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 a 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.
Coming out is not a once-off experience
Coming out is rarely an isolated moment – it’s often a lifelong process and happens again and again. Every time you meet a new person, move house, change jobs, or join a club, you will have to decide whether to be open about who you are; just like any straight cisgender person is about their life and relationships.
Many lesbian, gay and bi people realise their sexuality as teenagers. It’s 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 first coming out. Some research shows that the general age for coming out for gay boys is 18, for gay girls, 21, and 20 for bisexuals. But some people come out much younger, some much older – sometimes 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 friend or a family member.
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 and less direct way. It’s often the case that in some families or communities, a child’s sexuality is acknowledged without it being actually discussed; there is a gradual unspoken acceptance. Parents may, for example, 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.
Thing to consider before coming out
- 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 should be able to 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Consider keeping lines of communication open with people after having shared the news with them – even if their response is on the negative side but you still have hope that could change.
- If you are well informed about the LGBTQ+ community, coming out, and sexual and gender identities, this may help you answer any questions that come up.
- Remember how long it might have taken for you to come to terms with being LGBTQ+. Therefore, be prepared to also give others reasonable 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.
- Should you still be financially dependent on your parents/guardians, and you suspect that they might reject you, consider waiting before you disclose that information until you are in a better position to look after yourself. Your first priority should be your safety and well-being.
- It is advisable to try and establish a supportive network of friends and/or family members before coming out to those who may be less accepting. Should your parents/guardians then reject you, you have a “safety net” of people around you that you can fall back on.