Are you thinking about coming out, or want to be a supportive ally to those who have come out to you? This page covers the basics of coming out, including what it is, why people come out, suggestions to make coming out easier for those who want to, and various misconceptions.
What Is Coming Out?
This might seem like an unnecessary question, especially since many of us have a very clear idea of what we think coming out “should” look like thanks to a broad range of media portrayals of it. Maybe when you think of coming out, you think of a person sitting at the kitchen table with their parents saying they have something to tell them. Maybe you think about a dramatic moment where an LGBTQ+ person stands in front of their school auditorium and makes an impassioned speech about their identity, and at the end, everyone stands up and claps. While these two scenarios are both forms of coming out, they are not the full breadth of ways that people can come out. And they are most certainly not the ways that a person “has” to come out.
Coming out is an ongoing process that can last an entire lifetime. The experience for a person after they come out for the first time after all, does not mean that every family member, friend, acquaintance, and stranger on the street are aware that the person has come out. Coming out can be telling one’s parents or a trusted friend that they are LGBTQ+, or it can be a person mentioning their same-gender partner for the first time to a co-worker. It can be making the decision to go to class dressed in a way that their gender expression matches their gender identity. It can be a person putting a picture of their spouse on their desk for the entire office to see, or it can be the “big” moment we often see blown up in televisions and movies, where the person makes sure that no one is able to make assumptions by calling out their own identity with pride. There is no right way to come out, and no one way of coming out suits everyone. Most importantly of all, however, sometimes coming out may not be the right or safe thing to do for a person in a given situation.
Coming out can also happen in different degrees in different contexts due to various degrees of culture, circumstance, privilege, and access to independence. A person might be out to their friends, but not to their family. A person might be out to everyone except their co-workers. Although coming out is a lifelong process, some people might come out more or less during certain times in their life. Perhaps someone who has just moved to a place they believe is more progressive will come out more than they did in the place they lived last. Or maybe someone who is nervous about losing their new job might be more hesitant to disclose their identity or sexual orientation.
Some people even come out multiple times for different identities! Whether this is because they discover an identity label that better fits their experience (such as identifying more strongly with pansexual than bisexual), or because they have discovered that they have intersecting LGBTQ+ identity (such as being both a trans woman and a lesbian), people can have multiple different coming out experiences for different identities over their lifetimes.
The main takeaway is that there is no one way of “coming out”. Different people have different ways of coming out. No matter how they do (or don’t!) come out, individual’s personal internalized sense of their own identity(ies) are all valid.
What About People Who Don’t Come Out?
Many people do not come out for a variety of reasons. Some are afraid of the backlash they will face from friends, family, employers, etc., and cannot afford to lose them for financial or emotional reasons. Some people are afraid of being harassed, hurt, or even killed because of their identity. Some people don’t feel as if they need to come out, and that coming out is an experience they do not feel the need to partake in to validate their identity. Some people are partially out, meaning that they are out in some areas of their life (such as to friends or family) but not in others (such as the workplace). Whatever the reason that an LGBTQ+ person has to not disclose their identity is theirs alone, and unless they have chosen to discuss their reasoning with you, it’s no one’s business but their own to decide when - or if - they should come out. Not coming out does not make anyone less of an LGBTQ+ person, and coming out should never be treated as a “necessary step” to validity and having an LGBTQ+ identity.
In general, a person never has the right to disclose someone else’s identity without permission, even if you believe that doing so is “for the better”. This is called “outing”. At best, you can fracture a LGBTQ+ person’s trust by doing this, and at worst, you can put them in the path of direct harm. (There is often a lot of discussion about public figures and their right to privacy, especially if these public figures are engaging the development of laws or policies which harm members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, this exploration of the topic will not address this aspect of the larger conversation, and only focuses on the interpersonal issues of coming out in everyday life at a local level of person to person.) It is considered best practice and humane to always discuss with an LGBTQ+ person how comfortable they are with you discussing their identity.
Are You Thinking About Coming Out?
Maybe you’re thinking that coming out sounds like it could be beneficial for you. In the context of American society, many people feel a sense of relief and higher self-esteem when they come out, or that they now have the ability to build deeper, more authentic relationships with others. They can feel as if they’re finally being seen for who they really are. But as noted in the section above, coming out should not be seen as the be-all, end-all of LGBTQ+ identities. There are plenty of valid reasons why people do not come out, and they are no less LGBTQ+ because of it.
Regardless, if coming out seems like it could be the right choice for you, read on.
Coming out is a journey that is personal to you. More unique than the fingerprints on our hands, the coming out process doesn’t only potentially look different for each individual, it might be different for each setting for the same person. There is no right or wrong way to come out. Take your time. Don't push yourself. You do not need to tell everyone at once. Coming out is a lifelong process and hopefully will always be on your own terms.
Here are some tips to consider when coming out:
Start small. It may be easier to come out to a friend or mentor before a family member.
- Find resources, like a counselor or mentor, to talk to. Geneseo’s LGBTQ+ resources might prove useful to you, including Tips for LGBTQ+ Students Going Home for the Holidays.
- Try to be positive. When you come out to someone, you set the tone of the conversation. If you feel you can, celebrate your identity; don’t talk about it like it’s a burden! If it is tough, be honest about that, and when you think it’s appropriate, share that challenge with those you trust. You’ll find many people will celebrate you for you. Develop a support network of friends who are accepting and supportive. If you decide to tell your family, find allies in your family first. If you think a sister, brother, or cousin will be easier to tell, then start there.
- Be patient with others. Some take longer to digest the information than others. Assume good intentions, try not to assume negative feelings or rejection; realize that some people just might need time to adjust or digest new information.
- Read or listen to other people's coming out stories.
- If you are questioning your gender identity or sexual orientation, find someone to support you, such a counselor, mentor, or a friend with personal experience.
- Choosing to come out or be open does not mean you have to be out/open at all times in all situations. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
- Be wary of anyone who tells you how you should feel, you have a right to your feelings and your experiences are your own. From time to time, take an inventory of your feelings to figure out where you are in the process, and if you feel like you’re on the trajectory you want with your coming out experience(s).
- Common feelings felt by many throughout the coming out process include fear, confusion, vulnerability, exhilaration, relief, affirmation, pride, uncertainty, and bravery. Acknowledge and embrace these, and other, feelings. They will guide you as you decide the rate and trajectory of your coming out process.
- Seek the support of a counselor if you experience depression or suicidal thoughts during this time. Lauderdale Health & Counseling can be reached at (585) 245-5716 during business hours. You can also call Pathways Peer Advocacy group at (585) 237-8860 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. daily.
The Trevor Project is an additional national program providing life-saving and life-affirming resources which focus on ending suicide among LGBTQ youth. They have a nationwide, 24/7 crisis intervention lifeline, digital community and advocacy/educational programs that create a safe, supportive and positive environment for everyone. 24/7 helpline: 1-866-488-7386
How Do I Support Someone Who Comes Out to Me?
Perhaps you yourself are not thinking about coming out, but have instead had someone come out to you. Having someone choose to come out to you is a privilege because of the trust they are offering to you and it is important to remember to support them as fully as you are able. Listed below are some tips to help you build a foundation of being the best support system you can. Above all, remember this is not about you, but about the person who is coming out to you. Remember that you are not alone in this experience! If you need to speak with someone to debrief, ask questions, or gain a new perspective, seek out someone in Counseling Services or consider contacting an individual in Geneseo’s Safe Zone network.
- Be patient. Allow the person to tell you at their own pace, and try to not push for more information than they are giving.
- Let them know you are affirming and supportive.
- Coming out can sometimes be hard to talk about. Don't force someone to disclose anything.
- Acknowledge the risk they took in coming out and acknowledge and affirm their courage. Don't minimize the importance of what they are telling you by saying "It doesn't matter to me" or “I always knew”. Instead, affirm them with statements like "Thank you for trusting me with this" or "It doesn't change how I feel about you".
- Don't overreact, even if you are initially uncomfortable or confused by the news. You can, if comfortable, offer an opportunity for a hug or other show of support.
- Keep the person's confidence. Do not discuss someone's gender identity and/or sexual orientation with anyone else as you may end up "outing" them accidentally. If you are seeking counseling with Lauderdale and/or Safe Zone to discuss any problems you might have with person’s LGBTQ+ identity, try to not mention them by name - try saying “someone I know”, “a friend of mine”, “someone close to me”, etc.
- Ask them "Is there anything I can do for you?"
- Commit yourself as an ally of the LGBTQ+ community and show your support whenever you can.
- Build your knowledge of the LGBT community, including some basics of terminology. Attending a Safe Zone training might be a good place to start.