Learning more about yourself and feeling comfortable in your own skin is an important part of living your best life. For many, coming out as LGBTQ is a vitally important part of that. It means discovering, understanding and embracing your sexual orientation or identity. It means feeling the exhilaration and freedom of being who you really are.
But for many students, coming out is a process fraught with anxiety. It can change the dynamic of relationships, make a person question their place in families and their communities, lead to some difficult questions and, sometimes, serious personal upheaval. This guide aims to make those potential situations easier to handle by arming students with the tools, resources and support they need to make the important decisions about coming out to family, friends and peers. Read on to learn more about this deeply personal decision and how to make the best choices for you.
When Is the Right Time to Come Out as LGBTQ?
Choosing to come out -- to share something so important with those you care about -- is an important step. It makes sense that students worry about getting it right. As with everything else in life: timing matters. Let’s look at how the timing of coming out can be different at various ages and stages.
Middle school is a time when everyone is figuring out who they are and what they want out of life. At this point, many kids are just starting to experiment and explore. That’s why some otherwise well-meaning individuals might say coming out is “just a phase.” Bullying might also be more of a problem in middle school than it might be during high school or college. However, coming out this early in the game can be a huge relief, as you can start embracing your identity from a younger age.
High school students tend to have a better grasp of who they are. But even so, they can often get the “it’s just a phase” line when they come out. However, they have some advantages: friendships are established than in middle school, so they may have more peer support. They might also have been dropping hints for years, and thus when they do come out, the level of surprise for friends and family might be less. In addition, a person’s self-esteem is typically stronger in high school, which can help them stand up to bullying or negativity.
Though college is still a time in which students are discovering new things about themselves, at this point there are some things a student might know for sure – and one of those things is their sexual orientation. The dreaded “it’s a phase” comment becomes much rarer. Romantic relationships can more readily blossom in an atmosphere of acceptance. If a student has gone away to college, they are in an entirely different environment, one where they might feel freer to be themselves, thus making coming out easier.
Coming out is a big decision that can have far-reaching implications. It’s a moment that demands a long lead-in of reflection and thoughtful consideration. Before coming out, students should ask themselves the following questions:
How to Come Out of the Closet, Step by Step
The process of coming out is going to be different for every person. This how-go guide on coming out is a great starting point. Feel free to tweak these steps and advice as you see fit, tailoring them to your own situation and what makes you comfortable.
- Be comfortable with who you are. Before you come out, it’s very important that you know yourself, understand your own identity and are confident in your sexuality. Coming out puts you in a vulnerable position, but when you are comfortable in your own skin, that fear becomes easier to overcome.
- Take small steps. Though you might want to shout your news from the rooftops, taking your time can be beneficial in the long run. To be sure that you will have some caring people on your side, make a point of first coming out to those who will be an “easy” conversation to have. For instance, coming out to a friend who is already out and proud, a guidance counselor, or a family member who you know will support you is a good idea to get started.
- Write out a script -- or several of them. The conversations you will have as you come out might go in ways you don’t expect. But preparing for what you want to express to others can go a long way toward calming your nerves. Write down what you want to say, how you want to say it, and answers to questions or comments that you can imagine might come your way as soon as the word is out. Then practice those short scripts. Sometimes, just saying the words out loud can be a relief.
- Choose your first person carefully. When you’re ready to come out, start with the person who will be most accepting. For instance, telling an older brother who will respect your bravery is a much better choice than telling a parent is uncomfortable with LGBTQ identities. Once you have that person in mind, ask them out to talk in a quiet moment. “Do you have a moment? I have something to tell you” can get the ball rolling.
- Be prepared for pushback. In some cases, coming out will be met by immediate happiness, love and hugs all around. But for many, the reaction will run the gamut from shock to dismay to anger. Some might reject your announcement outright. Some might accuse you of being in a “phase.” Some might even take it personally and wonder why you’re doing “this” to “them.” Be ready to stand firm in the event of this pushback and recognize that it’s just the start of a journey to understanding.
- Stay calm in the face of drama. Sometimes that pushback can get a little out of hand. Rumors at school or family drama might start. Friendships might be strained. Someone might choose to announce to everyone else that you’re coming out -- thus putting their own spin on the news. Though it would be wonderful if everyone is respectful about your decision to come out, it doesn’t always go that way. To handle any challenges that may arise, surround yourself with the right support, whether that be in a counselor, friends or family.
- Let others take their time. Some of the closest people in your life might have trouble with accepting this aspect of who you are. They might need some time to process the facts. For instance, parents might need time to adjust to the changing of their expectations and views of you and your future. Give them that time and space, but make it clear that you are always ready to answer their questions or talk to them about it.
- Reach out for continued support. As all this is happening, it’s vital to have a support system to fall back on. Reach out to friends who are already out. Talk to a trusted family member. Reach out to LGBTQ support groups at school or in the community. You can turn to a guidance counselor, teacher or other trusted adult for advice or guidance.
5 Biggest Pros and Cons to Coming Out in School
Those thinking about coming out are constantly weighing the pros and cons of the decision. Should they tell the world who they really are? Or should they keep quiet about it for a while, for whatever reason? Knowing the unique pros and cons of coming out while in school can help students make the right choice for them.
Those who have come to terms with their orientation have been living with the fact of it for a while. They’ve likely hidden who they really are for most of that time. Coming out can mean they no longer have to be careful to watch what they say or do.
Embracing who you are and what you’re all about is key to self-confidence, especially as a student. The more open and honest someone is about their life, the more self-esteem they might find.
Friends and family might be extremely supportive. They might feel proud that you trusted them with such personal information. It can also lead to deeper understandings, more open communication and a stronger sense of community as you live your truth in school.
Letting go of the secrets and finding the freedom to be who you really are can usher in a relief so intense that it can’t be put into words.
Many schools and colleges are taking note of the diversity in their student populations, and as a result, are encouraging support groups of all kinds. It’s a safe bet that when you come out, you will not be alone in that journey -- there are quite a few friends just waiting to make your acquaintance!
Unfortunately, not everyone is going to be open-minded enough to accept someone who is “different” than what they want them to be. Bullying and harassment might be more widespread during the middle school and high school years, but those negative consequences of coming out are certain possible in college, too.
Friends, family, teachers and acquaintances might be taken aback by the news -- sometimes to the point of allowing it to damage the relationship. Keeping open lines of communication and being patient are the best ways to avoid this.
School years can be fraught with gossip. While it’s painful to be the target of such judgment, it helps to remember that it can happen to anyone -- not just students who come out -- and new gossip quickly turns old.
For those with parents or siblings from a more traditional background, the fallout from telling them who you really are can be rough. This is especially true for students who depend upon their parents for financial support, as some parents have been known to close the checkbook when a student gives them the news.
When you come out, you find out who your friends really are -- and those “fair weather” friends will not be able to handle the storm. That’s why it’s so important to be prepared, and to reach out to new support systems before coming out, if possible.
The Cass Theory: The 6 Stages to Coming Out
Sitting down with those you love and coming out as LGBTQ is actually the culmination of many months or even years of introspection, questioning and seeking. The process starts with the first questions to yourself about your identity and continues through to the point of integrating your sexual identity into the rest of your life. Understanding the Cass Model of Sexual Identity Formation can help you feel more comfortable with wherever you are in the process.
Stage 1: Identity Confusion
This is the point where realization might hit you like a ton of bricks. “Wait -- could I be gay?” This might lead to a period of inner turmoil, rejecting the idea even though it sticks in the back of your mind, trying to reason away the feelings (“it’s just an experiment” or “I’m just curious”), and even completely denying that being anything other than heterosexual is a possibility.
Stage 2: Identity Comparison
Eventually, you’ll start to come around to the idea. This might include believing that it’s a phase to “get out of your system.” It’s probably a secret, one that is kept well hidden. There can be moments of grief as you come to terms with a reality that might not look like what you or your loved ones expected for you – for instance, a gay man might struggle with the idea that he might never have children with a female partner. At this stage, individuals start looking for information about what’s happening in their mind and heart.
Stage 3: Identity Tolerance
You’re not alone -- and now you know it. People in this stage will begin to reach out to other LGBTQ individuals in the hopes of building a support system. They’ll start to acquire the language with which to discuss their feelings with others in a more open way. They’ll start to see the world in terms of what they can have, not in what they can’t. They might also try out a variety of stereotypical roles to see which one feels like the best fit.
Stage 4: Identity Acceptance
This is the stage where you may say to yourself “this is who I am -- and it’s great!” You come the realization that you will be okay, and that your life has some exciting things in store. Though some might still compartmentalize parts of their life to please others, there are no longer any doubts about their orientation or identity. Though there might still be moments of grief, there are even more moments of connecting with the broader LGBTQ community. At this point some might choose to come out to those closest to them.
Stage 5: Identity Pride
At this point, coming out is a matter of pride, and your sexuality is simply a matter of act. Individuals might find that they spend much more time with LGBTQ friends and minimize contact with heterosexual friends. They look to gay culture for support in many aspects of their lives, from personal to professional. There might still be some issues with coming out, such as feeling defensive when someone questions it or residual anger at family members or friends who seem to be taking a while to come around.
Stage 6: Identity Synthesis
Now a person sees their sexual orientation and identity as simply a part of themselves, just as natural as any other trait they might have. Whereas their whole identity in the previous stages was based on their sexual identity, now it’s just one part of the overall whole. Though there might still be lingering anger and grief issues, for the most part you’re ready to move into the world without defining anyone or any space as “gay” or “straight.”
Source: Sexual Identity Formation Model developed by Vivian Cass (1979)
Expert Advice: How to Handle the Unexpected When Coming Out
First, breathe. Literally. Being outed can send you into fight-or-flight mode and hitting that pause button by taking some deep breaths will help you assess your situation. Then you can get a real handle on whether or not your safety really is in jeopardy. If so, priority one is to find a safe space -- with a friend or family member, or possibly even an outside organization. If your safety isn’t in jeopardy, then some positive self-talk can help. “I'm okay. Everything is okay.” More deep breaths. Know that yes, stuff might get a bit crazy, but you will be okay.
Life has a way of surprising us. So, whatever you expect to happen, something else will probably come from left field, at least at some point. That could mean someone you thought would be supportive isn’t, or someone you thought would hate you if they knew turning out to be a major ally. We humans are complex. All of your peers are dealing with their own stuff, and so are the adults in your life. That makes us pretty unpredictable. But it’s also something that's really beautiful about us -- that we can surprise one another.
I think this is truly one of the highest and best uses of the internet and social media. One of the reasons young people in less supportive communities are coming out at higher rates is likely because of increased support found online. But I always tell folks to be wise when they’re online. It's often easy to fake who we are. There are predatory folks out there. So, spaces that are monitored (whether by peers or adults) might be the best choice.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that the tallest trees experience the most wind. By coming out, you’re making yourself a tall tree. But any time we stand up and declare who we are, we experience that wind. Society largely values conformity. Unfortunately, conformity feeds a system where we judge each other a whole lot. By coming out, you’re defying that pressure to conform, and you’re not just making space for yourself, you’re making space for others to claim who they are, regardless of their identities. And that's a beautiful thing. Come out when you want to and when you're ready. And if you experience wind, know it’s just because you're a tall tree, and that’s hard, but it's also okay.
Additional LGBTQ Resources from Accredited Schools Online
Finding the best resources can help you get educated on LGBTQ issues and find support when you need it most. The first places to look for resources will be on your campus, in your community and online.
Services at Your School or University
Schools, colleges and universities want their students to feel safe and secure. These services can help aid in that mission.
- Gay Straight Alliance Networks. The student-run centers on campuses all over the nation provide support and training for youth leaders. Students can participate in anything from school-based campaigns to nationwide initiatives.
- LGBTQ Resource Centers. Many schools and colleges have offices dedicated to the health, well-being and safety of students at various stages of coming out. These offices are filled with understanding people, lots of information and resources to help make your time on campus as pleasant and rewarding as it should be.
- Safe Spaces. These are exactly what they sound like – a room, building, or certain area of campus that is considered “safe” for anyone, especially LGBTQ students. These safe spaces usually include easy access to a counselor, teacher or other individual who is dedicated to helping anyone who needs it.
- Inclusive Campus Events. Many schools are proud to host events that give students a new perspective on their LGBTQ friends. These campus events might include team-building, discussion forums, fun activities that center on sports and recreation, and enlightening lectures from those in the know, among other eye-opening opportunities.
Community support can take many forms and can come from almost anywhere – think local organizations, religious groups, friends, family, and organizations dedicated to enhancing diversity and openness in the area. Here are some options you might find in your local area.
- CenterLink. Now in 45 states and counting, this is a community of LGBTQ centers that welcomes new members and allies. Services vary depending upon the community needs of the moment, but often include networking resources, support groups and more.
- GLBT Near Me. This national database can help any student find local support. Simply enter in your zip code, the miles you’re willing to travel to get in-person help and the type of help you need.
- PFLAG. With more than 400 chapters nationwide, this important resource provides a place for students, allies, friends and family to join in supporting and enhancing the lives of LGBTQ youth.
- Community Centers. Many after-school, weekend and community programs specifically for youth have an inherent element of acceptance. You might even find a club or program specifically for LGBTQ youth.
- Religious Groups. Though some churches embrace doctrines that say anything other than heterosexuality is not allowed, there are even more that embrace diverse groups of people and view everyone as equal. Look for religious groups in your area that offer a resounding welcome to LGBTQ students, and you just might find new friendships there.
Connecting to the national LGBTQ and LGBTQ-ally community online can open up a wealth of confidence, support and safety information. Whenever you log in to an online chat room or message board, be sure they are monitored and secured.
- Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates: Social and Racial Equality Committee. If you ever feel as though your education has been compromised by coming out, COPAA is the place to turn to for further information on what you might be able to do in the legal context.
- Empty Closets. This comprehensive message board and discussion forum is designed for people of all ages – there’s even a section on getting coming out advice from those who have been there.
- Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Dedicated to ensuring that everyone has a good experience while pursuing their education, GLSEN helps educate teachers, students and the public on LGBTQ issues.
- Get Equal. Everyone deserves to be treated equally. That’s the focus of this organization, which helps the cause through petitions, information, education and activism.
- It Gets Better Project. This organization focuses on helping students through inspiration, education and resources. The central idea of the organization is hope: giving students the hope that, while things might be tough right now, life really will get better.
- LGBT National Help Center. Those seeking local resources, support groups, hotlines and information on how to come out can find it through this helpful site.
- Matthew Shephard Foundation. This empowering organization provides youth with the tools and resources to fight against hate and discrimination in their communities. Students can find information on how to create a safe school space, as well as how to stay safe at home.
- National LGBTQ Task Force. Many individuals find that fighting for equal rights helps them feel more connected to their community. This organization helps mobilize, train and support those who want to take a stand.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Coming out can be difficult, and the resulting strife among family and friends can make a person feel at a loss. Turning to this hotline during the most difficult times can help you get through to the next day.
- Point Foundation. Though perhaps best-known for scholarship opportunities for LBGTQ youth, this organization also provides resources to help students overcome the financial obstacles to an education. This is especially important for those who have come out and experienced a lack of financial support from parents or family as a result.
- The Trevor Project. Dedicated to helping LGBTQ youth in school and beyond, this powerful resource offers crisis intervention and suicide prevention, as well as advice for those who are thinking about coming out.
- Trevor Space. This is a monitored discussion site for youth between the ages of 13 and 24 years old. It’s a safe space where you can tell your story, get advice and make friends.