The 10 groundbreaking, monumental coming out moments that changed the world for the better
To mark National Coming Out Day, we reflect on some of the incredible coming out moments through the years that changed the world.
The experience varies enormously from country to country and culture to culture. In some parts of the world, queer people are generally accepted and enjoy many of the same rights as their straight and cis counterparts – and that in turn makes it easier for LGBT+ people to come out.
But that’s not the full picture. Even in places where LGBT+ people are largely accepted and have been afforded rights, coming out can still be tricky. Meanwhile, some parts of the world criminalise queer people – making coming out an impossibility.
That’s why it’s so important that public figures find the courage to come out publicly and show the rest of the world that LGBT+ people can live beautiful, magical lives while living openly.
To mark National Coming Out Day, we take a look at some of the incredible coming out moments that have changed the world.
1. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
On 29 August 1867, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs stood up in front of the Congress of German Jurists and called for anti-gay laws to be repealed.
It was a significant moment in the global fight for LGBT+ rights. By standing before his peers and advocating for gay rights, Ulrichs outed himself as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was rarely discussed in anything but the most negative of terms.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs came out as gay before the word “gay” even existed. In fact, the word “homosexual” hadn’t even been coined. To say he was ahead of his time would be something of an understatement.
Ulrichs’ fight for equality didn’t exactly go anywhere during his lifetime, but his writings showed other queer people that they weren’t alone and, more importantly, that they weren’t an aberration. Today, he is remembered as the first person to come out publicly as gay – and for that feat, he has gone down in queer history.
2. Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner sent shockwaves across the world when she came out as a trans woman in 2015.
The former Olympian is generally considered a controversial figure thanks to her historic support of Donald Trump and her fierce commitment to the Republican Party – but her decision to come out instantly made her the most visible trans person on the planet.
Whether LGBT+ people like her or not, Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out rocked the world and meant that whole swathes of society learned for the first time that not everybody identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Jenner first came out as trans in an interview in April 2015, but it was really her now famous Vanity Fair cover, shot by Annie Leibovitz, that propelled her to worldwide fame. The images were significant for many reasons – one of which was that they positioned her as glamorous and beautiful when the media had for so long gone out of its way to demonise trans people.
Caitlyn Jenner is far from perfect, but it goes without saying that her coming out is one of the most significant in recent years.
3. Ellen DeGeneres
It remains one of the most famous magazine covers of all time – many people will remember seeing the TIME issue in which Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay.
The year was 1997 and DeGeneres was at the top of her game. She was fronting her own sitcom, she was in demand, and audiences loved her – and then she came out.
DeGeneres’ coming out coincided with her character’s coming out on her sitcom. On 14 April, 1997, the TIME magazine issue featuring a no-holds barred interview with the star was released to the world with the caption “Yep, I’m Gay” on the cover.
Her decision to publicly come out rocked Hollywood – the entertainment industry wasn’t nearly as inclusive as you might have thought, and executives had worked for years to keep stars’ sexualities out of the spotlight. Within a year, Ellen’s sitcom had been cancelled and she found herself out of work for a period of time.
But it’s also true that her coming out helped to change hearts and minds when it came to public perceptions of LGBT+ identities. There is no doubt that DeGeneres’ coming out helped inspire countless conversations around dinner tables across America about sexuality – and she likely helped many others come out, both to themselves and to others.
4. Lil Nas X
There was widespread surprise – and jubilation – when Lil Nas X came out publicly as gay in June 2019.
His coming out was surprising, and powerful, for many reasons. LGBT+ people had become so accustomed to queer celebrities coming out later in their careers, often citing advice from management as the reason they stayed in the closet.
Lil Nas X turned that trope on its head. When he came out, he was one of the biggest musicians on the planet – his track “Old Town Road” was still atop the US charts, and he was all anybody could talk about.
It was also significant because so much of his fanbase at that time were young children. In coming out, he became a role model for queer youth who looked up to him and admired him.
Since then, he has proven that being unabashedly queer is no longer a hindrance to a music career. His debut album, released in September, won critical acclaim and topped charts across the world, making him one of the most successful queer recording artists of recent times.
5. Sam Smith
There was widespread excitement among queer people when Sam Smith came out as non-binary in 2019. Later that year, they announced that their pronouns were they/them.
“After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out,” Smith wrote on Instagram at the time.
Through that simple act, Smith became one of the most visible non-binary people on the planet. That experience hasn’t always been easy for Smith – they have been vocal about the pain that comes with being misgendered, and they’ve faced ridicule and bigotry from the usual suspects.
But they have also shown young queer people that it’s possible to be truly and authentically yourself and still be a hugely successful musician. While furious trolls might post furious rants on social media about their gender, Smith is living their best life – and still working at the top of their game.
6. Justin Fashanu
English footballer Justin Fashanu came out as gay in an interview with a tabloid newspaper in 1990 in a time when doing so was completely unheard of for a major sporting figure.
Fashanu – who played for a number of clubs between 1978 and 1997 – was known to be gay by some of his fellow footballers, but he kept his sexuality out of the public eye for most of his career.
That all changed in 1990 when he came out publicly in a salacious story published by The Sun. In that article, Fashanu claimed he had had an affair with a married Conservative MP. Speaking to Gay Times shortly afterwards, Fashanu said the stories were untrue.
He also said he had been paid a large sum of money to do the interview and to come out publicly – but said he had been offered even more money by others who wanted him to stay in the closet. Sadly, Fashanu also admitted that coming out caused “heavy damage” to his career.
Fashanu’s story had a tragic ending – he died by suicide in 1998 after being accused of sexual assault by a 17-year-old boy. Still, his decision to come out publicly as gay changed perceptions in sport and brought the conversation around homophobia in football to national attention for the first time.
7. Demi Lovato
Demi Lovato has had a number of coming out moments, but it was their decision to come out as non-binary that really helped to revolutionise the way people think about gender.
The singer announced in May that they had come to realise they were non-binary. They also asked that people refer to them using they/them pronouns going forward.
It was a significant moment for Lovato personally, but it was also a major one for non-binary and gender non-conforming people across the world. In announcing that they were non-binary, Lovato became one of the most famous non-binary people in the world – and they became a crucial example of queer representation for many of their younger fans.
Since then, Lovato has spoken time and time again about the gender journey they are on – and they’ve been open about their fluidity, suggesting that the way they define themselves could change throughout their life. There is a great deal of power in that sentiment – and Lovato’s decision to share their journey with the world was a hugely important one.
8. Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson was one of Hollywood’s most handsome leading men – which meant that he was forced to keep his sexuality a secret.
The Golden Age actor never came out publicly as gay. There was no sit down interview, no magazine cover for Rock Hudson – instead, his coming out came with a dash of tragedy.
The actor’s sexuality finally made it into public view when his representatives announced that he had AIDS just days before his death in 1985. At that time, going public with a HIV diagnosis meant that people would immediately connect the dots and make the assumption that that person was gay.
With Hudson, those assumptions were correct – he had been living his life as a gay man privately for many years. It was only when he contracted HIV and ultimately started suffering from AIDS that the public found out about his sexuality.
Rock Hudson didn’t exactly have a traditional coming out, but the admission that he was suffering from AIDS catapulted him into the spotlight in a new way. He fast became one of the most high-profile victims of the AIDS epidemic – and his death helped to humanise the disease that was predominantly affecting queer men.
9. Christine Jorgensen
In 1952, Christine Jorgensen found fame and notoriety when she became one of the first trans women to undergo gender affirmation surgeries in Denmark.
Of course, Jorgensen wasn’t the first person to undergo such treatments – she was just the first person to become widely known for having done so. After undergoing surgery in Denmark, Jorgensen exploded into public view with a New York Daily News front page story about her transition.
The article ran under the salacious headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty” – and just like that, Jorgensen became the most visible trans person of her time.
While she wanted to live a quiet life post-transition, Jorgensen later realised that the only way she could earn a living was by making public appearances. She became a fixture of American media for a period of time, even developing a nightclub act and appearing on television, radio and on the stage. In 1967, she published her autobiography Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography. It went on to sell 450,000 copies.
Jorgensen’s decision to go public with her transition catapulted her to fame – and showed others that it was possible to be trans long before most people knew even the basics about gender diversity and identity.
10. Jason Collins
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When basketball player Jason Collins came out as gay in April 2013, he became the first active male athlete from one of the four major North American professional teams to do so publicly.
It was a momentous occasion for queer representation in American sport. LGBT+ people were generally completely absent from the sporting arena, so it was a big deal for a basketball player of Collins’ stature to come out publicly.
Collins was widely praised for coming out publicly and for bringing queerness to the centre stage of sport. Among those who congratulated him were Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and NBA commissioner David Stern.
But the real effect of his coming out is something that can’t be quantified. For young people who looked up to him, Collins’ decision to come out publicly as gay will have shown them that it’s possible to achieve their wildest dreams and still be exactly who the are.
The significance of that can’t be underestimated.