Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
By: José Ramirez, LMHC
Take a peek inside the closet, what’s inside may shock you.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have to share your deepest, darkest secret with your friends and family? Have you ever thought about what it might feel like for someone to read your diary and learn something about you that you had been hiding from the world?
That heart-sinking feeling you just felt is exactly what an LGBTQ+ person feels over and over again when they begin their coming out journey. This article will walk you through the ins and out of coming out. Most of the information in this coming out series is not known by many non-LGBTQ+ people but it’s information that your LGBTQ+ loved ones wished you knew.
The experience of coming out is something that most LGBTQ+ individuals share. Whether at a dinner party, a gathering, or simply meeting new friends the conversation often turns to coming out stories. There is a sense of commiseration in sharing these stories. Stories can range from funny to downright tragic, but regardless of the specifics, the common theme always seems to be how anxious the person felt leading up to it.
The most common emotion people express feeling leading up to coming out is fear. Fear that they will be rejected, fear that this will go badly, fear that they will end up alone, even fear for their lives. This fear can be so overwhelming that it can even prevent a person from ever coming out. Here are a few myths about coming out.
MYTH: Coming out is a one-and-done process.
Coming out is a process, it’s not linear, it’s not one and done.
Think about it, an LGBTQ+ person doesn’t just declare, “I’m gay!”, and magically everything is peachy keen (although that would be nice). Rather, people who identify as LGBTQ+ have to come out to their families, friends, coworkers, anytime they move somewhere new, even at parties when meeting new people.
It’s a process that happens over and over again. People often focus on the actual coming out moment and forget that these individuals have struggled with their identity for longer than that. It can be validating to hear, “Wow, that must have been a really hard time for you.”
MYTH: People just decide to come out one day.
The coming out process usually looks like this: the person becomes aware that they may be “different” and with that comes exploring one’s identity. Feeling different can make people feel alienated and ashamed, especially if they are not in a supportive environment.
The next step is accepting one’s identity, but those feelings of underlying shame remain. When the person is finally ready to come out, the feeling of anxiety is often overwhelming. For many people, this is one of the hardest things they will ever go through, and that anxiety and shame can be debilitating and have lasting effects on mental health and interpersonal relationships. People typically battle with the decision of when to come out for many years, it’s not random or all of a sudden.
MYTH: Once a person comes out all their anxiety is resolved.
If a person is accepted for who they are when they come out, eventually, the negative feelings are resolved. A person with this experience will eventually value their identity. However, if a person is rejected upon coming out, those negative feelings are reinforced and become so much harder to manage. It’s when this happens that people often have struggled with their mental health.
People who carry around this shame and anxiety about their identity often have very difficult times in relationships. That is not to say that someone who experienced rejection when coming out cannot be proud or value who they are, they can, but anytime they are reminded of or have to deal with rejection all the shame and anxiety bubble up to the surface. It’s important to try to resolve this shame because it can lead to self-loathing, poor self-esteem, and even internalized homophobia.
MYTH: Everyone’s coming out experience is the same.
While coming out is a shared experience among members of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s a very unique and individual process. Some of the steps are similar, some of the experiences are common, but how it affects people is unique. Some people may have had experiences that exacerbated their shame, and they may carry it on for years to come, others may have been able to resolve it or work through it in time.
Regardless of their experience, a person is reminded of the initial anxiety they felt when deciding whether to come out or not. Allies should take note of anxiety and be sure to ask about people coming out in a supportive and safe manner, to avoid any re-traumatization.
For allies, this article can be helpful in understanding the ins and outs of coming out. Hopefully, you are able to see how fear and anxiety can play a detrimental role in a person’s coming out story. While coming out experiences may be similar, everyone is unique, and their experiences do shape who they end up becoming.
Thankfully, for people whose experience was less than ideal, there is help out there. Therapy is an excellent place to work out some of the issues that may have come up during the process. Be sure to look for an LGBTQ+ affirmative therapist, they have special training meant to help folx from the community.
Therapy can also be extremely beneficial for a loved one struggling after someone came out, it can also be a wonderful place to learn how to be a better ally, more on that in upcoming articles. For more information on the coming out process, HRC has great resources for individuals as well as friends and family.
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