Life’s too short to spend it in the closet! It’s a phrase that’s often bandied about when talking about coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ+).
And while there’s little doubt that being free and open about who you are, who you love or the gender that you identify with is in principle a good thing, life is little more complicated than that. (Isn’t it always?)
The reality is that some of us have the luxury of living in families or communities that will be more accepting than others. Coming out is always an act of bravery, but for some, it can also be an act that may lead to rejection, homelessness, isolation and in extreme cases, even death. Don’t get us wrong – living life in our own truth and without shame is something to aspire to, but let’s not judge each other on the “if, when and how” we choose to do it.
So, as we celebrate International Coming Out Day (11 October), here’s a handy guide to coming out!
Coming out is not a once-off experience
Coming out is not an isolated moment – it is a lifelong process and happens again and again. It starts with coming out to yourself and continues with every person you meet. When you move house, change jobs, or join a club, you will have to decide again whether to disclose or not.
Most lesbian, gay and bi people realise their sexuality as teenagers. It is often when friends or schoolmates start having their first sexual encounters that LGB children find out that they are different. This can put them in a difficult position because most young people want to belong to a group and to be accepted.
There is no specific age for coming out. Research shows that the general age for coming out for boys is 19 and for girls 21. But some people come out much younger, some much older – even after having been married to an opposite-sex partner – and some do not come out at all.
The stages of coming out
Internal stages: Starts with a vague idea of being ‘different’. This can happen at quite a young age, but often at the beginning of puberty (adolescence). The person considers the notion that they are lesbian or gay, but initially they often deny this to themselves. They then begin to think about it, read about it and slowly come to accept it. For many young people, this can be a lonely and depressing time.
External stages: After coming to a form of self-acceptance a person may tell someone else for the first time – usually someone close, like a best friend or their mother.
Each person comes out in different ways under unique circumstances. Some people move faster than others through the stages, others don’t ever get to the point at which they can tell others or feel they can lead an openly lesbian or gay life. This all depends on the level of self-acceptance, self-value and the level of support in the social environment.
Coming out doesn’t always have to be vocalised
Many of us experience coming out in a non-verbal way. It’s often the case that in certain families or cultures, a child’s sexuality, for example, is accepted without it being actually discussed; there is a gradual unspoken acknowledgement. Parents may welcome a same-sex partner into the family and treat them with love and respect, but may not be comfortable actually discussing their child’s sexuality.
For some of us this is more than sufficient to lead a happy life, but some may need their coming out and identity to be explicitly spoken about and acknowledged. It can be extremely liberating to say those words “I am gay” or “I am lesbian” to someone we care about.
Coming out is good for the LGBTQ+ community
It’s been shown in research that personally knowing an LGBTQ+ person can play a huge factor in people becoming more accepting of our community. “We must become visible where we can,” said openly gay Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron in 2015. “Visibility is pivotal to our struggle in South Africa [and Africa],” he added.
Advice and tips on coming out
- It is important that you are “ready” to disclose before doing so. Be clear on your own feelings about the matter. If you are still dealing with a lot of guilt or depression or are uncertain yourself, try to get some help in getting over that before sharing it with others. If you are comfortable internally, those to whom you come out will often sense that fact and be aided in their own renewed acceptance of you.
- Timing can be very important. Be aware of factors over which you have no control that can affect another’s receptivity to your revelation.
- Never come out to shock or disappoint during an argument. Never use this information as a weapon or to get back at someone by making them feel to blame for your sexuality or identity.
- Be prepared that your revelation may surprise, anger, or upset other people at first. Try not to react angrily or defensively. Remember that the initial reaction may not be the long term one.
- Emphasise that you are still the same person that you were before sharing the information.
- Keep lines of communication open with people after having shared the news with them – even if their response is negative.
- Be sure that you are well informed about the subject.
- Remember how long it took you to come to terms with the issue and that it took even longer to decide to share it with others. Therefore, be prepared to give others time to adjust and comprehend the new information about you. Do not expect or demand immediate acceptance.
- If you are rejected by someone, do not lose sight of your own self-worth. Remember that you were sharing an important part of yourself and that this was a gift to the other person that they have chosen to reject. Is any relationship so important that it must be carried on in an atmosphere of dishonesty and hiding?
- Remember that the decision to share information about yourself is yours. Don’t be guilt-tripped into it by people who think that everyone has a right to know everything about you and that they have the right to ask inappropriate questions. You can usually decide, when, where, how, and to whom you want to reveal something so important about yourself. You don’t have to tell the whole world, and you don’t have to tell everyone that matters, all at once. You can do it in stages.
- Try not to let your family and close friends find out aspects that you wish to share with them from third parties, such as neighbours or the media. Try to tell them personally beforehand.
- It is advisable to try and establish a network of friends and/or family members first; whom you know will understand, support and accept you. Should your parents/guardians then reject you, you have a “safety net” of people around you that you can fall back on.
- Should you still be financially dependent upon your parents/guardians, and you strongly suspect that they might reject you, consider waiting a bit before you disclose that information until you are in a better position to look after yourself.