Coming out is one of the biggest milestones in the life of someone from the GLBTI community. It can be a very freeing and liberating experience. It is also a nerve wracking prospect that is associated with a lot of anticipatory anxiety. Every person’s experience is different, but below are some tips and points for consideration that people thinking of coming out might find useful.
When should you do it?
People can feel a lot of pressure to come out. This often comes both from others, as well as a growing sense of unease hiding an important aspect of your identity. The coming out process is usually smoothest when you feel comfortable in your own identity; and when you feel like you have enough supportive people around you to help out if it doesn’t go the way you plan. People who you tell may have questions or concerns they’d like to discuss with you. If you can’t do this without feeling overwhelmed by guilt or shame, it may not be the right time for you to come out. Remember, there’s no rush to come out – the most important thing is to do it when you feel ready.
How do you want to do it?
There are many ways to let someone know about your sexuality, some more obvious than others. The strategy you use is likely to be dependent on the person you’re telling. Think about who it is that you’re telling, and how important it is for the message to be clear. For people who you have a close relationship with, more obvious strategies may be better (such as a verbal conversation, or a written letter). For people who are less close, subtle strategies may be enough (e.g., asking friends if they’d like to come with you to a gay bar, mentioning that you’re romantically interested in someone of the same sex). If you want to have a verbal conversation with someone but are worried you might be too emotional to say everything you want to say, writing a letter to and sitting with someone while they read it can be a good way to communicate everything you want.
If you have any concerns or fears about coming out, it can be useful to address these directly during a coming out conversation. For example, if you are worried people might treat you differently, it’s OK to let the person you’re telling know they you’d like them to treat you the same as they did before. It can also be helpful to ask people to read information about the GLBTI community such as on www.pflagbrisbane.org.au or www.wpath.org.
For the best outcomes, it is a good idea to avoid coming out when you’re drunk or high; during a fight or when you’re feeling angry; or while you or the person you are telling are driving.
How will you build a support network?
Most people find it easiest to come out to people they aren’t close to, then work their way up to the more important people in their lives. This can be a good strategy because, if it doesn’t go well at first, the potential feelings of loss are less intense. Also, as you go through this process, you can build up a network of accepting people who can support you later if you need it. You can even start by casually mentioning your (possibly imaginary) girlfriend or boyfriend to a shop attendant or waiter to get some practice coming out and gauging how people are likely to react.
It is important to have people around you who can provide emotional and practical support if you need it through the coming out process. It’s very rare, but sometimes coming out does not go the way we hope it will. This can have a profound impact on people who are reliant on those they are coming out to for housing and financial support. If you are in this situation, it may be a good idea to organise contingency plans with friends (e.g., confirming you can live with them for few weeks if you need to) and to make sure you are financially independent before you come out. Also, coming out is an emotionally draining experience whether it goes well or not. Having people who you can debrief with can also be a big help.
Engaging with the community is also a great way to meet other confident GLBT people and build support networks. You can find some great resources under the community tab at www.qnews.com.au
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that coming out is your own unique experience. Everyone has their own opinions about the details of how it should be done, but the most important thing is that it feels right to you.
Ben Walters is a psychologist at the Centre for Human Potential www.cfhp.com.au .