gay; lesbian; homosexual; homosexuality; sex; gender; sexual orientation; homophobia; sexuality; bisexual;
Many young people come to realise, often during their secondary school years, that they are gay, or lesbian or bisexual. ‘Coming out’ means becoming aware of your sexuality, and telling other people about it. It is still often very difficult to do this, even though many people appear to be much more open and accepting.
Before you decide to come out, you need to carefully consider what it will mean to you. This will depend on your family situation, where you live, where you study or work and your own personal feelings. For many people, coming out has been a great relief and a joy - for others it has brought pain and distress. It is suggested that you talk your situation over with an understanding counsellor if possible.
Our sexual orientation is about who we are attracted to sexually and emotionally.
- To be gay or lesbian means being sexually and emotionally attracted to people of your own sex, as well as seeing yourself as gay or lesbian.
- ‘Gay’ is often the word used by men who are attracted to men, while ‘lesbian’ means women who are attracted to women. Some women call themselves gay as well.
- A person who is bisexual can be either a man or a woman who is sexually attracted to both sexes and who sees him or herself as being bisexual.
- The more technical term used for people who are attracted to their own sex is "homosexual".
- Heterosexual or "straight" people are sexually and emotionally attracted to the opposite sex.
- In our society, many people presume that everyone is heterosexual/straight. Some believe that everyone should be heterosexual/straight.
- In some countries homosexuality is illegal. In Australia homosexuality or being gay or lesbian is legal.
Some people believe that being gay, lesbian or bisexual is a choice. Many others believe that people are born gay or lesbian. Many gay, lesbian and bisexual people say that if they really did have a choice, they would not choose to be gay or lesbian because of the difficulties that it can cause for them.
In some countries and societies there is discrimination against, and hate of, gay and lesbian people. This is called homophobia (homophobia literally means fear of homosexuality).
Many people keep their sexuality secret, and are reluctant to tell others that they are gay or lesbian, because they're afraid of being harassed or discriminated against by others. This can make life very difficult for them, because they're constantly hiding an important part of their identity.
In some societies there is growing acceptance and open-mindedness about differences in people – differences are celebrated, for example, through multicultural and gay festivals.
Why come out?
- Our sexuality is a part of our personal identity. Having to hide a part of our identity can lead to emotional pain and unhappiness.
- Many gay, lesbian and bisexual young people simply want to be themselves, to be able to relax around friends, to bring their partner home to family celebrations, to do everything that "straight" people take for granted.
- Some gay and lesbian young people come out simply because they're proud of who they are and want others to know.
- People who have come out may find they are more able to meet other gay and lesbian people.
Here are some other reasons young people have given for coming out:
- “I was spending too much energy telling half-truths, changing names of my dates when I spoke to my friends. I couldn't keep it up any more, I couldn't keep track of the lies and who I'd told what. It exhausted me”.
- “… for my own self-respect and self-esteem”.
- “… to remove the barriers between my family and myself”.
- “I want to make some changes in the world - the more people get to know a gay person well, the less homophobia will be around”.
- “I'd had enough of hearing discriminatory gay jokes, negative comments and put-downs about gays from my father. My self-esteem and self-respect were eroding. I came out to protect my self-esteem”.
Some young people may never 'come out' to others or even to themselves – nor should they feel that they have to.
Steps in coming out
When young people decide to 'come out', they may experience some of the following stages.
- Many people say that first of all they have to come out to themselves. This may mean having a feeling deep inside, or perhaps a strong self-awareness about being gay, lesbian or bisexual.
- Some people say they "always knew" this about themselves.
- For others, accepting their sexuality, or coming out to themselves, comes later. It can take many years.
- Some young gay, lesbian and bisexual people may be aware of their sexual orientation as young as 10 years old or younger, but don't label themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual until about 14 years.
- They may not tell anyone until several years after that.
- After coming out to themselves, some people may then begin to want to come out to others in their lives, for their own reasons.
- People may come out first to other gay people, then family and friends.
- Many people say their mother was the first family member they told.
- Finally, a person may come out to the world.
- Some march in gay pride parades which celebrate sexual diversity.
- Others simply let the world know by living their normal lives in a positive and open way, and feel comfortable not to have to lie.
No one has to go through these stages; no one has to feel as though they should come out to anybody or everybody. It is an individual choice.
Suggestions about coming out
- Don't let anyone pressure you into 'coming out'. It's your life; it's your decision; it's your choice. You don't have to come out.
- Only tell someone if you have enough support to cope with their reaction - not everyone will feel happy for you - some will try to tell you that you can change or even that you need therapy! Be prepared for any reaction.
- If someone rejects you, consider whether the relationship is really worthwhile. Don't lose sight of your own self-worth. Find ways to nurture yourself and your self-esteem.
- Be prepared that once you start to tell people, others might find out pretty quickly.
- Give others time to get used to the idea - after all, you've given yourself time (perhaps years) to get used to the idea.
- Be clear about your own feelings about being gay or lesbian.
- If you are still having doubts, if you're feeling depressed or guilty, it may be best to get some support first, perhaps from a counsellor or telephone support line.
- Believe in yourself first.
- Don't come out during an argument.
- Don't use your sexuality as a weapon to hurt or shock someone else.
- Don't try and make your parents feel guilty for having "turned you this way" - they haven't.
- Timing, timing, timing! It's so important.
- Think about what's happening for the person you want to tell.
- If they're going through a lot of stress right now (eg. exams, just lost a job or just in a bad mood), it may be a good idea to delay.
- Make sure you have time to sit down quietly together.
- Don't do it when you've been drinking alcohol or using any other substance. It's better to be able to think clearly.
- Tell them that you're still the same person as you were yesterday - only now there's more honesty between you both.
- You could have some leaflets or other information handy to give to your parents or close others.
- See the topic 'Young people who are gay or lesbian' on the Parenting and Child Health part of this site for more information for parents.
- Perhaps a local support and information service for parents and friends would be useful (see Resources below).
- Think about the way you'll come out - it doesn't have to be a big confrontation - just a comment (for instance, about what you're doing on the weekend with your partner) can let people know with the information sinking in gradually.
- Think about some of the things your parents or others might say and have some replies ready, eg. they could say, "how can you be sure?" or "you haven't tried hard enough with the opposite sex".
- Make sure that you can trust them if you decide to tell school friends, and that they'll be supportive and open-minded.
- You could write a letter to your parents, if it's too hard to talk about with them
- Celebrate your coming out - what a huge step!
After coming out
Here are some reactions young people have faced when coming out to others. It's a mixture of reactions:
- “My family said they'd always suspected I was gay and were just waiting for me to tell them”.
- “My father is more accepting than my mother is. Most of my friends are straight and they're all accepting - some are curious”.
- “My mother said she was so pleased that I could share this with her”.
- “My ‘hetero’ friends are very accepting - we speak openly, they go to gay bars with me, invite me to parties with gay friends, some have even tried to match-make”.
- “My brother called me some terrible names - in fact we came to blows”.
- “My grandfather has nothing to do with me anymore. I visit Nan when he's out at bowls”.
- “My parents didn't talk about it for four years after I told them, now they're coming around. They're talking openly about my life, becoming involved in my life and welcoming my gay friends into their home”.
- “My best friend gave me a huge hug and said she was glad I'd had the courage to tell her - I'd been afraid she'd think I was trying to come on to her”.
There are times when coming out can put you at risk.
- If you are young and live with your parents, and you think they might "kick you out" of home or reject you, it may be best to choose not to come out just now. Wait until you are sure they'll be supportive or until you are old enough to look after yourself. If you can't wait, be sure you have someone to support you and somewhere to go in case they react badly.
- You may face discrimination and abuse from people at school or work. If you are working in a place where you might be at risk of violence or discrimination, it may be worth checking out laws and policies that protect your rights. Do you have the support to fight for your rights?
- Unfortunately, you may also face discrimination or abuse from people elsewhere, and may find that it is easier or you feel safer avoiding certain situations or places where you once felt comfortable. It is up to you to think carefully about how much of this sort of discrimination you are prepared to confront head on.
"Having a successful relationship with someone of the same or opposite sex takes a lot of work. Having a sexual relationship with anyone of either sex can put you at risk physically and emotionally.
Practising safe sex can take care of the physical risks. Having a relationship with one partner built on caring, honesty, communicating, trust and mutual respect can lessen the emotional risks".
Hillier L, Turner A and Mitchell A (2005). 'Writing themselves in again: 6 years on. The 2nd national report on sexual health and well-being of same-sex attracted young people in Australia'
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Youth Healthline on 1300 13 17 19 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).