Coming out is the process of exploring your own sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and sharing that identity with others. Everyone’s coming out story is unique, and that’s because the process is affected by environment, circumstance, upbringing, timing, and every other factor imaginable. For most LGBTQ people, coming out can be an empowering and unifying life experience. There may be one significant “coming out moment” (when you tell a key person for example), but usually, it is a lifelong process of understanding and accepting your sexual orientation and/or gender identity. And because we live in society that assumes that everyone is straight and cisgender, LGBTQ people find themselves having to ‘come out’ over and over again throughout their lives.
The most important person to come out to is yourself. Having a sense of trust in yourself about your identity – and that identity may be ‘questioning’ – is the key to successfully coming out to others. People decide to come out for a variety of reasons. These may include but are in no way limited to: a need for honesty; a desire to be closer to your friends, family or partner; an attempt to deal with your internalized homophobia; a desire to overcome depression, anxiety or mental illness related to living a secret life or the wrong gendered life; to educate people who assume everyone is straight and cisgender; to increase visibility for LGBTQ people. Coming out has long been considered one of the most significant political actions that an LGBTQ person can make, as visibility has been a key factor in breaking down stereotypes, thwarting hate and fear, amplifying LGBTQ voices and thereby advancing LGBTQ civil rights.
But coming out can come with significant risks. Being honest about your LGBTQ identity can result in misunderstandings; discrimination; violence; rejection; loss home, employment, or financial support. We unequivocally advocate for an approach that minimizes harm to the person coming out. There is not a clear right or wrong way to come out as LGBTQ, so it is important to not allow yourself to be pressured or shamed into coming out, but rather, to recognize the truth of what kind of harm you’re facing and weigh the balance of your emotional and physical safety with your emotional and physical needs. For example, what is more damaging – to face the disapproval of a parent, or to lose your partner? To lose your home or manage the stress of leading a double life? To fall deeper and deeper into depression or be disowned by your parents?
A few things to consider in this multi-staged process:
Do you have support? Obviously if you haven’t come out to anyone as LGBTQ yet, no one may know about your orientation/identity. But often friends may have an idea and simply be waiting for you to tell them! It is extremely unlikely that coming out will be without emotional challenges, so it’s helpful to have someone to turn to – such as an LGBTQ support hotline, therapist or a counsellor, a teacher, a friend who seems LGBTQ-positive, or friends online.
You may want to prepare what you’ll say. You may find yourself fielding all sorts of insensitive and ignorant questions, and even thoughtful or simple questions that you don’t necessarily have the answers to yet. And it’s not that you must have all the answers, but it does help to get informed, if anything to give you extra confidence in the process.
It often takes time for friends and family to accept the news. They may surprise you and be amazing! But they can often say the wrong things, be homophoic, biphobic and transphobic. Parents and children may be angry or scared to lose you; worried you will change; full of judgement because they see you as an extension of their own identity; concerned that you will be excluded from the family’s religion or community; and, in general find themselves in that moment of your coming out, incapable of showing compassion.
It may be best not to expect them to be immediately supportive; it may be more practical to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It will likely be an ongoing conversation with, hopefully, many positive break throughs, empathy, and the right words to come. And while patience may be counselled by pretty much every resource out there available on LGBTQ coming out, it truly is the responsibility of a good ally to educate themselves. But if they falter, it can be beneficial to you in the long run to point them in the direction of good support and information. It’s one of those unfortunate realities where the oppressed person has to bear the burden of reeducating the oppressor – just like how people of colour end up educating white people about racism, and women have to educate men about sexism. Good allies take initiative to educate themselves, they find support networks and work through their issues in a way that consciously attempts to reduce the harmful impact they have on the oppressed (in this case LGBTQ) person.
Being LGBTQ is not a choice and you do not owe anyone an apology for being honest about who you are. Stay proud, strong and prioritize your safety. When you truly love and respect yourself, others will follow. Shamefulness (often a product of internalized oppression) can be interpreted by others as uncertainty and lead to set backs in the process of acceptance. Remember that your sexual orientation and/or gender identity is only one part of who you are. Coming out affirms that part of your identity and strengthens all the rest.
Coming out as LGBQ:
Coming Out for African Americans (HRC)
Religion and Coming Out Issues for Latinas and Latinos (HRC)
Religion and Coming Out Issues for Asian Pacific Americans (HRC)
A Resources Guide for Coming Out (HRC)
The History of Coming Out (HRC)
Coming Out (The Trevor Project)
Coming out as transgender:
Transgender Visbility Guide (HRC)
The National Center for Transgender Equality
Coming Out in the Workplace as Transgender
Advocates for Youth
Transgender Road Map
For allies, friends, family of LGBTQ people:
Our Trans Loved Ones (PFLAG)
Being an Ally to LGBTQ Students of Color (GLSEN)