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 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.
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: