Created | Updated Aug 19, 2015
Descriptors for Sexual Minorities | Asexuality | Homosexuality
Heterosexuality | Bisexuality | Polyamory | The Kinsey Scale | The Gender Pronoun Game | Coming Out
Embarrassing Questions About Sexual Orientation | Going Back In - Sexuality U-turns
Coming out is the practice of telling other people that your sexual orientation is homosexual or bisexual. This is a perhaps ironic twist to the increasingly defunct term 'coming out' to describe the practice among upper class females of making a public debut to their rich peers and potential mates by attending various dances and social functions in extravagant dress.
The term to describe bouts of queer honesty was originally qualified as 'coming out of the closet'. The theory was that queer people were hiding their sexual orientation to such an extent that their own families didn't know what was really going on. Thus, the truth had been stuffed into the family closet. Coming out, then, was a symbolic emergence from self-censorship that allowed the queer person to emerge from a life of hypocrisy and lies into a more honest and self-fulfilled mode of living.
Later on, it was understood that many queer people were not consciously trying to hide in any 'closet'. They were simply victims to the fact that most societies assume everyone's sexual orientation is heterosexual. The shorter phrase 'coming out' was meant to better reflect that social mores force queer people to either remain closeted part of the time or endlessly burden themselves correcting false expectations. The traditional debutante's 'coming out' has become far less popular now that the phrase is associated with homosexuality.
The phrase 'coming out' has become such a mainstay of of modern English that it even has a secondary definition. All sorts of people with secret identities or hobbies are said to be 'coming out' these days. They can also be 'outed,' which means that someone else has revealed the truth about them. Philanderers, embarrassed collectors of Barbie dolls, and even secret service agents can be 'closeted' or 'outed' without their sexual orientation necessarily being involved at all.
This rest of this entry includes various useful pieces of advice related to the homosexual/bisexual version of coming out.
A Straight Person's Guide to Coming Out
It is common for straight people to feel shocked or angry when the first person comes out to them. It is normal to feel that way. However, sociological surveys have shown that prejudice lessens when you know more openly gay people. The magic number seems to be three. Once three people have come out to you, you'll probably be as used to it as you ever will.
The probable reason for this is that someone with no first-hand knowledge will tend to rely on stereotypes. And these days, the stereotypes for homosexual people are pretty unflattering. In fact, almost any real human being will demonstrate a healthier image. After several flesh-and-blood examples of homosexuality, most intelligent straight people will conclude that the stereotypes are false, or at least wildly misleading. That's why it's easier to be less prejudiced.
The most important thing to remember is that the person coming out to you is exactly the same person they were yesterday. Your perception of them may have changed, but the person has not. If you felt they were funny or smart or strong before, then they still are. You just need to sift through your perceptions and figure out which of these are based on your own experiences and which are based on stereotypes. Remember that you can trust own experiences more than any outside source.
Similarly, it may help to remember that you are the same person you were yesterday, too. The fact that someone has come out to you doesn't make you gay. Nor is it a reflection (bad or good) about your personal value system. There is no reason to react defensively about the news, since it doesn't change who you are in any way.
This is especially hard to remember when a family member is coming out to you. Studies show that homosexuality is not the result of bad parenting, and that it does not 'run in families'. Rather, homosexuality and bisexuality seem to occur with equal frequency in all sorts of families of every ethnicity, financial status and education level. So while you may be tempted to take the news personally, you must try to view it within a broader social context. After all, every gay and bisexual person out there came out to their family once.
Another good thing to remember is that the person coming out to you is taking a tremendous risk. They know you could reject them, or even hurt them. They must trust you a good deal to open themselves to the worst. Probably, they are doing it because they believe that coming out will help you understand them better, allowing the two of you to have a more mutually honest relationship. To them, your assumption that they are straight probably feels like a barrier that prevents them from getting very close to you.
Try to avoid attacking or insulting the person. It may make you feel better for a minute, but you'll probably regret it later. If you feel a need to express disapproval, remember that they probably won't listen to your concerns if you aren't calm and rational. If it helps, know that you do not need to respond right away. It is okay to think things over before giving a reply. Simply make it clear that you heard what was said. Tell them you are not angry, and that you will get back to them about it later.
Please don't tell the person it is 'no big deal'. To them, it probably is a big deal. Otherwise, they wouldn't have bothered. So your attempt at a super calm reaction may come across as uncaring or ignorant. Also, don't try to hook up the newly out person with someone of their gender right away. Understand that most gay people (just like most straight people) don't need their friends or family to act like a dating service. And anyway, the person may not be ready to date or they may already be in a relationship.
If you feel you can, thank the person for coming out to you. It may feel strange, especially if the news was unwelcome. But hey, the alternative being was kept in the dark while the person pursued their alternative lifestyle anyway. At least this way they are being honest.
Once someone has come out to you, it is considered polite to stop using rude epithets based on sexual orientation in their presence. Remember that those insults now describe them in addition to whoever you're trying to insult. You may not even realise how harsh those words are. If you don't know where those insults come from, see Descriptors for Sexual Minorities for more information.
It is possible to out someone who is gay or bisexual, meaning you have given out their sexual orientation against their wishes. This may be done with willful malice, based on a dislike of the outee or their orientation. It is also possible to accidentally out someone. They may, for instance, be comfortable letting their friends know they are gay. But they may have a justifiable reason to keep their orientation a secret at work.
Outing someone on purpose is generally considered rude. Some people who have gleefully been the outer were later ashamed when their action caused the outee to be beaten, fired, raped, or something else awful that was never intended. It is far, far better to bite your tongue than to deal with the sort of lifelong regret this can cause.
If you are unsure whether someone is okay with you telling a third party about their orientation, don't do it. Wait until you get a chance to ask whether it is okay. This can be hard. But just think - gay and bisexual people have to do it all the time! You can probably handle it for just a little while, until you're sure it's okay.
Every now and then, someone will lie and tell you somebody is gay. This is usually a cheap attempt to discredit an enemy. In the worst case scenario, the lie will get repeated all over the place, the sad result of school or office gossip run amok.
Needless to say, these lies are highly unethical. A straight person who is perceived to be gay can fall victim to the same (sometimes violent) discrimination as a person who is really gay. They also risk losing any romantic relationship or dating opportunities they may have. Passing on such a rumour without question is also unethical for the same reasons.
The best way to react to a rumour (unfounded or not) is to not react to it. Just ignore the person who is trying to titillate you with their juicy story. As far as dirty little secrets go, homosexuality is pretty boring.
Another possibility is to find out whether the rumour is true. The easiest way is to ask the person, preferably in private. You could be doing them a huge favour if they are unaware of the rumour. After all, they can only dispute the rumour if they know it exists.
If you ask and are told that the rumour is true, you'll have the perfect opportunity to offer support. Nobody likes being talked about behind their back, and you've already shown you won't do it. You might gain a friend, or at least some grudging respect.
A Queer Person's Guide To Coming Out
The first person you must come out to is yourself. It often takes until puberty (or beyond) for patterns of love and attraction to make themselves clear. In the meantime, everyone including you will tend to assume you are straight.
At some point, you will consciously realise that your orientation is different than assumed. This can be very difficult if you harbour prejudice against sexual minorities, if your religion holds that all queer people get special punishment, or if the conservative atmosphere around you leads you to believe you are in for a lot of trouble.
A significant proportion of teen suicides occur over sexual orientation. This is a sad example of the coming out process gone horribly awry. Usually, the teens who commit suicide are filled with self-hatred based on prejudice. They may feel ashamed, thinking that they have somehow let down their family or peers. In a few cases, their family atmosphere is so terrible that they fear being beaten or thrown out if anyone learns the truth. Quite often, they feel there is nobody they can talk to about their discovery.
If you feel this way, it is strongly suggested that you call a suicide prevention hotline. Such services are typically very familiar with inner conflicts over sexual orientation. Other options for help include support groups for gay and bisexual youth, close friends who can keep a secret (especially those who are already openly gay or bisexual), and school counsellors or psychologists. In some cases, a local priest or clergyman can help. Unfortunately, this is not a good option if one of the religion's tenets is unequal treatment for sexual minorities.
Once the initial shock and fear wears off, most people become much more comfortable with their orientation. You can start to banish your own internal prejudices by recognizing that you are the same person now that you were before. The true breakthrough finally comes when you realise that you are ready to tell other people the truth. You may even feel compelled to do so because it seems you are otherwise complicit in a huge lie.
Getting the News Out the First Time
Before long, it becomes clear that there are an awful lot of people you could potentially tell. There are family members ranging from immediate to distant, close friends, acquaintances, schoolmates and/or co-workers. Even complete strangers walking down the street are harbouring mistaken assumptions! It can seem like an impossible task to come out to everyone.
It helps to be realistic. Does the person behind the counter really need to know that you are gay? They're just trying to serve you coffee, after all. It's not like they're going to serve you coffee any differently if you are gay. When you think about it, most people you meet casually don't need to know your sexual orientation. In fact, it is sometimes considered rude to blurt out the fact that you are gay to someone you don't know.
The grey area comes somewhere between the nameless bit-part actors in our lives and the wildly important figures that compose our family and close network of friends. Should a teacher or boss know you are gay? How about a co-worker you see every day, but with whom you don't usually discuss personal matters? And what if you do discuss personal matters with that co-worker?
In the end, it becomes a judgment call. Part of the initial coming out process is learning where you stand in this continuum between closeted and openly gay or bisexual. Are you the type to wear a pink triangle on your sleeve? Or are you the type whose parents don't even know? Most queer people find they fit somewhere in between.
Once this judgment call is made, the process of coming out to others can begin. A common recommendation is to come out to the more tolerant people first. That way, you reduce the chances that you will get stuck with a particularly harsh reaction when you have nobody around to lend you emotional support. Some people also recommend telling casual friends or acquaintances first, since a rejection from them won't feel as bad and any support at all feels good. Particularly prejudiced people should be told last. It's just possible that they will behave themselves if they find they are surrounded by people who already know and don't mind.
If you're not sure who is tolerant and who is not, you can test the waters by bringing up subjects like gay rights, queer musicians or famous gay and bisexual people in the past or present. Don't overdo it, though. The person you are trying to gauge may eventually guess what you are up to. Judging how people will react to your coming out based on their responses to such probing questions can be a fine art. After all, a person who doesn't care for Elton John might just prefer rap music.
Once you begin telling people, there is an immediate risk that the information will leak elsewhere. If you are not ready to discuss the truth with someone who reacts angrily, then you should spend some time steeling your nerves. It often helps to visualise what you would say if you were confronted by various people.
Coming Out to Your Parents
For most people, this is the most difficult coming out of all. And there are two very good reasons for this.
First, parents have an emotional stake in their child's well-being that other people don't have. They may worry that they did something wrong to 'make' their child gay. They will naturally be concerned that their child may experience prejudice that they haven't been prepared for. They may even worry that the odds of their becoming a grandparent suddenly seem much worse. These are all typical concerns. A few parents are even embarrassed or ashamed to have gay children, as if the fact is somehow a poor reflection on them. Because parents have all these concerns on top of the usual ones, they are more likely to react negatively when they are first told.
Second, parents have incredible control over their child's self esteem and well-being. If the child coming out is still a minor, the parents have the power to throw the child to the streets. Some particularly awful parents may feel justified in beating their child, a tragic version of punishing the messenger. If they are ignorant about sexual orientation and think their child has 'chosen' to be gay or bisexual, parents may even try to punish their child in the same way they would punish poor grades or misbehaviour. A few even force their children into an inappropriate disciplinary or ministry programme in the hopes that they will miraculously come out straight.
Luckily, the huge majority of parents in Western society will do none of the above. They may be shocked, and they may need time alone to think. But most parents will soon realise that their love for their child outweighs any other concerns they may have. In the end, most queer youth find that their parents will accept them for who they are and will continue to love them pretty much as always.
Parents sometimes need to be educated about how sexual orientation works and how their view of their child may be distorted by prejudice. PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays) is a very useful organization that can aid you. The non-profit group puts out various helpful brochures and maintains chapters worldwide where parents can meet and talk. Their web site can be a great resource for teens who are coming out to their parents.
Because coming out to your parents is so touchy, it is a good idea to avoid telling them on their anniversary, their birthdays or yours, or during religious holidays. You shouldn't wait too long. It may never seem like exactly the right time. But any time is better than the one that will eventually come - the one where they find out from someone else. If your parents find out before you tell them, you may be put in the uncomfortable situation of having to explain both your orientation and your desire to keep it a secret.
Some children choose the sneaky approach, where they lay the news down right before leaving for college, summer camp, or any other extended absence. Timed correctly, the child can avoid a possible scene by escaping while the parents are still in shock. By the time the child sees the parents again, they will probably be over any initial rush of anger. On the other hand, your parents might also (understandably) feel that they have been made the victim of an underhand trick.
It's Never Really Over
Sometimes, coming out is misunderstood as a one-time-only phenomenon. However, this isn't entirely true. While there is often a large rash of coming out incidents at the beginning, the coming out process then continues for the rest of a gay or bisexual person's life. Coming out must be done again each time you make a new friend, move to a new place, join a new company, and so on.
Over time, some people find they have become more or less willing to come out to others than previously. A young lad with gay symbols blazing openly may slowly turn into a conservative middle-aged wearer of suits who is presumed straight by everyone except close friends and family. Nothing is inherently wrong with either approach.
Most often, such shifts are a natural response to a changing environment. For instance, it is common when moving to a new city to take a while to scope out the area before coming out there. Your openness can also be influenced by your politics and world view. Even your mood can be a factor, as being out makes you a target for prejudice you might rather avoid on bad days. While it is socially forward looking to be out to most of the people around you, there is also a fair argument for being closeted in situations where you would otherwise be denied fundamental rights or opportunities.
In an ideal society, coming out wouldn't be necessary. There would be no assumptions that everyone is straight! We can only speculate on what that would be like. In the meanwhile, coming out is a socially messy but important process for gay and bisexual people to help them live honestly and well with those who matter to them.