Disclaimer: In this article, for the sake of simplicity and consistency, we will be using the term “LGBTIA+” as an umbrella term to represent all gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, questioning, and other non-heterosexual orientations. If you would like to learn more, you can read our Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity article. If you need resources or support, you can visit our Resources page.
Some gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, asexual, intersex, and other individuals in the LGBTIA+ community choose to keep their sexual orientation or gender identity a secret, while others choose to “come out” or to reveal their true identity to friends, family, and the public. Coming out is not a one-time experience, rather a lifelong journey. The coming out process is different for everyone and it is meaningful to remember that experiences vary from person to person. While it can be difficulty and stressful, coming out can also be liberating for many individuals and often helps people in the LGBTQIA+ community embrace and take charge of their identities.
What is Coming Out?
The process of publicizing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is often referred to as “coming out of the closet,” or simply “coming out”. Coming out is a multistep process that includes the personal acceptance of identifying as LGBTQIA+, as well as the disclosure of one’s sexual orientation or gender identity to others. The process of coming out can allow an individual to better understand their own identity and help them eventually feel comfortable enough with that identity to share it with others. As coming out is a personal decision, individuals who do decide to come out should do so in their own time.
In their study on the stress associated with the coming out process for the young adult population, French researchers discovered that nearly all of their LGBTQIA+ participants endured stress in at least one of their coming out experiences. Much of this stress came from the fear of hurting a loved one or being rejected by a loved one. Many LGBTQIA+ individuals expect negative reactions from those they come out to, which is a common reason people delay coming out.3Many participants also cited concern for their own welfare as a significant source of stress associated with coming out as people are often unable to predict the reactions of relatives or guardians that have control over critical aspects of their lives, such as how they obtain food and shelter. However, while coming out is often difficult, it can also be a rewarding experience that may allow LGBTQIA+ individuals to live more open and honest lives.
Coming out is often only discussed when referring to sexual orientation and even then, the conversation usually revolves around the small realm of gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals. Coming out also includes coming to terms with and sharing one’s gender identity as well as coming out as asexual or pansexual. While these experiences are often discussed less frequently and there has been less research conducted on them, the individuals who fit into these categories often experience similar feelings as those who come out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
The Steps to Coming Out
Coming out is a process that often involves a variety of steps. It begins with accepting one’s own identity and coming out to oneself. This stage may initially be accompanied by feelings of denial, internalized homophobia, self-hatred, resentment and deep introspection, but often ends in self-acceptance. The process of coming out to others also involves different stages experienced by many LGBTQIA+ individuals. Some distinct steps in the coming out process include:
- Discovery of Terminology: The stage in which a queer individual learns what it means to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
- Exploration and Education: At this stage, the individual realizes that they may identify as queer and tries to learn more about their possible new identity.
- Identity Acceptance: By this point, the individual has resolved most of the questions surrounding their identity and has accepted their place in the LGBTQIA+ community.
- Coming out: This is the stage in which a queer individual begins disclosing their identity to others, usually beginning with loved ones.
- Identity Integration: At this point, individuals integrate their queer identity with other aspects of themselves, so that it becomes one part of their whole identity. This stage often involves the feeling of congruence between one’s public and private selves. 4
These stages are not always linear and may not all be experienced by every queer-identifying individual, as all coming out experiences are unique. However, these steps are common in the coming out journeys of many LGBTQIA+ individuals. People decide whether or not to come out for a variety of reasons, which are all valid. When considering coming out, it can be helpful to consider two key factors: audience and timing.
Who is Your Audience?
One of the first considerations individuals often think about when deciding to come out is who they will come out to. Some people choose to tell close family members initially, such as including parents and siblings, because it can be comforting to rely on familial love and support. For some individuals, this may entail disclosing their identity to siblings before parents. Individuals who choose to come out to their siblings first often do so to “test the waters”, or to try to gauge how their parents will react. Therefore, siblings’ reactions are often vital to people’s coming out experiences. In instances where the siblings’ reactions are favorable, the LGBTQIA+ individual may have more confidence and support when coming out to their parents.1
Others may choose to first come out to trusted and intimate friends, in hopes that they will be understanding and supportive of the discloser’s decision. This can also include disclosure of identity to a group of anonymous friends, through channels such as online groups and message boards. These spaces foster a sense of community for many queer individuals who may feel alone in their coming out journey. Individuals often visit these sites before and after coming out to feel connected to a group after an undesirable outcome or reaction to them coming out. 2
However, every experience is different and one should tailor how they come out to what is most comfortable and what makes the most sense for them. It is not easy to predict how a person will react to someone in their life coming out. For some individuals, the people around them are very accepting, but unfortunately, others receive negative reactions to their coming out, even from loved ones. The first time an individual comes out to another person can be critical to whether or not they continue the process. Coming out can have a variety of ramifications depending on an individual’s situation, which is why many people consider their audience in their decision to come out.
In many situations, timing can have a large effect on the process of coming out, and may ease this process for some individuals. For example, if an individual is financially reliant on their family, they may choose to wait until they are financially independent before coming out to their relatives. This allows for the individual’s safety and security to be protected before deciding to come out to their family.
When considering coming out, it is meaningful to remember that there is no “right” time or age to do so. Member of the LGBTQIA+ community come out at all stages of life, depending on individual preferences and circumstances. A study from Britain revealed that for queer individuals over the age of 60, the average of coming out was 37 years old. For individuals in their 30s, the average age of coming out was 21 year: and for people aged 18 to 24, the average age of coming out was 17 years old.6 These results illustrate that every person’s coming out experience follows a different sequence and that it is normal and acceptable to come out at any point in life.
Another concern to consider when figuring out the timing of coming out, is the safety and legality of revealing one’s gender identity or sexual orientation in the region they reside. This is because there are laws against homosexuality with harsh consequences in many countries. In other places, it may be unsafe to publicly identify as transgender —or nonbinary— because of high rates of violence against these groups. This is why it can be worthwhile to consider one’s personal safety in timing their coming out as well.
The right timing is different for all individuals who come out, and is dependent on their own personal situations and beliefs. Although the timing may be right for the individual, rejection by loved ones is still a possibility. Fortunately, there are many resources available to individuals who undergo these and other negative experiences related to coming out.
There are many resources available for individuals going through the process of coming out. The following is a list of links provided by the CDC for LGBQT youth and allies:7
- Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Teens: Facts for Teens and Their Parents
- Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN): Student Action
- Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Network
- It Gets Better Project
- StopBullying.gov: Information for LGBT Youth
- The Trevor Project: Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention
- The Ali Forney Center
Below is a list of mental health organizations for queer indivuals:8
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
- The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association
- The Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists
Below is a list of resources for online queer support groups:8
These resources are available to queer individuals in any stage of the coming out process.
It is meaningful for anyone considering coming out to remember that they have a right to their own body, mind, gender identity, and sexuality. LGBTQIA+ individuals have the freedom to express their sexual identity just the same as anyone else, and this right cannot be taken away from any person. Although others may not always be supportive of their loved one coming out, no one should feel ashamed or apologetic for living an open an authentic life. However, individuals often do feel isolated during the coming out process due to a lack of support, This is an extremely common feeling and no one experiencing difficulty with coming out is ever alone in their struggle, there are numerous support groups and hotlines that are designed to help queer people through tough situations, many of which are listed above. Despite the difficulties that accompany coming out for many individuals, it is an undeniably brave step to take and anyone who chooses to do so should pride themselves on their courage and honesty.
Once again, LGBTQIA+ individuals should only come out if they feel comfortable and ready to do so. Although it may be difficult, the experience has been positive and life changing. For many queer individuals, as coming out can allow people to be their true, authentic selves. In addition, everyone comes out in a different manner, and there is no right way or time to do so. However, it may ease some of the stress associated with the experience of coming out to determine the best audience and timing, both of which will be different for everyone. While coming out can be very freeing for LGBTQIA+ individuals, there is a large support system within the LGBTQIA+ community to turn to whether an individual ultimately decides to come out or not..
- Bergfeld, J., Cerezo, A., Haxhe, S. & Walloch, J. (2017): Siblings and the Coming-Out Process: A Comparative Case Study, Journal of Homosexuality, DOI: 10.1080/00918369.2017.1321349
- Brubaker, J., Dym, B., Fiesler, C. & Semaan, B. 2019. “Coming Out Okay”: Community Narratives for LGBTQ Identity Recovery Work. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 3, CSCW, Article 154 (November 2019), 28 pages. DOI: 10.1145/3359256
- Elodie C. & Pierluigi G. (2016). The stress associated with the coming out process in the young adult population, Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 20:4, 319-328, DOI: 10.1080/19359705.2016.1182957
- Greenberg, J. S., Bruess, C. E., & Oswalt, S. B. (2017). Exploring the dimensions of human sexuality. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
- Robbins, N., Low, K. & Query, A. (2016) A Qualitative Exploration of the “Coming Out” Process for Asexual Individuals. Arch Sex Behav. 45, 751–760. DOI: 10.1007/s10508-015-0561
- Williams, R. “People coming out as gay at younger age, research shows.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 15 Nov. 2010. Web.
Last Updated: 4 March 2021.