By Jessica Stahl, Ph.D., guest contributor.

Happy National Coming Out Day!

National Coming Out Day is celebrated annually on October 11 to remember the 1987 March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. The goal of National Coming Out Day is to promote a world in which it is safe for LGBT people to be open and honest about their identities.

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Source: iStock

What is coming out?

For individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, “coming out” describes the process of identifying one’s sexual orientation as something other than heterosexual. For individuals who identify as transgender, “coming out” refers to identifying one’s gender as not matching one’s biological sex assigned at birth. For both, this first happens internally, as one begins to question one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  Eventually one begins to accept a non-heterosexual orientation or transgender identity; this constitutes “coming out” to oneself. Over time, people begin to feel uncomfortable or dishonest when they do not share their sexual orientation or transgender identity with the important people in their lives and choose to do so; this constitutes “coming out” to others.

Coming out is associated with many different feelings, including confusion, fear, sadness, worry, relief, empowerment, and pride. Sometimes, especially for individuals who do not know any LGBT or LGBT-friendly people, there can also be a sense of being alone or “the only one.”

It’s important to know that all these feelings are normal and you are not alone, whether you are someone who is questioning your sexual orientation or gender identity or if someone you love has just come out to you and you’re not sure how to handle it.

What are the benefits and risks of coming out to others?

After coming out to others, people often feel good about being able to be genuine and honest with someone they care about and experience relief at not having to hide their identity anymore. In addition, coming out to others can lead to gaining support and acceptance from the people one comes out to and being able to share parts of their lives (e.g., information about a romantic partner) with others. Furthermore, coming out to others can be a way of educating others about LGBT concerns and connecting with the LGBT community.

On the flip side, coming out to others does carry some risks. There is a risk that the person to whom you come out will not react the way you expected, leading to hurt feelings, rejection and possibly even harassment or discrimination. As coming out relates to the workplace, it’s important to know also that in many states, it not illegal to fire someone on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. (See the “Employment Protections” map from the Human Rights Campaign to see what the employment protections are across the U.S.)

I think I might be gay or transgender. What’s the best way to come out to others?

There is no “best” way to come out to others. Coming out is a very personal decision that requires weighing the risks and benefits of doing so. The “best” way is really whatever feels best to you as the person coming out. Talking to a psychotherapist or LGBT hotline can be a great first step in figuring this out.

Often it’s easiest to start with the person you think will be most supportive or accepting. This may be someone who is LGBT him or herself or someone who has already said things indicating that he or she is supportive of LGBT concerns. It can be helpful to write down or practice what you want to say before you say it.

After coming out to others, remember that first reactions (especially negative ones) aren’t always the permanent. Keep in mind that at the point you come out to someone, you’ve probably been thinking about your non-heterosexual or transgender identity for quite a while, and it was a process to be OK with it. The people you come out to will also go through a process of coming to terms with your sexual orientation or transgender identity.

Also, it’s best to remember that coming out is not a one-time event. Although it often does get easier with time, it is something that you will be doing over and over in your life as you meet new people or come into new contexts. The Human Rights Campaign has a number of excellent resource guides about coming out in general, coming out in a variety of different contexts.

What should I do if someone comes out to me?

The most important thing to keep in mind if someone you care about comes out to you is that coming out is a leap of faith and trust in the relationship that person has with you. So start by acknowledging that faith and trust (e.g., by saying something like, “Thank you so much for trusting me with that information.”) and work on listening and accepting rather than reacting. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to talk about your feelings; you may be having many of the feelings described above about coming out, and that is normal.

Do some reading on your own about how to be a support for those who come out. The Human Rights Campaign also has an excellent guide on this topic.

Regardless of your feelings in response to this person coming out to you, consider getting some support for yourself. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) is an organization with this specific purpose, and their support for loved ones resources page is here. However, as you think about seeking out support, consider asking the person who came out to you whether or not you may discuss it with others. Try not to “out” the person by disclosing his/her sexual orientation or gender identity to others without his/her permission. (This is where one of the hotlines listed below can really come in handy since they are anonymous!)

If you are a parent or sibling (or other very close friend/relative), consider that you will now have a “coming out” process of your own as you share with others that you have an LGBT son/daughter/sibling, etc. This is when National Coming Out Day can be very relevant to your own life, as you can begin to advocate for LGBT issues and proudly call yourself an ally!

What are some additional resources I can look at on this topic? 
Fenway Health GLBT Hotline & Peer Listening Line 
GLBT National Help Center Hotline
The Trevor Project
• “Transgender 101” from the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition

Jessica Stahl, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and General Track Director of the M.A. Program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at William James College

This blog post also appeared in the West Roxbury Patch.

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