Stages in the Coming Out Process
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It is important to remember that coming out is not a single event, but a life-long process, which may begin at any age. There are many stages in the coming out process, and the fear or hatred that comprises homophobia can be expressed outwardly through a variety of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory actions. The process is not exactly the same for every person. Generally, the coming out process begins with coming out to oneself; later stages of coming out involve choosing to disclose one’s sexual orientation to others.
Moving Toward a Recognition and Acceptance of One’s Own LGBTQ Identity
This part of the coming out process involves becoming consciously aware of one’s feelings for and attractions to people of the same sex, or to people of both sexes if one is bisexual. Accepting those feelings and attractions may involve “un-learning” myths, misinformation, and stereotypes that one has been taught by society about people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Acceptance may also involve grieving for the loss of one’s heterosexual identity (i.e. feeling that one will never get married or have children, realizing they may not have the perfect church wedding their parents dreamed of for them, etc.). Another aspect of this stage may be working through one’s fears about how others may react to their sexual orientation and fears about the possibility of rejection by family or friends. Developing a positive self-image is a crucial part of the coming out process.
Coming Out to and Gaining Support from Other LGBTQ people
As individuals “un-learn” the myths and stereotypes that previously formed the basis for their knowledge about homosexuality or bisexuality, they may experience a need to replace that information with more accurate and positive information. They may do this, in part, by seeking out other LGBTQ people who can share their experiences with them. Also, as an individual lets go of their heterosexual identity, they may experience a sense of isolation, of no longer fitting into the heterosexual world around them. They may seek out people who are LGBTQ in order to develop a new sense of community or belonging. People who are LGBTQ may be perceived as the safest people to initially come out to since they are not likely to react negatively or with prejudice. They may begin to develop a support network that helps them feel more comfortable with and established in their sexual orientation. This may include joining lesbian, gay, and bisexual organizations, visiting a gay or lesbian bar, participating in a counseling support group for people who are LGBTQ, or coming out to non-LGBTQ people who are likely to be supportive.
As individuals feel more comfortable with their sexual orientation, they may begin to come out to heterosexual friends, family members, or coworkers. Prior to actually coming out, they may begin to drop hints to “test the waters” for possible reactions. Without explicitly stating their sexual orientation, they may indicate with whom they are spending time, or that they are not planning on marriage. They may discuss issues related to LGBTQ people in general in order to gauge others’ attitudes. Such preliminary steps can make the actual revelation of their sexual orientation less unexpected. As they experience positive reactions, they may feel more and more able to come out to others. If they experience negative reactions, they may go back into the closet for a period of time, they may use their support network to retain their self-confidence, or they may break off relationships with people who are not accepting of their identity.