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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.

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 while 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. Transgender individuals 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. Individuals are trying to grasp what a LGBT identity in the context of heterosexism and other normative pressures will mean.

Coming out also refers to the point of time when a LGBT individual is ready to tell others this intimate detail. Coming out is an ongoing process for all LGBT individuals. The risks and difficulties of coming out to friends and family are weighed very heavily because of an underlying fear of rejection and isolation from the people they love.

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 assume that others identify as heterosexual because LGBT individuals cannot be superficially identified. 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. Not sharing an LGBT identity status may lead 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 those people important to a LGBT person is important for the development of a positive identity. 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 Cass Model of Identity Development

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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]

Questions to Consider When Coming Out to a Loved One

  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?
  2. Timing
    • 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?
  3. Location
    • 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?
  4. Resources
    • 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?

Resources for Coming Out