By Richard Lawrence-Allen
Coming out can be one of the hardest decisions that a member of the LGBTQ+ community can make. To this day, even in the UK where same-sex marriage is legal and LGBTQ+ rights are some of the best in the world, there is still progress to be made and a lot of prejudice and hate towards LGBTQ+ individuals still persists.
For anyone who is unsure, “coming out of the closet”, or simply “coming out” is a metaphor used to describe an LGBTQ+ person self-disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity to others. There may be many varying valid reasons that an LGBTQ+ person may be reluctant come out of the closest to others, and it is important that no one feels obliged to come out before they are ready to do so.
The first step in the journey to coming out is for an LGBTQ+ individual is to first come out to themselves. With relatively limited media representation and little to no education in schools regarding LGBTQ+ individuals and issues, LGBTQ+ people often have to spend a great deal of time navigating complicated feelings regarding their sexual and/or gender identity before truly coming to understand what they mean. Moreover, there is a great societal pressure for LGBTQ+ individuals to adopt a specific label for which to identify themselves to others. While some individuals will be quick to find a comfortable label to expressing their gender/sexual identity, others may take longer.
Labels can be very useful for LGBTQ+ individuals. They are easily understood words that can help align people to a specific part of the community and so find alike individuals. This is great for socialising and building support networks in times of need. Nevertheless, labels can also be problematic. Labels should not be foisted upon other individuals regardless of how you may think that they fit in to a particular group. It is up to each individual to decide whether or not that they wish to use a specific kind of label to describe themselves. Labels can be limiting. Sometimes, LGBTQ+ individuals won’t be able to find a label that they feel truly reflects their identity. In these cases, those individuals may choose not to impose a label on themselves at all and this is completely valid as well.
Finding a label that truly represents you, if you wish to use a label, can be a slow process of discovery. Sexuality and gender identity exist on vast spectrums and are things that many people experience as being fluid, rather than as the fixed binary scale that they are often perceived as being. Identifying with one label and then finding later on that a different label that seems to be a better fit later on is perfectly reasonable and more common than you may think. This is all simply a part of self-discovery.
Some people may choose never to come out of the closet. This could be for many reasons. However, one of the most common reasons for this is fear. This could be a fear of rejection, a fear of how it may affect employment, a fear of being pigeonholed into a set of stereotypes to which you don’t feel you belong, a fear of violence, a fear of persecution. LGBTQ+ people still face a great deal of persecution across the world. In some countries it can be incredibly dangerous and even still illegally to live openly as an LGBTQ+ individual. Remaining in the closet is an option never to be judged or looked down upon. It must be said that for LGBTQ+ that do choose to come out, almost all universally state that despite any preconceived fears, coming out was the best decision of their lives and vastly improved their quality of life. However, coming out isn’t always an immediate option for those in areas where LGBTQ+ people face extreme physical violence or legal action. If coming out is a real danger to your safety, delaying coming out until reaching a safe place is vitally important.
Coming out is often seen as one big event that an LGBTQ+ person goes through just once. This is of course not the case. LGBTQ+ come out countless times; we come out to family, to friends and colleagues, we come out to people every time we meet someone new. We may choose to come out to everyone in our lives, or we may choose to share this information about ourselves only to chosen individuals. However, whenever and to whomever an LGBTQ+ person chooses to come out, it is up to them and them alone and they should never feel pressurised into making any decisions before they are ready to do so.
If someone comes out to you, they have chosen to share something deeply personal and significant about them with you, so feel honoured and respond accordingly. However someone chooses to identify, if they have chosen a specific label or pronoun give that person the respect they deserve and make sure you use the same'when referring to or about them. If you make a mistake and use the wrong label or pronoun by accident, don't be offended if they correct you.
Today marks National Coming Out Day, a day to spread understanding and love of the LGBTQ+ community to all and to foster a community feeling where those who wish to come out feel safe and welcomed to do so. The point of National Coming Out Day is not to out or to shame those that are still in the closest nor push people who are not ready to come out. It is however a fantastic celebration of LGBTQ+ pride and a chance for those who have come out to share their experiences. Coming out as gay was something I struggled with or years, but once I was ready and took that leap out of the closet, I knew it was the best thing I’ve could ever have done for myself.
RSVP is one of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions, the UK’s leading LGBTQ+ charity. If you are struggling with coming out but would like to, Stonewall off some great advice here: https://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/coming-out-0