Coming Out

Telling People Your Sexual Orientation — Or Not

You already know who you are. Should you tell other people?

It’s normal to wonder about coming out (telling people that we’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender). On the one hand, it might feel like a relief: Friends might be asking questions that you avoid or have trouble answering. On the other hand, you probably think about how your world could change: How will people react? Will the people you tell spread the word to someone you’d prefer didn’t know?

There are lots of reasons why people choose to come out. Here are a few:

  • They’re ready to start dating and want close friends and family members to know.
  • They don’t want people making assumptions about them or gossiping.
  • They’re tired of hearing other people use stereotypes or negative labels.
  • They feel like they’re living a lie or not acting true to themselves and want to feel accepted for who they really are.

There are also plenty of reasons why people decide not to come out, such as:

  • They’re not yet sure about who they are or how they feel. They’re still trying to figure things out for themselves.
  • They feel that topics like sexual orientation or gender are private and see no reason to talk about them.
  • They’re afraid they’ll face bullying, harassment, discrimination, or even violence.
  • Their families don’t know, and they worry about what might happen if parents or siblings find out.

Coming out can be a little trickier in our teens because we depend on parents or other adults for our care and well-being. Some people live in places where being LGBT is accepted. It’s easier for them to come out because they’re more likely to get support from family and friends. Others realize their family or social environments aren’t supportive and choose to wait until they’re living on their own.

Most people come out gradually. They start by telling a counselor or a few close friends or family. A lot of people tell a counselor or therapist because they want to be sure their information stays private. Some call an LGBT support group so they can have help working through their feelings about identity or coming out.

When Friends Influence Us

As kids, our lives center around family. But in middle school and high school, we start exploring new interests outside our families. We deepen our bonds with friends. This is a natural step in discovering who we are and becoming more independent.

These new friendships and experiences can be a lot for our brains to take in. Our minds might look for shortcuts by sorting people into groups. It’s one reason why people form cliques. We might find ourselves thinking stuff like: “Brian is a real theatre kid. I like being around him because he’s so creative and open to trying new things.” Or, “Sara’s so nerdy. She’ll always be my friend from elementary school, but we don’t have much in common anymore.”

Putting people into categories is a normal part of figuring out where we fit in and what’s important to us. But there are downsides to this kind of thinking: It leads us to assume things that might not be true.

If friends make assumptions about your sexuality, they might encourage you to come out — even if you’re not sure yourself. Your friends might mean well. But they also could be trying to categorize and understand you, even if they don’t realize they’re doing it. You might feel pressured. You might think, “I’m not really sure, but maybe she knows me better than I do.” Or, “He’s being really supportive. I’m sure he’ll be there for me if things get tough.”

It’s easy to get swept along by what others think you should do — whether those people are friends or well-meaning adults. But the truth is, no one knows better than you. Coming out is a very personal decision. You have to be ready.

Deciding to come out requires a lot of thought and planning so you can feel in control no matter what happens: Will the friend who says he’s there for you stand by you if you get bullied? If you ask a teacher to keep your information private, what will you do if word gets back to your family?

Things to Keep in Mind

Many LGBT teens who come out are fully accepted. But others aren’t. You can’t really know how people will react until the time comes.

Sometimes you can get clues about how people think from the way they talk about LGBT people: Are they open-minded and accepting, or negative and disapproving? You can test the waters a bit by bringing up LGBT issues: “I’ve been reading about gay marriage. What are your thoughts on it?” Or, “My cousin’s school is raising money to help a transgender student who is homeless. Is that something you’d donate to?”

Even when you think someone might react positively to your news, there’s still no guarantee. Everyone responds based on their own situations: Parents who accept an LGBT friend may be upset when their own child comes out. It could be because they worry their child might face discrimination. Or it could be they struggle with beliefs that being LGBT is wrong.

Here are things to keep in mind when you’re thinking of coming out:

  • Trust your gut. Don’t feel forced to come out by friends or situations. Coming out is a process. Different people are ready for it at different times in their lives. You might want to be open about who you are, but you also need to think about your own security. If there’s a risk you could be physically harmed or thrown out the house, it’s probably safer to wait until you have finished high school or college and can live on your own.
  • Weigh all the possibilities. Ask yourself these questions: “How might coming out make my life more difficult? How could it make things easier? Is it worth it?” The Human Rights Campaign’s Guide to Coming Out has lots of tips and things to think about.
  • Have a support system. If you can’t talk openly about your identity, or if you’re trying to figure out if you should come out, it can help to speak to a counselor or call an anonymous help line, like the GLBT National Youth Talkline. Having support systems in place can help you plan how to come out (or not). Support systems also can help you cope if any reactions to your coming out aren’t what you expected.
  • Let go of expectations. People you come out to might not react the way you expect. You will probably find that some relationships take time to settle back to what they were. Some might change permanently. Friends and family members — even the most supportive parents — may need time to get used to your news.
  • Think about privacy. You might be lucky enough to have friends who are mature enough to respect personal, private information and keep it to themselves. But whenever you share information, there’s a risk it could leak to people you might not want to know. Therapists and counselors are required to keep any information you share private — but only if they think you won’t hurt yourself or others. If a counselor thinks you might harm yourself or someone else, he or she is required to report it.

Coming out is a personal choice. Take time to think about what’s right for you.

Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2015