October 11 is National Coming Out Day in America, a day when members of the LGBTQ+ community “come out” either for the first time or as part of a whole community celebrating their lives and love. “Coming out” for most LGBTQ+ people is a process that takes place over time. It isn’t just one day in the calendar year but a series of conversations and explorations with family, friends, the church, a partner (if you have one), and most of all with yourself.
Many LGBTQ+ people face “coming out” to family, friends, therapists, and church communities that are not welcoming or affirming. How do we navigate those conversations? Should we come out at all? Every person’s process and experience is different, but the following can help with decisions made in the coming out process.
How do I know if I can come out to my family?
Family can be one of the best parts of our life — and sometimes one of the most painful. Most of us want our parents and siblings to love us and support us. When we’re faced with unsupportive or even cruel family members, coming out can seem impossible.
Some parents, siblings, or other family members are very open about their opinions on LGBTQ people. Others may not be so clear. If you aren’t sure how your family feels, there are a number of ways to bring up the issue without outing yourself as a starting point. You could invite them to watch a TV show with you that happens to contain an LGBTQ character, or mention a celebrity who belongs to the LGBTQ community. You might even make up a “friend” who is trying to decide if they should come out to their parents!
If you are living with your parents and/or are financially dependent on them, coming out can mean risking your home and your support. Some parents will choose to tell their child to leave, to stop paying for college, or to completely cut off contact from a child after they have come out. If you are dependent on your parents for housing or finances, especially if you are a minor, it is OK to take your time in coming out. Your safety is more important.
One of the hardest parts of staying in the closet is the way it stunts our ability to grow as people — and to be in loving relationship with a romantic partner. Having to hide a partner, especially if you are living with unaffirming family, can produce great anxiety, poison the relationship, and increase the chances of being “outed” before you are ready. Of course, love is unpredictable — it’s not so easy to just stay single until the “perfect time”! But if you are in a relationship, it might be time to actively plan for how to move out from a home with non-supportive family.
If you want to come out and you are dependent on family you suspect will not be supportive, have a plan for what you might do if they do not want to support or house you. Some LGBTQ people live with extended family who are supportive, or find roommates to lower the cost of rent in their city or in a nearby urban area. There are options, and when you’re ready, they’ll be there.
Amber Cantorna, “When Coming Out Costs You Everything” (2017)
Kevin Garcia, “When Coming Out to Your Conservative Family” (2017)
Jana, Autostraddle, “How I Came Out to My Evangelical Christian Parents And You Can, Too” (2011)
What if my therapist isn’t LGBTQ-affirming?
A therapist is paid by you or by another organization to help you in your journey. If your therapist can’t be supportive to you in your self-understanding, it is absolutely okay to find a new therapist. Some therapists are upfront about their beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity; others don’t share until you get through their door. It is acceptable, at ANY time, to leave a therapy relationship if the therapist’s beliefs are hurtful to your process in accepting and loving yourself. You do not owe anything to a non-affirming therapist.
The American Psychological Association states that non-heteronormative sexual orientation (homosexuality, bisexuality, etc.) and non-conformity with assigned gender (being transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, etc.) are not psychological conditions that can be removed with medication and therapy. Most credentialed therapists should align with this understanding, but some (and many “Christian counselors” without APA or other psychological credentials) do not.
If you have trouble finding an LGBTQ-affirming therapist in your area, The Christian Closet is an online therapeutic resource for LGBTQ and Christian people.
How do I know if I can come out to my pastor / church community?
You may find that your pastor and/or church community have made statements of “welcome” towards LGBTQ people, only to discover that “welcome” comes with strict requirements to abstain from any non-heteronormative relationships or non-assigned-gender-conforming identities. Many churches have made public statements of LGBTQ affirmation, asserting that not only are LGBTQ people welcome at their church but that their partners, families, orientations, and identities will be recognized and celebrated. You can find most of those churches in the online directories at gaychurch.org and Believe Out Loud.
If the church you currently attend is not welcoming and affirming, you have choices. Many LGBTQ people choose to stay in their non-affirming churches and work for change. You are likely not the only LGBTQ person there! If you want to be an activist for change in your congregation, you can start by:
– Educating yourself. What are the issues that are important to you in LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation? What are your church’s processes for conversation around difficult topics? If you church belongs to a particular denomination, what programs already exist for LGBTQ inclusion within that organization?
– Finding like-minded members. Who else is thinking about this topic? If your church has a social justice committee, you may find conversations beginning there.
– Attending a Reformation Project conference for training on how to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Other LGBTQ people choose to find a new congregation that will welcome them fully. Read more about finding a welcoming congregation.
Carrie Surbaugh, “An Open Letter to My Parents’ Pastor” (2017)
Megan Phelps-Roper, TED Talk, “I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s why I left” (YouTube) (2017)
How do I come out?
1. Choose a medium: There are many ways people choose to come out.
– Face to face: If you think the conversation will be positive, or if you want to be honest and vulnerable with your conversation partner, this is a good option. If you are afraid of immediate backlash, a different method might be better.
– Phone call or Skype: If you want to communicate face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) with someone at a distance, especially if you want to be honest and vulnerable with them, Skype or phone is a good option for a conversation with someone who is likely to be supportive or at least open.
– Email: Writing an email allows you time to process your thoughts and organize them, even have a trusted person read them over for clarity. It also allows the recipient some time to think without needing to respond to you immediately. Not everyone likes to get big news in an email — you know your conversation partner best. Would it be strange to send an email like this, or does it fit with past communication patterns?
– Letter: A mailed letter gives the recipient time to read and process, and reduces the chance that they’ll read it on their phone in the middle of a checkout lane (which can happen with email!). Again, you get the chance to think through your thoughts and organize them beforehand, and your recipient doesn’t feel pressure to respond immediately.
2. Know what you want: What are you hoping for in this conversation?
– A continued relationship: If you are communicating with someone who you don’t think will be supportive and you want to maintain a relationship with them, the first conversation may not go well. It’s hard for two people with very different opinions about something very personal to find common ground the first time they try! Reaffirm for your recipient why you value the relationship with them and why you feel it’s important to be honest. Be prepared for pushback, and think through possible ground rules for future conversations.
– Support: If you are hoping that your conversation partner will respond with affirmation and support, but you suspect they will not, a less immediate form of communication (like email or a letter) may give them the chance to process their emotions before they respond to your coming out. It might even be okay for you to end the letter by saying something like, “I know you’ll need a lot of time to think about this. Here are some resources that have helped me. When you are ready to celebrate with me, I am ready to celebrate with you!”
– Their transformation: Sometimes “coming out” is a part of trying to change an important person’s mind about their stance on same-gender marriage, gender identity, or other key LGBTQ issues. Maybe there is an election coming up; maybe they said something queerphobic on Facebook or over the dinner table; maybe you have come out before and are tired of trying to maintain a relationship with someone who is rejecting you. Offer what you have to say, and end with some suggestions of resources that they might try — books if they like to read, blogs if they are more inclined to shortened content, or anything else that might meet them where they are. It is okay to have boundaries, too! If you are sharing your story with someone who isn’t affirming or welcoming, and they become increasingly antagonistic, it is OK to say that you do not want to talk to them when they are being aggressive or when they are not prepared to accept your story.
– Your own honesty and vulnerability: Sometimes we don’t know what we want when we’re coming out, or we want everything — support, transformation, AND a continued relationship. No matter what your hope is in starting this conversation, be intentional and honest about yourself and your journey.
3. Celebrate yourself: Coming out, especially to someone who is not supportive, can feel like you have to be on the defensive, with foolproof arguments ready to go. But you aren’t coming out to start a fight — you’re coming out because you want to celebrate something you value and treasure about yourself. Invite your conversation partner into that! Share what has been good about your sexuality or gender identity. Tell them how your partner has made you a better person (and a better Christian, if that applies). Celebrate who you are, and invite the other person into that celebration — even if they won’t be ready for a while.
4. Give them time. You have been living with your coming out process for days, weeks, months, maybe even years. This may be the first time it has crossed their mind. Their first reactions may not be positive or even kind. Many LGBTQ people have found that family, friends, or even church communities who were not supportive became supportive through a long process of conversation and reflection. Just as you needed time to come to know who you are, they will need some time to catch up. Give them space and time — but you don’t need to stop your own process as you do.
5. Aftercare: Coming out, especially to someone who is not supportive, can be deeply anxiety-producing, or can end with conversations that are painful or even traumatic. As you prepare to come out to your conversation partner, have a plan for your own “aftercare.” How will you restore yourself to internal peace? You may want to have supportive friends on speed-dial, or plan to stream several episodes of your favorite TV show, or go for a long run after you hang up the phone. Plan what you’d like to do after the conversation is over, so that you can return to feeling like yourself again.
Coming out is a process. Take your time, be true to yourself, and keep finding ways to rest in the love of God.
Kevin Garcia, “A Letter to A Younger Me” (2017)
Shae Washington, “National Coming Out Day” (2017)
Caitlin J. Stout, “To My Friends in the Closet” (2017)
Alicia Crosby, Believe Out Loud, “Coming Out As A Pansexual Christian: Because They First Loved Me” (2017)
Kevin Garcia, “I’ve Been Out for Two Years. This is What I’ve Learned.” (2017)
Bill Dickenson, Believe Out Loud, “How I Navigated My Coming Out Process” (2016)
Verdell A. Wright, Believe Out Loud, “Why Coming Out Isn’t For Everyone” (2016)
Queer Theology, “Coming Out As An Act of Faith”
Broderick Greer, Everyone is Gay, “Coming Out to Religious Relatives“