Coming out – what does it mean to ‘come out’?
Identifying yourself as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) and disclosing this to other people is often referred to as ‘coming out’.
Many people find that coming out is a positive experience. However, coming to terms with confusion about identity can have both positive and negative effects on many aspects of a person’s life, including social relationships, school or work, and self-esteem.1 Coming out can be a difficult time; many LGBT people fear negative reactions, rejection and upsetting people they are close to. In many parts of the world strong cultural attitudes and discriminatory laws make coming out even harder.2
Despite the obstacles faced by LGBT people, every day more people around the world make the decision to come out, and many organisations are working to provide support and campaign for the rights of people who are able to come out and live their lives openly as LGBT.
What is coming out like?
A lot of people come out during their teenage years, as this is when we begin to learn more about our sexuality and identity.3 4 However, coming out is something that can take place at any point in life. Coming to terms with sexual feelings can take a long time, and many people don’t come out until later in life. For some, it may not be until they are older that they become aware of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender feelings.5
Coming out is not a single action, it is a process of coming to terms with being LGBT and disclosing this to others.6 Many factors affect the coming out process, for example gender, ethnicity and age, meaning that everyone’s coming out experience is unique to them.7 However, there are some common stages, which many LGBT people find they go through when they come out:
In the first stage of coming out generally a person begins to feel ‘different’ to other people of the same sex. Sometimes they recognise that they are not very interested in people of the opposite sex but more often they feel they are not really interested in things which are supposed to be appropriate for their sex. Most people report just feeling unusual when they compare themselves to other people of their sex. Commonly this happens before or in early adolescence when friendships and relationships between the sexes begin to change.
Confusion about identity
In this stage of coming out, feelings are becoming more concrete. A person may well have partners of both sexes and find their moods and feelings shifting as they feel more or less certain about their identity. Coming out as LGBT involves dealing with changing feelings and also with changing relationships. As a person’s perception of themselves alters, they are likely to feel confused about their identity. Experiencing homosexual feelings can be very difficult to come to terms with, particularly if a person lacks knowledge about homosexuality or is aware of stigma attached to being gay or lesbian. In most places, understanding of transgender identities is even more limited, making it very difficult for people to acknowledge and come to terms with feelings that do not match the gender roles traditionally associated with their birth sex.11
Different people cope with the emotional upheaval of identity confusion in various ways. Some people who think they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender will try to deny it to themselves and even seek help to eradicate their feelings. A person might try to avoid thoughts and feelings which may confirm they are homosexual, or ignore inclinations which they don’t feel are acceptable for their biological sex. This can make it hard for LGBT people to seek information and support.
Managing relationships with peers and family can also be very difficult for a person who is dealing with confusion about their identity. It is common for someone coming to terms with homosexual feelings to avoid situations in which they encounter opportunities for heterosexual relationships. This strategy means that they don’t have to deal with their lack of sexual interest in members of the opposite sex, or have it exposed. Others persevere with heterosexual relationships to try and ‘convert’ themselves and/or conceal their homosexuality from others.
It is not unusual for someone at this stage in the coming out process to redefine homosexual feelings and behaviour in such a way as to convince themselves that they are not really homosexual. They may describe an experience as a ‘one-off’ or a ‘phase’, or put it down to extreme emotional or physical circumstances such as the break-up of a relationship or drunkenness at a party. Bisexuality in particular is often rejected as a phase, as many people find it difficult to understand sexual orientation which does not fit into the categories of ‘gay’ or ‘straight’.13
In some extreme cases people may try to avoid confronting their feelings by expressing strong homophobia or turning to drink and drugs in order to find temporary relief from them.
Assuming a lesbian or gay identity
Living with confusion about identity is emotionally exhausting and potentially destructive. For some people this period is followed quite quickly by a stage in which they come to accept their identity and are able to express it in a positive way. Mixing with other LGBT people – in social settings or through support groups – can help a person feel able to accept who they are. For some people, particularly in larger towns and cities, LGBT support groups provide a safe environment for coming out. Provide a listening ear for people who want support.
The final stage in the process of coming out involves becoming openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and recognising that it is an important aspect of, ‘who I am’, and, ‘how I want to live my life’. People develop a sense of contentment with being LGBT, and see it as a valid way of life. The experience of being in a relationship or falling in love often helps people to feel more confident, fulfilled and able to combat the social stigma that they may suffer.
Some transgender people choose to undergo medical treatment so that their bodies reflect their gender identity. However many choose not to pursue medical options, instead expressing their gender identity through how they dress and present themselves, and how they ask others to refer to them.16
In this final stage of coming out, many people begin to feel proud of their sexuality or gender identity. The expression of this pride in being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a powerful force in challenging stigma and prejudiced attitudes, and provides positive role models to others less sure about coming out.
Young people and coming out
LGBT youth are coming out younger than ever before. Studies have shown that the average age gay and lesbian young people begin the process of coming out is now 16, compared to the 1980’s when it was between 19 and 23.18 This means that many more young people are coming out when they are still at school, which can seriously impact upon school-life and work. One study found that half of students who experience homophobic bullying have skipped school because of it.19 Schools that openly acknowledge and include LGBT students, and explicitly oppose homophobic bullying, create a positive environment in which all students feel safe and able to learn.20
Coming out as LGBT for many young people can also mean risking rejection and even the loss of support from family. As young people are less likely to have the resources to support themselves if they are cut off from family, this can lead to considerable hardship, for example homelessness, mental health problems and substance abuse. In the US, LGBT young people represent a disproportionate number of homeless youth – between 20 and 40 percent.21
Young LGBT people need more than just practical support when coming out; acceptance and understanding are crucial. Many young LGBT people are undermined when they try to talk about their sexuality and gender identity, by parents, teachers, and even doctors dismissing their feelings as a phase. Many young people experiment as they are learning more about their sexuality. However, for young LGBT people, coming out is not a phase but an important part of their life. When this is not recognised by close friends and family, young LGBT people often find coming out much harder.22
How do I come out to my family and friends?
Making sure you’re ready
Making the decision to tell others that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender can relieve a great deal of stress and unhappiness and build self-esteem, as well as help improve relationships. However, there are also risks associated with coming out, and it is important to think carefully about how you could cope with the potential consequences before telling others that you are LGBT.
Friends and family may not react in an understanding way, and relationships can be changed significantly. Having time to fully come to terms with being LGBT before coming out to others can mean you are more prepared to deal with any misunderstanding or prejudice you may face. For many LGBT people around the world, coming out can mean putting their personal safety at risk. The loss of a job or family support can cause great financial hardship and it is important to be prepared for how you can support yourself if this were to happen. In many countries, LGBT people also face discriminatory laws, which make same sex relations between consenting adults a criminal offense.23 The laws and general attitudes towards LGBT people in a country will influence a person’s decision about whether they are able to come out, and who they choose to come out to.
Choosing the right time
There is no best way to come out to friends and family. Different approaches are right for different people, depending on their situation and relationship with the person they want to tell. Some people, for example, find it easier to write everything down in a letter, so that they can explain fully what they want to say. This can also give others the time and space to react and come to terms with initial feelings of shock. However, open and frank conversation is a vital part of coming out, and helps to move a relationship forward toward a point of mutual understanding and acceptance. These conversations need time and commitment, so it is best to choose a moment when neither of you will feel rushed or distracted. Being tired or emotional can also make talking more difficult, and lead to people saying things they may otherwise not have said.
Coming out does not mean that you have to tell everybody. Many LGBT people chose to come out first to people who they think are more likely to react positively. This not only helps them get an idea of how people may react, but often means that they will have someone to support them when they come out to others.
How will people react?
LGBT people often say that they have been surprised by the positive reactions they have received when coming out. It is common for people to be honoured that you feel close enough to share this important part of yourself with them. This acceptance can be a valuable source of strength and helps many LGBT people to have the confidence to express their sexual or gender identity more openly.
However, many LGBT people also have to cope with negative reactions when they come out, which can be very painful, particularly when it is someone who you care about. It is important to be prepared for someone to be shocked; They may feel uncomfortable and not know how to react. This doesn’t mean that they will not, with time, accept the news. Try to encourage them to ask questions, as this can help them to understand.24
Some people may never be able to accept your sexuality or true gender identity. This is not something that you can change, and it can be very hard to feel rejected by someone you are close to. It is important not to let negative reactions stop you from coming out to others, as everyone will react differently. Reminding yourself why you have decided to come out can help you stand by that decision.