But, what is it?
First off, it’s important to give meaning to the phrase “coming out.” Coming out means that a person who identifies as a sexual or gender minority- as in gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and so on- lets others know their identity.
The coming out process is (almost) always stressful and can create a lot (I mean a lot) of mental health concerns. The rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide for those who identify as a sexual minority is astonishing! Not to mention so many things can go wrong in the coming out process; homelessness, loss of friends, discrimination, worrying about being fired from their job (because that still can happen!), family rejection, and more. What’s more, the coming out process is an event that’s continual. For example, if they get new neighbors they’ll have to explain to them that their partner are a couple versus just roommates. To make it more complicated, a person may be “out” in some areas of their life, while “in” in others. Like our example couple telling their friends but not telling their nosy neighbors. If you or a loved one has recently discovered you maybe a sexual minority, there’s typically a pattern of behaviors that occur. The coming out process is divided into six stages: identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis.
Stage one: Identity confusion
The first stage of the coming out process is known as identity confusion. During this stage the person coming out will begin to notice their sexual or gender identification and preferences. Their sexual identity is complicated for them. A male maybe attracted to me, a female might wish she had male genitals, a person may discover that they have no sex drive whatsoever (that’s called being asexual). This person will also redefine what their identification or preferences mean. For example, a person who is questioning if they are lesbian might say to herself, “I’ve had so much bad luck with men, maybe that’s why I am attracted to her?” While that is a huge myth that doesn’t actually occur with lesbians, you may get my point. Another feature of this stage is seeking of information. The same lesbian client may ask her friends if they have ever had any lesbian fantasies or how many lesbian people they know. She may look up how they engage in sexual acts or how they parent as compared to heterosexuals. What’s clear about this stage is that the person has not admitted to themselves that they might be a sexual minority.
Stage two: Identity comparison
The second stage of the coming out process is the contemplation that the person might be a sexual or gender minority. This is nowhere near full acceptance of their identity, but rather allowing the idea to be contemplated. Often at the beginning of this stage homophobia/transphobia may appear in full force. This may present itself as participating in queer bashing, punishing themselves for having the thoughts of their identity, or trying to find alternate explanations. The person may flat out deny they have these sexual or gender thoughts; however, the person will eventually feel positive about being different. Although the person may feel positive about their identity, they may still reject the identity and just accept the behaviors- like having sex with someone of the same gender. It’s also common to see the opposite; to reject the behavior but accept the identity. Either way, this stage is full of contemplation and stress. This stage, along with all of the others, are a time of trying to find self-worth and confidence.
Stage three: Identity tolerance
During this stage a person begins to tolerate the idea of being a sexual minority. By no means is this full acceptance. It’s a time they begin to say things to themselves like okay, so maybe I’m having trans thoughts and I like it. Although this is not the stage that most people come out to the world, they may have let a few people in their close circle know. Their friends may not be supportive or have any knowledge of their identity and therefore the person may feel like they need to find others who identify like them. Finding others who identify on the LGBTQ+ spectrum helps the person begin to define themselves in their new identity. The person finds a place where their identity can be affirmed and accepted. Since seeking support from people who are like them occurs during this stage a building a sense of community with their LGBTQ+ friends is very important.
Stage four: Identity acceptance
This stage differs from the previous because the person is not just tolerating the existence of their sexual or gender identity, but they’re accepting that this is who they are. The person will begin to see themselves in their sexual or gender identity in a positive light. Due to this, they may appear happier and more self-confident. Another common feature of this stage is anger. Anger may surface towards anti-queer individual or societal norms as the person realizes their identity is, in fact, a minority that is discriminated upon. For those individuals who have considered themselves religious, this maybe a very troubling time. Dealing with questions about what will happen to their soul and facing those who are not accepting are harsh realities sexual minorities deal with. However, as the individual feels more personal acceptance of their identity, they will begin living more as their authentic self. Speaking the way they want to speak, behaving the way they want to behave, and loving the people they want to love. The match-up between living the life that they want to live and actually living it can be very empowering.
Stage five: Identity pride
Stage five is bursting with pride. The individual who identifies as a sexual or gender minority may exclusively hang out with their LGBTQ+ friends. The people that have accepted them when others (including themselves) may have not. During this time participation in protests and civil rights maybe common as they want their identity affirmed on a societal level. Moreover, the person may view the world in black-and-white thinking as those who are a sexual minority and those who are not. Those who are not often become the enemy. The “nots” become distrusted as the person who is coming out may feel oppressed and discriminated upon. This stage is when most people come out to all of their friends and family. Supported by their community of folks like them and wanting to change the way sexual and gender minorities are treated are huge markers of this stage.
Stage six: Identity synthesis
The final stage is when the person is able to feel confident in both their sexual or gender minority identity and embrace their supportive heterosexual friends and family. The person has integrated their sexual or gender identity in all aspects of their life and feel comfortable with the integration. For example, the lesbian woman from stage one has told her friends and family that she has a partner. She has a picture of her and her partner on her desk at work and loves educating people on how their life is like everyone elses’. She chooses to join the annual pride fest in her town and volunteers as a mentor in her town’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance club. She chooses to live her life as authentically as possible and feels pride in her relationship.
It’s not always easy!
Although the stages of coming out are often sequential, a person may bounce back and fourth between the stages right before or ahead depending on their circumstances. For instance, a person who is in stage three (identity tolerance) may come out to a few close friends and experience horrible ridicule. This may send the person flying backwards into not accepting that it’s okay or natural to be a sexual or gender minority putting the coming out process at a dead halt.
But, we have hope for you!
What is hoped is that each person who is coming out experiences love and support. Coming out is a difficult task that can sometimes take a life time to sort out! Knowing what to expect with yourself or your loved one may help normalize the experience and prepare you for the process. Our team really wants to make sure that each person feels recognized and supported throughout their journey. Each journey is different. One person might need more time in stage one and one needs more time in stage three.
about the author
Molly Lyons- Intern
Molly is currently in her final year of the Master of Science in Clinical Counseling at Central Methodist University (CMU) and is a student intern at The Counseling Hub and Boone County Mental Health Coalition, where she will assess and provide mental health interventions and resources for individuals and groups in Boone County schools. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in General Psychology with a minor in Child Development from Central Methodist University directly before enrolling in the counseling program. Prior to pursuing her counseling degree, Molly received an Associates of Science in Early Childhood Education from Moberly Area Community College.
Molly has experience in the Counseling Center at MACC's Columbia campus, providing counseling services for students around the topics of identity crises, school-related stressors, depression issues, and coping with anxiety. Molly has co-facilitated Safe Zone trainings which introduce its members to the LGBTQ+ community terminology and basic information. Molly has also completed on online course in LGBTQ+ Counseling Competencies (College and Career Readiness) through the American Counseling Association (ACA). Molly is an active member of both the ACA and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD).
Molly enjoys working with diverse populations and seeks to always be open to new learning experiences. She works best with individuals who are trying to discover who they are and how they relate to their world, as well as others in their world. Molly believes that a person’s external factors can provide both barriers and resources towards growth and that one must discover these in order to thrive.