Grammar

Where the ‘Coming Out of the Closet’ Metaphor Came From

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These days, we hear more and more about people “coming out of the closet.” But how, linguistically, did they get there in the first place?

“Coming out of the closet” is a phrase that these days means one revealing to the world that he or she is homosexual, although it occasionally is used to refer to a revelation of some other big secret.

The idiom appears to have been the result of a collision of two metaphors: “coming out” and the notion of a “closet.”

Mental_Floss magazine points out that the “closet” in question was not embraced by the homosexual community until the 1960s or so, though the “coming out” part predated it:

A gay man’s coming out originally referred to his being formally presented to the largest collective manifestation of prewar gay society, the enormous drag balls that were patterned on the debutante and masquerade balls of the dominant culture and were regularly held in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore, and other cities.

The article points out that “coming out” didn’t mean an end to “hiding,” but rather the beginning of being a member of that particular societal segment.

Over the years, it has come mean letting the big cat out of the bag, making the world aware of your “dark secret.” The “closet,” then, is what a gay person has been hiding, hoping no one will find out.

Phrase Finder suggests the closet might refer to the notion of a “skeleton in the closet,” which is more commonly used when someone refers to a secret one finds particularly shameful. It points out that the British favor the expression “skeleton in the cupboard,” while we Americans tend to want our skeletons stashed away in a closet instead. I can certainly understand that: I don’t want a corpse in my kitchen.

The site points to an example of the dramatic device of concealing a body from 19th century literature. While they cite a different Edgar Allen Poe story as an example, I prefer his Tell-Tale Heart, in which a narrator who insists he’s perfectly sane not only murdered a boarder, but concealed the remains under a floorboard and even invited police to sit on the very spot of concealment while they discussed the man’s disappearance.

True, in that case, it was a skeleton in the floor, not the closet, but the concealment of a “terrible secret” seems to have carried over, no matter where the concealment happens. I would imagine stuffing something in a closet, metaphorically, is easier than ripping up a floor and replacing it.

Beginning some time in the 1960s, the two idioms seem to have merged: “coming out” was less about joining the gay society but revealing a secret to the straight society and the closet referred to the perception of shame the person who “comes out” must have felt prior to opening the closet door.

One might wonder when, if many are changing attitudes about homosexuality, the “closet” part might disappear.

1 Comment

  1. It’s always interesting to me to see how differently people’s minds work. In this case, I suppose, it’s the generally negative connotation that often seems to come with this phrase; but what of the possibility that maybe it’s not quite as negative as all that?
    When I read the title of this post, I paused to consider it. I am certainly all too familiar with it – I’d be shocked to meet any primarily English-speaking person that did NOT know it. Oddly enough, the latter part of this – the closet – just sounds to me like the place we store old stuff. I don’t use my attic: too hot. Nor do I use the damp garage for things of this nature (childhood things), as that might be just as deliterious to keeping old items. No, for this specific kind of storage, it’s a closet. Usually, it’s the top shelf/shelves as well, with boxes full of all kinds of funny things your parents kept: a “woobie” (childhood transference device) that’s old and dilapidated. Some childhood drawings that your mother preserved (in my case, almost everything, since I’m an artist). Some grades, a few Christmas ornaments, etc.. That was the image that immediately popped into my mind. The embarrassment, real or imagined…well, is it always that? Need it always be that? I hope not.
    The former part has, as you mentioned, existed far earlier and was in common use.
    I find that, as much as it may be gratifying to know about the etymology of this particular phrase, I’m much more interested, anthropologically, to know why some men (it seems to only be men, as well) come… “flouncing” out of the closet on the balls of their feet, with an odd sort of – what – dialect, accent, odd inflections? – of speaking. This is what I’m curious to know and understand. Not all men do this, of course – but for those that do, I wonder what it accomplishes? It’s not as though one can claim on his passport that he’s from the annexed country of Homosexuality.
    This doesn’t change how I feel about homosexuality or those of my friends, male or female, who live that lifestyle: it’s obviously natural, given the sheer numbers, just as bisexuality or “bi-curious” people are, and those who knew at the earliest cognitive age that s/he was the wrong gender. I see people who are the same as me: I follow my natural inclination to be heterosexual, to love, to be connected to another person.
    Sigmund Freud said it best: the only unnatural sexual practice is not to have any at all.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.