These days, we hear more and more about people â€œcoming out of the closet.â€ But how, linguistically, did they get there in the first place?
â€œComing out of the closetâ€Â 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: â€œcoming outâ€Â and the notion of a â€œcloset.â€
Mental_Floss magazine points out that the â€œclosetâ€Â in question was not embraced by the homosexual community until the 1960s or so, though the â€œcoming outâ€Â 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 â€œcoming outâ€Â didn’t mean an end to â€œhiding,â€Â 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 â€œdark secret.â€ The â€œcloset,â€Â 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 â€œskeleton in the closet,â€Â which is more commonly used when someone refers to a secret one finds particularly shameful. It points out that the British favor the expression â€œskeleton in the cupboard,â€Â 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 â€œterrible secretâ€ 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: â€œcoming outâ€Â 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 â€œcomes outâ€ must have felt prior to opening the closet door.
One might wonder when, if many are changing attitudes about homosexuality, the â€œclosetâ€Â part might disappear.