The phrase “coming out” is generally used in reference to the point of time when an individual is embracing their sexual orientation as something other than heterosexual. This is a process that happens both on a personal and social level.
At some point, individuals going through the coming out process take time to acknowledge their personal sexual orientation and accept their identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT). An individual is going through a personal coming out process when they are capable of understanding and embracing their own sexual orientation. For gay males, lesbian women, and bisexuals, one is attracted to others of the same sex on many different levels. For transgendered individuals, a person may feel like, dress, or identify as a member of the opposite gender from their socially assigned gender. Coming out on a personal level is a very important step for any LGBT individual to take towards a positive identity. Coming out to oneself is often the hardest step in the process due to the amount of soul searching and self-acceptance that must be found to be able to personally understand a LGBT identity in the context of heterosexism and other normative pressures.
Coming out also refers to the point of time when a LGBT individual is ready to tell others this intimate detail about themselves. Coming out is an ongoing process for all LGBT individuals. Frequently the risks and difficulties of coming out to friends and family are weighed very heavily due to an underlying fear of rejection and isolation from the people they love. With the notion of heterosexuality being socially more prevalent in society, many individuals that do not identify as heterosexual feel the need to let people know of their orientation. Additionally, the coming out process can be important to someone because the LGBT community is frequently understood as an “invisible population”. Heterosexism, the notion that being heterosexual is innately normal, plays a very large role in our society. Most people are assumed to identify as straight because LGBT individuals are not able to be pinpointed based on their sexuality. Many LGBT individuals feel pressured to let the people around them know they do not identify as heterosexual because societal norms lead us to believe that there are no other options that are acceptable. Often, not sharing this detail leads individuals to fear that they are living a lie and misleading the people close to them about who they really are.
Coming out to oneself and the people a LGBT person is close to is important so the development of a healthy and positive identity can be formed. Coming out can help reduce feelings of isolation and alienation and allow for submersion into support networks with other LGBT people. The process also allows LGBT people to not have to fear living a double life and open up to their friends and family. Most importantly, the coming out process can held lead a gay, lesbian, or transgendered individual to feel more positive about themselves.
The coming out process can be a confusing and scary time to a LGBT individual to go through. Many scholars and researchers have set out to better understand the process leading to the development of a positive LGBT identity. The model of development for a lesbian or gay individual identity created by Vivienne Cass is widely accepted among scholars. While this model was created working with lesbian and gay participants, the process is thought to be similar for bisexual and transgendered individuals.
It is also important to understand that not all LGBT individuals travel through each of these stages, may not fit into any stage at a particular moment in their identity development, or may not travel through stages in a particular order.
The six stages that Cass outlines are-
v Stage 1 - Identity Confusion
Understanding of sexuality on a personal level
Recognizes thoughts and/or behaviors uncharacteristic of heterosexual
Analyzes meaning of thoughts and/or behaviors
Seek information on homosexuality
v Stage 2 - Identity Comparison
Begins to accept potentiality that individual might be homosexual
Understanding and accepting of thoughts and actions as homosexual
Maintain heterosexual identity
Start fearing alienation due to possibility of identifying as non-heterosexual
v Stage 3 - Identity Tolerance
Accepts probability of being homosexual
Seek out company of homosexuals in order to fulfill social, sexual, and emotional needs
Sees contact as a necessity instead of a desire
Tolerance of homosexual identity developed, rather than acceptance
v Stage 4 - Identity Acceptance
Full acceptance of homosexual identity
Increased contact with homosexual subculture
Gradual development of homosexual network of friends
Selective disclosure to others about sexual identity
v Stage 5 - Identity Pride
Feeling of pride towards homosexual identity and loyalty to homosexual subculture
Development of anger towards non-homosexual identities and homosexual inequality
Promote equality of homosexuals
Disclosure to family and/or coworkers
v Stage 6 - Identity Synthesis
Homosexual identity integrated with heterosexual counterparts
Anger towards heterosexual identity gives way to understanding of differences
Homosexuality no longer viewed as the identity that characterizes individual
Homosexual identity is no longer hidden, willingness to disclose identity to all
Identity Model information adapted from “Homosexual Identity Formation: A Theoretical Model” by Vivienne C. Cass [Journal of Homosexuality – Vol 4 (3). Spring 1979]
1. Relationship to the loved one
- How will coming out improve this relationship?
- How might coming out strain this relationship?
- What will be obstacles for this person to accept your sexual orientation?
- What internal resources does this person have to cope with these obstacles?
- What are the pros and cons of coming out to them at this moment?
- Could there be any financial ramifications of coming out? Can you afford to deal with those ramifications at this time?
- Given your current internal and external resources, is this the best time to come out for you?
- Where will the person feel most comfortable hearing this news?
- Where will they feel the least attacked, put-on-the-spot, or humiliated?
- Where will you feel the most comfortable?
- What will you do after coming out?
- Is there a person you can talk with afterward?
- What are your internal and external resources?
5. Support for person coming out
- What kinds of support do you need for your coming out to be a positive experience?
- Do you have a safe person(s) to talk with?
- What might you say in order to come out? What order might you say it in? How can you prepare for any issues (especially negative reactions) you can anticipate arising during the conversation?
“Questions to Consider” provided with permissions from the UIUC LGBT Resource Center.