From 1860s Drag Balls to Bricks at Stonewall: Unpacking the History of the Term ‘Coming Out’

From 1860s Drag Balls to Bricks at Stonewall: Unpacking the History of the Term ‘Coming Out’

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Have you been watching the new Netflix show Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness? If not, you’re missing out. The premise of the show is simple: JVN asks a question and spends each episode working towards the answer, speaking with various professionals about it. The third episode, Can We Say Bye-bye to the Binary?, focuses specifically on the gender binary, and part of the episode delves into the history of coming out and its use as a common term among queer people.

Alok Vaid-Menon speaks about the history of coming out on ‘Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness’

On the episode, Van Ness leads a conversation with Alok Vaid-Menon, a nonbinary author and speaker; Geo Soctomah Neptune, a two-spirit Passamaquoddy person; and Joshua Allen, director of the Black Excellence Collective. The four of them discuss several topics, like the importance of visibility for gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people.

But it’s Alok who brings up something we found particularly interesting that we hadn’t given much thought to — the history of coming out and the origin of that terminology:

A lot of people don’t know the history of the term “coming out.” Actually, that we used to have debutante balls that were queer. This is from the 18th century on, and it would be ‘coming out’ to meet the underground queer community. It was linked to being witnessed by other people, and it was about actually joining a collective.

Now it’s become hyper-individuated, and I think when it comes to nonbinary people, of course the only way we’re gonna find out about ourselves is by meeting each other. And so that’s why we can begin to think that they’ve designed every institution specifically to make us not meet each other. And so that makes me actually feel so much hope and possibility, ‘cause we’re not supposed to be here, and we are.

In the 1860s, the balls referenced by Alok began. They took the concept of debutante balls, where young women would make their introduction to high society, and essentially queerified them, turning them into events where men would ‘come out’ and make their introduction to homosexual society. These balls thrived in Black spaces, with the yearly Hamilton Lodge Ball in Harlem starting in 1869. Drag queens would be escorted by gay men in tuxedos and presented to the mostly Black audiences that could have hundreds of people present.

A drag beauty contest that took place in New York, February 1967. Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

The drag balls faced a lot of backlash and vitriol by different moral groups as they began to gain traction. In 1916, the Committee of the Fourteen deemed the balls “perverse” and said that they should stop being held. Despite their detractors, during the Harlem Renaissance these drag balls became even more popular as a form of self-expression and freedom, and the Hamilton Lodge Ball was one of the highlights of the year. The drags balls became more visible to the public, known as events that attracted not only gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons, but straight artists writers, and curious people would attend because of their reputation.

In the years following the Harlem Renaissance, there was significant backlash and the queer world went further underground. Instead of ‘coming out’ into gay society, it was done through secret code phrases, such as “a friend of Dorothy’s” and “gay,” and with underground societies like the Mattachine Society (read more about the Mattachine Society here) working towards gay liberation.

Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary ‘Paris Is Burning’ was many people’s first look into the world of queer ball culture

Eventually ‘coming out’ became a political act, which it largely still is — something we can at partly attribute to the 1969 Stonewall uprising, when patrons rebelled against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn and thereby sparked the LGBTQ civil rights movement as it’s most popularly understood today.

History can often be white-washed, and it’s important to see that even a term as ubiquitous as “coming out” has its origin in Black spaces with ball culture, prevalent during periods such as the Harlem Renaissance.

How familiar were you with the history of coming out and its use among queer people?

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