With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

America Comes Out

On June 25, 1978, Harvey Milk delivered a speech at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, where he pleaded with the crowd:

We will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. … I’m tired of the conspiracy of silence. … Gay brothers and sisters, … you must come out. Come out to your parents. … Come out to your relatives. … Come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors, to your fellow workers. To the people who work where you eat and shop. Come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.

Milk was the first openly gay elected official to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. He believed that the most important thing a person could do was to become more visible, each day and every day. The power of coming out lay precisely in its quotidian character.

Not five decades later, coming out wasn’t even the most important part of Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. He ascended from relative indistinction to the top echelon of Democratic candidates as a result of his fundraising prowess: Buttigieg claims to have secured more than $24 million in three months, more than any other candidate. But what about coming out? What had become of this rhetorical strategy over the years?

Buttigieg made history in 2019 as the first openly gay major candidate for president of the United States, but what made his campaign remarkable was that his sexual orientation wasn’t. Although the New York Times asked, “Is the country really ready to send a gay man to the White House?,” Buttigieg refused the terms. “I’m not running to be the gay president of the United States,” he rebutted, in a CNN town hall in Charleston, South Carolina. “I’m out here to serve everybody.”

From Milk to Buttigieg, “coming out”—a concept that captures cultural themes of visibility, stigma, and authenticity—has evolved in dramatic ways. And thus, the question of how and why we “come out” as certain kinds of people is the focus of sociologist Abigail C. Saguy’s book Come Out, Come Out, Whoever You Are. In answering that query, the book explores the protean and surprisingly portable quality of metaphors like “coming out” and “the closet,” as well as the relationship between disclosure and social change.

Saguy reveals that coming out has expanded well beyond its origins in gay social worlds. In fact, today people come out as, among other identities, undocumented immigrants and sex-abuse survivors. Many groups have embraced the language of coming out to refute stigma, and to reclaim that stigma as a source of pride and protest.

Read entire article at Public Books