October 11 is National Coming Out Day. As sociologists Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer and Abigail C. Saguy write, coming out isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon, but it does look different in different countries.
Stambolis-Ruhstorfer and Saguy write that U.S. LGBTQ communities borrowed the term “coming out” from elite debutante balls. At first, it described entering gay society, particularly through drag balls. Later, it came to mean leaving the closet, which some 1970s gay activists viewed as a political act. Telling everyone you were gay protected you from blackmail. It also meant claiming an identity to organize political action around.
The phrase “coming out” has spread to other parts of the world. French journalists have been using it—in English—since the 1990s. But when Stombolis-Ruhstorfer and Saguy talked to LGBTQ people in France, they found that few of them used it. They speculated that this might reflect cultural differences. Some scholars have argued that French society encourages minorities to assimilate into a majority culture, leading queer people to view their sexuality as a private matter.
To test out this question, in 2010 and 2011 Stambolis-Ruhstorfer interviewed thirty gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, half from the U.S. and half from France, about their experiences as sexual minorities. They found that all the Americans spontaneously referred to coming out, while only a third of the French did.
Yet, to their surprise, Stambolis-Ruhstorfer and Saguy found that the French and American interviewees didn’t differ substantively in their explanations of how they publicly embraced their sexuality. About two thirds of both groups described a defining moment. As one French man explained, “really there was this rupture, this liberation, to have nothing to hide, to be happy about what I was living.” The French were also just as likely as the Americans to view staying closeted as a kind of lying, rather than a matter of privacy.
So why didn’t the French interviewees say they had “come out”? Stambolis-Ruhstorfer and Saguy argue that while they knew the phrase, it meant something different to them than it did to the Americans. Many of them said that it was mainly used in the media and reflected a sensationalized idea of LGBTQ identity. One French man said that “coming out” implies that “there is a big scoop; I’m not going to treat myself as a scoop.”
The authors suggest that the French interviewees’ embrace of the practice of coming out—though not the term—may be different from what previous scholars have found because of cultural shifts. As queer French people become more socially and politically accepted, the idea of keeping sexuality private may be fading. At the same time, “coming out” may be becoming less salient for a different reason. About a third of the study participants in both countries said they’d conveyed their sexuality gradually or in a natural way without a big declaration. As people become less likely to assume everyone they know is straight, that may be becoming a more common experience in many countries.