‘Coming Out’ as a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Teen
Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a natural and perfectly normal variation of the human condition but for a long time our society has made the assumption that people will follow gender conventions (be proper boys/girls and become men or women) and have heterosexual relationships.
To challenge that assumption involves ‘coming out’: a strange expression that mostly refers to the idea of a hidden self – ‘come out from hiding yourself in the closet’.
It’s only since equality legislation and human rights legislation started to protect people with LGBT identities that it became possible or indeed safe for people to let go of the need to hide the true self that is so often associated with a gay or transgender identity.
What are the risks and pitfalls of ‘coming out’ as a teenager?
Teenage years can be a difficult time for many young people as they struggle for autonomy, independence, acceptance and identity. Perhaps the biggest fear and indeed potential risk is that revealing a gay or transgender identity will lead to rejection and or hostility.
Each person’s situation is different and different families and communities can have different reactions: sadly for some people there is prejudice to overcome. Generally the least ideal scenario is an accidental disclosure (or exposure) or someone else ‘outing’ you before you are ready.
It’s therefore important to plan the event wherever possible and consider how the disclosure will impact on your relationships with significant people in your world. We have to remember teenagers are people in systems: teenagers do not enjoy the freedoms of adulthood, constrained to attend school, live under the roof of parents, and just sometimes it is easier to wait until college or adulthood to make a more successful disclosure. You need to be the judge of what is best for you, in your situation.
What are the benefits of ‘coming out’ as a teenager?
When coming out goes well is can be extraordinarily liberating. Finding acceptance as we really are is a key part of the human condition and many would argue is essential for well-being, but this is only possible if we can be honest with others about who we are and how we are.
Living a false life saps your energy and having to pretend to be something we are not means missing out on the life we could be living. Being able to be ‘out’ allows us to live a more honest life: finally we are able to have the relationships we want, express ourselves and be seen as we really are.
When the coming out process works well we feel freed of the need for secrecy and shame and it can feel like a bit weight being lifted off our shoulders. The longer you put off coming out, the longer you are missing out on living the life you deserve: a few years ago the average age of coming out was in the 40’s – increasingly its easier for young people to come out and live their life as they choose sooner.
What are the Emotional and Psychological factors of ‘staying in the closet’ versus ‘Coming out’?
Having to live with internalised shame causes depression and anxiety, and for many people with an LGBT identity, being raised in a culture where there are still so many negative messages about what it means to be gay or transgender can lead to an inner sense of unacceptability or wrongness and make it seem worse than it needs to be.
In the past 30 years we have come a long way in building acceptance for lesbian, gay and bisexual identities and are starting to build awareness of what it means to be transgender. Things are changing for the better but coming out can be anxiety provoking and following the initial disclosure it can sometimes take time for people around us to adjust to this new reality.
You need to hold your nerve and know you are ok. This is where other sources of support can be helpful while you allow people around you to accommodate the news. It’s also worth noting that coming out doesn’t happen just once – in a society that assumes heterosexuality and gender conformity, we can find ourselves needing to come out in new contexts such as starting a new job or when meeting new people in social settings. It does get easier then though!
How to handle the coming out process
Deciding if and when and how to come out as gay or transgender teenager is a complicated equation to balance, and the biggest factor is to decide on is to question how safe it is for you to be addressing this situation at this point in your life.
Although there is the potential to experience tremendous liberation and freedom as you finally are recognised as you really are, rather than having to pretend to be something you are not, the process can be emotionally challenging.
Being transgender can present particular issues as people are still confused about what it means and what it involves. Being transgender tends to be more noticeable than a gay identity and since ‘passing’ is not always possible or indeed necessarily desirable, the stakes are higher: but take heart – others have come out and you can too.
Mostly, its worth being realistic about what being ‘out’ involves to help you decide if this is the time to do it. If you think you are ready, it’s worth looking into the numerous resources available about how to come out to decide on which approach will best suit you and your situation.
What factors should I consider in deciding whether to come out as a teen?
First start with a basic golden rule: trust your instinct. If your instinct says it might be risky and you might come to harm then wait and reassess the risks. There will always be another opportunity to come out so don’t rush the decision.
You will have a good sense of how the people closest to you will react by noting their reactions to LGBT issues in the news and in your neighbourhood. If your family have strong homophobic views or prejudices you might have to accept that coming out will have to wait until you are able to live a more independent life.
Even then, you may have to accept a degree of rejection by them – particularly if their religious beliefs impact on their ability to come to terms with the realities of who you are. However, some families are very accepting and quite often in more liberal families there will have been openness to the possibility already – sometimes the ‘revelation’ is less of a shock than people imagine.
Most of all, take time to assess what risks you perceive – is there evidence that you will come to harm. Are you ready to handle any difficulties?
What support resources do you have?
Some people find it useful to have connections with other LGBT people or groups to help them through the process.
What should I do if it doesn’t go well?
Firstly, don’t panic – just give it time for the dust to settle. If your revelation has come as a surprise it will take time for people to adjust – they will generally get it sooner or later so be patient.
Sometimes families in particular have their own internalised homophobia to overcome – even their own fears about what the neighbours and the rest of the family will think – they may try to minimise or dismiss your disclosure: the classic “its probably just a phase” reaction is a symptom of their struggle to accept the reality.
That’s their stuff and you just need to give them time to work that through themselves. Sometimes their own anxieties get pushed onto others – “don’t tell your grandparents -the shock will kill them” or “don’t tell your brother/sister– they are too young to understand” are common injunctions used to reinforce secrecy and shame and designed to push you back in the closet. Whilst we can respect people’s sensitivities there is no justification in colluding with unhealthy prejudices – age is not the issue: ignorance is.
Sometimes there is a loss process too – parents may have had a fantasy image of a ‘big white wedding’ or of having grandchildren – forgetting that not everyone chooses to either marry or have children and the fact that its much easier for gay people to achieve those aspirations anyway these days if they so choose.
Handling rejection or lack of acceptance can be challenging and this is where the support of a local LGBT community or support group can offer you validation in the absence of acceptance from your immediate social network. This is why the planning phase is so important.
- Trust your inner voice – balance intuition with common sense to make the best decision
- Planning is key – come out in haste – repent in leisure.
- Work out how you will manage your disclosure, who will learn and how.
- Anticipate the reactions and be ready to work around this
- Get support in place first – you may need allies or people on your side.
- Get information – it can help you handle other peoples questions and fears.
- Consider finding support groups.
Finally – remember, this is your life and you have a right to live it peacefully and honestly.
|About The Author
Alex Drummond is a fully qualified Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist and Counsellor located near Caerphilly Glamorgan. His clients come from Cardiff, Newport, Ebbw Vale, Pontypool, Cwmbran and the surrounding valleys.
For more information about Alex’s work visit his GoToSee profile page here
Visit his website www.talkmebetter.com