Becoming Out: a totally non-exhaustive, step by step guide to coming out
I think being queer is one of the coolest things you can be, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. The amazing people I've met and friends I’ve made, the care with which I've grown into my mind and body, and the love I've learned to show myself, no matter what trials I face, all go to show that being queer can be such a beautiful thing.
But while LGBTQIA+ people are more visible and more accepted than ever, we follow in the footsteps of a history of struggle and violence – the statistics are slowly getting better, but any amount of harm is still too much. Nor is the fruit of youth always a peachy time to begin with. Queer, trans and/or gendernonconforming young folk have a unique set of challenges as we figure out who we are and how to let others into our various worlds of words, feelings, and actions.
Sadly, not everyone reacts the way we want them to, and experiencing a rejection of who we are is never easy; it can vary from being a bit overwhelming to totally crushing.
I came out to my parents via an (admittedly far too long) email. I didn’t hear anything back for months. I was convinced that their silence meant the worst, and started making drastic plans for what this meant. I still feel fortunate that it turned out they were just taking that time to research and try to understand, but it was that plan that helped me to feel like I had options in case it really had gone to hell in a handbasket.
We at Scarleteen hope that every time you open up to someone about your truth they respond with love and kindness. But we also want to make sure you're prepared in case they don't and give you some practical strategies and tools to look after yourself if that’s what happens. It can hurt a lot when people we love and look up to or rely upon let us down, for a whole range of reasons, but you are not alone, and you can get through it.
We can’t always choose the ways we come out to the people around us, but with some preparation and planning we can have a little bit more control over how this might go. With this in mind, we've put this guide together for you.
1. It takes (at least) two: WHO & WHY
How you’ll go about coming out probably looks different if it’s your best friend or your parents, a group of friends you game with online, a teacher or college professor, or a coworker. (You might want to be able to tell your best friend all the squee-inducing details about the new crush you’ve got, but your parents or professors may get a much more restrained version!)
Once we’ve identified who we want to talk to, we can then consider what we want to tell them, and why we’re telling them now. It’s okay to come out at any time and for any reason, including “Because I want to.” But knowing the specific reasons you want to do it can help you unpack your needs and expectations, and help you identify and what kind of support you might need from others afterwards.
- Do you want to just have them know, no matter what they think or what their reaction is?
- Are you trying to let them in to your life so you can be closer—in which case considering their reactions might be a big part of it?
- Maybe you think or know they’re also queer and want to relate to them about your shared queerness!
- Are you going to college or moving away soon?
- Have you decided that you just don’t want to hide it anymore?
All of these are good reasons to want to share this part of yourself with others, but knowing which can be really useful for managing our wants, needs and expectations throughout.
2. PLANNING THE CONVERSATION: HOW, WHERE & WHEN
Coming out is never a one-time deal. We do it all the time throughout our lives: to new romantic interests, family members, new friends and colleagues, or the guy working at the cinema when you’re seen holding hands on cheap Tuesday. Coming out can become easier over time, but the first few times can be a bit scary and confusing. And we may never stop worrying about how people might react to us! Having a plan can go a long way towards mitigating those anxieties.
No matter what your situation is, it can be a really good idea to have a support plan in place. It’s okay to ask others for support when you need it; needing support isn’t a sign of failure or weakness, but an acknowledgement you, like everyone, deserve care.
Having someone with you for support can be a big help. For example, when coming out to someone it can sometimes be helpful to have a friend or family member in the room with you, or hanging out in the next room while you have the conversation at the kitchen table so you’ve got someone nearby. If you’re coming out to your family, having a sibling, a cousin, or another adult in your extended family you can turn to, can do a world of good for both the difficult conversations, and for feeling like you’re not completely alone. At the very least, having another person around helps people think about how they’re responding and behaving.
First: how do you want to come out to someone? You may want to do it in person, face to face, in a letter or email, or maybe over the phone or on Skype—whether you’re not close enough to chat in person or if you’d just prefer a bit of physical distance.
If you’re planning on coming out in person, consider where you feel safe. Do you always have important conversations with your parents in your family living room? Does being in public, e.g., at a restaurant or park, feel safer? A neutral ground, like the house of another family member or friend who already knows, or in a car while on a drive, can also be a good space to have these conversations.
It’s important, too, to figure out what your limits are. Part of this plan could look like when you sit quietly, when you push back against rejection, when you open up, and when the conversation is over. Do you want to take the time to sit with them and talk them through it? Will it be better and healthier for you to give them the basics and not be there for the potential fallout? You are allowed to keep trying with someone, you are allowed to ask for more, and you are also alwaysb allowed to leave and not tell them why.
Considering when to come out is also important. Talking at the end of a long day might mean people have less energy to soften negative reactions or might be quicker to express hurtful emotions. Of course, sometimes it just comes out of nowhere: suddenly you’ve blurted out that you really like a girl at school, or that you really aren’t happy in your body the way it is right now, and it can feel like you’ve sucked all the air out of the room. Don’t panic! Taking time to think about this now can help in those moments, even if it seems to come out of nowhere; you’ve got this.So you’ve thought about the who, how, the where and the when, but what are the actual words you’re going to say, and how are you going to say them?
3. PLANNING THE CONVERSATION: WHAT TO SAY
Public speaking often tops the lists of people’s biggest fears. It totally makes sense, then, that having difficult conversations also does! But with a bit of planning and practice you 100% have it in you to come out and convey your wants, needs, and hopes to others. Think about how you might start the conversation, what wording you’ll use, or how you’ll answer questions asked of you: that’s a great start to feeling more in control of the situation.
- Use your past experience. A good way to think about this is to consider any times in the past you’ve come out, whether about the same aspect of your life you’re considering now, or another thing entirely. Thinking about those experiences, how did they go? Were you talking to the same people you’re wanting to talk to now, or different people? How did they react? Were there particular ways you phrased things? Did bringing it up one way feel more comfortable than another, or did you try something and it felt really bad instead? What would you want to do differently this time than in the past, and how could you do so? Now’s the time to consider what that different looks like and how to make it happen this time around.
- What do you want to say? When figuring out what to say, remember that only you know the truth you’re living. Using “I feel” statements is one way of expressing this: you are the expert on you.
- Practice first. Whether or not you’ve come out before, how does it go when you imagine doing so in your head? Preparing what you want to say is a really good way to do this—practice to a friend, a counsellor, or even a mirror. Brainstorm some phrases that you can remember and have handy in case things aren’t going well, or you feel flustered, such as “I’m not going to apologize for the way I am”, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but that doesn’t change what I’m letting you know” or “I’m not asking for your permission, I’m asking for your acceptance”.
- Try it on before you send it out. If you’re going to send an email or a text, write a draft before you send it. Share it with a friend or try reading it out loud to yourself to see how it sounds. You can try this even if you’re planning on having this conversation in person. When you eventually do send it, you can put in something like an email tracker (here’s one for Gmail) to see if someone’s opened the email or not.
- Plan to be at your best. While also thinking about what to say, it’s critical to make sure you’re in a good position to say it. Make sure you’re sleeping enough, eating well, and checking in with the people who support you. If the stress is overwhelming, practicing some breathing exercises can help you feel more calm in your body.
You’ve done lots of preparation by now, maybe feeling pumped to get through this, or scared about what could happen. All of these feelings are okay, and totally normal right now! So how do we go about the big conversation itself?
4. GET READY, ‘CAUSE HERE I COME (OUT)
You’re here, you’re (trans, otherwise gender-nonconforming and/or) queer, and this conversation’s drawing near!
Before coming out to someone, have a think about the following questions:
- What do you want to happen in this conversation?
- What are you afraid will happen?
- Are those desires or fears realistic, or are they outlandish?
- What do you need to happen? To be heard, understood, or accepted?
Being aware of your hopes and your fears can help you prepare for whatever happens and what you’ll do afterwards. If you’re not sure you’ll get what you need, you don’t have to come out. There will be another time. You will meet people who are proud of you and are thankful you’ve come out to them, even if it’s not the people you want to come out to today.
To be affirmed, seen, and loved by others are among the reasons people come out in the first place, and we all hope that things will go really well. Things might also go badly, which is why coming out is scary, but preparation can help. Whatever happens, you’re allowed to feel whatever comes to you in the moment and after. It’s not easy to be vulnerable with people whose reactions you care about, but no one can take your identity, your language, or how you want to love, live and exist away from you.
What might going badly mean in your situation? Is your safety or your access to your support networks, mental health care, or your housing compromised? Does it mean that people will get angry or upset with you? Even in cases where they are supportive, people, especially family members, can express a range of emotions that’s difficult and uncomfortable for you to hear. But again, keep in mind that whatever feelings they’re having are not your responsibility. You are allowed to remove yourself while they’re doing that processing. You can leave at any time.
5. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? (LET’S TALK OUTCOMES)
What would you like to happen after you come out? Whether, like me, you have a meticulous bullet-pointed list, or a vague idea is more your style, seeking care afterwards is also super important. Coming out is hard work and deserves rest and reward, no matter what happens. Here are some ideas that might help you calm down, relax, and recharge.
First things first: What’s your plan for immediately after, good or bad? Maybe you’ll go to a great vegan ice cream shop near you and camp out with a book, or meet a friend for coffee, or play a game you can bury your head in for a while and let yourself destress.
Affirm yourself: I like writing myself a stack of notes full of big queer affirmation that I can read in difficult times. You can ask friends to help, too — little notes and messages and videos can remind you of how loved you are and what you love about yourself.
Feel your feelings!: Giving yourself the space to listen to how you feel and not squash it down is super important. Wanting to be supported and loved for our identities is not unfair or wrong, and neither is feeling disappointed or upset if you’re not shown that love Take some time to experience the emotions that come up, whether they’re anger, sadness, confusion, frustration; Even when things have gone wrong, I hold onto the feeling of being proud of myself for trying, and that’s something that even the worst rejection can’t take away from me.
Build a team: Everyone needs one! As we talked about earlier, an essential part of this plan is finding support from others. Your team may include IRL or online friends, a sibling, an extended family member, or a therapist. Reaching out to the people who are in your corner can remind you that you’re not the only one standing up to bat in this sports metaphor. Ask for what you need. This might look like a hug, a couch to crash on, someone to text while it’s going down, or a date to order a pizza and play some video games together.
If you’ve got one, your therapist, counselor, or caseworker can help you set healthy goals and identify the services and support networks in your area. If you don’t have access to a therapist or counselor , there are some amazing anonymous phone, text, and online-chat counselling or support services around the world, including some focused on sexuality and gender. Many of these are even free of charge, including the services available right here at Scarleteen. Before you have the conversation (or send the email or the text), make a list of contact details for some local or national support services (eg. hotlines, chat services, drop-in groups). Not only will you have them on hand for yourself, a friend who’s helping you can also have a chance to talk about their feelings when sharing them with you might not be helpful! Them magazine has a very helpful guide to finding online and offline services here.
Finding your spaces: Where do you find safe spaces? They could include youth groups, an online chat forum, or a volunteer job at a queer-run organization (ahem). It might look like helping to code a queer website, running a group for folk who share something in common with you on social media, or so many other things.
Your safety plan: If stuff goes bad, where do you go from here? What does the next hour, day, week look like, the next month? Knowing what your options are means you’ve got less to be scrambling to do if it happens.
Is there somewhere you can go while things cool down, or crash for a night? Maybe you have a friend that can come and pick you up and go for a drive or hang out so that you feel safe even if you’re a bit shaken up.
In a more serious situation, do you have somewhere safe you can stay in the long term? You may want to write down the numbers of any nearby shelters or research details of your state’s rental assistance programs and your local rental market. We don’t want to have to rely on any of this, but sometimes having all your bases covered can help you feel safer entering a scary situation.
Naming grief: When things go badly, especially if it means we lose friends, family, and support systems, we can feel very real grief for those losses. It’s okay to sit in that and recognize it as grief and to be sad about it, especially if someone has reacted in a way that’s made you feel uncomfortable, needy, or like you’re causing a fuss. Your response is super valid, no matter what someone else has said to you.
If things get difficult, it can be really helpful to remind yourself that you planned for this. There’s a list to follow, people and professionals to get in touch with, and love to receive. Whether it all goes to hell in a hand basket, or you find yourself closer than ever to the people you’ve come out to, you’re going to be okay, no matter what.
6. WHEN DOES IT GET EASIER?
As we’ve said, coming out is not something that happens just once. However, the more we do it, and the more support we have around us that we can rely on, the easier it gets. It takes work to get there, but it’s not only possible but eminently achievable.
No matter what happens, remember: you’ve planned for this. You know where your exits are, who’s on your team, and where you can find support, whether it’s from friends, partners, family members, folk on the internet or anyone else you know will be there.
Our sexual or gender indentities aren't the only things that define us, so it can be super disappointing when one or both become the thing by which we are defined and judged by others. You are so much more than just your gender or your sexual identity (even though those things are amazing)! Coming out also offers us the opportunity to find people who will accept, love and cherish us -- romantic or sexual partners, platonic friends, chosen family -- and who will see our sexualities and genders as part of the beautiful, shining part in the amazing kaleidoscopic whole that makes up a human being.
In feeling these emotions and having these doubts, you are treading in the footsteps of so many people. Get ready to embrace the universe of love that is out there. Queer, trans and gender-nonconforming people are not going anywhere, and the ashes we keep rising from have forged us into the strong, loud and vibrant communities we are today, communities we are proud and happy to have you as a part of.