Arika Okrent traces its origins:
According to George Chauncey’s comprehensive history of modern gay culture, Gay New York, the closet metaphor was not used by gay people until the 1960s. Before then, it doesn’t appear anywhere “in the records of the gay movement or in the novels, diaries, or letters of gay men and lesbians.”
“Coming out,” however, has long been used in the gay community, but it first meant something different than it does now. “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 phrase “coming out” did not refer to coming out of hiding, but to joining into a society of peers. The phrase was borrowed from the world of debutante balls, where young women “came out” in being officially introduced to society.
The clip above is from a wonderful documentary, The Sons of Tennessee Williams, about the drag balls organized by gay men in New Orleans, when homosexuality was a criminal offense, but dressing like a woman for a pageant wasn’t. And so these balls included the “coming out” of debutantes. It’s a classic case of how the First Amendment protected besieged gay lives for a very long time in America, which is why, in my view, gays should remain in the forefront of its protection – for our opponents as well as ourselves.