It doesn’t matter how old you are—telling others about your sexuality if you are LBGTQ+ can be hard. “Fears about coming out are very valid,” says Tom Christensen, LMSW, a social worker at Crossroads: The Manhattan Young Adult Clinic. As much as someone may wish to come out, not every community is accepting of LBGTQ+ people, and not everyone has parents or families who will be comfortable with the news.
It can feel really confusing and isolating when you’re trying to figure out who you are—and who you can share that with. If you’re thinking about coming out (or know someone who is), here are some ways to find and give support.
Coming Out: Things to Consider
Not all communities or families are accepting of all sexualities or gender identities. In some circumstances, coming out could lead to bullying, violent behavior, or even something like being kicked out of your house. So first consider your safety.
“If you have these fears, have an action plan in place so that you can be in a safe place,” Christensen says. “Put together a list of people who support you that you can talk to if a conflict arises.” That may be a trusted relative, friend, therapist, counselor, or religious leader. Talking with them first, before you share your feelings with a wider group, can help you think through any negative reactions you might receive, and how you’ll respond if you do.
It can also help to develop a community of LGBTQ+ allies and friends who have lived through these experiences and can share what they’ve gone through. If you cannot find anyone nearby, try online resources such as those listed below. Most importantly, be sure you want to come out, and if so, whether you want to share your feelings with everyone you know, or a smaller group who you feel more comfortable with and trust.
“Coming out should be on an individual’s terms,” Christensen says. “Nobody should ever be forced to come out or be outed–where another person reveals information about your gender or sexual preference without your permission.”
How to Respond to Reactions
If you decide to come out, be prepared that there may be positive and negative reactions. While some people will accept your identity, others may not. No matter what, your sexuality and gender are valid and worth celebrating. Try to keep in mind that as hard as it is, it’s not your job to change their feelings any more than they can change yours. Your responsibility is to be true to yourself, regardless of how other people feel. “Be patient with yourself and take care of yourself,” Christensen says. Know your boundaries: You can be honest with the other person about how you feel without giving too many details if you don’t feel comfortable. The bottom line: “You are in control of this process,” says Christensen. “Nobody has the right to deny you your identity or who you are.”
Choosing Not to Come Out
Not everyone chooses to come out, and for some people, it’s unsafe to do so. That doesn’t make your feelings about your sexuality or gender any less valid. And it doesn’t make your situation any less real if you are still sorting things out and don’t feel ready to speak up just yet. “There’s no rush to put a label on yourself—and you don’t have to put any label on yourself,” Christensen says. “Your identity might also change over time. Explore that and try to be honest with yourself.”
If you choose not to say anything to friends or family, you can still find support through many online resources. Check out the following websites for advice, support, and more information about the LGBTQ+ community. Knowing you are not alone is important, even if you aren’t able or you’re not ready to share your story with those around you:
TheTrevorProject.org This is a leading national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.
GLSEN.org Pronounced “glisten, this leading national education organization is focused on ensuring safe schools and protection from bullying for LGBTQ students.
GLAAD.org An advocacy group for LGBTQ acceptance, GLAAD tackles tough issues to shape the narrative and provoke dialogue that leads to cultural change, so everyone can live the life they love.
KeshetOnline.org This national organization works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life. Led and supported by LGBTQ Jews and straight allies, Keshet cultivates inclusion in the Jewish community, so Jews of all sexual orientations and gender identities can live fully integrated Jewish lives.
TransStudent.org Trans Student Educational Resources is a youth-led organization dedicated to transforming the educational environment for trans and gender nonconforming students through advocacy and empowerment.
TransEquality.org The National Center for Transgender Equality advocates for changes in policies and society to increase understanding and acceptance of transgender people through empathy, opportunity, and justice.
How to Support an LBGTQ+ Friend
When a friend comes out to you, being supportive of them and their decision can make a huge difference in their confidence. First and foremost, never out them. “Sexuality is such an important part of a person’s identity, and it can be difficult or even impossible for some people to come out,” Christensen says. “It’s important that if an individual comes out, it’s on their own terms and they have control over that.”
It’s important that you believe your friend as well. A lot of times, people who come out are told that it’s just a phase, when really they are trying to be honest and tell people how they truly feel. Don’t make your friend feel like they have to prove their gender or sexuality to you.
Also, respect their boundaries. It’s normal to have questions about their sexuality but asking them may feel intrusive. Let your friend share as much as they wish and check out resources online to better inform yourself. “Educating yourself on the topic shows your friend that you care and want to be as supportive as possible,” Christensen says.
Lastly, be mindful of your language and use the pronouns and/or name your friend uses to describe their gender identity. They would do the same for you, right?
Special thanks to our experts:
Tom Christensen, LMSW, Crossroads: The Manhattan Young Adult Clinic.