Coming out," as in coming out of the closet," represents the personal and public acknowledgement of being romantically attracted to individuals of the same sex.
Coming out is not just a single event of disclosing that one is gay to someone. It is a long and sometimes difficult process of coming to terms with one’s gay, bisexual, or lesbian identity. While not necessarily experienced in the following order, six common stages or steps can be identified:
This stage is the awareness that I am different in some basic way regarding romantic attraction, and that I am attracted to the same sex. This may take from weeks to years to understand the meaning and implications of this basic difference.
The challenge in this stage is to overcome the fear, sense of isolation, and self-alienation that is often present with this awareness. The defenses of denial, repression or projection are often used to delay this self-understanding. Exploratory sexual experiences with others of the same sex does not in itself indicate one’s orientation. Ongoing thoughts, feelings, and experiences will often confirm and reinforce that this romantic attraction is very basic and very strong. It is not just a phase and cannot be fundamentally changed.
This involves some initial acknowledgement to myself that "gay, lesbian or bisexual" does describe what I feel and want. Acknowledgement does not mean acceptance that I am gay. There often is a long inner struggle between the internalized homophobic parts of us and the desire to be real, honest, and who we are. Efforts to relate sexually to the opposite sex or change orientation are usually met with frustration and failure.
Strong feelings of guilt, shame, and fear of rejection keep this new self-knowledge hidden. There are usually more frequent same-sex sexual experiences at this time, and the beginnings of romantic attraction—as in "having a crush on someone" or just feeling magnetically drawn to someone—is experienced more fully. The wonderful joy of being deeply in love cements the awareness of being gay as a fundamental part of one’s being.
Once there is some initial acceptance of a new identity as being gay, bisexual, or lesbian, there is usually disclosure to some significant other. Most likely it starts with a trusted friend, but it can be anyone. The response one gets to early coming out disclosures has much influence on how this process continues. Sometimes we do not get to tell our own story and we are "outed" by someone else, which violates our privacy boundary. The process of coming out to others can take from a day to a lifetime depending on many factors.
This stage is often one of awkwardness, intensity, and confusion. It is a time of seeing what is out there in this new world and how I fit into it, if at all. This can be scary!!! Because of long repressed and disowned feelings of attraction to the same sex, this time is often highly sexual and may be mistaken for promiscuity.
If this exploration stage happens as an adult, it can be understood as a late adolescence, a retracing of a stage that was skipped or inhibited during teen years. Depending on the social and sexual experience in finding sexual partners, this stage can enhance self esteem and gay identity.
Coming out alone is different than coming out with someone else in a relationship. Here the challenge is to negotiate and establish some ongoing agreement with one person that meets most of the sexual and emotional needs of both. First relationships may be forever. Often they are not and are transitional. This is not necessarily bad. We can learn something from each relationship as to what works for us and what does not work for us.
Often unresolved "coming out" issues complicate the formation of secure, mutually respectful agreements (e.g., not feeling deserving of love, fear of emotional and/or sexual intimacy, or having guilt/shame/blame issues. All of us need to practice relationships until we get it right—that is becoming comfortable and adept at taking care of ourselves while at the same time living intimately with another in an often hostile society!!!!
This last stage lasts forever. In this stage the individual is more or less comfortable with being who he or she is, and is able to talk about this at times. Here most of the initial panic, fear, self-hatred, grief, and anger is resolved and replaced by a more secure sense of being at peace with who I am as a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person. One is not trying to use the gay partner to help avoid facing some personal life problem (e.g. like with rejecting parents, past abuse, or fear of responsibility).
With integration, there is no compulsive need either to hide or to broadcast the awareness of being gay. It truly does not matter so much who knows or what those who do know think or feel about my being gay. This is very different from the defensive/angry statement, "I don’t give a s_ _ _ what anyone thinks of me!" Anyone of us may go back to earlier steps of non-acceptance, anger, and fear in certain situations, even after feeling secure and good for years. And the energy of anger may be helpful in bringing justice and fairness in our society.
Adapted from James L Helmuth, PhD, Steps to Integration
Stages of Coming Out
Coming Out as a Transgender
Before Coming Out Questions