For too long we have been told we must hide our homosexuality. We have been asked to live a lie. We have been forced to live double lives. We have been told by our homophobic society to deny who we really are and whom we love. We have lived with enormous fear–fear for our rights; fear for our jobs; fear of the loss of those we care about; and, at times, fear for our lives. Coming out is a step towards greater integration in our lives. It is a testing of our fears and our paranoias about personal rejection. It leads us towards fuller and more honest and satisfying relationships with those around us. Coming out will not solve all our problems; indeed it can create new ones. But coming out offers to many of us a greater sense of reality about the loves, fears and relationships in our lives.
Those who have come out, in whatever ways and to whatever degree, have generally experienced a great sense of relief and increased self-esteem through sharing the ‘secret’ of their sexual orientation. This fact is documented in a growing number of personal accounts written by lesbians and gay men and in studies carried out by professional researchers.
The Process of Coming Out
Coming out of the closet is an ongoing issue in the life of virtually every gay person. There are many stages in the process, and most of us embark on that process time and time again. It is not simply telling one’s parents, joining a gay organization, having a lesbian or gay love affair or moving to the gay ‘ghetto’ in a large city. Coming out has to do with the way we perceive ourselves, with how we deal with our sexualities, how we structure our lives and how we present ourselves and our loved ones to our families, to our friends and to the world. It is a life long process, in which we constantly deal with the acceptance and integration of our gayness within a partially repressive and hostile society.
For some gay men and lesbians the process of coming out is a relatively easy one– there never is any great difficulty in recognizing or accepting homosexual feelings. For many others of us the process in its initial stages is often more painful. We may struggle with great difficulty for a long time before we are able to affirm ourselves as gay people, to say nothing of sharing that fact with those whom we love.
We live in a society in which we have been consistently indoctrinated with the worst myths, fears and stereotypes about homosexuality. We were consistently told as young people that it is not good to be gay. Indeed our society is structured in a way that often assumes that everyone both is, and ought to be, heterosexual. Within such a context it is not surprising that many people be they old or young—have experienced the gravest difficulty in accepting their homosexual feelings or orientation. The guilt has been unwarranted. The pain cannot be justified. The occasional suicides represent a tragic fact.
The homophobia that so affects the feelings and behavior of non-gays towards us has a very damaging effect upon the ways we may perceive ourselves.
The process of recognizing and accepting one’s gayness can be a very lonely experience, but it is becoming easier for us to accept our feelings and our gay or lesbian identities. We can see our sexuality as a positive and joyful part of our lives. We can see the injustices we face and the immorality of failing to tell young people the truth about homosexuality.
The Stages of Coming Out
There are a number of stages in the coming out process. The first step is acceptance, which presupposes the recognition of being homosexual. You say to yourself, as one lesbian put it I always knew I was different, and this was it.
Stage 1 – Coming to have positive feelings about one’s homosexuality is an essential part of the coming out process. Until one feels good about being gay, it makes little sense to share the fact of one’s sexual orientation with others (unless they are very clearly friends or helping professionals who are prepared to assist you towards greater self-acceptance). The person who says to a parent, friend or employer, I have something horrible to tell you about myself is not coming out. She or he is seeking pity or revealing self-hatred.
Stage 2 – Celebration comes next, as you begin to co-ordinate your feelings and desires with your place in society and to feel good about yourself. Celebration is when you are happy to be you. Celebration is saying, “This is who I am, and I am going to enjoy it!”
Stage 3 – The next stage in the coming out process is sharing the fact of your sexual orientation with others. This goes hand in hand with the integration of your sexuality with the rest of your life and consciousness. Most individuals consider their sex life, including their sexual orientation, to be a very personal matter that they do not want to discuss with all and sundry. But among heterosexuals, by social convention, while detail of sex practices are kept private, relationships are openly acknowledged and celebrated; wedding bands are exchanged, shared activities are described, joint invitations are given and received. This kind of public acknowledgement gives support and pleasure to the couple. This is the kind of public acknowledgement that gay couples also need and want.
Stage 4 – The final step in coming out, after other gay people, family and friends are told, is the general feeling that I don’t care who knows. I’ll come out to the world! Sometimes this is done by wearing buttons or T-shirts with gay slogans, sometimes by exaggerated, overtly gay behavior. But, most often, secure and confident gay men and women let the world know by just living their normal lives and not lying any more.
The steps are not always taken in this order. The process is not always a smooth and easy one. As one gay man said, I seem to take two steps forward and one step back sometimes. I get scared, occasionally.
An Educational Rationale for Coming Out
Coming out is undoubtedly the most effective educational tool available to gay people as we try to change people’s attitudes about homosexuality. In recent years, excellent books improved media coverage, visible lesbian and gay celebrities and more supportive attitudes from most mental health professionals and many religious leaders have lead to greater acceptance of gay people within Canadian society. But homophobic myths, fears, and stereotypes continue to receive widespread expression in our homes and workplaces, on our streets, in the courts and at the polls. The powerful threat of homophobia has not yet gone away. The educational task which lies ahead for us is a massive one.
Several recent polls have indicated that support for gay rights is far more likely to come from those non-gays who know someone gay, than those who do not. As gay people, we are indeed aware that we are everywhere. But our relative invisibility allows countless Canadians to overlook us; to tell cruel jokes about us; to assume no ordinary person is gay; and to believe that they do not know or love a gay man or lesbian. Each time even one gay person comes out to a heterosexual, their world view is challenged, their fears about homosexuality are confronted and their level of understanding is raised. The awareness that a loved or respected friend is gay often has a profound effect on the non-gay persons’ willingness to re-examine their ideas, attitudes and feelings about our lives and our rights.
This is not, however, an invitation to every gay person to come out to everyone under any circumstances. At the present time that is an unrealistic challenge. Ill-timed or unplanned revelations about one’s sexual orientation can result in unemployment, disinheritance or personal rejection. Nevertheless, thousands of gay men and lesbians can testify that the experience of coming out to selected relatives, friends and coworkers has been a positive one.
Some Suggestions for Coming Out to Parents, Relatives and Straight Friends
When you do begin to come out to non-gay people, your experiences will probably vary. Sometimes it will go well. Occasionally a relationship will be terminated abruptly or will fade away unexpectedly. From the experiences of many gay men, lesbians and bisexuals, their parents and friends, we offer a number of suggestions about coming out. You need to evaluate these suggestions in the light of your own personal situation and needs.
- Be clear about your own feelings about being gay. If you are still dealing with a lot of guilt or depression, seek help in getting over that before coming out to parents or other non-gay people. If you are comfortable with your gayness, those to whom you come out will often see that fact and be aided in their own renewed acceptance of you.
- Timing can be very important in coming out. Be aware of the health, mood, priorities, and problems of those with whom you would like to share your sexuality. The mid-life crises of parents, the relationship problems of friends, the business concern of employers, and countless other factors over which you have no control can affect another’s receptivity to your information.
- Never come out during an argument. Never use coming out as a weapon. Never encourage parents to feel guilty for having “caused’ your sexual orientation – they didn’t.
- When coming out to parents or family, try to affirm mutual caring and love before launching into your announcement about your gay or lesbian life.
- Be prepared that your revelation may surprise, anger, or upset other people at first. Try not to react angrily or defensively. Try to let other people be honest about their initial feelings even if they are negative. Remember that the initial reaction will not likely be the long-term one. Ultimately the individuals who have really faced and dealt with their homophobia may be far more supportive than those who give an immediate but superficial expression of support.
- Emphasize that you are still the same person. You were gay yesterday and will be tomorrow. If you were responsible and caring yesterday, likewise you will be loving and responsible tomorrow.
- Keep lines of communication open with people after you come out to them – even if their response is negative. Respond to their questions and remember that they are probably in the process of reexamining the myths and stereotypes about gay people which we all have received from our culture.
- Be sure that you are well informed about homosexuality. Read some good books about the subject (see Suggestions for Further Reading) and share them with individuals to whom you have come out.
- Encourage your parents or others to whom you come out to meet some of your lesbian and gay friends,
- Remember that it takes many gay men and lesbians a very long time to come to terms with our own sexuality and even longer to decide to share the fact with others. When you come out to non-gay people, be prepared to give them time to adjust and to comprehend the new information about you. Don’t expect immediate acceptance. Look for ongoing, caring dialogue
- If someone to whom you have come out rejects you, do not lose sight of your own self worth. Remember that your coming out was a gift of sharing an important part of yourself, which that person has chosen to reject. If rejection does come, consider whether the relationship was really worthwhile. Is any relationship so important that it must be carried on in an atmosphere of dishonesty and hiding? Was the person really your friend or simply the friend of someone he or she imagined to be you?
- Remember also that the loss of a friend is not the end of the world. Coming-out decisions must be made cautiously, but integrity and self-respect are extremely important in the long run.
- A casual or offhand approach often works best with workmates and relatives. Sometimes a confrontational situation can be avoided simply by being honest, in a conversational way, about whom you live with and date, and how you spend your leisure time. The other person is given a chance to recognize the circumstances of your life and to admit to your homosexuality without being obliged to make some immediate response on this issue.
- Remember that the decision to come out is yours. Don’t be guilt-tripped into it by people who think that everyone must come out or by snooping people who ask impertinent questions. You can usually decide when, where, how, and to whom you wish to come out. At this stage in our society, full public declarations about one’s sexuality are not necessarily the best decision for most people.
- Try not to let your family and close friends find out about your gayness from third parties such as neighbors or the media. Try to tell them personally beforehand.
- Whenever you come out, reflect upon the experience and learn from it.
- Never let yourself be pressured into coming out before you are ready. Not by this leaflet. Not by anyone.
- Coming out is one of the most difficult things we do in our lives. It won’t always go well, but most of the time it is a very freeing experience.
After Word: The Politics of Coming Out
In this leaflet we have discussed the educational implications of “coming out” for the non-gay recipients of that information. Coming out also involves our standing up and being counted. Individuals who are struggling to accept their own gay identities have increasingly diverse and visible role models. Stereotypes become less and less convincing as more of us stand out in the crowd. The gay, lesbian and bisexual community, as its numbers become more visible, cannot and will not be written off as a small and freakish sector of this society. Already political leaders in a number of cities have indicated that they see and hear us and desire our votes. Our visibility has moved us closer to the protection of our human rights: the right to fair and equal treatment in our jobs and housing; the right to be ourselves; the right to love whomever we choose; the right o speak the truth; and ultimately the right to live in a free country without fear.
Suggested Reading List
The number of excellent books by and about gay men, lesbians and bisexuals continues to grow. The following are but a few of the publications that you may find helpful as you deal with “coming out” issues:
- Abbott, Sidney and Love, Barbara. Sappho was a Right-On woman. New York: Stein and Day, 1972.
- Altman, Dennis. Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation. New York: Dutton, 1971.
- Berzon, Betty and Leighton, Robert. Positively Gay. Millibrae Celestial Arts, 1979.
- Clark, Don. Loving someone gay. Millibrae: Celestial Arts, 1977.
- Fairchild, Betty and Howard, Nancy. Now that you know: What every parent should know about homosexuality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
- Gearhart, Sally and Johnson, William H. Loving women, Loving men: Gay liberation and the church. San Francisco: Glide, 1974.
- Hanckel, Frances and Cunningham, John. A way of love, a way of life. A young persons introduction to what it means to be gay. New York: Lothrop Lee and Sheppard, 1979.
- Jay, Karla and Young, Allen. After you’re out. New York: BJ Publishing group, 1977. (In the FLAG library)
- Jay, Karla and Young, Allen. Out of the closets, voices of gay liberation. New York: BJ Publishing group, 1977.
- Jay, Karla and Young, Allen. The gay report. New York: Summit Books, 1979.
- Jones, Clinton R. Understanding gay relatives and friends. New York: Seabury, 1978.
- Martin, Del and Lyon, Phyllis. Lesbian/Woman. New York: Bantam, 1972.
- McNeil, John S.J. The church and the homosexual. Mission: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976.
- Mollenkott, Virginia R. and Scanzoni, Letha. Is the homosexual my neighbour? Another Christian view. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.
- Vida, Ginny. Our right to Love; a lesbian resource book. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1978.
This pamphlet was modified from:
Coming Out, R. Adam De Baugh, Metropolitan Community Church
About Coming Out, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
About Coming Out, Gays for Equality, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
This pamphlet is one of a series produced by Fredericton Lesbians and Gays – for more information, or copies of other pamphlets in this series, contact:
P. O. Box 1556,
Station A, Fredericton, NB, E3B 5G2
Last updated 4.1.1996 by James Whitehead