Founded 30 years ago by Dr. Robert Eichberg and LGBTQ activist Jean O’Leary, the first official National Coming Out Day was celebrated exactly one year after the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington. Its goal was simple: become visible. And, since its inception, LGBTQ people from across all identities and walks of life have chosen to take a stand on Oct. 11 and speak their truths.
“Most people think they don’t know anyone gay or lesbian, and in fact everybody does,” was the quote used in Eichberg’s 1993 New York Times obituary. “It is imperative that we come out and let people know who we are and disabuse them of their fears and stereotypes.”
And much of what Eichberg said decades ago still holds true. According to statistics from Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ organization, “one out of every two Americans has someone close to them who is gay or lesbian.” For transgender people, “that number is only one in 10.”
However, HRC cites perhaps one of the most important factors of coming out as increasing awareness and understanding of the LGBTQ community across the U.S. and potentially raising those statistics.
“Coming out – whether it is as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or allied – STILL MATTERS,” read the HRC website. “When people know someone who is LGBTQ, they are far more likely to support equality under the law. Beyond that, our stories can be powerful to each other.”
And in fact, Pew Research Center reports that in the past decade alone, 92 percent of surveyed LGBT adults have said that society has become more accepting toward the LGBTQ community as a whole, and it stands to get even more accepting in the future. Because of this, rates of people who come out, whatever their identity, have been on the rise and the ages of those who do have been getting younger. In a study published at American Friends of Tel Aviv University Dr. Guy Shilo reports that “in 1991, the average coming-out age was 25. But as of 2010, he notes, it is 16 years old — a dramatic shift.”
However, although coming out has become more frequent and become more popular among those in a younger age bracket, it’s still a difficult obstacle for many to overcome. To help those who might want to use this year’s Oct. 11 as their platform to come out, BTL spoke with three Michigan-based psychotherapists who each work with LGBTQ clients and have helped them through the process: Matt Sweet, Christine Cantrell and Joe Kort. Here are five tips to make the process smoother:
1.) Find Other Coming Out Stories
Often the most difficult part of coming out is not knowing when to begin. According to Kort, one of the first things he tells his clients who are considering coming out is to do some research before planning to tell anyone.
“I recommend reading coming out stories online to see if they can find one that’s best for them,” Kort said. “And it’s really individual, so don’t think your story is going to match another person’s.”
Sweet also encourages clients to do so. He recommends watching videos of those who have come out and posted about it online, too.
“YouTube is a great resource in 2018 of people coming out of the closet and talking about their stories,” Sweet said. “There are books out there and websites that are dedicated to that just to get the idea of people doing this.”
2.) Rehearse Your Message
Sweet said that after one looks through several coming out stories it’ll be easier to plan one’s own. However, as uncomfortable as the process might be, he said that practicing what one should say when coming out is a valuable tool.
“A lot of times when we come out of the closet we feel really emotionally activated,” Sweet said. “It’s better to have something that we’ve rehearsed rather than have something we come up with. This is something that, particularly with first disclosures — telling, for example, parents or an employer or something like that where it’s going to have an impact — we want to make sure that it’s done in a way that’s healthy, in the best way possible. Take your time, it’s not a rush, there’s no race to come out of the closet.”
3.) Plan for All Responses
A frequent and unfortunate result of coming out is that reactions aren’t always positive. Cantrell said that many of her older clients not only have to contend with the reaction of their friends, co-workers and parents, but they often have to consider how an existing partner or their children might feel and react.
“People who are older and who have not come out and have been in a traditional heterosexual marriage, often have adult children and often have a persona in society and in their social circles that seems fixed,” she said. “The idea of falling in love with someone who is the same sex interrupts the marriage, interrupts the family and is really traumatic.”
Cantrell added that custody issues, intolerant spouses and colleagues are a few outcomes to prepare for before taking steps to come out. On that point, Sweet added that while those are important issues to consider, it’s important not to blame oneself for a negative response.
“We never really know how someone is going to react,” Sweet said. “One of the things that I remind people is that, usually by the time we are ready to come out of the closet, we’ve already done some pretty significant work in coming to terms with our own identity, but it’s entirely possible that the other person has not and they’re not prepared for that at all. That’s why we’re coming out to them and they don’t yet know, and they’re starting from ground zero. So, sometimes it just takes some effort and some time to sort of come around so to speak.”
4.) Find a Support Group
All three professionals recommended that finding a strong support group — whether it be friends, supportive family, co-workers or group meetings — is vital to a smooth coming out process. It can be difficult to transition from a private identity to one that is fully public especially in the case of young people.
“Don’t think your story is going to match another person’s,” Kort said. “(For students I recommend they) go to their school counselor immediately so they can tell them what happened. What I have seen, is that most any school counselor has been trained in dealing with this. Also, they should go to their GSA group if they have that in their school, or even go online. There’s a great resource called thetrevorproject.org.”
Social media is another great resource for those interested in finding support. This year, in honor of National Coming Out Day, Facebook released “Came Out” as a major life event that users can now post on their statuses. Here is a list of Facebook groups targeted specifically toward the LGBTQ community.
- Gay Fathers: A conduit for current gay parents to connect with prospective parents across the country.
- Mama Dragons: A supportive space for mothers of LGBTQ+ children.
- Gay Geeks : A place to talk gaming, comics, anime, board games and more.
- LGBT Travel: This group is for everyone who loves to travel.
- Gay and Fabulous: A place to chat relationships, life and make friends.
5.) Plan to Come Out to Everyone
Cantrell emphasized that many don’t realize that coming out is not just a one-time occurrence. Once someone makes the decision to present their identity outwardly, it’ll be a regular occurrence that they’ll be asked about their LGBTQ identity.
“You have to deal with family, you have to deal with colleagues, and, often, there’s a kind of surprise, if not shock, sometimes when people go, ‘Oh, really? You’re dating a woman?’ That reverberates through the family and people have to worry about how their kids are handling it and how their kids are at school,” she said.
However, Cantrell said she has noticed a “level of understanding and acceptance and sophistication” in young people facing a family member or friend coming out that “20 years ago didn’t exist.”
“What I’ve seen is actually a lot of the kids in high school, they’re upset about the breakup in the family, but once they understand the concept they’re like, ‘Oh, this is cool,” she said.