Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

September 4, 2006

The Coming Out Process

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.

April 9, 2005

Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity Development

By Molly Keeton, Ph.D.

Recently, there have been several articles on the Karuna web page about the coming out process. This article will look more in depth at the various stages of recognizing, identifying, accepting, and sharing non-heterosexual identity. I will be using the work of researchers within the field of psychology (Troiden, Cass, Coleman) who have attempted to summarize this process and identify its most common elements.

A model or summary can provide a framework for your experience(s), which helps to show that you are not alone and that your struggles have been an inherent part of the process, rather than some sort of personal inadequacy or weakness. However, it is very clear that not everyone’s experience can be fit into a model. In reading about these stages, keep in mind that they may or may not exactly apply to your life experience. If it is not helpful or comfortable for you to compare yourself to these models, then don’t. By no means should these models be used to stereotype, stigmatize or pathologize any individual’s process.

The models of GLB identity formation assume that identity development occurs through several stages over a period of time that varies by person. Identity development is a fluid process, and not all people will go through every single stage or go through them in any particular order. Although the lower stages generally must be achieved before the higher stages, not all people start at stage I. Also, GLB individuals are unlikely to go through these stages in a linear fashion. In fact, you might imagine the process more like a spiral lying on its side. As you move forward along the spiral, you will be cycling back through old stuff. So, individuals can cycle back through earlier stages at any time or even be in more than one stage at one time. For example, even a person who generally feels positive, accepting, and proud of their sexual orientation (stage IV) may have moments of shame, doubt, or fear of discovery (stage II).

Stage I – Sensitization

This first stage of non-heterosexual identity formation generally takes place before puberty. Oftentimes, GLB people look back on childhood and say they always just felt “different” or like they didn’t belong. Later they might attribute this to being gay/bisexual, but most do not identify it as such at the time (one study showed that only 8% of participants labeled them self as gay/bisexual during childhood). Sometimes this sense of not belonging can lead to childhood depression, anxiety, acting out with behavioral problems, physical illness, or even suicidal gestures.

Stage II – Identity Confusion

In the second stage, the GLB individual begins to identify and label their feelings as gay, lesbian, or bi-sexual. Because they always before assumed that they were or should be heterosexual, they may have difficulty reconciling this conflict. They may have a sense of cognitive dissonance, where their feelings or actions do not match their earlier beliefs (that they are straight, are supposed to be straight, or will be damned for not being straight). Just as the individual is beginning to get in touch with his/her true feelings, s/he is also coping with the stigma about being GLB, not having many positive GLB role models, and being surrounded by misinformation about GLB individuals. In stage II, the individual must begin to let go of the old identity or belief system before s/he has fully formed a new identity, which can be like letting go of one trapeze while falling through the air and waiting for the next trapeze to fly your way.

Given the obstacle of this, GLB individuals use different coping strategies while in stage II. A typical response is “denial,” or refusing to acknowledge GLB feelings or desires. They may also use “repair,” or attempting to get rid of the GLB feelings (it is in this stage that individuals might try to convert back to heterosexuality. Some may even seek conversion therapy, which is discriminatory and not condoned by the American Psychological Association). Another strategy for coping with GLB feelings includes “avoidance.” Avoidance can come in a variety of forms, such as trying to inhibit sexual feelings; avoiding any reminders of sexual attraction; avoiding the opposite sex so no one will notice their lack of interest; displaying homophobic attitudes to fool themselves or others; or abusing substances as a way to escape. A fourth basic strategy happens when one “redefines” their feelings/actions as isolated events or an experimental phase. Lastly, a GLB individual may >“accept” their non-hetero thoughts/feelings and begin the process of gathering positive information and support (stage III).

Stage III – Identity Assumption

Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people make several crucial transitions in stage III. They begin to replace past negative beliefs about their sexuality with more positive and accepting ones. This is also a time of exploring the new culture(s), sexual experimentation and/or first relationships, and trying on of new roles, behaviors, and self-perceptions.

Initial experiences with other GLB individuals can be very influential. Negative experiences may lead to further denial of the GLB identity and ongoing homophobic attitudes. Negative experiences can also lead to means of coping that are not always constructive, including “capitulation,” or avoiding all same sex activity;“minstrelization” or adopting highly stereotypic behavior; “passing,” which leads to the stress of living a double life; and/or “group alignment,” or avoiding all reminders of heterosexuality by limiting involvement only to GLB communities.

On the other hand, positive experiences in stage III allow GLB individuals to learn about the GLB cultures and communities while finally finding a group to which they can belong. This may be the first exposure to positive GLB role models, who can teach healthy strategies for managing homophobia, encourage integration of the GLB identity with other identities (ethnic, cultural, religious, ability status, etc.), confront the tendency to see oneself only in a sexual way, and encourage pride.

Stage IV – Commitment

In this stage the individual comes to a greater acceptance of and comfort with their GLB identity. This stage is also sometimes called “integration” and is seen as a time when all identities are integrated into one self-image (for example, “I may be gay, but I am also a Catholic, a father, an attorney, and a republican). With this stage comes a greater sense of empowerment, satisfaction, pride, contentment, higher self-esteem, and more successful romantic relationships.

Because homophobia will continue to be a part of life for the gay, lesbian, bisexual person, 3 new strategies may replace past means of coping with stigma. These include “blending,” which occurs when the individual neither denies nor confesses their GLB identity. They may simply view this as irrelevant to certain situations and elect to not make it an issue. The second strategy is that of “covering,” or being out of the closet in some circumstances/social groups while concealing it in others. Given the potential danger in some situations, covering is an adaptive and, at times, necessary strategy. The third strategy is “converting,” where non-heterosexuality is seen as a valid lifestyle that evokes pride. Homophobia is recognized as a form of social oppression, and the individual works to educate the public in attempt to break down stereotypes and decrease discrimination.

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