The Stages of Coming Out

Coming out is different for everyone, but there seem to be several distinct stages that can be recognized in most journeys.  Here is how I see them in my own journey:

It starts with confusion.  This may be the hardest part to describe, and maybe the part that takes the longest for most people.  It definitely took a long time for me.  This is the stage where you ask yourself, “Am I different?” and “How am I different?”  This stage is difficult because everyone only knows their experience, and we don’t know if and how other people ask themselves the same questions, and if the same stuff that causes our confusion also causes theirs.  LGBT people have no way of knowing if straight people feel the same feelings, think the same thoughts, take the same actions, etc.  Straight people have no context for understanding this stage because they have never had a natural, biological inclination for similar experiences.

Next comes comparison to others.  Everyone compares themselves to others, and everyone cares about what others think. Some much more than others, and some much less.  Most fluctuate throughout their lives regarding how much they care, whose opinions they care about, what topics, etc.  As a gay Christian man, I compared myself to men, to Christians, and to Christian men.  When I started addressing my sexuality, I had to start comparing myself to gay men as well.  When it comes to men, I am definitely like most men in most ways, and the only noticeable difference is that I’m not sexually attracted to women.  When I would hear a bunch of straight high school boys talk openly and honestly about how they felt about girls and all the stuff they wanted to do with them, it was hard not compare that to myself and begin to understand I had just never felt that way.  I always thought that was just due to my Christian background, but I also had to understand that I couldn’t even relate to the much more mild ways my straight Christian friends would talk about women and sex in the dorms of a private Christian university.  I didn’t know any gay people, so I had no way of comparing myself to them.  All I knew were the stereotypes and the few examples I had seen from movies and TV.  When I was in middle school, when sexuality was beginning to develop and causing me to be confused and to compare myself to my peers, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy was one of the first popular TV shows featuring gay men.  Each of the gay men specialized in areas like fashion, hair styling, and interior design so they could spruce up straight men and their homes and make them more attractive to women.  If that’s what being gay is, and I compared myself to that, then how could I be gay, because I’m not that?  In this stage you think “maybe I am gay” and “I’m alone.” In most cases this creates fear, which causes one to deny and repress feelings and thoughts.  People who feel the need to “pass” or “present” as straight experience a lot of anxiety as they subconsciously control natural characteristics in order to conform with societal expectations.

The third step is self-recognition as gay.  At some point you realize that the only thing that makes you “different” is the fact that most people don’t have to wonder about all these things, don’t have to ask themselves the same questions, and don’t feel the need to compare themselves to others as much because they don’t have those natural characteristics that make them concerned with “passing” or “presenting” as straight, because they just are straight.  For me, it was less about accepting that I am gay than it was about accepting that I’m not straight.  In this stage, there is intense relief about coming to peace and terms with yourself, but also some fresh anxiety and grief over the loss of the ideal heterosexual life and the perceived “fall from grace” implied by simply being gay.  In this stage you also develop a new tolerance for LGBT people, begin to read about the issues, and begin to educate yourself about the diversity of gay people. As a gay Christian, my understanding of Scripture and Christian sexual ethics developed before I was able to accept myself as gay, and has continued to develop throughout my journey.  In this stage you also begin to feel that it is ok to come out to some people.

The fourth step is coming out.  People come out in all kinds of ways, and you just have to find what works for you.  A lot of the gay Christians in my online forum have accepted that they’re gay for a long time and are still serving in ministry because they’re just not ready to come out.  They might tell a few friends or family, but it’s definitely hard for them to know who they can trust with such information, especially if they plan to continue in ministry.  I came out way quicker than most people, just because that’s what felt right for me and my situation.  I knew how damaging the stress and anxiety would be if I had stayed in the closet, so I just went for it.  I’ve seen many religious leaders just suddenly disappear without a word.  It’s subtle, but those are the kinds of things I notice, and there are always rumors about why they left, and rumors are never good.  I refused to be “that guy” who shrunk away in guilt and shame to live the “gay lifestyle” in some obscure world with no context.  Honesty is always the best policy, and that’s why it was important for me to be open about everything.  I think it set a good example for the community and the students I work with, but of course there are many who believe it’s a terrible example.  I think the worse example would be to lie about it or to intentionally deny or cover up the truth, and I’m glad I’m not the one who did that.  If you’re not in religious setting, I would feel like there’s less need to come out publicly.  Most people these days don’t care, so you don’t even have to volunteer the information at all.  Do it however you want, take as much time as you want.  Do it quietly or loudly, just whatever works for you.

The fifth step is socialization with other gays.  This stage can actually come at any time, and could actually be helpful during the comparison stage.  I kind of wish I had socialized with other gay people before coming out, but I also don’t regret anything in my journey or process because it just is what it is.  It’s one thing to read about LGBT people or to read stuff written by LGBT people, but you can’t get the full picture without some real interaction.  I’m lucky enough to live fairly close to Capitol Hill, which is a fairly large LGBT community.  The first few times I went there, just to work in coffee shops and people watch, I was just surprised by how “normal” everything and everyone was.  With limited understanding and education and almost no context, I had always pictured it as something much different.  It feels kind of like “duh” now, but I know that if I felt that way, and I have actually been gay all my life, it must be even harder for straight people with limited understanding, mis-education and no context to understand that as well.  I kind of have compassion for those people, but it’s hard to have compassion for people who have no interest in becoming more educated.  When I spent time around gay people and heard about their stories, experiences and journeys, things started to click like never before.  There’s kind of like an indescribable, unspoken, mutual understanding between gay people, like we just get each other more than others get us.  It kind of reminds me of my dog.  My dog is very well trained and acts more like a human than dog while he’s at home or walking on leash.  When he goes to a off-leash dog park and gets to just be a dog, he is kind of completely different, yet still the same.  He can feel he’s among his own species, and he is able to act like he would naturally act.  When he’s around a group of other pure-bred boxers, there’s an even more distinct sense of belonging, and they seem to get each other even more than they get other dogs.  I’m definitely not saying gay men are like dogs, but I’m just saying there are some aspects of life that are so natural that they can’t even be described in words.  The first time I went to a gay club I was just sitting down and people watching. I could not help but laugh when Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody came on and all the gay men rushed to the dance floor to lip sync the words and bust out all the dance moves from the music video.  My whole life I thought I was the only man who knew all those words and had practiced all those dance moves, and that subtle, random comparison just caused something to “click” in pretty amusing way.  The more gay people I’ve met, the more I have been able to realize just how crappy all the stereotypes and misconceptions are.  I’m not going to lie, people that fit the stereotypes definitely do exist and aren’t necessarily rare, but we can probably say that about any people group.  Most of the gay people I’ve met haven’t.  The people I’ve met come from all walks of life, often have Christian backgrounds, work in all types of jobs and industries that require varied skills and educational backgrounds, and seem to be doing their best to live healthy, happy, productive lives.  Most want to find a monogamous life partner for a meaningful, loving relationship, and any want to get married and raise families. Socializing with other gays has been one of the most helpful things I’ve done throughout my journey.  I’m not going to lie, there have definitely been parts of my interactions within the gay community have been disappointing, and there are certainly some LGBT people who engage in unhealthy behavior, but the same is true of some people in any group.  To be honest, it has been difficult to connect with many other gay Christians who are still practicing their faith intentionally.  I am in an LGBT group at my church, but even that group seems to have people who are still kind of just thinking about how they want to maintain their relationship with Jesus.  To be honest, I was getting pretty discouraged about that, but about a month ago I met three gay men in one week who I would say are very committed to growing in their relationship with Jesus intentionally, as I am.  Getting to meet and talk with them was an encouragement I had been needing.  If you’re going to come out, I would recommend having some interactions with gay people before you come out.  I don’t regret that I didn’t, because I can’t change it, but if you’re able to plan for that I would recommend it.

The sixth step is positive self-identification.  You can probably accept that you are gay before you come out, but even after you come out there will probably still be some guilt, shame, fear, guilt, confusion, misunderstanding, and other emotions.  Coming out is often perceived as some fall from grace onto some sort of slippery sloap that leads to some sort of “lifestyle” that allows others to dictate and determine your identity, but only the last part of that is true.  Be who you honestly believe God created you to be, live your life according to what you believe God’s Word celebrates, and use the gifts that bear the kind of good fruit that can only be reaped and sown by only someone who with an intimate relationship with Jesus and someone through whom the Holy Spirit works.  Identify yourself positively, and be confident enough to accept that that will never look the same for everyone.  This stage can be done in all different ways.  If people come out quietly they will probably self-identify positively.  Those who come out more loudly are more likely to loudly self-identify.  For example, I came out pretty loudly, and I posted several articles, blogs, videos, etc. regarding LGBT issues that I have been passionate about.  I’m sure it has been excessive at times, but we all have “that friend,” and it sucks when we are “that friend” for a while.  If that’s what it takes, go for it.  As two of my friends have shared their journey with infertility, and one family has shared their experience with a loved one’s battle with cancer, and many seem pretty consumed with their causes and passions or current issues and politics, I haven’t questioned their motives or feared that they’ve slipped into some lifestyle that allows their experiences and interests to become their identity.  But I can definitely see how someone whose Facebook has been all about gay stuff for a year has slipped into that gay lifestyle where his identity is his sexuality and is forcing him to push his gay agenda.  Why the double standard?  Some ask “why?” and others ask “why not?”  As you develop positive self-image, a common side effect is being frustrated with yourself to have believed something for so long that was so wrong and so damaging to you.  Many gay people react pretty strongly with this, and this causes a pretty severe rejection of mainstream ideals, but just like any part of this stage, everyone handles it differently.  During this stage, I noticed that I no longer even think about how I talk or the tone of my voice, my mannerisms, they way I sit, or any of the things I subconsciously controlled before.  I’m pretty sure nothing has changed, but I just don’t notice it or think about it anymore.  It’s amazing to feel the weight of stress and anxiety lifted off your shoulders, especially because you didn’t know it was there in the first place, and it’s like a bonus you couldn’t have even expected.

The seventh step is synthesis.  To be honest, I’m not sure I’m quite here yet, but maybe, possibly, hopefully beginning this stage now.  In this stage you can accept your sexual orientation and life transition to the point where you don’t need to be defensive about it.  You may have come to terms with the reality of the loss of heterosexual privilege and are comfortable and proud of who you are.  You’re more at peace with yourself and able to live happy, healthy, content life.  I know several gay people who have made it to this stage, and a few gay Christians.  They’re to the point where they don’t really talk about it, and it’s just not really a “thing” at all.  I can definitely see how it’s still a “thing” for me, so I’m still in the sixth stage.  To me it seems like most gay people in the synthesis stage have given up on advocating for other LGBT people, which I go back and forth about.  On one hand, I understand that they want to just live their lives, and I know from personal experience that speaking loudly on any topic, but probably this one in particular, is just exhausting, so I can see how eliminating that just helps them to ease into their daily lives and synthesize.  One of the gay Christians I know is very involved and active in supporting LGBT youth, and he does a great job with it. I think my challenge is that I’m so burdened by the fairly recent realization and understanding of how many LGBT people there are out there in positions like mine, dealing with similar situations and enduring similar stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.  It will be difficult for me to synthesize without forgetting these people and making efforts t support them.  Honestly, it’s a pretty difficult burden to have because the people are so hidden that I don’t even know who they are, and I just have to hope that they somehow come across an example of someone who’s been there and (kind of) made it out, at least alive and healthy.

Everyone’s journey is different, and if you’re going through it, the best advice I can give you is to just do what’s right for you and what works for.  There will be a lot of people trying to give you advice, which is nice, but ultimately you know what’s best for yourself.  In general I would say don’t rush it, and take time to be present with all your thoughts, beliefs, feelings and emotions.  There’s no specific timeline you have to adhere to, so go at your own pace.  My psychiatrist specializes in this field and recently told me that I’ve done in about 18 months what takes most people in my kind of position about five years.  I can’t imagine taking that long, but that’s just me, and I tend to move more quickly on most things than most people.  I’m still not past stage six, which might be my longest stage, so I’m not trying to boast or anything, because I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes me a while.

These stages are not set in stone, but they are distinct stages recognizable in most experiences of people coming out.  The lines between them are blurred as far as beginning and ending, and there are remnants of each that carry on into the next.

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