Whether you’re revealing your sexual orientation or your gender identity to others in your life, it can be scary to take the leap. You may fear they won’t understand or will reject you. While you’ve begun the journey of accepting your identity, you may be concerned about being shamed or rejected. Coming out is challenging, but this guide is here to help you navigate uncharted waters.
What Does It Mean to Come Out?
In its simplest form, coming out is merely letting others in your life in on something you already know about yourself. In this guide, coming out will refer to both sexual orientation and gender identity. Sexual orientation can include your sexual, romantic, physical, or emotional attraction to men, women, or nonbinary people and can refer to your behavior or identity, and how you see yourself.1 Gender identity describes your internal experience of yourself as female, male, both, or neither.
You may experience one, some, or all of the stages of coming out:2
- Identity confusion: Feeling unsure of your sexual attraction
- Identity comparison: Weighing various outcomes of coming out,
- Identity tolerance: Beginning to admit to yourself that you may be LGBTQ+
- Identity acceptance: Increasing activity within the LGBTQ+ community
- Identity pride: Actively identifying and engaging with the LGBTQ+ community
- Identity synthesis: Sexual orientation becomes on aspect of your identity integrated with all the other things that make you who you are
If there are many different sexual orientations and gender identities, why does anyone have to “come out” as bisexual, lesbian or gay? You may notice that your straight friends have never “come out” as being heterosexual or as their sex assigned at birth. Traditionally, cultures have assumed a “heteronormative” view of the world, meaning that everyone is straight unless they tell you otherwise. Coming out is the conversation where you’re able to differentiate who you are from those traditionally held views.
What to Consider Before Coming Out
For most people, coming out requires careful planning to make sure you are able to tell trusted people and feel accepted. While certain events such as the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage and the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ increased societal approval of LGBTQ+ rights, coming out is not always met with individual approval.
Before coming out, you may want to consider the following:
- Prepare for a variety of reactions: Everyone reacts differently to new information. Depending on your relationship with the person to whom you choose to disclose, you may encounter joy and acceptance, confusion, or even anger.
- Know your boundaries beforehand: There’s a good chance someone will ask you questions — a lot of them. Prepare beforehand for what you will answer and how to respectfully decline to answer other questions.
- Timing and context: Ask yourself, ‘Should I be sitting down for this?’ Know your audience, and prepare to tell them at a time and location of your choosing.
- Know where to find support: Reactions can be unpredictable, so make sure there’s somewhere you can go to regroup and find support, whether to your friends, family, or your therapist. Finding an LGBTQ+ therapist can be an important step.
Coming Out to Friends
You may learn who your true friends are when you come out. Those who stick by your side and support you on your journey, whatever it may be, are likely those you want around. Think about what you know of your friends. Do they always have to be the one to spill the tea? Or maybe they keep secrets like a vault and would never think to share anything you didn’t want them to.
Consider whom you want to come out to first. Do you want it to be your best friend? A friend may have questions about whether your sexual attraction is toward them. Your crush? If you come out to someone you’re attracted to first, consider the possibility of rejection, how that could make you feel, and how you’d get over it. A teammate? Gender and sexuality stereotypes often play roles in sports.
This guide isn’t meant to only bring up negative consequences, but typically no one needs advice when they are received positively and with acceptance. The considerations and expectations throughout are meant to prompt difficult thoughts to try to lower the chances of a harmful conversation.
Coming Out to Family Members
Which family member feels safest? Consider whom you have a strong bond with. Maybe that’s a grandparent, a parent, an uncle, a sibling. How do they engage the LGBTQ+ community? Is it with acceptance, avoidance, indifference? You don’t have to disclose to every single person in your family.
Parents often find themselves grieving and thinking differently about their own futures after their child comes out, such as attending a traditional wedding or fearing that your life may be worse off. Parents may struggle in their own ways with how to tell their own friends about your coming out and will have to go through a process of acceptance.3
Siblings may react with shock or happiness and acceptance with the potential for a closer sibling relationship.4 Depending on your phase of life, you may need to consider disclosure to a spouse. In a committed relationship, your spouse may react with shock, concern, fear, anger, or any other number of reactions.5
Coming Out at School
When coming out at school, it’s important to consider the context: public or private school, religious or non-religious, or rural or urban. Pick a safe teacher, administrator, school counselor or other adult at school who you trust and ask to have a one-on-one conversation with them. Whether you need accommodations at school or simply need a safe person who knows that you’re in the process of coming out, it can be helpful to have an authority figure in your corner.
If you’re coming out to friends at school or in your classes, know that everyone will react individually. Anticipate that some people may say or do hurtful things, but also consider that you may find some unexpected allies who will come alongside you.
Coming Out at Work
Coming out at work is also highly context- dependent. Talking to an HR representative may be the best place to start, so that you know what is expected of you and so that if you encounter negative reactions from coworkers; HR has a head’s up that you’re in the process of coming out.
Rather than having to explain a situation while feeling emotional, it could be helpful to have looped in the people in charge of providing a safe, healthy, and positive working environment.
Frequently Asked Questions & Responses That May Come Up
You will likely encounter a wide assortment of questions and responses when you come out. Your replies may look different than the ideas below, so make sure to add your own voice. Remember to establish your boundaries of what questions you will or won’t answer firmly in place before beginning a conversation about your coming out. A canned response of, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that question right now” should suffice, too.
How Do You Know You’re X (Gay, Trans Queer, Etc.)? Are You Sure?
Answer: Be as straight with them as you want (pun intended). Perhaps as a young boy, you always loved wearing dresses around the house. Or maybe, you’ve only ever experienced sexual attraction for someone who matches your own gender.
That’s Against Our Religion
Answer: I’m not going to debate religion with you right now. I just want you to know that I’m X.
How Does This Impact Our Relationship?
Answer: This one’s up to you. One example answer may be, “This doesn’t have to impact our relationship. I just wanted you to know the real me, and I’d like for our friendship to continue on as it always has been.”
How Can I Support You?
Answer: “Having you listen and accept me for me is the most supportive thing you can do right now.” Or maybe, “It’d be really awesome if you could ____ while I’m in the process of coming out to others.” Fill in that blank however you want: check in on me, go with me to tell my parents, or so forth.
Advice for Family & Friends
Someone in your life just came out to you, and, similar to how many people respond, you’re in shock! It’s fine for you to be surprised, but for right now, focus on the emotions of the person who trusted you enough to tell you something important about themselves. It takes a lot of vulnerability and courage to talk about such deeply personal topics. It’s so hard that a Yale study found that 83% of lesbian, gay, or bisezual people stay closested from most or all people.6
Ask them about their own experiences, what the process of realizing their new identity or orientation has been for them, and what it is like to share that with you. Show them that you’re listening without judgment and that you care. If you’re the parent, know that your own reaction is often predictive of your future relationship; often, a positive reaction begets a positive relationship afterward, whereas a negative reaction may guide the relationship in a negative direction.7 Supporting your trans or gender nonconforming youth may be hard, but they’re still your child.
Just be. Just be a friend, parent, teacher, spouse, sibling. Whatever role you play in this person’s life, it’s clearly an important one. They trusted you enough to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to you. There’s nothing you need to fix or solve right now. Nothing has to change. All relationships change, grow, evolve, or devolve over time. But right now, the person coming out to you needs you to just be with them.
For Further Reading
For more resources, information, or support, see the following organizations:
- The Trevor Project is “the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning) young people.” They offer crisis hotlines, information and research, and an online forum connecting LGBTQ young people.
- PFLAG is “the first and largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies.” PFLAG has chapters nationwide which offer advocacy and support.
- GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, works to “ensure that every member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” Students and teachers or school administrators would benefit the most from this organization.
- The National Center for Transgender Equality “advocates to change policies and society to increase understanding and acceptance of transgender people.” Their website offers resources to help you know and understand your rights, advocate for the trans community, and gives basic information about transgender people.
- The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) has a helpful resources page that includes policy advocacy, schools, employment, housing, healthcare, parenting, police and jail, legal organizations, and recommended readings.
- OurPath serves straight partners of LGBTQ+ people by offering resources to help build bridges “between spouses, within families, with LGBTQ+ organizations and the larger community through support, education and advocacy.” They link to resources for straight partners, partners of trans people, and resources for LGBTQ+ partners.