Posted on this Website in February 2003 with Permission from Curt McKay, Co-Director of Office for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns and Assistant Dean, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The information was adapted from articles in Nancy J. Evans and Vernon A. Wall (eds.) Beyond Tolerance: Gays, Lesbians, and Bisexuals on Campus, American College Personnel Association, 1991.
What is Coming Out?
A generalized definition of "coming out" involves an acceptance either of one's attraction to and orientation toward others of the same sex or of one's orientation as the 'opposite' gender -- an acceptance of one's identity as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (G/L/B/T). In the case of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals, one likes, is attracted to, and is intimately involved with others of the same sex. In the case of transgendered individuals, one can feel like, dress, or identify as members of the opposite gender. Coming out is a process that happens again and again. It occurs initially when one acknowledges to oneself (the most important and often the most difficult aspect of coming out) and to others that one is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. One claims a GLBT orientation as his or her own and begins to be more or less public with it. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals come out repeatedly as they move through their lives and share their identities with others. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals are forced to come out repeatedly because of heterosexism and gender normativity, or the assumptions that everyone is heterosexual and that everyone identifies as the gender which corresponds to their biological sex. Because most people have these assumptions, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals have to come out to others if they choose to share their true identities.
Coming out to themselves is one of the hardest steps in developing a positive GLBT identity for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals. It involves much soul searching and introspection, as well as a good healthy sense of self-appreciation and acceptance. Coming out to others involves risks and difficulties depending on who that person is coming out to, how engaged they are with them, how much power they have in the relationship, and how accepting they are. For gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals, coming out always has risks involved in it.
Why "Come Out"?
Coming out is a necessary part of developing a healthy and positive identity as a GLBT individual:
It can help a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individual feel more positive about themselves.
It can help reduce isolation and alienation and allow for increased support from other GLBT people.
It can make friendships closer by sharing such an important part of one's life.
It can free a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individual from the "hiding game." Living a double life -- one gay, one non-gay; one trans, one non-trans -- is emotionally and physically draining. Being completely honest with significant others in their lives can be a very enriching experience for a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individual.
What Stages are Involved in Coming Out?
There are many stage development theories that attempt to describe the process of coming out; Cass is the most widely known and used. Her model (designed for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals but more or less applicable for transgendered individuals as well) includes the following six stages, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive:
• Identity Confusion
Conscious awareness of GLBT orientation and that it has some relevance to self, but at same time is confused about the issue. "Maybe this information about homosexuals pertains to me, maybe it does not."
• Identity Comparison
Aware that feelings of sexual and affectional attraction are for the same sex persons and that these attractions are different from peers, family, and society at large. Begins to have "relationships" with same sex partners, but rationalizes it with "this is a special case. It is not because she is a woman, but because she is the person I love."
• Identity Tolerance
Increased contact with the gay community, but continues to believe and perpetuate stereotypes and myths about GLBT individuals. Is ambivalent about meeting other GLBT individuals and is reluctant to embrace gay culture. Thinks "I am probably GLBT, but I'm not sure I like that idea or can accept it."
• Identity Acceptance
Actively seeking out GLBT culture and contacts and an increased involvement and commitment to being GLBT. Finds validation in contacts with other GLBT and feels at home with others like them. However, continues to "pass" and keeps closeted about orientation to fit into the majority culture. "Ok, I'm GLBT and I am comfortable as long as I keep that life separate from my straight friends and people in the outside world. It is not anyone's business how I live my personal life."
• Identity Pride
Strong sense of belonging in the GLBT community and wants to be political and active. Has a strong sense of loyalty toward GLBT and anger toward the straight world and people. Immersed in GLBT culture and community and wants to separate from straights. "I am GLBT and proud of it. I prefer to have as little contact with straight people as possible. We are better than them and I cannot be close to them. I do not trust them."
• Identity Synthesis
No longer feels the need to separate from straights and renews trust in straights. Awareness that orientation is but one aspect of a more integrated person. Is comfortable with both straights and gays. "I am GLBT, but that is just one part of me. I am comfortable with people, gay or straight, as long as they can be comfortable with me."