In the closet? Got one foot out the closet? Or are you completely out and proud? Whether in or out the proverbial closet, each of us are confronted by the issue of ‘coming out’ at some point, to our friends, family, co-workers, doctor, neighbour etc. ‘Coming out’ simply means being open about who we are with ourselves and with others – even when it isn’t easy. For many, the thought of ‘coming out’ can be a terrifying experience, especially if from a conservative and deeply religious background (see risks below). But the good news is that most gay men ‘come out’ quite successfully and receive more acceptance than they ever anticipated (see benefits below). Ultimately, the choice to ‘come out’ is an individual one that is based on a careful consideration of the risks and benefits to you personally. It is important to know that ‘coming out’ is a process and not a once-off event. Gay men are thus constantly confronted by the question of whether to ‘come out’ to a particular person. There are a few suggestions to help you in this process (see suggestions below).
The Risks of ‘Coming Out’
- Not everyone will be understanding or accepting.
- Family, friends or co-workers may be shocked, confused or even hostile.
- Some relationship may permanently change or end.
- We may experience harassment or discrimination.
- Some young people, especially those under 18 or financially dependent on others, may be thrown out of their homes or lose financial support from parents.
The Benefits of ‘Coming Out’
- Living an open and integrated (whole) life.
- Developing closer, more genuine relationships.
- Building self-esteem from being known and loved for who we really are.
- Reducing the stress of hiding our identity or living a double life.
- Connecting with others who are gay.
- Being part of a strong and vibrant community.
- Helping to dispel myths and stereotypes about who LGBT people are and what our lives are like.
- Becoming a role model for others.
- Making it easier for younger LGBT people who will follow in our footsteps.
Suggestions for ‘Coming Out’
- Safety first. It is extremely critical for you to consider your own safety first before ‘coming out’.
- Timing is important. It is very important to consider when and where you plan to come out.
- Take your time. When deciding to ‘come out’ it is advisable to take some time to become secure with your identity, to identify suitable people to ‘come out’ to, and to carefully consider the possible consequences of ‘coming out’ to these people. Being true to yourself is a great thing, but you need to be realistic about your environment.
- Choose the right person. When choosing whom to ‘come out’ to first, it is important that you select someone whom you can trust, and is supportive. This person must be able to respect your privacy and show an appreciation for your safety. He or she should be the least likely to be shocked, threatened or put off by your ‘revelation’. You need someone who is a good listener, and is non-judgemental.
- Test the waters. It is often better that you test the waters first by ‘coming out’ to a supportive teacher, colleague or close friend before talking to your parents. This will provide you with good practice for what you will want to say and how you will handle negative feedback. It is also preferable to test the waters by seeing what people’s general opinions of gay and lesbian people are before you disclose to them. See how they feel about gay and lesbian developments that have been given media coverage. This is often helpful in terms of giving you an idea of their feelings and opinions before actually telling them about yourself.
- Be prepared for questions. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions. It is therefore advisable for you to consider how much information you already have, how much you still need, and how much you are willing to share. Try to think of all the possible questions you might be asked, and then try to think of all the possible answers to these questions.
- Be prepared for emotional responses. It is important for you to keep in mind that there is no way you can guess the exact responses your family, friends or colleagues will give you. There are a variety of responses, which may range from shock, anger, sadness, guilt and denial to acceptance, curiosity, support, understanding and love. It is often the case that the family may also experience a process of coming out themselves, in the sense that they have to let their friends and other family members know. This is a very difficult process for the family. Keeping this in mind, you should try to be realistic about the reactions you may encounter. You need to decide for yourself whether you will be able to handle the different responses you may encounter. It might be advisable to consult with a counsellor who might be able to assist them in the process of acceptance.
- Be aware of subversive tactics. You should be aware that some negative reactions are often attempts to make you get back into the closet. Examples include: “Look how you are hurting me”, “You are only doing this to hurt me”, and “Do you know what this is doing to us?”. You should make it clear that you are not doing this to hurt anyone. You are simply doing this because of the hurt you feel by having to hide and be what you are not. The intention is not to cause pain but rather to bring about healing.
- Practice and rehearse. It is advisable that you prepare yourself adequately before you come out to someone. You need to prepare yourself for what you want to say, how you will respond to questions or negative reactions, and how you will conduct yourself if your safety becomes an issue. Psychologists often recommend rehearsing in front of the mirror or with a counsellor. This activity provides you with an excellent opportunity to physically prepare yourself on how you want to conduct your disclosure. This also brings about preparation through repetition. You should also realise that the questioning you encounter can be extremely stressful, especially when you feel the need to defend or justify yourself to those people closest to you.
- Be clear. It might also be advisable for you to make it clear to your friends and family that you are gay that this is not going to change. You need to make it clear that this is not just a phase. The reason for this is that if the person you are disclosing to gets the feeling that there might be a possibility of change, they will not accept your sexual orientation and will keep hoping for change. Make it clear that you have been through a process of self-questioning and you are now at a place where you are able to share your self-knowledge with others.
- Be OK if things don’t go according to plan. If your disclosure does not go according to plan, you should not take it personally and see it as a failure. Do not be too harsh or too critical on yourself. Sometimes we have to admit to ourselves that we don’t always have control over everything.
- Chat to a professional. If you do not know someone you can safely come out to, you should then consider talking to a school counselor, a gay-friendly therapist, or a trained counselor at a gay and lesbian organisation.
- Get support if necessary. Do not be afraid to access and make use of support and legal services should the need ever arise. Support groups can serve to reduce anxiety and reduce feelings of isolation. On the other hand, legal advice could be sought to understand and enforce one’s rights.