Recently, Gio, a high school student, generously shared her coming out story with us.
As a social worker at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, I work with many young people who are thinking about whether to come out to their parents, friends and community. Everyone’s coming out experience is unique, and what works for one person may not work for someone else.
Keeping that in mind, here are 7 things to keep in mind as you navigate your coming out process.
1. It’s your decision, and only your decision.
Only you can decide if, when, how and to who you want to come out. If your partner is pressuring or threatening you to come out, think hard about whether your relationship is healthy. Remember: you deserve a relationship that makes you feel happy, healthy and safe.
2. Coming out is different for everyone.
Coming out can be very different for people who hold different identities. For example, if you’re a black transgender woman, your experience will probably be very different from a white cisgender man’s. If you live near a city with lots of resources and a large LGBTQ+ community, your experience will be different from someone living in a rural area. This means that advice that really helped someone else may not work for you, and vice versa.
For some people, coming out is accompanied by physical changes, like transitioning to their true gender or getting a new haircut or dressing differently. But you don’t need to change your physical appearance to be out. Instead of thinking about what you’re “supposed” to do, think about what feels right to you.
3. You don’t have to be 100% certain about your identity.
Some of my young clients worry that if they change how they identify after coming out, people will say that they’re “confused,” or going through a “phase.” But it’s completely normal and ok to be unsure about whether you’re straight, gay, bi, pan, trans, non-binary, queer or something else. You don’t have to have all the answers. Identity is fluid. This means that your identity will change throughout your life in a lot of different ways. That’s a completely normal—and pretty amazing!—part of becoming older and getting to know yourself.
You can’t control how other people react to your identity. Remember that other people can’t tell you who you are. You get to choose how you define yourself.
4. Not coming out doesn’t invalidate your identity.
Your identity does not depend on whether you’ve told others about it. Not being out doesn’t mean you’re “less” LGBTQ, or somehow not a part of the community.
5. Coming out to one person doesn’t mean you have to come out to everyone.
Coming out is a process. You may feel comfortable telling your best friend or your aunt before you tell others. That’s completely normal and ok.
In fact, it’s often a good idea to think of someone who you’re pretty sure will be supportive, and come out to them first. This way, you have someone to support you in case there’s a less enthusiastic reaction in the future.
6. Think about your safety.
As a young person, coming out can be especially difficult because you rely on your family for your basic needs. The possibility that the people who take care of you may react badly to you coming out can be very scary. If you think there’s any chance your family might kick you out of the house or react violently, think hard. Balance that possibility with the pain of keeping your authentic self a secret. Make sure you have another supportive adult in your life who can help you come up with a plan to help you stay safe.
In New York and many other states, it is actually illegal for your parents to kick you out. You are not alone. Check out the resources below.
7. Whether you decide to come out right now or not, take care of yourself.
We live in a society that centers heterosexual and cisgender identities. Many people, whether they realize it or not, believe harmful stereotypes about LGBTQ folks. Unfortunately, this can include LGBTQ people themselves. It’s worth checking in with yourself to see what beliefs you hold about people who aren’t straight and cisgender, and where those beliefs come from. You can’t change those thoughts overnight, but you can recognize them for what they are.
Internalized homophobia and transphobia can have a major impact on your mental health and sense of self-worth. Try to give yourself space to heal from these damaging beliefs. Find activities and people that let you be your authentic self, whether you’re out or not. This could be painting, writing or playing an instrument. It could be playing sports with your friends, going on long walks, or doing something else that makes you feel good about yourself. Seek out musicians, actors, YouTubers, writers and other famous people who you can relate to.
If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC and want to talk to someone about what you’re going through, make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. We provide free, confidential, affirming counseling and other health care services. No judgment, no charge.
- The Trevor Project has a “Coming Out as You” guide complete with worksheets, plus a 24/7 support line.
- GLSEN: Coming Out
- ACLU: Know Your Rights
- Transgender Law Center
Kaitlin Klipsch-Abudu, LMSW is a trauma therapist at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, specializing in work with adolescents and children who have experienced sexual or family violence. Kaitlin has previously worked in court- and school-based settings, providing trauma-informed care and advocacy from an intersectional perspective.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes.