Sexuality is a very personal matter and ‘coming out’ – telling others you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning or ace (LGBTQ+) – can be daunting.
Though attitudes continue to improve, it can still be an understandably frightening time – both making a statement about yourself and anticipating the reaction of others.
However, sexuality is diverse and fluid. Many people question their own sexuality and wish to make sense of it. Coming out can be a liberating experience which enable you to live a happy and authentic life.
What is ‘coming out’?
The phrase ‘coming out’ is shortened from ‘coming out of the closet’, a saying which comes from a time when same-sex relationships had to be conducted in private for fear of persecution.
Coming out is telling those around you – your friends, family, fellow students, colleagues and anyone else who matters – about your sexuality.
Rather like the regular use of the phrase itself, society is increasingly more understanding and accepting of coming out. However, it’s natural to be nervous and anxious about how some people may react.
You’re not alone
Understanding your sexuality and whether to tell others can feel like a lonely experience.
In the 1860’s, a German lawyer published a number of pamphlets on why sex between people of the same gender – then illegal – should be decriminalised. In doing so, he publicly announced he too had relationships with other men.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs is said to be not only one of the first pioneers of gay rights, but one of the first people to ever publicly come out!
Since then, many people have felt empowered to share their sexuality with friends, family and even the public – in the case of sports people, politicians, entertainers and others from every conceivable walk of life.
Though old-fashioned views and reactions sadly do still exist, today, many people who come out find people more accepting and welcoming than they might anticipate. Sometimes it just needs a little time.
Though it can still be a difficult process, Karl Henrich Ulrich paved the way for many people to simply accept other’s sexuality with respect and kindness.
Telling others about your sexuality
Sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity are very personal.
Some people feel it is important to define themselves. Others would rather keep such things to themselves or avoid a specific label.
Telling other people about your sexuality is entirely your choice.
For some, telling others you are anything other than straight is a difficult process. For others, it isn’t an issue at all. Much can depend on the views of their family and friends.
You should never feel any pressure to come out or justify your sexuality. Tell people if and when you’re ready.
How do you ‘come out’?
There is no ‘right’ way to come out. It’s something unique to each individual and people face different challenges.
Coming out often happens over time. Rather than a single event, it may include conversations with those closest to you, before sharing the news more widely. However, some people prefer to tell everybody at once, for example by social media or at a gathering of family or friends.
You might feel comfortable being open about your sexual orientation and gender identity with certain groups – such as friends or colleagues – but be reluctant to be quite so open with others – for example, family or your employer.
Some people will welcome the news immediately and be happy that you’re happy. Others might take a little longer to process the news or be less positive.
It’s important to think about how you want to tell people and how the conversation might go – but try not to over think it or make it seem too scary.
Though there can be challenges, most people find coming out incredibly liberating and it gives them the freedom to live their life authentically and happily.
Why come out?
If you feel your sexually is somehow different to what others might expect, you may want to tell them. Or, you may not. It’s entirely your choice.
If you’re struggling to understand or define your own sexual orientation (or gender identity), it can be difficult to deal with on your own. Talking to others is often the best way to make sense of your feelings.
Hiding your sexuality often means pretending to be something you aren’t, which can be exhausting and consume your life.
You might want to come out because you think the experience will be liberating, empowering and something to be proud of.
You may want to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, be free to find a new partner – or be itching to introduce others to the great new partner you’ve found!
Everyone’s motivation is different. There are not right or wrong reasons.
Picking the ideal time to come out can be hard. Many people who have come out say there is no ‘right’ time and you should simply do it when you’re ready and feel courageous enough to do so.
What will my friends say?
Your friends might be surprised, have lots of questions, not know what to say or may have guessed already!
It’s natural they will have questions. ‘Why?’, ‘how do you know?’ or ‘how can I support you?’ are common. Give some thought to what you might say, but don’t be afraid to admit you’re unsure. Coming out is typically a very important step which leads to better understanding of your own sexuality.
If a friend reacts badly, give them time. It’s probably just a shock or misdirected concern for your wellbeing.
You may choose to test out your news on a close or understanding friend first before telling others.
How do I tell my family?
Lots of people worry about how their family will react when they come out.
Everyone hopes their family will be understanding. On the flip side, it’s also worth understanding it may be a shock to them too. It may take time for them to adjust to the news.
Try to tell them at a time when you will be able to talk things through without other pressures. Try not to come out when you’re arguing or angry.
If telling someone face-to-face is hard you might choose to write them a letter or email.
Your family might initially be shocked, worried or find it difficult to accept. But remember, their first reaction isn’t necessarily how they’ll feel forever.
If they’re upset, it’s OK to end the conversation and give them space. It may have taken you months or even years to understand your sexuality, so they too may need time.
Coming out at work
Choosing to tell your colleagues is exactly that, your choice.
Many people find being open with their colleagues helps them be themselves and perform better at work. Others may feel their sexuality is irrelevant and wish to keep it private.
It’s in your employer’s best interests to be supportive and understanding. They should want you to be open and honest at work.
Some larger employers have staff networks which you can join for support and others in your workplace may have had similar experiences. Again, give your close colleagues a little time to process the news, if they need it.
If you experience a negative reaction there are legal protections on your side.
The Equality Act 2010 bans discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender reassignment (gender identity) in employment.
If you feel you are being treated differently or unfairly, use your employers’ complaints process or speak to Citizens Advice for support.