By Dr. Jeffrey Chernin
Prior to coming out, most of us mistakenly believe that coming out is an event and not a process. It’s often viewed as an ending rather than a beginning. It’s true that coming out is an endpoint of sorts; it means that you’re done omitting information or telling outright lies about your daily life, and it means that you have become comfortable enough with your sexual orientation or gender to no longer hide.
Even though coming out solves problems, it creates new ones. When you tell other people about your sexual orientation, for example, you create ripples in your relationships. A common mistake that many LGBT individuals make during the coming out process is to expect or demand immediate acceptance. Developing patience for friends and family to come to terms with your disclosure can save your relationships.
For example, in the excellent documentary “Red Without Blue,” over a period of three years, the mother of a transgender daughter goes from saying that her daughter “did this just to hurt me” to calling her “Clair” instead of “Alex” to more fully supporting her daughter as a woman.
Only the most liberal parents are fully accepting right away (“Thank God you finally told us. Dad and I have been waiting since you were 14. Do you have a boyfriend?”). Rather, coming out to family members, friends, and co-workers puts them in a closet of their own. It’s a closet of fear and shame they feel about having a LGBT friend or relative.
For parents, it’s as if your orientation or is a reflection of them, and shame or guilt about producing a LGBT son or daughter may result. Although their process may not be nearly as difficult as ours, there is shame they have to deal with. A good gauge to determine if your family feels shame about you is if they ask that you not to tell other family members or their friends.
Try to imagine what it’s like living in another person’s body who doesn’t have the experience of understanding what it’s like to be you and receives messages from society that LGBT individuals choose their orientation or gender. Add to this the beliefs that heterosexual people carry about LGBT people, and you can begin to understand the difficulty in accepting your orientation or actual gender.
Along with patience, another thing to consider is to allow other people the opportunity to voice their concerns, prejudices, and curiosity at the thought of their friend or relative having sex with the same gender or being transgender. It becomes threatening for many of us to hear these questions and concerns, and part of the process of continuing to come out is to feel more comfortable with their unfamiliarity.
There are steps you can take to help friends and family through their “coming out” process. There are many books on coming out, and many bookstores (either virtual or real) have a lot of coming out literature. A few resources to consider are “Now That You Know: What Every Parent Should Know About Homosexuality,” “True Selves: Understanding Transsexualism – For Families, Friends, Coworkers, and Helping Professionals,” “The New Loving Someone Gay,” “The World Out There: Becoming Part of the Lesbian and Gay Community,” and “Now That I’m Out, What Do I Do?” On the Internet, you’ll find everything from blogs to bulletin boards to pages of information for family members, as well as for you.
Another part of coming out is to recognize that you’re never finished. Coming out is a lifelong process somewhat similar to self-actualization. A “self-actualized” person is one who is totally loving and completely accepting. No one is ever self-actualized any more than one can be completely accepting of one’s LGBT self, but to keep working at it is the point.
It can be surprising, but you can be at a hotel with your partner and feel slightly embarrassed that you ask for one bed when the clerk assumes you want two beds. Your partner could be in a hospital, and when the nurse asks you what your relationship to the patient is, you hesitate slightly before responding. Or, you hear a particularly mean-spirited fag or dyke joke and you don’t speak because you fear being judged.
Coming out is a lifelong process both for you and for people around you. It takes courage to come out – first to yourself, and then to others, and it takes wisdom to let others have their experience. Remember, it took you a long time to come to terms with your sexual orientation. Likewise, give your family members and friends time to accept it. So, be patient with both you and them. It can pay off in the long run.