What is Coming Out:
To understand what people mean by ‘coming out’, you first need to know about what is meant by ‘sexual orientation’, and the different views people have.
- Our sexual orientation is about who we are attracted to sexually and emotionally.
- To be same-sex attracted means being sexually and emotionally attracted to people of your own sex, as well as seeing yourself as same-sex attracted.
- Some people believe that being same-sex attracted is a choice. Many others believe that people are born same-sex attracted.
There are different ways that people refer to same-sex attraction.
- ‘Gay’ often refers to men who are attracted to men, while ‘lesbian’ refers to women who are attracted to women. Some women call themselves gay as well.
- A person who is bisexual can be either a man or a woman who is sexually attracted to both sexes and who sees him or herself as being bisexual.
- The more general term for people who are attracted to their own sex is ‘homosexual’. Young people usually prefer to say they are same-sex attracted, gay/lesbian or bisexual, rather than use the term homosexual, which many do not identify with.
- ‘Straight’ or ‘heterosexual’ people are sexually attracted to the opposite sex.
- In society, many people presume that everyone is heterosexual/straight.
- Some believe that everyone should be heterosexual/straight.
In some countries, homosexuality is illegal. In Australia same-sex attraction is legal.
In some countries/societies there is discrimination against and hate of same-sex attracted people.
- This is called homophobia (homophobia literally means fear of homosexuality).
- This can make it very difficult for many young people to tell others that they are same-sex attracted.
- A lot of people keep their sexuality secret because they’re afraid of being harassed or discriminated against by their family, friends and others.
- Some young people find it difficult to deal with the issue of their sexuality and feel they can’t tell anyone. This can make life very difficult for them because they’re constantly hiding their sexuality.
In some societies there is growing acceptance and open-mindedness about differences in people. Differences are celebrated eg. multicultural and gay festivals.
- However, it can still be difficult to let others know about being same-sex attracted, because many people believe everyone is straight.
- Letting people know that you are same-sex attracted has become known as ‘coming out of the closet’, ‘coming out’, or ‘going public’.
- It means coming out from hiding who you really are, and breaking free of some of the restraints placed on a person by society, by culture, by history and by law in some places.
‘Coming out’ is now a well known term, but it’s still understood differently by different people.
Why Come Out:
We all have many parts to our personal identities. Our sexuality is a part of our personal identity; it’s a part of who we are. Having to hide a part of our identity can lead to emotional pain and unhappiness.
When a part of our personal identity is damaged in some way, it can effect us on a number of levels, including our mental health, in dramatic ways. Here is an example.
- When a person has been employed in a job for some time, this forms part of his or her identity. People describe themselves by their job, eg. “I am a bank manager” or “I am a gardener”. People losing jobs may therefore lose a part of their identity because they can no longer describe themselves by their job type. Many people in this situation can become depressed.
It can be like that for same-sex attracted people who feel forced to hide or suppress their sexuality. This may be one of the contributing factors that has led to higher suicide rates for same-sex attracted people compared to straight people.
Many same-sex attracted young people simply want to be themselves, to be able to relax around friends, to bring their partner home to family celebrations, to do everything that “straight” people take for granted. This means coming out or going public.
Some same-sex attracted young people come out simply because they’re proud of who they are and want others to know.
Here are some other reasons young people have given for coming out:
- to meet other same-sex attracted people.
- to have more meaningful relationships with family and friends based on who I really am
- I wanted to be able to go to family celebrations with my partner
- I was spending too much energy telling half-truths, changing names of my dates when I spoke to my friends – I couldn’t keep it up any more. I couldn’t keep track of the lies and who I’d told what. It exhausted me.
- for my own self-respect and self-esteem
- to remove the barriers between my family and myself
- I needed support from my family when my partner was ill
- to give my family an opportunity to know the real me – all parts of me. I’m a pretty nice guy to get to know
- to make some changes in the world – the more people who get to know same-sex attracted people, well, the less homophobia will be around
- I’d had enough of hearing discriminatory gay jokes, negative comments and put-downs about same-sex attracted people from my father. My self-esteem and self-respect were eroding. I came out to protect my self-esteem.
Stages of Coming Out:
Some young people may never ‘come out’ to others or even to themselves – nor should they feel that they have to.
When young people decide to ‘come out’, they may experience some of the following stages.
- Many people say that first of all, they have to come out to themselves. This may mean having a feeling deep inside or perhaps a strong self-awareness about being same-sex attracted.
- Some people say they ‘always knew’ this about themselves.
- For others, accepting their sexuality, or coming out to themselves, comes later. It can take many years.
- Some same-sex attracted people may be aware of their sexual orientation as young as 10 or younger, but don’t label themselves as same-sex attracted until about 14 years. They may not tell anyone until several years after that.
- After coming out to themselves, some people may then begin to want to come out to others in their lives, for their own reasons.
- People may come out first to other gay people, then family and friends. Many people say their mothers are the first family members they tell.
- Finally, a person may come out to the world. Some march in parades that celebrate sexual diversity. Others simply let the world know by living their normal lives in a positive and open way and feel comfortable not to have to lie.
No one has to go through these stages – no one has to feel as though they should come out to anybody or everybody. It is an individual choice.
Suggestions About Coming Out:
- Don’t let anyone pressure you into going public. It’s your life; it’s your decision; it’s your choice. You don’t have to come out.
- Only tell someone if you have enough support to cope with their reaction. Not everyone will feel happy for you – some will try to tell you that you can change or even that you need therapy! Be prepared for any reaction.
- If someone rejects you, consider whether the relationship is really worthwhile. Don’t lose sight of your own self-worth. Find ways to nurture yourself and your self-esteem.
- Be prepared that once you start to tell people, others might find out pretty quickly.
- Give others time to get used to the idea – after all, you’ve given yourself time (perhaps years) to get used to the idea.
- Be clear about your own feelings about being gay. If you are still having doubts, if you’re feeling depressed or guilty, it may be best to get some support first, perhaps from a counselor or telephone support line. Believe in yourself first.
- Don’t come out during an argument. Don’t use your sexuality as a weapon to hurt or shock someone else.
- Timing, timing, timing! It’s so important. Think about what’s happening for the person you want to tell. If they’re going through a lot of stress right now (eg. exams, loss of a job or they are just in a bad mood), it may be a good idea to delay. Make sure you have time to sit down quietly together.
- Don’t do it when you’ve been drinking alcohol or using any other substance. It’s better to be able to think clearly.
- Tell them that you’re still the same person as you were yesterday – only now there’s more honesty between you both.
- You could have some leaflets or other information handy to give to your parents or close others (in the Parenting and Child Health section, there is a topic for parents on Gay or lesbian sons and daughters). Perhaps a local support and information service for parents and friends would be useful – see our ‘Resources’ page.
- Think about the way you’ll come out – it doesn’t have to be a big confrontation with work mates and social friends. Just a comment, for instance, about what you’re doing on the weekend with your partner lets people know, with the information sinking in gradually.
- Think about some of the things your parents or others might say, and have some replies ready, eg. they could ask, “how can you be sure?” or “lots of young people go through a phase like this at your age” or “you haven’t tried hard enough with the opposite sex”.
- If you decide to tell school friends, make sure that you can trust them and that they’ll be supportive and open-minded.
- If you decide to tell a teacher or counsellor, check out their confidentiality policy first.
- If it’s too hard to talk about to your parents, can you write a letter?
- Remember to also listen to what others have to say.
- Get support before coming out from a local support group or trusted friend or relative.
- Celebrate your coming out – what a huge step!
Here are some of the mixed reactions young people have faced when coming out to others.
- My family said they’d always suspected I was same-sex attracted, and were just waiting for me to tell them.
- My father is more accepting than my mother is. Most of my friends are straight and they’re all accepting – some are curious.
- My mother said she was so pleased that I could share this with her.
- My ‘hetero’ friends are very accepting – we speak openly, they go to gay bars with me, invite me to parties with gay friends, some have even tried to match-make.
- My brother called me some terrible names – in fact we came to blows.
- I told my parents and they refused to talk about it. It was easier to move out of home.
- My grandfather has nothing to do with me anymore – I visit Nan when he’s out at bowls.
- My parents didn’t talk about it for four years after I told them, now they’re coming around. They’re talking openly about my life, becoming involved in my life and welcoming my gay friends into their home.
- I’m so relieved that I can now attend family weddings, funerals and celebrations with the woman I love, my life partner, with me as my best friend, lover and emotional support. Some family members know we’re same-sex attracted, others probably assume we’re friends. We don’t feel a need to make a big deal out of it – those who count know and they love and accept us both for who we are.
- My family listened to what I had to say, then swept it all under the carpet, pretending I hadn’t said a thing. I moved out of home, in fact, down to the city, so that I could live my life honestly in a new community, as a gay man.
- I told my identical twin brother I was gay – he said, ‘me too’.
- My best friend gave me a huge hug and said she was glad I’d had the courage to tell her – I’d been afraid she’d think I was trying to come on to her.
- My friend was curious and wanted to know everything, like, how did I know I was gay, when did I realise, how old was I, and more. We talked for hours.
There are times when coming out can put you at risk.
- If you are young and live with your parents, and they pay for you to live (eg. food, clothes, schooling) and you think they might ‘kick you out’ of home or reject you, it may be best to choose not to come out just now. Wait until you are sure they’ll be supportive or until you are old enough to look after yourself.
- If you can’t wait, be sure you have someone to support you and somewhere to go in case they react badly. Check out some of our topics that might help you to get set up, such as Share Housing, Managing your finances, and Employment.
- If you are working in a place where your sexuality could put you at risk either of violence or discrimination in the job, it may be worth checking out laws and policies that protect your rights. Do you have the support to fight for your rights?
- If you are living in a place where you know your sexuality could put you at risk of extreme violence, for example in prison or in countries where homophobia can lead to violence, it would be wise to think very carefully about the pros and cons of coming out.
But, remember that is always help and support out there. Coming Out Australia can help you.