Have you ever felt the stress of having to hide something about yourself that you believe others that you care about won’t like?
Because it’s part of you, you might feel heavy, uncomfortable and possibly awkward about keeping it from them?
You might be feeling like you need to ‘come out’ about it.
Although coming out is usually seen as an LGBTQ+ topic, it can also be associated with many other circumstances ‘Coming out’ means telling someone something about yourself that isn’t immediately obvious, such as:
A Muslim woman might ‘come out’ to her parents that she doesn’t want to wear a hijab.
A talented athlete diagnosed with a degenerative condition might ‘come out’ about their disability to a sports coach.
A young pregnant woman or non-binary person might ‘come out’ to parents or family about an unexpected child.
A person with a stigmatised mental health condition might ‘come out’ to their colleagues.
All these examples have one thing in common, they can be full of fear and shame, not wanting to disappoint or disrupt what those who are important in our lives expect from us.
Doesn’t sound fun, does it? But for some, it is the only way to be who they really are. And feeling free to be your authentic self is essential for wellbeing.
October 11th is ‘Coming Out Day’, celebrated to remind us that one of the greatest tools that we have to improve the wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ people is the power of embracing who we are. But on the flipside, ‘coming out’ can lead to harmful and negative effects on people’s wellbeing.
‘Coming out’ is not something only a few of us must face. More Britons than ever before identify as LGBTQIA+. In fact, only 54% of Gen Z say they are exclusively attracted to the opposite sex . And even for those of us who don’t identify as LGBTQIA+, over 1/3rd of us will be close to somebody who does.
Coming out can be difficult and takes courage. Some people will welcome the news immediately. Others might have a less positive response or take longer to adapt. Being able to integrate our sexual orientation into our lives allows us to feel positive about it and improves wellbeing. So, even though coming out can be a challenge, it can also be incredibly liberating.
Coming out is an important psychological step for many people. Being able to discuss our identities with others increases the availability of social support. Many people see it as the first step to living authentically as themselves. Acceptance from people in an LGBTQIA+ person’s life is a crucial buffer against any negative consequences of being who they really are (‘coming out’).
We spoke to various people about their experiences of ‘coming out’ and how they'd like to be identified.
Lucy - bisexual
‘Coming-out’ for me felt like I was being asked to justify my sexuality with my sexual history - "How do you know?", "Have you been with a girl before?". It was already an intensely personal admission, why did people around me think it was ok to pry for more information? This led me to feel that I had to wait until I had a same-sex partner before I could tell my family.
When I met someone, there was a period of dating before becoming a couple. During this period, I made up lies to justify why I was spending so much time with this one person. I called her ‘my friend’ when we went to my house, which of course made her feel less special than she was to me. When we finally became an item, I came clean to my family and surprise, surprise they said they already knew. I wish there had been more open-mindedness and acceptance from the start so that I didn’t spend time lying or denying.
"When I came out to my friends, I found that I wasn't validated by them. I was hit with "It's a phase", "But you've dated men before", and "You're too feminine to be a lesbian."
Diego - gay
For me, coming out as a gay man in a very traditional (and slightly sexist) family was a 2 year process. My Mum was actually the last person I told because I knew she had a very bad prejudice against gay men, associating them with drugs and AIDS. I learnt that to let people know about my sexual orientation meant that I had to be brave. I felt I had to present myself as sure and unapologetic about who I am, and not show any shame or embarrassment. In a society where a son is expected to grow up and become ‘the man of the house’, being gay can be viewed as being ‘not man enough’. It felt like I was disappointing my parents by not being in a straight relationship.
"I'm aware that some of my family and friends see my sexuality as not ideal, a sort of let-down or a ruined heritage."
I managed to find acceptance in the people that I love, knowing that they love me back. But in the end, what matters most is the feeling of freedom that I gained when I no longer had to hide a part of myself that was important to me.
Isha - Mum of LGBTQ+ twins
When the first of my twin daughters ‘came out’ to me about her sexuality, it was not a calm occasion. She rang me crying and said she needed to tell me something and that I wouldn’t like it. She made me promise that I would still love her. Then she told me that she had realised, once and for all, after a night-out that she was not attracted to boys.
She was very worried about her dad finding out, saying she’d heard him say abusive things about gay people before on the TV. She thought she had disappointed us and apologised that she wasn’t “normal”. All I felt was relief that it wasn’t something like a terminal illness, followed by immense pride that she had the courage to be who she really was. I felt terrible that this was something she had been hiding for such a long time that would have caused her pain. I was glad to finally take some of the burden off her shoulders.
The following year my other daughter broke up with her boyfriend and met a girl, there were no qualms at all in her ‘coming out’ to us. She simply rang me with the update - knowing that we’d accept and love her no matter what.
"I must admit I was worried that life could become more difficult for them, being gay, but there was only one way to stop that happening - to support them in whatever way they needed."
Here are some tips to help you navigate your response if someone you care about ‘comes out’ to you (about sexuality, gender, or any other characteristic that they have felt anxious you won’t like).
Respect, Respect, Respect
The first thing to do is to ask how they would like you to talk about it. They might have a preferable phrase or label for the characteristic. Using the correct terms helps people feel they are heard and respected.
Make it clear that any slurs or jokes based on these or any other characteristics of identity considered ‘different’ are not tolerated. You might want to apologise if you may have used them in the past. Express your disapproval of these types of ‘jokes’ whenever you encounter them in the community or media.
Be an ally
Play a role in advocating for safe spaces where they can be who they are. You could have a look for local support groups or activities where they might be able to connect with people similar to them. Say you are happy to accompany them and help them to take part in the community. This will support people to integrate this trait into their lives, which leads to a happier life for all.
Don’t stop caring
Remember that ‘coming out’ is not a one-time thing. LGBTQIA+ people might continuously ‘come out’ throughout their lives. Whenever they make new friends, start new jobs, move home and so on, each new situation brings the decision on whether to ‘come out’ and face up to possible rejection and prejudice.
Keep up the communication and regularly check in with how they are finding the experience of ‘coming out’ to others. Be on the lookout for any signs that indicate they might need more support, for example, depression/anxiety, insecurity and any emotional problems.
What if I don’t agree?
The truth is, if you’ve got a problem with the idea of your friend, family member, child, etc. being LGBTQIA+, you’re going to have to live with it and accept it. The best thing you can do is put your feelings to one side and remember that, regardless of the person’s sexual orientation and gender identity, you care about them and want them to be happy.
Final thoughts: Some people come out with no problems at all but for others, there may be obstacles and setbacks. Sometimes, people close may need some time to get used to the news. It can be difficult if the people you care about have a hard time accepting who you are. Everyone's coming out journey is different.
For more support including links to some great resources read our blog ‘Does being LGBTQIA+ mean I’m destined to be depressed?’.
Sexual orientation and attitudes to LGBTQ+ in Britain (2000). Ipsos MORI.