Coming Out, Again and Again and Again
It was big news in the LGBTQ community when this statistic dropped earlier this year: 20 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, according to GLAAD's Harris Poll survey of LGBTQ acceptance.
Why does that percentage mean so much to so many people? Well, even in 2017, it can be easy to feel alone as an LGBTQ person, especially at the early stages of your coming out process. Historically, we've been told that one in 10 people is LGBTQ, sometimes even less.
But 20 percent of young adults is a lot of people. With a lot of people comes community. And with community comes better support and health for young adults who identify as LGBTQ. According to Mental Health America, LGBTQ folks experience mental illness at three times the rate of the non-LGBTQ population. LGBTQ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide. Rates are even higher for trans and gender-non-conforming folks.
These higher risks are linked to stigma and misunderstanding of LGBTQ people, even in a post-marriage equality U.S.A.
But that brings us to the second reason that "20 percent" is important. What's the deal with that high number? Are there more queer people in the world than ever before? No, probably not. That figure is a result of increased acceptance of LGBTQ people. Acceptance is at an all-time high, according to the Harris Poll. In 2016, 53 percent of non-LGBTQ people identified as an ally, with only 14 percent feeling uncomfortable with queer folks.
When people feel safe to come out, they're more likely to do it. It's not that there are more LGBTQ folks today, it's that the world today is a safer place to be open. (LGBTQ history Instagram accounts like lgbt_history and h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y offer great daily reminders that queer people have always existed all over the world.)
Coming out more than once
Coming out is thought of as a central and universal LGBTQ experience. It's talked about in popular culture as if it's a one-time tough conversation that can either go well or poorly, depending on the beliefs of the people in your life.
Every queer person is different, but often, coming out is a process, both with ourselves and with the people in our lives. In many cases, it takes years for queer folks to come out to themselves. During that time, they're often experiencing worry or pressure to date from family or friends. That pressure can make it even tougher to sort through important emotions, and can even make you question if what you're feeling is even real. Even if you've always considered yourself an LGBTQ ally, it can be difficult to come to terms with those feelings when they're happening to you personally.
Putting it out in the open is a different story entirely. And a lot of LGBTQ people have to do it more than once—not only repeating the same conversation with different family members, but also having to repeat the process as their identity changes. For example, it's very common to come out first as bisexual and then again as gay or lesbian, or the other way around.
Shannon Durphy, a 25-year-old who lives in Minneapolis, first came out as a lesbian as a young teenager. That process was "really difficult" but went okay. But when they came out as trans a few years later, not everyone in their family was on board.
"I was challenging what every person thought of me when they saw me, and I myself didn’t even know for sure—what if I was wrong?" Durphy said. "It was easier to come out to my friends and (my aunt and uncle) but to my parents, I couldn’t face them, and wrote a letter which ended up being a bad choice."
Although Durphy's family had been through the coming out process together once before, a smooth first experience doesn't guarantee a smooth second experience. That's the reality for lots of queer folks—coming out is often an iterative process.
Today, Durphy identifies as queer, trans and gender queer, meaning they don't identify as a man or a woman. They use they/them pronouns. That was a new identity to explain to other people.
"The third time around I had been out and queer for so long it was different, easier—but on the flip side of that everyone... I’d known through these different identities... struggled to take me seriously and use the pronouns I wanted," they said. "Moving to (Minneapolis) gave me a fresh start and allowed me to be confident from the start and say who I am and stick up for myself."
Durphy said they feel like they've been coming out their whole life.
"It’s weird to think I’ve been out a decade and coming out to new people all throughout that and as different identities," they said. "Every time I meet someone new I have to come out because I am not visible.
"I struggle with that because saying I’m trans and genderqueer doesn’t encompass my whole history."
In that way, the "coming out" narrative is often oversimplified. Some LGBTQ folks' identities are hard and fast, and never change. But oftentimes, they do, or they're more complicated than can be expressed in a single conversation or by a single label.
The Harris Poll results suggest that young people are more likely to identify outside of the gender binary. Of the 20 percent of young folks who identify as LGBTQ, more than half identify outside of the gender they were assigned at birth. Of all 18- to 34-year-olds, LGBTQ or not, 10 percent identified as gender fluid, agender, bigender, genderqueer or unsure. Gender identity can often be harder to pin down, and harder to describe to folks who aren't familiar with non-binary gender identities.
As many tips as there are LGBTQ folks
If you're thinking about coming out—or thinking about coming out again—the most important thing to remember is to do it in a way that feels safe for you. Because everyone's coming out experience is different, there are tons of experiences to draw on for inspiration.
I reached out to my queer network for their top tips for coming out—to yourself and to others:
- "Be ready to answer questions, and understand that those you tell may need time to adjust to your identity, just as you may have needed time to understand your identity yourself."
- "You may hear unkind words along your journey for acceptance, but the more allies, fellow LGBTQA+ people and positive messages you can find, the easier coming out will be on your mental health."
- "I came out by waiting to come out until I had a girlfriend, then brought my 'friend' for a weekend family visit and shared a bed with her in hopes that they just figured it out. Don't do that. Be direct. Have that uncomfortable conversation."
- "Giving your parents books can be helpful. 'Everyone is Gay' by Kristen Russo is a good one."
- "Remember that you might have to gently remind your loved ones every so often that you are [insert label here]. I've told my Dad a couple of times and it always goes in his ear and out his other one. Be direct with your coming out as you can. In trying to be subtle you might think you're being smart or cunning, but really everyone around you is either oblivious or wondering what the heck you're on about."
- "I thought really hard about how to come out to my parents in a way that wouldn't make it seem like me being queer was a bad thing. I felt like starting the conversation with 'I need to talk to you' had too many negative connotations, so I opened with 'I have an announcement,' which felt more neutral/less negative. If you're an over-thinker like me, planning your conversational strategy can help you feel more comfortable when it's time to actually come out. (Though you don't want to over-plan—be flexible and responsive; see where the conversation takes you.)"
- "When it comes to coming out, safety is a priority—coming out when you are comfortable and when you are ready and when it feels right for you is so important. No one else can dictate that time to you and you should always be the one to establish when you want to come out."
- "Coming out is a multi-time event (coming out to yourself, coming out to friends, coming out at work, coming out to the barista you want to flirt with in a non-threatening way, etc.) ... Knowing you can come out in the variety of ways... throughout your lifetime can put the pressure off of doing it one way every time."
- "It is waaaaay okay to come out and re-come out again and again. Coming out is a part of our journeys as human beings and we change over time. I know for me I came out as gay, then bisexual, then queer, and then back to bisexual, but still strongly identifying as queer. These identities flex and change with my safety net, my community, my sense of support. And the people who are with me in those changes understand that coming out is a process and that I am always me—just forever transforming into me."
- "Don't feel pressured to come out if you're not ready, or in any fashion that doesn't feel authentic to you. Coming out doesn't mean you have to suddenly dress in rainbows and Pride flags. If that's something you want to do, go ahead and do it, but don't feel like you have to."
- "I made a list of things I wanted to make sure I said, and I communicated rules to my parents: what we could talk about; what we could not talk about (i.e. my sex life); whether I was willing to answer all questions, only certain questions or no questions. I also made sure to tell them which words I prefer they use, such as queer, and whether they were allowed to tell other people or not. It really helped to be as clear as possible with them! One thing I did not anticipate is that my mom wanted to know if we were ever allowed to speak about it again after that time or if this was just a one-time conversation topic. I also did my best to communicate empathy for them, especially because in their context/worldview, having a queer kid is a scary thing for them, and I tried to acknowledge that out loud to them."
"Coming out to your close family/parents/the people you live with is one thing, but you will be coming out again and again for the rest of your life. Some days you'll feel up to correcting total strangers or less close friends or co-workers on the relationships you are in or are looking for, some days you won't. But whatever you do, you're still valid. Don't feel like you have to come out, and always think about your safety. That's the most important thing."