Claiming Your True Self
“Coming Out” is an expression that can take several different meanings, depending on the context. At a most fundamental level, it signifies the act of becoming public or known. In some cases, it can mean announcing an unpopular or risky position. (Imagine presenting yourself as a pacifist in a family with several generations of military service — or telling your steak-loving partner that you have become vegan.)
For most people, however, the term “coming out” refers to “coming out of the closet,” i.e., revealing a sexual orientation that is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or somewhere outside the category of heterosexual or straight. In this case, it involves both becoming known, and an often unpopular or risky position.
No “Right” Way
Coming out is also a process that can take many different forms. There is no “right” time or place, no “right” way. It usually begins when an individual recognizes their attraction to someone of the same sex, or becomes aware of a gender identity that differs from their own biological sex. It is sometimes linked to a person’s first sexual experience with another person of the same gender. It can also be the occasion of verbalizing same sex attraction to another person.
Awareness can come in childhood – some people say that feeling “different” is one of their first memories or self-recognitions – or any time after that. Many men and women do not recognize and/or claim their sexual orientation or sexual identity until much later – sometimes in the 40s, 50s or beyond.
One reason for the variation in age may stem from the person’s cultural context. Growing up in a family or environment where GLBT persons are accepted, even embraced, can make it much easier to recognize and claim one’s own difference. Conversely, growing up in a climate where GLBT persons are seen as abnormal, or even immoral, can make the process much more difficult and/or protracted.
Coming out typically begins internally, with the individual recognizing and/or admitting to themselves that their sexual orientation or identity differs from the majority. This awareness may occur when the person becomes attracted to another person of the same sex or gender, meets someone who is openly GLBT or “out,” or identifies with a GLBT role model.
These feelings may remain unverbalized, and sometimes disowned, for an indefinite period of time. In fact, many people may never fully acknowledge this part of themselves. However, most GLBT persons eventually disclose their feelings to another
person, often in the context of a same sex relationship with that person.
An Act of Self-Affirmation
Choosing to come out is undoubtedly one of the most important and self-affirming decisions that any gay man, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person can make.
The decision usually occurs when the pain/discomfort of concealing one’s true self outweighs the pain of potential rejection that coming out can bring.
Making the decision to come out is best accomplished with support. As you begin to tell family, friends, or others who are unaware of your sexual orientation or identity, it is important to have people in your life who can encourage, reassure, validate and listen. If you are coming out to family members, you may choose to first tell the family member whom you believe will be the most supportive and accepting.
It is also important to know that when you come out to others, reactions may vary widely. People you thought may be the most understanding may, in fact, be the most judgmental. Conversely, some of those you assume will react negatively, may instead be supportive. Family members, especially parents, often react negatively at first but eventually grow to accept their son or daughter’s coming out. In other words, do your best to minimize expectations and focus on your own reasons for coming out.
The Human Rights Campaign Foundation ( www.hrc.org ) is sponsoring the 18 th annual National Coming Out Day on October 11. This year’s theme, “Talk about it,” reminds us that equal rights for GLBT persons will come only if we (both the GLBT community and its straight allies) are open and honest about whom we are.
An Ongoing Process
Coming out is not a one time decision or action. Because we live in a culture that assumes heterosexuality for its members, coming out occurs many times over a lifespan. It is best viewed as a process. An individual is neither “in” nor “out” of the
closet, but is constantly moving from situation to situation, each of which can call for a decision regarding passage through the closet door. We may consider ourselves “out” when our friends know. Or we may consider the act of telling our family as our true coming out. Regardless, we are usually faced with the decision to tell or not to tell in almost every new life situation.
For instance, our family and friends may know of our sexual orientation or identity, but each time we change jobs, join a club, move to a new neighborhood or introduce ourselves to a new service professional (physician, accountant, attorney, etc.), we
have the choice to disclose our sexual orientation or to “pass.”
Each of these situations requires a (frequently split-second) decision. Do you tell the sales clerk that the person standing next to you is your partner, or girlfriend, or lover? Or do you keep quiet when the clerk refers to her as your “friend”? Do you inquire whether the job for which you are interviewing has “domestic partner benefits” or do you just ask nothing and hope for the best? Or what about when your well-intentioned mother asks, “Son, have you met any nice girls yet?” Do you say,
“I’m still looking for the right girl, Mom,” or, “No, but I have met the man of my dreams”?
There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to these questions. In fact, the level of homophobia in certain parts of our community and our world makes coming out
dangerous in some situations. For instance, coming out in the military can result in harassment and/or discharge. Furthermore, there is no federal law that protects against discrimination in the workplace. Some employers and governmental bodies have laws or policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity. The majority do not. It is important to be aware of laws, policies, and the workplace atmosphere before making a decision that could impact your livelihood.
However, there are many situations in which the GLBT community can speak up. Often, these opportunities are as simple as coming out to a health care provider.
The HRC reports that although many GLBT persons consider themselves “out,” they often refrain from speaking to others about GLBT issues. In fact, in an HRC poll, only three percent of those responding had come out to their doctors.
There are also many coming out opportunities for supportive members of the straight community. Speaking or writing to legislators for equal rights legislation is one way. Another is speaking out against anti-gay jokes or slurs. Joining a gay-straight alliance is yet another way.
If you are contemplating coming out, or wondering how to support your GLBT family and friends in their own process, Charis Books ( www.charisbooksandmore.com ) carries a number of books related to this issue. PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays) – www.pflag.org — is a wonderful organization that works to help support and advocate for GLBT persons and their families/friends.
Micky O’Leary, Ph.D. is a member of the Georgia Psychological Association’s Division H, Sexual Orientation Issues. She has helped scores of men and women with their concerns about coming out.