The Psychology of "Coming Out"
What is coming out?
In the life of someone who identifies within the LGBTQIA+ community, “coming out” can bring up any number of emotions ranging from relief to rejection. Coming out is the process of voluntarily sharing one's sexual orientation and/or gender identity with others. This process is unique for each individual and there is no right or wrong way to come out. Coming out is a process that is on a continuum; meaning this is a life-long process that repeats. One often starts their coming out process with themselves on a personal level. There is also coming out to loved ones, on an interpersonal level. Other stages of coming out include social and public.
In the coming out process a person may feel unsafe and vulnerable, and one has to consider their safety and privilege. There may be moments where someone has come out on an interpersonal level and is rejected and decides they may not continue in the process. Coming out to others involves risks and difficulties depending on who that person is coming out to, how engaged they are with them, how much power they have in the relationship, and how accepting they are.
Coming out may have benefits such as increased support , reduced isolation and it may end the stress of hiding, keeping a secret or living a double life. However, it can have negative consequences like rejection, loss of relationships, loss of a home, harassment or abuse (verbal insults or physical violence), institutionalized discrimination and prejudice (such as losing a job, being denied housing or other equal opportunity rights).
You may think of “coming out” as a one time event, but for many, this is not the case. Attending a new school, changing jobs, moving, or even meeting a new person often causes LGBTQIA+ people to “go back into the closet” until they feel safe enough in their new environment to “come out” all over again.
Why do LGBTQIA+ people feel the need to come out?
Any society has certain social biases. In American society, the assumption tends to be that a person is cisgendered (when a person’s gender identity is aligned with their birth sex), heterosexual (attracted to the opposite sex), able-bodied (the absense of any physical differences or abnormalities), and neurotypical (the absence of any neurological differences) unless otherwise informed. Recognizing these biases is an important step to becoming a better ally, not only to LGBTQIA+ people, but to anyone belonging to a marginalized group. Because of these social biases, heterosexual people do not need to “come out,” as other people tend to assume they are straight. These social biases are harmful to queer people because a large part of their identity often goes unacknowledged unless they say something about it. By “coming out,” queer people are correcting a misconception about themselves and making the space for themselves to live authentically.
I think or know my loved one is gay or trans. Why won’t they come out to me?
There are many reasons a person may not feel comfortable coming out to anyone. Regardless of the reason, there are certain things you can do to make sure anyone in your life knows you are a safe person to talk to:
Take an active interest in LGBTQIA+ issues. Familiarizing yourself with common LGBTQIA+ experiences (learning what LGBTQIA+ stands for, researching gender dysphoria, or even reading this blog!), or staying informed about anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation are all great ways to do this. Remember: it is not the job of LGBTQIA+ people to educate others about their experiences or struggles. Google is your friend!
Recognize, acknowledge, and address your own biases. Did you react a certain way when you saw a non-binary person on a TV show? Or make an off-color joke about a gay couple you saw in public? The most important thing you can do to show you care about being a good ally is listen when someone tells you how your words or actions made them feel. Mistakes happen and everyone says the wrong thing every now and then. However, be sure to be patient and hold yourself accountable to any mistakes. Learn from these moments so that you can continue to be a powerful ally.
Be vocal in your support. Sharing social media posts or making positive comments is a visible and tangible way you can show that you are an ally. Confronting others about their biases is another way you can show your support. Coming out to someone is a lot easier to do if a person has already demonstrated positive allyship.
Take ownership of your journey. LGBTQIA+ people face a unique set of challenges by just existing every single day and supporting them by trying to become a better ally may be difficult for you. Standing up for a marginalized group has historically been controversial and may lead to uncomfortable interactions with certain people. The best allies know when to lower their voices to amplify and empower the voices of LGBTQIA+ individuals.Speak with other allies about your struggles or even a mental health professional who is paid to do emotional labor. You can’t be a good ally if you don’t take care of yourself!
Even if you know a person's sexual orientation, it's not up to you to disclose that to anyone. Outing is disclosing an individual's sexual orientation and/or gender identity without their consent. This can be extremely harmful and traumatizing for individuals within the LGBTQIA+ community. This is an act that takes away the freedom, autonomy, and safety of another individual, and should be avoided. Instead, follow the lead of your loved one, and respect their privacy and place in their journey.
I’m queer and/or trans. Do I need to come out?
In a perfect world, the act of “coming out” wouldn’t exist, as no one would make assumptions about another person’s sexual preference or gender identity. If coming out is not something you feel comfortable with, regardless of the reason, that is completely valid. You know yourself, your situation, and your boundaries better than anyone else, and are therefore best equipped to make decisions for yourself. There is no right or wrong time to come out. Some people come out in their childhood and some don’t come out until their 80’s or 90’s! Some people never come out.
No matter if or when you decide to come out, you deserve love and support just the same as anyone else. Visit The Hub's LGBTQIA+ Resources Page for support groups and mental health services geared towards LGBTQIA+ individuals at any stage in their journey.