Coming Out: Acknowledging your sexual orientation to others
Asha is a well-educated, independent young woman of 25. She lives with her parents and younger brother. Around the age of 15, she first discovered that she felt emotionally and sexually attracted to girls. Despite the initial turmoil, she has grown comfortable with her sexual identity and considers it to be a valuable part of herself. She has come out to a few of her friends. However, she hasn’t been able to come out to her parents yet, who she considers strict and conservative. She worries that they will hate her if she tells them that she is gay. But she can’t stand keeping it a secret anymore. Also, there is talk of finding a suitable groom for her.
What would you do if you were in Asha’s place? How would you deal with the situation?
Coming out – what does it mean?
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), coming out is the process of acknowledging and accepting one’s own sexual orientation as gay, lesbian or bisexual (LGB). Sexual minorities are not limited to lesbian gay and bisexual. This article however focuses on coming out experiences of individuals who identify themselves as LGB. It also includes the process of disclosing one’s sexual orientation to others. Unlike the stereotypical view, coming out to others is not a one-time thing. It may occur on numerous occasions when a person identifies him/herself as LGB to friends, family and significant others.
Coming out experiences are unique to each individual, and even though it is a challenging process, many people find it to be an empowering and enriching experience. With adequate support, it can prove to be a very positive experience. This article will familiarize you with the basics of coming out, its possible outcomes and how to prepare for them.
What does it feel like?
Coming out to yourself usually (though not always) takes place during adolescence – when you are at a stage of growing awareness regarding sexuality and identity. The process is neither unidirectional nor uniform. Each individual’s coming out experience is unique. However, most often it begins with a sense of being different. It may take weeks, months or even years for individuals to come to terms with this feeling. During this stage, feeling confused, unsure, angry, guilty, and even wanting to punish yourself are normal.
You might find your head crowded with questions such as:
- ‘Is it just a phase?’
- Why am I not attracted to the opposite sex?’
- ‘Am I abnormal?’
- ‘Is this wrong?’
- ‘How will I tell my friends/family?’
- ‘What will they say?’
- ‘Will I be teased/bullied if I tell people I am gay?’
A large part of overcoming the negative thoughts and feelings includes challenging your own homophobic assumptions and dealing with the denial. The difficulty in coming out to yourself is increased when you see stereotypes and prejudices about LGB people all around you. However, once you come to terms with your sexuality, you will feel good about accepting yourself and this will lay the foundation for building a healthy self-concept as well as healthier relationships. During this process, you must ensure that you are not being too hard on yourself. Some people find it useful to read more about other people’s coming out experiences. Others prefer joining online communities and interacting with people who have dealt with similar situations. Talking to a counsellor also proves beneficial when there is a lot of turmoil within you. Being aware of and accessing the available resources is essential.
Why come out?
Considering the discrimination and difficulties faced by LGB people, do you wonder why people come out at all? Wouldn’t life be simpler if you just pretended to be straight? The answer is, no. Even though social circumstances for an LGB person may seem bleak, living a lie is often much more difficult.
Research (LaSala, 2000) suggests that coming out is psychologically healthier than living in the closet. Your reasons for coming out could be varied; you might want support because of the overwhelming feelings or simply because you don’t want to hide it anymore. Whatever your reasons may be, coming out often eventually leads to more honest and stable relationships. Being open about oneself with others makes you better equipped to access social support, which is important for your psychological well-being.
Coming out to your family and friends
Who you tell first and how much you share with them is entirely your decision. Here are a few things to keep in mind while coming out to your loved ones:
- Each person’s family and social circle are different. Hence, there is no one full proof way of coming out. It helps to identify one person in your family or friends circle whom you trust, and share with them. Slowly you can share with the others
- Try to imagine and prepare for the reactions you might get from your parents, siblings or friends
- It is best if you come out when you are in a calm state of mind, and have enough time to say what you have to say. Coming out when you are angry or upset is not a good idea
- Some people find it helpful to mentally rehearse how they will tell their loved ones. You could say that you want to tell them because this is an important part of who you are and you trust that they will accept you for it. You might want to tell them what made you keep it a secret till now. Sharing your fears and apprehensions will help them to see what you are going through
- Be prepared for negative reactions. Some people may be surprisingly supportive and understanding; conversely, they might also show shock, anger or disbelief when you first tell them
- Remember that it took you time to accept your sexual identity. Give them time too. Their first reaction isn’t necessarily their final reaction. Once they have had time to process it, they might be more supportive
- Sometimes people say hurtful things when they are angry. Try not to take these to heart>/li>
- Parents might typically worry about what others will say or think. They might not know much about being LGB. Encourage them to ask you questions and be open in answering them
Many times, people hesitate to come out because they fear discrimination. Some people come out to a select group of people while still others decide to be very open about being LGB. The choice is yours to make. Before coming out, weigh your personal pros and cons. Will your safety be compromised? Will it mean losing more than you are willing to give up? Do you have adequate means to support yourself in case your family decides not to?
The norms of certain families and cultures might make it very difficult for them to accept an LGB person. Do not feel compelled to do anything that does not feel right for you. Consider whether hiding your sexual identity is more or less stressful than being open about it.
Remember, you do not need to be apologetic or ashamed about who you are. Talking to a counsellor in a non-judgmental, safe and professional environment has been helpful for many people grappling with the coming out crisis. You could speak to a counsellor about your thoughts and feelings to gain clarity about what you want to do.
- LaSala (2000) Lesbians, Gay Men, and Their Parents:Family Therapy for the Coming-Out Crisis. Family Process, Vol. 39, No. 1.
- Revel & Riot, Resources, Coming out http://www.revelandriot.com/resources/coming-out/
- American psychiatric association website (2014) LGBT Sexual orientation http://www.psychiatry.org/lgbt-sexual-orientation/
- AVERTing HIV and AIDS (2014) http://www.avert.org/coming-out.htm/
- Stonewall (2014) http://www.stonewall.org.uk/at_home/coming_out/
- FFLAG (2012) How do I tell my parents http://www.fflag.org.uk/images/pdf/parents2012.pdf
- American Psychiatric Association brochure (2008) Answers to Your Questions
For a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation & Homosexuality