Written by Mishti Ali
“Coming out” (or “coming out of the closet,” as it used to be known) is a metaphor that describes the moment when LGBTQ+ people openly state their sexuality and/or gender identity, often to their friends and family.
Jason Park is a psychotherapist who specializes in LGBTQ+ issues. He describes coming out as when LGBTQ+ people take ownership and control of their identities.
“You know, it’s often seen as the moment where [LGBTQ+ people] disregard or reject the cis-heteronormative binary that we’ve been given,” he explains. This refers to the assumption that people are straight and the same gender [identity] they were assigned at birth. “[It] really alters the trajectory and expectations from a lot of people around them, too, so it’s a moment … [and] a choice where our lives really take different paths.”
With queer relationships and identities continually left out of school curriculums, representation of what these paths will lead to is lacking. Our society continues to assume that being cisgender and heterosexual is the norm. This means that many LGBTQ+ people don’t just come out once, but it becomes an ongoing process in deciding whether or not to tell new people about who you are.
A study from the Pew Research Center highlighted that close to a third of all LGBTQ+ people believe that society is becoming more progressive and accepting. That might be why the majority of LGBTQ+ people they spoke to (86%) had told at least one of their close friends about their sexual orientation or gender identity, while 54% of respondents said that everyone they consider to be close to them knew.
But, equally, LGBTQ+ people may choose not to come out, for whatever reason. You may decide to tell some people and not others. It’s totally up to you where you draw the line. An article in the journal Frontiers in Sociology highlights that some people decide against it because they don’t think they need to or feel that coming out reinforces the idea that to be LGBTQ+ is “other” and cis and straight is the norm.
It’s important to remember that there is no single way to be LGBTQ+ or to come out, so your path may prioritize different milestones. Below, LGBTQ+ people speak to Flo about coming out.
People may choose to come out to their family or friends at any time. They may decide to talk about their sexuality or gender identity to build confidence and self-esteem in that identity, meet other people who identify in a similar way, or build a closer bond with a loved one. And as sexuality and gender are fluid, some people may come out multiple times over the course of their lifetime with different or new identities.
Noga is 20 years old, identifies as bisexual or queer, and uses any pronouns. “[In terms of my sexuality], I must have first formally come out when I was about nine years old, and I was with my best friend in my garden,” Noga says. “I told her that I loved both boys and girls and that she was the girl I loved, and there was a boy I loved.”
Studies show that Noga isn’t alone in figuring out their sexuality so early on. In fact, the average age for all LGBTQ+ people to question their sexuality is 12. Despite this, 43% of LGBTQ+ people wait until they are around 20 to come out to a close friend or family member.
What’s most important is that you have the autonomy to make the decision of when, where, and how you want to come out. And if it never feels right (or safe), then you don’t have to come out at all.
Although Noga describes their family as having been supportive, life at school was hard: “I first came out as a trans guy. I felt pretty good … but I was incredibly unlucky with high amounts of transphobia and homophobia at my school, where I was the second person in my [class] to come out. We were 13. It was a [class] of about 240 kids, and it was very intense. And essentially, gender-wise, it pretty much pulled me back into the closet.”
Noga decided to share “a ‘going back into the closet’ post [on social media] in addition to the one where I’d come out, in which I said: ‘You know what? I’m really struggling with mental health. I’m struggling with people responding in this way.’”
Noga’s experience isn’t uncommon. Park points out that being forced to stay in the closet can have a detrimental effect on LGBTQ+ mental health. UK-based LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall has found that over half of LGBTQ+ people in Britain have suffered from depression. They also face significant health care inequality, to the extent that one in seven avoids speaking to health care professionals for fear of stigma or discrimination. (Read our guide to finding an LGBTQ+-inclusive doctor or therapist here.)
“Of course, that’s not a blanket statement,” Park explains. “There are people who will find [staying in the closet] preferable for various reasons, but the vast majority, I feel, experience a lot of depression, self-hatred, fear, and anxiety around this thing that becomes a large secret. A lot of people who are still in the closet don’t get to have a lot of the community structures that are in place to support poor mental health, especially with the current rise of transphobia and general anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment at the moment.”
For those who can’t come out, it’s important to remember that your identity is no less valid. Your safety and comfort come first. In fact, less than half of lesbian, gay, and bi people (46%) and trans people (47%) feel able to be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to everyone in their family.
Amie, 26, says doing the right thing for you is so important. She came out four years ago after leaving home for college. “For a very long time, I felt like a traitor in my community. I thought because I wasn’t ‘out’ to everyone in my life that I didn’t deserve to take up space and make connections in LGBTQ+ spaces,” she says. “However, I know now that that was merely self-preservation. I had to look after myself and do what was best for me at that time. It doesn’t make me any less worthy of acceptance. And coming out to loved ones once I’d left my family home is what felt right.”
You understand your situation best, and if you feel that it isn’t the time to come out to some of the people in your life, there are other ways to connect with the LGBTQ+ community and access support. The LGBT National Help Center has a database of LGBTQ+ centers and spaces across the United States. Similarly, Stonewall has a “What’s in My Area?” page where they list local services for young LGBTQ+ people in the United Kingdom.
Coming out is a really personal decision. When, how, and if you do it is really up to you. Jax, 19, came out as pansexual two years ago while living with her conservative Polish parents.
“All I can say is it’s been an education, but I was really shocked that both of my parents were willing to put in the work and ask me questions, Google terminology, and say sorry if they messed up,” she says. “I know I’m the only close person in their lives who is LGBTQ+, but they embraced me and my community wholeheartedly. My dad is now the biggest fan of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race.’”
Worrying about someone’s reaction can really dictate whether you choose to tell them. Val is a 27-year-old drag queen from a British South Asian background, which sharply impacted her coming out.
“[It was] the first day of high school. Because I’m effeminate, lots of people just called me gay, and I remember asking a friend what ‘gay’ was,” Val explains. “They told me it was someone who liked men, so I was like, ‘Oh, then I’m gay.’”
One day, a teacher from a similar background overheard a conversation between Val and some of the other boys in the class: “I got home, and then my mom yelled at me to come downstairs. She was like, ‘One of your teachers just called up saying that you’re gay.’ I literally just froze. I didn’t know what to say, and she kept pressuring me and pressuring me. She was screaming, and it got a bit violent.”
Val moved out of her home to live with her grandparents. However, when she was outed to them too, she was threatened with conversion therapy and violence. Val credits their friends for their support in getting them to where they are today, along with the Albert Kennedy Trust for having given them money when they first ran away from their grandparents and finding them a hostel to stay in.
Unfortunately, Stonewall highlights that LGBTQ+ people of color often face disproportionate levels of discrimination. However, many do still have happy, healthy support systems.
Michaela is 20 and bisexual. Coming from a Zimbabwean background, she was concerned that her mom would react badly to her sexuality or that she would need to watch how open she was around family.
“When it came to my mom, she already knew,” she says. “She was like, ‘It’s not surprising that you’re not straight.’ I received a lot of support, which I was really lucky to have. That’s a privilege itself in the Black community, especially if you have African parents. But I do have a mom who’s always been quite different from the norm, I suppose.”
If someone has come out to you, Park emphasizes the importance of really listening to them. Studies have found that a key way for LGBTQ+ youth to be empowered has been through parents and friends affirming and accepting their identities, as well as connecting with others within the community. When wider society continues to be so unsupportive, being seen and accepted by people you love is crucial.
What else can you do to help? “Be curious,” Park says. “As much as possible, center the person who has come out. But I would encourage people not to diminish their own reactions to someone’s coming out … [and] look after themselves, as well as supporting the person who has come out to them.”
Coming out can be a really personal experience. It can be difficult and takes courage. There may be certain people that you decide to speak to about your sexuality and gender identity and others you might choose not to. What’s important is doing what feels right for you. There is no “right” way to come out; there’s just your way. Remember that coming out is only one part of the journey as an LGBTQ+ person. It doesn’t define who you are or the ways you love and accept yourself.
As the stories above highlight, coming out looks really different for everyone, and finding your community and support network can be so key. Instead of being a singular milestone, coming out is often a gradual experience as you tell more people in your life. However, you should never feel obliged or forced to tell someone. And by tapping into services through resources like the LGBT National Help Center, you may be able to meet and hear the stories of the LGBTQ+ people in the community near you.