Coming out is a term often heard in reference to the LGBTQ community. What can be confusing is that it can have multiple meanings depending upon the speaker and the context. Sometimes it can refer to an event and sometimes to a process. Other times it refers to a reflexive process and it can also refer to something one does to others.
In general, the term “coming out” refers to identifying oneself as a member of the LGBTQ community. When it is used in terms of a reflexive process it generally refers to the emotional and psychological process of accepting membership in the community (i.e. Self-identifying one’s feelings and attractions as same sex directed.) While it may seem to others close to the individual that this has occurred “overnight,” it generally is a much longer process that involves recognizing that one has feelings and attractions that differ from those of one’s peers; that those feelings and attractions will place you in a different and often stigmatized subgroup in the general culture; and that one cannot deny or hide from that realization, finally saying to oneself “I am gay” or “I am lesbian”, etc.
Psychologists have tried to quantify stages or steps in this process of self-acceptance and have met with some success and some frustration. While most of those who have tried have described similar processe, none have easily conformed to a “stage model” because the process does not always go in one direction. One’s personal comfort with community membership or self-identification can vary with time, contexts and experience. For instance, today’s youth convey far greater comfort with a fluid expression of their sexuality. Many more than in the past have acknowledged experimentation with same-sex sexual behaviors and report feeling much less need to label their attractions or sexual orientations. Among these youth one might expect the process to be marked by less personal conflict and more openness with peers.
“Coming out” as an event done to others refers to that moment when one reveals one’s identity as a member of the group to another. Usually, there are a number of such events as first peers, and then family and finally the wider world are informed. Each event may be personally examined for the feedback received. If the feedback is overly negative or rejecting it may lead the individual to retreat some in the process. An extremely bad reception, or even a violent one, the person may be pushed back into the closet, choosing to hide their identity for longer. The more positive responses the individual receives to their self-declaration the more comfortable they can feel and the more out they feel comfortable being.
For the LGBTQ person, every new social or professional situation is a new coming out event.
It has long been held that “coming out” can improve one’s sense of psychological well being. The “closet” takes a heavy toll on one’s well being. Secrets will often negatively impact the holder and when that secret can alter the person’s life in negative ways, effect their role in their family or their community, lead to social rejection or physical danger the perceived need to hold that secret can take a heavy toll. In communities of color, where the family is the source of knowledge of how to deal with the microagressions of living in a racist culture, the thought of losing the family base can be a strong motivator to stay in the closet or to try to divide one’s life between a gay self and a straight self. Sadly, this can lead to one being deprived of a gay community, where like the role of their families in response to racism, the community can help the individual to navigate the homophobia in society.
Religious communities can also be a source of negative reactions in response to an individual’s coming out. Those communities can and often have been a source of belonging and love for the individual. Unfortunately, more traditional interpretations of the Bible have interpreted certain passages and rules as prohibiting homosexual behavior. For these individuals, coming out could mean the loss of their spiritual home. It can translate into the loss of family as well if their family is heavily embedded in church teachings. More current interpretations have taken a very different reading of these biblical statutes allowing gays and lesbians the ability to remain within their religious /spiritual communities and pursue a full and loving life.
When a member of the LGBTQ community is seeking mental health services they may approach with some apprehension. They may wonder if the new therapist will be accepting of their sexuality and their identity. This will often lead to an LGBTQ person to seek out only an LGBTQ therapist. But, membership in the community does not immediately mean that the therapist is going to handle it all well. Therapists have their own biases, often unrecognized, that grow from their own experiences. What is important in a therapist is that they are aware that the psychological difficulties they observe in the patient may actually be accommodations to the closet or the homophobia they have experienced in their own communities. It is the ability to remain open in this area, to ask questions that help to parse this out, and not the therapist’s sexual orientation that should be considered.