history American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation.