Coming out is when you decide to tell people about your gender or sexual orientation. We live in what you might hear called a heteronormative society, which means people usually assume you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth (cisgender) and are attracted to members of the opposite sex (heterosexual). But that isn’t always the case, and it’s just one of many reasons LGBTQ people decide to come out.
Why Come Out?
Coming out can be hard to deal with on your own, whether you’re still coming to terms with your gender identity or sexual orientation or if you’ve accepted it completely. But many LGBTQ people get to a point where they need to talk about it or find support.
There are lots of reasons to come out. You might do it because you:
- Don’t want people to gossip about you
- Want to start dating and want family members and friends to know
- Want to be accepted for who you are
It can offer a host of benefits. It can help build your self-esteem because you’ll be able to live your life on your own terms. It can also ease stress when you feel like you’re who you really are.
Coming out is staking a claim to be your authentic self, says Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, MD, a psychiatry professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.
We often don’t think about identity and how it affects our physical and mental health, says Mary Weber, a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “We need spaces where we can just show up and be.”
How Do You Know When to Come Out?
Coming out is a personal decision that’s specific to you. That means you might face different obstacles than others who come out. You’re the only person who knows when or if you’ll feel ready and comfortable doing it.
“It’s not a race,” Hall-Flavin says. “Also, understand that sexuality is not binary and can be fluid. Acknowledge the feelings you have are yours to own. You have time, despite social pressures, and it’s your right to share with others what you choose.”
If you’re thinking of coming out:
- Consider privacy. Although many friends and family will respect your privacy and keep this new information to themselves, there’s always a risk that they could tell people you don’t want to know. If you tell your therapist or counselor, they have to keep that information to themselves, unless they think you might hurt yourself or others. Then, they’ll have to report it.
- Make sure you have a support system. It can help to talk to a therapist or an anonymous helpline if you can’t talk freely about your gender or sexual orientation. These resources can help you plan to come out or deal with any reactions you weren’t expecting if you do come out.
- Think about all the possibilities. For example, if you don’t live on your own and there’s a chance you could be kicked out of the house or physically harmed, it might be safer to wait.
- Trust yourself. Coming out is a personal process, so don’t feel like you have to do it because of certain situations or people.
Lauren Aadland-Halling, a vlogger who creates content through the YouTube channel This Colorful World, finds it easier to come out when she’s in a relationship. She’s a California native now living on a farm in Småland, Sweden, with her wife.
“Now that I’m married, I generally drop ‘my wife’ into conversations within the first few minutes of meeting a new person,” she says.
It’s OK Not to Come Out
There are also reasons why you may decide not to come out. You might:
- Feel gender and sexual orientation are too personal
- Be scared of discrimination, bullying, harassment, or violence
- Not see a reason to discuss those topics
- Still be figuring out your gender or sexual orientation
Coming out does have consequences, Hall-Flavin says. Some may be positive; others may not. “It varies widely from family to family, and society to society. Make a list of pros and cons based on your given circumstances.”
How Do You Do It?
There are lots of ways you can come out. You might:
- Tell the person over the phone
- Send an email or text
- Tell them in person, face-to-face
- Write a letter
You’ll also want to think about what you’re going to say. Ask your LGBTQ friends to share their coming-out stories, if they’re comfortable doing so, to give you ideas on how to handle it yourself.
“One thing we encourage is testing the waters for anyone you come out to,” says Janet Duke, the founder and board chair of Strong Family Alliance, a website designed to help families as a loved one comes out. “Talk about current events around LGBTQ, characters in movies and books, or about an LGBTQ friend and see what kind of reaction you get. It can help you assess attitudes.”
Another good rule of thumb is to be positive and optimistic when you come out. This can help set the tone for the conversation. Don’t come out if you’re angry or arguing with someone. It shouldn’t be an act of revenge.
“I usually take the approach of being strategic about the conversation,” Weber says. “Because it can be very emotional, it can be very triggering and very scary if you’re really worried that people aren’t going to be affirming or supportive.”
Aydian Dowling, a transgender activist, influencer, and coach, says what you say could depend on who you’re coming out to.
“If it’s somebody that means something to me, then I’m going to have an intimate conversation with them,” he says. “If it’s just somebody I’m passing on the street, then I’m going to say it proudly, with no stuttering. … If I’m coming out to a child, then I’m going to use language that I think is going to work best with them.”
Who Can You Tell?
You can come out to anyone. Most people usually don’t come out just once. You might decide to come out to different people, like your family at one time and your friends and co-workers at another time.
Family and friends: Many LGBTQ people decide to come out to their friends or family. If you want to start slow, consider coming out to a trusted friend first. With family, try to find allies you can talk to. That could be a sibling or cousin you get along with well.
Co-workers: You can also come out at work. Before doing so, check to see if your employer has a written nondiscrimination policy that covers sexual orientation and gender. You might look for an LGBTQ employee resource group at your workplace and check the overall atmosphere. For example, do people make offensive jokes or comments?
Start the conversation by talking about LGBTQ-related news, TV shows, or movies. Or bring a date or partner to company events. They could even meet you at work one day.
What to Expect When You Come Out
The people you come out to will have a range of emotions and reactions. They may have lots of questions or not know what to say. They might be surprised, worried, or shocked. Or they might have suspected it already.
Dowling says the process can be nerve-wracking. “You just don’t know how people are going to respond.” Someone might act fine to your face but slowly stop talking to you. Months go by, and now you haven’t heard from them or they’re just avoiding you, he says.
“Sometimes, people feel like, ‘Well, if my parents don’t affirm me … if they reject me, then I can’t live a healthy, happy life,’” Weber says. “Sometimes, families and those close to us are not as good with their own families. There may be other people who would really be more affirming, and it’s important for us to keep our minds open to those people so that we don’t get lost and we don’t feel hopeless.”
Although coming out is personal and might not be the right choice for every LGBTQ person, Aadland-Halling says that it can influence the community around you, too.
“No doubt about it, you come out for yourself,” she says. “But many people who are homophobic or hold negative stereotypes of us do so because they have very limited experience with queer people. Coming out could completely shift how someone sees the LGBTQ community, and that is a really powerful thing.”