Self-Help Information: Coming Out
For gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals (GLB), coming out is a process of
understanding and exploring one’s sexual orientation and sharing that identity
with others. Forming an identity of oneself as gay, lesbian or bisexual is part
of the process of coming out.
Our society operates under the assumption that heterosexuality is the right
(or at least preferred) way to be. Thus the process of developing a
gay/lesbian/bisexual identity can be difficult, both personally and
interpersonally. It is a very individual process and occurs in different ways
and at different ages for different people.
Development of Sexual Orientation
No one knows for sure how our sexual orientation is formed. Many
theories have been proposed ranging from genetic explanations to
family dynamics. Current evidence suggests that sexual orientation
develops from a complex interplay of many factors including heredity
(or genetics) and hormone levels during development.
Many gay/lesbian/bisexual people have felt different from a
young age, some as young as three or four when we first establish a
sense of what it means to be a boy or a girl. The difference felt
frequently comes from the fact that they had play interests that
were different from same-sex children. Boys may find they were less
interested in sports and girls may find they are more athletic. This
is not true only for gay/lesbian/bisexual individuals, however. One
study found that 72% of gay men reported feeling "somewhat" or "very
different" from same-sex peers, whereas 39% of heterosexual men
reported similar feelings.
Adolescence is a time of great physical changes and interest in
sexual behavior becomes prominent. During this period of sexual
exploration, many gay/lesbian/bisexual people first begin to
recognize an incongruity between their own feelings and those
reported by their peers. This may lead to confusion and the first
steps of identifying oneself as gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Coming Out to Oneself
This process of recognizing one’s own sexual identity and
labeling it has been termed "coming out to oneself." Some people
think of sexual orientation on a continuum from exclusive same-sex
attraction (gay/lesbian) to exclusive opposite-sex attraction
(heterosexuality), with bisexuality somewhere in the middle.
Exploring your sexual identity can mean developing a sense of where
you fall on this continuum. Developing your identity is an ongoing
process that can take many years. Some people describe this time as
an emotional rollercoaster; sometimes feeling happy and confident
and at other times feeling confused, scared and full of self-hate.
Because of societal views that we grow up with in America,
self-acceptance can be a particularly challenging aspect of coming
out. Families, religions, and different cultural institutions
frequently communicate negative messages about sexual orientations
other than heterosexuality. These may be the only messages you have
heard concerning sexuality so it can be difficult to accept a
different orientation in yourself.
During this time, it can be helpful to become aware of the
gay/lesbian/bisexual culture that exists, frequently hidden by
society’s homophobia. There are hundreds of books and magazines on
all aspects of gay/lesbian/bisexual life. Learning that many others
have been here can help lessen the sense of isolation.
Coming Out to Others
Frequently, the next step involves telling others about your
feelings. After developing a sense of your identity and beginning to
accept yourself, most gay/lesbian/bisexual people want to meet other
people with a similar orientation and experience; they want to
explore their sexuality and relationships with others, and don’t
want to feel that part of them is hidden.
It can be difficult to decide whom to tell. It is usually a good
idea to come out first to those who are most likely to be
supportive. This might be a close friend or another
gay/lesbian/bisexual person. The latter can be particularly helpful
because they have experienced at least some of the steps in the
process of coming out. Sharing experiences can help lessen the
feelings of isolation and shame. Again, it’s important to do things
in your own time, on your own schedule. Be patient with yourself and
the ongoing process of self-identification and self-acceptance.
Coming out to heterosexuals can be particularly difficult. This
is where you may be most likely to encounter reactions and
consequences. You need to be prepared for a variety of reactions.
For example, it will help to understand that some heterosexuals will
be shocked or confused initially, and that they may need some time
to get used to the idea that you are gay/lesbian/bisexual. They may
reject you initially, but through time, they may become more
accepting. It can help to remember that you have probably taken a
long time to get used to the idea yourself.
Sometimes, telling your family can be particularly difficult.
Some members of your family may be supportive while others may be
rejecting. They may have had "hints", but have preferred not to have
their suspicions confirmed. Educational resources can be
particularly useful for family members; there are a myriad of books
and organizations designed to help families go through the process
Coming out to others is likely to be a positive experience when
you are more secure with yourself and less dependent on others for
your positive self-concept. This can help give you the fortitude to
deal with the variety of responses you might receive. Choose the
time and place carefully and be prepared for an initially negative
reaction from some people. Have someone lined up to talk with you
later about what happened.
Counseling offers a non-judgmental, caring, and trained
therapist who can provide support as you go through the process of
self-exploration and coming out. Although most counselors are
sensitive and supportive of gay/lesbian/bisexual orientations, it is
important to select a counselor you feel comfortable with. Directly
asking a counselor about his/her feelings or knowledge about
gay/lesbian/bisexual issues can help you determine the "fit". Also,
you can ask others for referrals.
Recommended Books to Read
The Original Coming Out Stories: Expanded Edition.
Julia Penelope and Susan J. Wolfe, Eds., Freedom, CA: The
Crossing Press, 1995.
- Out on Fraternity Row: Personal Accounts of Being Gay
in a College Fraternity. Shane L. Windmeyer & Pamela W.
Freeman, Ed., Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Books, 1998.
- The Gay and Lesbian Self-Esteem Book: A Guide to
Loving Ourselves. Kimeron N. Hardin, Oakland, CA: New
- Coming Out to Parents: A Two-Way Survival Guide for
Lesbians and Gay Men and Their Parents. Mary V. Borhek,
Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1993.
- A Family and Friend’s Guide to Sexual Orientation.
Bob Powers & Ala Ellis, New York: Routledge, 1996.
- Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out.
Loraine Hutchins & Lani Kaahimanu, Eds., Boston: Alyson
Need Additional Help?
Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine
Counseling and Wellness Services offer free individual counseling for these and
related issues for veterinary students (WSU Veterinary Students ONLY). For more
information or to schedule an appointment call or e-mail:
Donna J. Scott, PhD
The information contained in these self help
documents is not to be used as a substitute for professional care. Neither the
authors, Washington State University nor the College of Veterinary Medicine
assume liability for injury incurred by following the information presented in
these self-help documents