To Come Out or Not to Come Out: That is the Question (Part 2)
Coming out of the proverbial closet means disclosing an important aspect of one’s identity. For those identifying along the LGBTQ spectrum, it typically involves revealing one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity to others.
Individuals who are heterosexual and cisgendered need not “come out” because these identities are assumed in our heteronormative society. This means that people are generally expected and presumed to be straight and cisgendered unless there is reason to believe otherwise. If, however, society embraced the diversity that naturally exists among humans (as well as among members of the larger animal kingdom), then any identity would be perceived as equally viable and normal as the next: straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, cisgendered, gender queer, gender bending, transgender, etc. See Part 1 of this series for a review of the terms in bold.
Our societal need to categorize and label, while evolutionarily helpful and even imperative in some situations, can also be limiting and disempowering for those who are inevitably marginalized as a result of falling outside the perceived cultural norm. The current expectation is that an anatomical male child will grow up identifying as a boy, then later as a man, and he will be attracted to biological females who identify as women (vice versa for females).
However, subscribing to a model in which sexual orientation and gender identities fall on a continuum, rather than existing as discrete and static categories, may allow for greater fluidity and expression among people. In fact, Sigmund Freud, considered to be the Father of Psychology, believed that people are innately bisexual (Freud & Strachey, 1977).
For LGBTQI folks, the decision to come out or not can be a highly personal and difficult one. It should not be rushed, forced, or done on someone else’s behalf (“outing” someone without consent is not only disrespectful, but it may cause several unanticipated negative consequences for the person as well).
When contemplating coming out to others, there are many factors to consider: one’s motivation for coming out, the intended audience, the anticipated reactions of others, and expected consequences (i.e., personal risks and benefits). In some situations, it may be beneficial to come out, whereas in others, it may be in someone’s best interest to not self-disclose his/her/their identity.
It is important to note that coming out is often an ongoing process as opposed to a singular occurrence. Consider the fictional case of Sally, a 20-year-old female college student. She identifies as “femme” (feminine); she maintains a long hairstyle and often wears skirts, dresses, and cosmetics. In general, she is interested in stereotypically feminine pursuits. Sally lives at home with her conservative parents with whom she is not open about her sexual orientation. After experiencing much internal conflict, based on her religious upbringing and internalized homophobia, she is gradually coming to terms with who she is and now self-identifies as a gay woman. She has told some of her closest college friends and has even dated other women to a moderate extent. However, whenever she meets someone new (i.e., friends of her parents, older relatives, other students), she must constantly weigh the pros and cons of sharing her sexual identity. When someone asks whether she has a boyfriend, which she is often asked (as the assumption is that she is straight), she must decide when and if to come out to that person. Is it safe? Is it to her benefit to come out? What are the potential risks/consequences? There are as many reasons to come out as there are not to. Assuming Sally decides to tell her cousin that she is dating a woman, Sally has to deal with the repercussions of her parents finding out and disapproving of her “lifetsyle” (an often used, but largely offensive term).
Some reasons for coming out include:
- Desire to be one’s authentic self; to share oneself fully with others
- Wish to be known to others who identify as LGBTQI in order to garner support, friendship, and a community of individuals with shared history and experience
- Interest in finding a romantic partner
- Relief in not having to hide one’s identity or lead a “double life”
- Ability to live according to one’s values; enjoy a sense of personal integrity and honesty
- Express pride in one’s identity and/or community
- Desire to increase LGBTQI visibility; be a role model for closeted individuals
Potential risks/reasons for not coming out:
- Fear for one’s psychological, emotional, and/or physical safety
- Not ready or comfortable identifying as LGBTQI
- Desire for privacy/boundaries (may choose to be out in some situations/circles, but not others)
- Worry about the loss of relationships (i.e., parents, family, friends) and community (i.e., religious circle)
- Loss of housing (homelessness, due to being kicked out by family, is a rampant problem, especially among LGBTQI youth)
- Potential loss of employment
- Stigma/discrimination faced by LGBTQI individuals
- Internalized homophobic/transphobic attitudes and other harmful ideologies
The above-mentioned reasons for coming out and not coming out are certainly not exhaustive. Stay tuned for future blogs in this series, including tips on how/when/with whom to come out (as well as ways to respond in an empathic and affirming manner when someone comes out to you), in addition to valuable community resources for individuals identifying as LGBTQI as well as their loved ones.
Dr. Jacquie Talesnick is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine who has trained in both cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapeutic approaches. She considers herself to be an integrative therapist, pulling from different methodologies and theories to tailor treatment to each individual with whom she works. She offers psychotherapy services to late adolescent and adult populations in individual, couples, and group modalities. She specializes in working with individuals in the LGBTQ community. Her other specialties include treatment of relationship difficulties, trauma, depression, and anxiety. She has a special interest in the benefits of animal companions, as well as supplementing traditional “talk therapy” with creative approaches (i.e., writing, art).
Please feel free to call the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine for further information 818-446-2522 or email
Freud, S., & Strachey, J. (1977). On sexuality: Three essays on the theory of sexuality and other works. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Williams, A. (2016). To Come Out or Not to Come Out: That is the Question (Part 2). Psych Central. Retrieved on January 17, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/live-thrive/2016/01/to-come-out-or-not-to-come-out-that-is-the-question-part-2/