October 5, 2023

How To Come Out Safely

Start with one person you trust, and then you can open the door to the rest of the world

group of LGBTQA teens with pride flag doorway

Being human is a multifaceted experience. The more we learn to embrace our identities as individuals, the more comfortable we can be in our bodies and the more at home we can feel in our lives.

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And the more we learn, the more we grow. And as you do that, you may discover certain aspects about yourself and how you feel about your body. These new realizations may impact the way you see yourself and the world around you.

For example, you may realize that your gender identity doesn’t align with the sex you were assigned at birth.

And as you ponder what this means for social and/or sexual relationships, you may begin to identify your sexual orientation and the kinds of relationships you want to foster.

Through this journey of self-discovery, you may also reach a point when you’d like to share these newfound parts of yourself with the people you love and trust the most.

Commonly known as “coming out,” this process of sharing how you identify can be exciting, challenging and complex — and it can have a significant, positive impact on your overall physical, mental and emotional health when it’s met with love and support.

“For a lot of people, coming out means sharing your authentic self, wanting to be known or wanting your loved ones to know you better,” says pediatric psychologist Gina Rhodes, PhD. “If that’s something you care about, that’s something you have control over. And there is certainly research that suggests it can be valuable for people’s mental health.”

Positive impact

Fostering close, intimate relationships and experiencing vulnerability with people who deserve that trust from you can make positive impacts on your mental health. Studies show family acceptance of your identity can be a protective factor against depression, substance use and suicidal ideation.

When young adults are supported by their family members, they foster greater self-esteem, social support and overall improved health. That’s especially true for anyone who is transgender or gender diverse: Coming out to family and friends is commonly associated with improved resilience, psychological adjustment and well-being.

But what if you’re not sure you’re ready to share this information with everyone? What if you live in a location or with people who make you feel unsafe if they were to know these important aspects of your identity? How do you know who you can trust? And when is the right time to open up the conversation about who you are as a whole person? How do you even begin to have such an important conversation with so many variables at play?

“The first time you come out is an important, sometimes really memorable, momentous occasion. Some people really want that first coming out to feel like not a big deal. Other people want it to feel more like a celebration,” notes Dr. Rhodes. “Knowing how you want it to play out can inform where you start your coming out journey. And it’s often valuable to start from a place of figuring out what you value or hope to get from the experience.”

Dr. Rhodes walks us through the coming out process, how and when you can get the conversation started, and tips for supporting yourself when safety is a concern.

Who to come out to

Often, people have this misconception that when you come out it has to be all or nothing — that if you’re not ready to tell everyone every detail about your identity, it’s not worth sharing the news. But sometimes, it helps to start small and be aware of those in your life you’re not ready to share this news with.

“It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation,” reassures Dr. Rhodes. “It’s your story and your journey. If your gut tells you that you’re not ready to come out to a person right now, you always have space to change your mind. You’re in control of your narrative.”

That means you can be selective about who you tell, how you deliver the information and in what setting you choose to have the conversation. People you might want to begin having this conversation with include:

  • Your closest friend(s).
  • Your siblings, parents or other immediate members of your family.
  • Your healthcare provider.
  • Other members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

And you can have these conversations:

  • Face-to-face.
  • In a public place.
  • In a letter, email or text message.
  • In welcoming and affirming online communities and social media settings.

Whomever you choose to share your story with first, and however you choose to tell it, it’s important that you consider your goals for having the conversation. It’s also important to take the necessary steps to make sure you do everything you can in advance to feel safe and supported going into the conversation.

“There are things you can do to set yourself up for success,” encourages Dr. Rhodes. “If there are concerns about safety, it’s worth sitting with the option of keeping this information to yourself until you’re in a space where you feel safe to share this information.”

How do you know if you’re ready to come out?

There’s no right or wrong way to come out about your identity and there are no hard or fast rules when it comes to determining your timeline. Coming out looks different for everyone, so it’s important that you consider your options and what makes the most sense for your unique situation.

Sometimes, people feel comfortable and supported enough to come out at an early age. Others may wait until later in life when their circumstances have changed and/or they feel more supported in their environment. Reasons for coming out vary, but you may want to come out if:

  • You’re looking for a relationship.
  • You’re in a relationship and are ready to introduce people to your partner.
  • You’re interested in connecting with like-minded individuals who share the same or similar identity as you.
  • You’re interested in your options for healthcare.
  • You just want to share the news.

And if you’re not ready to come out, that’s OK, too. There are other things you can do to test the waters and gauge exactly how someone might feel about hearing the news.

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“For some people, there’s the concern of never being 100% certain how someone will respond. For those people, it may be more about having conversations with loved ones about queer celebrities or LGBTQIA+ issues and seeing how they respond to those conversations,” says Dr. Rhodes.

“If what you really care about is being seen, being known and feeling supported, coming out is not the only way you can get closer to that goal.”

Spending time in welcoming and affirming spaces can be helpful when trying to meet like-minded individuals — and that includes your local LGBTQIA+ community center, as well as supportive online communities across apps like Reddit and TikTok. Plus, studies show that getting involved in LGBTQIA+ organizations is one of the best coping strategies for feeling validated and supported, leading to better psychosocial adjustment and higher school attainment.

“If you’re not ready to come out right now, be patient with yourself and ask yourself what you need right now to feel supported in other ways,” says Dr. Rhodes. “You can show pride and be a part of a community in a lot of different ways regardless of whether or not you’re out to people in your life. And when you are ready to come out, you’ll be equipped to handle that conversation effectively.”

Tips on making the most of your coming out experience

The following advice can be helpful when you’re ready to share the news:

Start with the most trusted person in your life

Your best friend, your father, your grandmother or your online pen pal — the closest person you run to without hesitation, on your best and worst days, might be the best person to share this news with from the very beginning.

“Some people want to control their story a little more,” notes Dr. Rhodes. “It’s common to start with one person and then build your way up from there.”

See what they’re saying online

“It’s not uncommon for people to come out online in a setting they already know is LGBTQIA+-friendly — especially if they don’t think they have someone they trust in their life,” says Dr. Rhodes.

“Of course, you have to be careful about who you share intimate details about your life with online, but some people choose to come out on Reddit or TikTok and other platforms because they get that positive experience from a supportive community and it can sometimes feel safer.”

Think about your delivery

Do you want to schedule a time to have this conversation face-to-face so you can be very intentional about your approach and how you announce the news? Or do you want to have the conversation with the help of a friend in a public setting?

“People are sometimes more comfortable having a conversation on a walk or while driving in a car when they don’t necessarily have to look directly at each other,” says Dr. Rhodes. “Some people like to be more intentional and set up a very clear time to talk, when everyone can look at each other.”

Consider taking small steps

If you’re transgender or gender diverse, you may consider making small changes in how you dress, how you look and how you outwardly present yourself in public and in private.

One significant benefit of gender expression is to participate in the process of discovery and experimentation so that your outward appearance matches your inward identity — that you’re able to embrace your entire self as a whole person when you feel comfortable and safe to do so. And let’s face it — self-expression is one small thing you can do every day, even if you’re not ready to come out verbally.

“Maybe you’re not ready to take some of these steps to coming out, but maybe you do want to start painting your nails or growing your hair out or you’re considering a different name for yourself in the short term,” notes Dr. Rhodes.

“I’ve had a lot of kids talk to their parents about cutting their hair in a different way or wearing clothes that better fit how they identify. Not only is that a way to potentially affirm what you’re already discovering about yourself, but it’s a good way to test the waters, too, and find out what works for you in your body.”

Plus, discovering your identity and testing out what expression means to you is something we all do, especially in adolescence, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Discovering who you are as a human being is part of everyone’s human experience.

Be clear about who’s allowed to know this information

It’s your story to tell, so it should be shared on your terms. And sometimes, it’s also easier to tell the ones you trust the most, and then give guided direction on how you would like that person to share the news on your behalf or not share that news at all.

“Many people value the opportunity to have that closeness that comes from telling someone personally, but I’ve had some kids say, ‘I’m going to come out to my stepmom because I feel really confident she’s going to understand and be supportive, and then I want her to tell my dad because I feel like he would feel better about it if he heard it from her,’” illustrates Dr. Rhodes.

The more people you tell, the more you run the risk that someone may not always honor your request. But it might be helpful to think about whether or not you always want the news coming from you.

For example, maybe you decide to come out to your parents but you ask them not to share this news with extended family members until you’ve had the chance to share the news yourself in person. Or maybe you want to tell your best friends and ask them not to share this with other people at school until you’re ready to do so.

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However you decide to carry the conversation forward, it’s OK and perfectly acceptable to be direct about who you want to have access to this information.

Don’t present this information as bad news

No matter your identity, you are beautiful, brilliant and unbelievably cool. Keep that in mind as you start the conversation, and try your best not to keep everyone on the edge of their seat.

“Sometimes, people act as though they’re about to throw a bomb into the middle of the living room, but you can start by embracing the positive aspects of this experience and simply say, ‘I’ve discovered this about myself. I want to feel closer to you and share it with you, and it’s not a bad thing,’” advises Dr. Rhodes. “You never know how someone will react.”

Prepare for questions

You can’t plan for everything, but it can be helpful to consider the responses that might come up and how you might feel in different situations. Sometimes, people might have a lot of questions, including:

  • How long have you known?
  • How do you know?
  • Are you sure?
  • Are you dating anyone?
  • Have you been sexually active?

No one has to answer all the questions they’re asked, especially if it’s a question that’s nosy, invasive or not something that would be expected to be answered by a straight or cisgender person,” states Dr. Rhodes. “It can sometimes be a kindness and a choice to answer uncomfortable questions, but it’s certainly not an obligation.”

Prepare for potential negativity and allow time to process the information

Sometimes, people may have a hard time believing what you say or they may struggle finding the right words. Other times, people might have a more negative reaction. Remember: Your identity and your feelings are valid, and your well-being matters no matter what anyone else says.

“If you have a fairly strong inkling of how someone might respond, you could speak to that. I think it’s helpful that, when giving news, you can keep things fairly short just to give people space to process the information and sit with it,” suggests Dr. Rhodes.

Parents aren’t always perfect either. Sometimes, they need a little time to process these big, important changes and they may need to adjust in order to find ways to support you.

“It can also be important to ask for what you need if you have a very clearly defined need by saying things like, ‘What would be really helpful for me in this moment is to hear that you love me no matter what,’” advises Dr. Rhodes. “The other person may not have thought of that as they’re processing everything you told them.”

If you feel unsafe, help is available

It’s always good to do some research ahead of time to ensure your safety and make sure you have the resources you need to protect yourself in the event someone responds to your news in an unkind or violent way.

That means you may want to have this conversation in a safe, public setting if you’re able, or you may want to bring someone with you whom you trust. Having a backup plan in case things go awry can also be beneficial. If you’re not sure where to begin, these resources can help you no matter your circumstances.

“If there are concerns about safety, it’s always worth sitting with the option of keeping this information to yourself, too, at least until you feel safer to share this information,” says Dr. Rhodes. “For me, safety trumps pretty much everything. Accepting reality doesn’t mean that we approve of it, and we can know this is the right decision for us for now even though it still feels very hard.”

Remember: Coming out is a process that will last the rest of your life

You haven’t met all of the wonderful people who are going to one day love you and respect you for who you are. From coworkers to colleagues, best friends and bosses, and everyone in between, there are going to be people who come into your life who will appreciate what you bring to the table and how you liven up the world and everyone else around you.

“You’re always going to meet new people that you care about, and for various reasons, you may want them to know that part of your identity,” says Dr. Rhodes. “When that happens, this coming out process happens all over again.”

Remember that when your first coming out conversation is over. And whether you consider it a good or bad experience — make sure you take the time to be kind to yourself and love yourself in the quiet moments that come after. You’ve made it. And you matter.

“After doing something that feels heavy, or challenged or momentous, sometimes, it’s valuable to give yourself a soft place to land,” says Dr. Rhodes.

“Before having the conversation, you might want to make sure your plate is clear of any responsibilities. And then, maybe you have your favorite ice cream ready for you in the freezer or you find someone to celebrate with. The point is that, regardless of how this conversation goes, make sure you have time and some breathing room to be extra kind to yourself.”

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