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"Coming out" is the process through which gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (GLBT) individuals come to terms with their sexual orientation. The coming out process can include learning what it means to be GLBT, accepting it for themselves, and sharing it with others. It also, unfortunately, involves coping with societal responses and attitudes around homosexuality and difference.
The coming out process is very personal; it happens in different ways and at various ages for different people. Some are aware and/or comfortable with their sexuality from an early age, while others may arrive at this awareness later in life and with varying degrees of comfort or self-acceptance.
One's college years are a time where individuals "find themselves" and explore various roles and ways of being. This includes exploring their sexuality, ant those who are struggling with GLBT issues may experience more difficulty than heterosexual students. Because of societal prejudice, heterosexism, an the lack of positive gay role models, GLBT individuals may feel alone and unsure, and they may fear rejection or retaliation.
The reasons that individuals come out are different for everyone, but the similarity is that they want to be honest, both with themselves and with others. Hiding their sexuality means they have to hide major parts of their lives: friends, relationships, activities, interests, etc.
While some individuals choose to come out to others, some choose not to tell others or just tell a few close friends/family. Coming out is a very personal choice and it is up to the individual to decide with whom to share this very information.
Coming out to self
The first "stage" of coming out usually involves recognition and exploration of one's sexual orientation. This can include exploring what it means to be gay, learning more about GLBT issues, and exploring GLBT books/movies/resources. There are potentially a variety of feelings: curiosity, excitement, fear, anger, or denial. A safe way to explore sexual orientation is through reading about how others have dealt with similar experiences. There are many books and periodicals dealing with coming out and GLBT experiences.
Coming out to other GLBT individuals
If one decides they'd like to continue their coming out process with others, doing so with another GLBT person is a good place to start. Other GLBT people are most likely to be supportive, as they have likely had similar experiences. Sharing similar experiences can decrease feelings of isolation and can offer guidance and support. This can include speaking with a friend you know is GLBT, calling a resource number, using a chat room, or attending a GLBT-related group. Coming out to other GLBT people doesn't have to happen quickly; choosing to come out to a GLBT person does not mean that you have to march in the next Gay Pride parade. Individuals should come out on their own terms and timetable, and should not feel pressured into something they're not ready for.
Coming out to others
Perhaps the most difficult step is coming out to non-GLBT friends and family. This is a big step and one should make sure they're ready for it by being clear about their own experience. One of the biggest fears in coming out is that an individual will feel rejected either by those close to you or through societal prejudice and homophobia.
Coming out to others will go more smoothly if the individual is clear about their own feelings and less reliant on others for a positive self-image. When coming out, consider the following:
- plan what to say and how to bring it up. Rehearse with an understanding friend
- choose the time and place carefully. Thanksgiving dinner may no be the best time to come out. Try to pick a time when others would be best able to hear the news.
- present yourself honestly and remind the person you're the same individual you were yesterday.
- give others time to accept this reality. It took a long time, so expect that others may need some time to make sense of it too.
- be prepared for the possibility of a negative reaction.
- have friends lined up to talk with afterward and a good support network in place if the person you're telling might react negatively.
- don't give up hope if you don't get the reaction you wanted. Some people may need more time, while others may be more readily accepting.
- be strong" don't let your self-esteem depend on others' reaction, acceptance or approval. If someone can't accept you, that's their issue and not a reflection of your worth.
- it doesn't have to be "dramatic" or "tragic". If the person you're telling would be receptive, or if you're comfortable, try coming out in a humorous or creative way while still being true to yourself and who you are.
Beyond Coming Out: Experiences of Positive Gay Identity by Kevin Anderson, PhD, 2000.
Positively Gay by Betty Berzun and Barney Frank, 1992 (updated June 2001)
Outing Yourself by Michelangelo Signorile, 1996
Family Outing by Chastity Bono, 1998
Coming out to Parents by Mary V. Borhek, 1993
Straight Parents, Gay Children by Robert Bernstein, 1999
Boys Like Us by Patrick Merla (Ed) 1997
Coming Out: a Handbook for Men by Orland Outland, 2000
Coming Out Through Fire: Surviving Homophobia by Leanne McCall Tigert, 1999
Out and About: Personal Accounts by LGBT College Students Howard & Stevens (Eds), 2000
The Advocate monthly magazine.
QMSU (student support/resource) 994 4551
MSU Women's Center 994 3836
Counseling & Psychological Services 994 4531
Montana Pride (GLBT resource/advocacy)
PO Box 775, Helena, MT 59624 tel 1-800 610 9322.