How important is it for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals—and when and how do you do it?
As a gay, lesbian, or bisexual, one of the most anxious life decisions you can make is when and how to come out. When do you let your friends, family, teachers, coworkers, and other associates know about one of the biggest parts of your identity? If you\’re thinking about coming out, it might be a good time to take stock of what it means to you and how you got to this point—and then look at how to go about it.
Let\’s start with what â€œcoming outâ€ means. It\’s important to be aware from the start that it is not a discrete event, such as a day when you make an announcement to a crowd of people at a family gathering—as happens in the movies. The process begins long before the â€œrevealâ€ and often goes something like this:
- In your younger years, you became gradually aware of same-sex attractions.
- Then you went through a process of normalizing that new self-image within your private thoughts.
- You accepted yourself—or in some cases, you did not.
- Maybe you told a trusted friend or family member about your attractions.
- You spoke more openly with gay friends about who you are.
- You read on the topic of being gay and discussed supportive literature with your gay friends.
- You began building your personality around your new identity—even as you hid it from your family.
- You dealt with adverse reactions from those who inadvertently found out about or suspected your secret.
- You witnessed your family denying your gayness and explaining away a lot of behavior inconsistent with their expectations.
- Or, if you were lucky, one or more family members recognized who you were and gave you full support—there are such wonderful families out there!
- You began telling a few straight friends outside your family.
- If you were lucky, you received some significant validation from both straights and gays and began feeling that there was a world out there that would support you when it was needed.
This process, or a similar one, outlines the long and winding road to coming out. Taking stock of it can enlighten you on which parts you worked through thoroughly and which still need some attention before you announce yourself to your family and let the world at large know.
Why come out?
It\’s true that many gays and lesbians are uncertain about whether or when to come out. The hesitation is mostly due to a fear of ridicule or shunning—both from the family and the larger social milieu.
So why is it important? Why not simply let life go on as is and keep your secret? There are many reasons:
- I think it has a lot to do with self-image. It\’s a natural desire to be proud of who you are and welcome acceptance from others.
- Acknowledging your sexual identity can put an end to a long period of confusion and anxiety.
- So much research has demonstrated that integrating your sexual identity fully into your life is a big factor in your sense of well-being and in maintaining sound mental health. For that reason alone, coming out is a big step in the life of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
- Fully engaging in the life of the gay community is another reason. Once you are â€œout,â€ you won\’t have to make up phony reasons for going out.
- Being out in the open and talking about your sexual identity—with friends and family—gives you more opportunities for the emotional and social support you need.
- Research has shown that gays who keep their sexual orientation secret experience more mental health problems—and maybe more physical health problems—than those who have come out.
Before you make your decision to announce your sexual orientation, review these strategies for minimizing risk and maximizing your chance for the best possible outcome.
- If you have not done so already, let close confidantes outside the home know first—those you trust to keep your secret until you are ready to let people know.
- If you feel comfortable doing so, tell a sibling who is close and supportive. Be prepared—he or she may already know, and, if you\’re fortunate, may already be prepared to support you.
- Set up your social support network. This happens over time, but the stronger your social network is, the more secure you will feel when the time comes to declare yourself.
- If you are getting clear signals from your family that they would never support you—and you still want to declare yourself—develop a strategy for dealing with an unpleasant, frustrating, disappointing, or even an abusive aftermath.
- Know where you want to be and who to want to be with before taking action.
- Seek professional support if your anxiety level is high or if you are feeling depressed at any point. I offer gay and lesbian counseling and will welcome and support you through thick or thin.
- Prepare your mind for patience. Take the long view of how difficult and slow it might be to get your family to come around.
- Keep in mind that families, or individual family members, often do come around to acceptance eventually. Give them time to get used to the idea. Trust in the goodness and flexibility of the human spirit.
Both the benefits and risks and of coming out are different for different people. If you feel your family will be supportive, the risk will likely be lower. If your family is less supportive, the risk will be greater. But all gays, lesbians, and bisexuals face discrimination or even abusive behavior within their communities. Developing a sound understanding of the process of coming out and a building good support system—including ongoing counseling or therapy—can minimize the risk.
Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional.Â If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch.Â You can reach her here: https://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact-us.