Public attitudes toward homosexuality have changed decidedly in the last twenty years. The rapidity of the shift toward greater tolerance of homosexual behavior across all religious and political groups – with younger people leading the way – is evidenced most dramatically in the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage. While there are likely many reasons for the changes in societal attitudes, most experts agree that chief among them is the fact that a substantial majority of Americans now say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian.
“Those personal connections are the most powerful force underlying a new perception of normalcy or at least acceptance,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Larisa Wainer of Morris Psychological Group. “As more and more people come to realize that people close to them – their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors and co-workers – are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, they become more sensitive to issues of discrimination and equal rights. That shift in turn is fueled by the growing numbers of LGBT people who have made the deeply personal decision to ‘come out’ – to be honest about who they are and to live openly. That said, coming out isn’t easy for anyone and is particularly difficult for young people who may themselves still be struggling to accept their identity.”
Coming out is not a single act or a single conversation. It is a process of understanding, accepting and sharing one’s identity that may last a lifetime. There is no right way, right time or road map for beginning the process and it is likely to give rise to a wide range of emotions from fear to confusion to relief. “Most people who are hesitant eventually come out because hiding this key aspect of who they are becomes too heavy a burden,” says Dr. Wainer, “and they find that however daunting the prospect, the benefits ultimately outweigh the risks.” Coming out benefits both the individual, who is free to live an open and authentic life, and others, especially young people, who may gain courage and inspiration from a role model.
Dr. Wainer provides some tips for those who are wrestling with this important decision.
• Come out first to yourself. Make certain you are sure of and comfortable with your orientation before telling others.
• Come out on your own terms, in the way and at the time that feels right to you. Don’t let anyone pressure you to come out before you’re ready.
• Start with someone you’re close to who you know to be tolerant and caring and who you believe is unlikely to be shocked or hostile. Plan what to say and pick a time when neither of you is rushed or stressed. Explain why coming out is important to you.
• Some people initially reveal their identity online where anonymity provides a safety shield and a buffer before approaching friends and family.
• Don’t expect everyone to be supportive. Some people need time to absorb what they’ve learned and some may not ever be comfortable enough to accept you as you really are.
• Before approaching someone who you suspect might react negatively, make sure you have an individual or a group you can turn to for support.
• Remember that the conversation may also be uncomfortable for the person you’re talking to. Be patient and listen to them as carefully as you want them to listen to you.
• Be aware of the risks of coming out, particularly if your family has exceptionally strong negative feelings about homosexuality and you are dependent on them. In some cases, it may be better to delay telling them until you’re sure you have a safety net or can support yourself.
“Being honest with friends and family and living openly will ultimately strengthen relationships with those who are most important to you,” says Dr. Wainer. “But it may take time and it may not always go smoothly. No one need make the journey alone. In addition to friends and family, there are support groups and organizations that can provide advice and counsel. Coming out is different for every individual and may indeed go on indefinitely over the course of your life as you meet new people and cross new thresholds. Taking the first step is an important milestone in leading you to a full and fulfilling life.”