Coming Out: Who, When, How?
Originally Published: January 25, 2018
Revised: May 30, 2019
Imagine you’ve decided to come out to your parents. You’re nervous, weighing the decision carefully. You wonder, Is this really the right time? Should I come out now? How should I do it?
For many teens, whether or not to come out about their sexual orientation or gender identity is one of the biggest decisions of their lives. Since everyone is presumed heterosexual or cisgender until proven otherwise, coming out reveals an important part of someone’s identity. Ideally, coming out and sharing how you identify should be a chance to safely share with people you’re comfortable with. However, coming out can be daunting and in some cases, risky. Some people may think that a person is obligated to come out. But coming out is a personal decision and shouldn’t be decided by anyone but you. This article is a guide to coming out: who to come out to, when are optimal times and how to do it.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity: Not a Preference
Sexual orientation is not a choice. Neither is gender identity. While people can usually control how they come out or who they come out to, they have no power over their sexual orientation or gender identity. Someone’s sexual orientation is defined by who they are typically attracted to, sexually and/or romantically. It’s a spectrum, including categories like gay, heterosexual, bisexual, asexual and demisexual, among others. Similarly, there is a range of ways in which people can identify in terms of gender beyond just male or female.
There is a possibility that you may be confronted with people who believe that your sexual orientation and gender identity are matters of preference instead of parts of your identity. The word “preference” implies that you have a conscious choice about who you’re attracted to or whether you feel more feminine or masculine, both or neither. The thing is, you don’t. The fact that these things are parts of who you are that you can’t change—like your eye color—can be an essential point to touch upon when coming out.
Coming out should be something that you’re in charge of, but it’s important to think about all aspects of coming out before you make your decision.
Who Should I Come Out To?
While coming out may seem scary, you can make it less so by choosing to come out to the right people. It’s generally best to come out to someone who supports and cares about you.
“I think the thing to consider is how well you can trust this person, how well you know this person and whether you are really ready for everything to change once you come out to them,” says Fia, 15, of New York City. As Fia explains, it’s important that you feel this person is trustworthy since you’re planning to tell them something significant about yourself. This could be a close friend, a sibling, a parent, a mentor or anyone else you consider important.
When choosing who to come out to, it’s important to take into consideration the person’s level of tolerance and empathy. Sometimes, people may doubt what you’re saying.
“The biggest problem I faced when coming out was basically not being accepted,” explains Fia. “I was told that I was confused and heard the usual ‘It’s just a phase.’ Hearing that stopped me from wanting to try again. It stopped me from wanting to make it clear that I was bisexual and that’s just who I am.” Having to come out to different people, people who may think you’re “confused” or “going through a phase” can be exhausting and challenging.
If you’re coming out to people who support and care about you, then you will want to avoid anyone you suspect may be homophobic or transphobic. What you already know about someone can be a good indicator of their reactions to your coming out. Have they made homo- or transphobic comments in the past? Consider how they might react to you coming out. Do you think they would they be disappointed? Happy? Angry? You can make an informed decision based on this prediction.
But When Is the Right Time?
Think it would be hilarious to come out on April Fool’s Day? Think again. Choosing when to come out is just as important as choosing who you want to come out to. Ideally, you should come out when you’re feeling calm and while you’re able to make sure that the conversation is serious. This way, you’ll leave little room for misunderstanding.
David, 18, of Chicago says, “Do it when you’re comfortable and safe and in a place where you can protect yourself should things go wrong. It hurts a lot to think that way, but you have to, especially if you’re uncertain that things are gonna turn out fine.”
It’s best not to make serious decisions in the heat of the moment, so why come out under these conditions? During intense arguments, most people don’t react rationally, so coming out in a calm, neutral setting is best.
There’s also the matter of asking yourself, “Am I ready?” It often takes a great deal of self-reflection to be able to reveal such an important part of your identity. Shelby, 16, of Atlanta reflects, “I knew I was ready to come out when I became comfortable with my identity and was prepared to answer questions about it.” Some may not feel this comfortable until they are well into their teen years or older, and that’s OK. In high school, there are lots of rules you have to follow as well as academic and extracurricular demands that make life stressful. Later in life, you may feel more confident in your identity and more able to communicate comfortably about it. Also, you’ll probably be less dependent on others for things like housing or money, which can make coming out a lot less stressful.
How Should I Do It?
Choosing how to come out is important because the way you go about it can influence what happens. Is a fleeting statement better than a thought-out statement? That’s up to you. One consideration is the level of explanation that you provide. If you’re speaking to someone who doesn’t know a lot about being LGBTQ, this might call for a more involved conversation. You may feel the need to explain what sexual orientation and gender identity are and why they cannot be changed. (See sidebar.)
Lastly, it may be helpful to understand the implications of coming out. Depending on who you talk to, you may not be treated the same after coming out. You may be ostracized by a former friend or shunned by a loved one. In especially dangerous situations, coming out publicly can lead to bullying or abuse. Visit TheTrevorProject.org to get support if you or anyone you know is dealing with homo- or transphobic bullying or abuse.
What If It’s Not Up to Me?
Ideally, you should be the one who decides to come out. But, what if someone finds out before you’re ready to tell them?
Ashley, 18, of Marlton, NJ dealt with this when her mom found texts on her phone that suggested she was gay. Ashley recalls that having her say taken away from her made her feel powerless: “It was incredibly difficult. My privacy was violated, and I had no control in what was going on. That’s not how I imagined I would come out.”
A lot of teens are faced with similar situations and, like Ashley, they can feel helpless or betrayed. Ashley says, “I think it’s important to recognize that sometimes you don’t have a choice or agency. That sucks, but you can come back from it.” Ashley says she’s grateful for her friends’ support: “My peers were incredibly supportive. My close friends already knew. One of my good friends made me brownies the following day, which was really sweet.”
Coming out should be something that you’re in charge of, but it’s important to think about all aspects of coming out before you make your decision. Sometimes, the choice of coming out isn’t entirely up to you, but you can decide how you’ll react if things don’t go exactly as planned. It’s true that you can’t change your sexual orientation or gender identity but you can plan and think about the “who, when and how” of coming out beforehand.
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