In order to come out as homosexual to oneself, associates and the public, there must be an understanding of the concept of homosexuality in that society and to that individual. Similarly, there must be such an understanding of possible sexual identities in order to find oneself ‘in the closet’. To be ‘in’ or ‘out’, there must be a notion of what is being hidden, or revealed. This is taking a social constructionist understanding of sexuality and sexual categorisation, in contrast to essentialist views that believe it possible to hold a lesbian or gay identity even if there is no social or individual understanding of what such terms may mean in that particular culture or time in history (Calhoun, 2000: 21). Before the late nineteenth century, ‘homosexual’ as a distinct identity concept did not exist. There were homosexual acts, but these were non-procreative sins anybody was seen to be capable of committing (Seidman, 2004: 15). Individuals who felt same-sex desire, but were able to keep such feelings or experiences hidden, might even not have felt any need to alter their public identity. There may also have been more scope for gender-bending behaviour patterns or appearances as at that time gender experimentation was not so heavily associated as being representative of sexual deviance. There would have been little suspicion or concerns in the public mind to drive a witch-hunt for that type of ‘sinner’ yet. Queer individuals probably did not think of themselves as having a deviant identity that needed to be dealt with, as sexual behaviour was not such a central factor in personal identity at the time. Such is still the case in a number of non-western cultures that have been less influenced by Freudian notions of sexual behaviour being the fundamental component of identity.
The whole essay is available here: Coming Out as an Identity Forming Process [PDF]