Reluctance to disclose one's actual sexual orientation as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) is often referred to as "being in the closet". In societies that still stigmatize same-sex relations, some individuals feel pressured to restrict themselves to sexual behavior that conforms to social norms. Others may choose to present a false representation of their sexual orientation, depending on whether they perceive their immediate social environment to be accepting or intolerant. In exceptionally traditional societies, people are often under heavy social pressure to marry and have children, irrespective of their desired sexual orientation.
The term ‘coming out’ or ‘coming out of the closest’ means that a person chooses to disclose to family and friends their alternative sexual orientation or gender identity. For some this process is difficult and the results problematic, while for others they may be pleasantly surprised to find that their orientation was already quietly suspected and/or accepted.
Coming out to family and friends may be one of the most monumental moments of a person’s life. It is a deeply personal decision to be open about who you are – both to yourself, and to others around you. Depending on the individual circumstances, the challenge to be honest is something that every person will deal with somewhat differently. It may be difficult to predict for certain what reaction there will be; it could be anywhere from unconditional acceptance to total rejection. Sometimes the receiver may just need a bit of time in order to comprehend and accept the new information.
According to the American Psychological Association, researchers have discovered that negative societal attitudes towards a particular sexual orientation are “not grounded in actual experience but are based on stereotypes and misinformation”. In light of this fact, a person coming out to someone may be the receiver’s first time being exposed to the LGBT community as how it relates to someone they know and care about. It may feel like it’s a lot of pressure to be so open and honest, but the downsides of hiding the truth can be an even heavier burden.
People’s identities have historically been strongly linked to gender; despite the emergence of more tolerance in modern culture, gender-based stereotypes and expectations are strongly ingrained. If a person’s preferences fall outside of what is traditionally expected, their behavior may be discouraged or rejected by family or peers because of any number of prejudices or fears, including (for parents) that their child’s sexual orientation in some way reflects negatively on their family of origin. Such fears can lead to ostracism, discrimination, violence, judgement, unwanted attention and speculation.
In any case, the anticipation of coming out can cause extreme emotional and psychological anguish, particularly if one’s family or social circle has a limited understanding of alternative sexuality. Furthermore, they may experience shame or stigma if their sexual orientation is not the community norm, as is usually the case. Another risk to consider is that relationships might permanently change, even to the point of no longer supporting that person financially or emotionally.
A person considering coming out must be prepared for mixed responses, or some adjustment to their social circle. It will be easier to deal with these new circumstances if a strong network of encouragement is established beforehand, such as a support group or a network of compassionate friends. It also helps to institute a personal regime that promotes self-care and self-love, so that when they come out of the closet they feel good about themself and are enjoying doing the things they treasure most.
Despite a person’s apprehension to let others become privy to their private life, coming out may prove to be a positive and liberating event. Hiding something that is so significant to one’s identity can chip away at self esteem and set the stage for strained or unfulfilling relationships. Being open about oneself is a definitive act of self acceptance; it can therefore assert the sense of self and reaffirm grounding in their sexual preference.
Coming out helps break barriers. Individuals choosing to embrace who they are challenge other people’s stereotypes and expectations. They also help to dispel myths that others have about who LGBT people are, or how they live their lives. Coming out makes it easier for those who are still in the closet to follow in the footsteps of others. It also sets the stage to connect to a greater community of other like-minded persons, or nurture the development of one.
Because it’s likely that a divergence will exist between the perception of the person coming out and society’s perception of their sexual preference, they must go through a process to bring those two views into congruence. A number of theories have emerged to illustrate the coming out process. One highly recognized rendering was developed in 1979 by Vivienne Cass. She utilized six stages of identity development to explain the process that alternative sexuality individuals go through as they discover and eventually acquire a different sexual identity. The stages are as follows...
1. Identity Confusion – When a person begins having non heterosexual thoughts and first considers the possibility of being gay, etc. They may experience everything ranging between denial and acceptance.
2. Identity Comparison – This stage centers on an individual accepting their sexual preference and dealing with the social implications of their choice. In order to avoid alienation and surmount this step, one must develop new expectations and definitions for their life.
3. Identity Tolerance – In order to conquer the isolation that comes with initially identifying oneself as ‘alternative’, they will seek contact with others in the LGBT culture to receive support and identification. By seeking a supportive community, individuals develop a stronger sense of self and learn that their orientation does not limit their options.
4. Identity Acceptance – People begin to identify themselves as gay, lesbian, etc, rather than just tolerating it. In limited social situations, they may disclose their identity as other than heterosexual. Also, they strengthen their newly acquired social constructs and continue to let go of social norms.
5. Identity Pride – This step involves an ever-growing immersion in LGBT culture and a strong desire to disclose their sexual orientation. At this stage there is potential for heterosexism as well as disgruntlement toward society as a whole if the individual has experienced negativity or alienation.
6. Identity Synthesis – As the final step in identity development, the individual integrates sexual identity with all other aspects of themselves. Essentially being gay, lesbian, etc. becomes one characteristic of their new self, rather than consuming their entire identity.
One of the major criticisms of this model is that it is constructed linearly and individuals therefore appear to go through stages consecutively, one at a time. Of course, not everyone’s coming out experience will follow this model, as people may go back and forth between certain steps or skip them altogether. Additionally, there have been many social and political developments since its inception in 1979 that has enhanced the path to becoming a well adjusted person of any sexual orientation.
There are no right or wrong ways to come out of the closet. It’s up to the individual to choose when, to whom and how they disclose their sexual orientation. With that being said, if coming out is something you are considering here are a few tips that might help you along the way.
1. Have a Plan – When you’re considering the people you want to confide in, it may be useful to recall any of their reactions to LGBT related ideas. If you can’t recall any evidence of their opinions, casually bring up the topic during your next conversation and see how they respond. Their reaction will probably provide an indication as to how you’d want to prepare yourself to come out to them.
2. Be Informed – It would be helpful to arm yourself with plenty of information regarding LGBT issues. In preparation, come up with ways to answer the most commonly expected questions that less informed respondents may ask and support it with evidence-based research or historical data. You may want to have pamphlets, book titles and websites to recommend to them.
3. Manage Your Expectations - Some respondents may never have known anyone who is LGBT, or their preconceived notions are heavily ingrained. It’s best to avoid putting expectations on anyone’s response. It might take time for them to consider you in this new light. Be ready to show them patience; you may even want to give them some time and space to absorb the information.
4. Timing - Finding the right occasion to come out may take some time because ultimately, you have to feel comfortable confiding with a person at that moment. Remember that you don’t need to come out to everyone right away. It may be that you reveal your identity with close friends and family first (or only).
5. Express Your Feelings – One of the best ways to express this particular side of you is to be genuine with your feelings and confident in your convictions. Do it in a way that honours who you really are while respecting others feelings at the same time.
Celebrated as an international day of awareness, National Coming Out Day honours people of all sexual orientations to live openly and with dignity. It also promotes open discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues amid a public forum, thus bringing their movement into the light of the general public.
The timing of the day commemorates the Second National March on Washington in 1987 when half a million lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as their supporters, staged an enormous political rally in Washington D.C., demanding equality, protection of their civil rights and government policy change.
The process of coming out can be daunting. But remember, coming out isn’t about pleasing others, it’s about being your most genuine self. Being honest about who you really are won’t always meet other people’s expectations or approval, but it can be feel very liberating to no longer have to bear the burden of secrecy!