1931: The Baltimore Afro-American covers a local drag ball, describing the "coming out of new debutantes into gay society." |
When a gay man spoke of "coming out" in the pre-war years, he was not referring to emerging out of a secretive and solitary "closet," as we tend to think of the term today. Rather, historian George Chauncey has discovered, the term "coming out" originally derived from a vibrant turn-of-the-century tradition of "drag" balls, particularly within African-American communities. With a wink to the elite tradition of the young female debutante being introduced to society, participants in these balls spoke of their "coming out" as the time that they were first formally presented to the gay world.
Modeled on the grand debutante and masquerade balls of the time, drag balls were often held in the finest venues of Chicago, New York, and Baltimore and other cities. Far from hidden affairs, these balls drew numerous participants and spectators, gay, lesbian, and straight. The annual Hamilton Lodge Ball in Harlem, for example, routinely drew hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators (both African-American and white). By 1931, this aspect of gay culture was entering mainstream parlance, as the Baltimore Afro-American reported that, "The coming out of new debutantes into homosexual society was the outstanding feature of Baltimore's eighth annual frolic of the pansies when the art club was host to the neuter gender at the Elks' Hall." The less exuberant contemporary understanding of "coming out of the closet" probably has its origin in the fear and repression of the post-World War II period.