The Hook Up: Is there an ideal time to come out?

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I knew I was bi from the age of 12, but never felt the need to come out to my family because I figured there was a high chance I would end up with a man. They had their suspicions but I always denied I was gay, because I wasn’t (at least not fully). I would also tell them about the occasional date with guys to assuage their fears. I should mention that they’re pretty homophobic.

Then this year, I suddenly lost my attraction to guys (I don’t know why this should happen in my late twenties, but that’s another story for another time!). And now it’s killing me to be in the closet. When my dad makes homophobic comments, I have to leave the room to cry. I also find myself bringing up gay topics all the time, as if I’m desperate to talk about it in whatever way I can.  

For a while I decided that I should wait until I’m in a long-term relationship with a woman, so I could bring her home and show them how nice and normal lesbians are. Also then maybe I wouldn’t feel so lonely if they disowned me? But this secret is killing me. I feel like I’m living a lie, and I resent the fact that my family doesn’t think of gay people as equals. I also have a slight worry that since I turned gay practically overnight, who’s to say I won’t turn bi or straight again some day? I would hate to give my family a heart attack for no reason.

Is coming out all about timing, or should I rip the band-aid off? Is it worth coming out if my sexuality is apparently unstable? Should I wait until I’m seeing someone, so it will all be worth it? I’d hate to lose my family and be forever alone.—Living A Lie

Dear LAL,

There are a few compelling reasons to stay in the closet—if coming out would result in physical harm; if you are financially dependent on your family and doing so might lead to homelessness or dire straits (no pun intended); if doing so would cause you to lose your job (in the US, you can still be fired for being gay in 28 states).

Deciding when to come out is an intensely personal decision, as the recent Coming Out Huddle illustrated, but I truly recommend you take the plunge. A few reasons why, plus things I wish someone had told me before I came out.

FullSizeRenderillustration by Natasha Miren

Having a stable girlfriend will not change your family’s reaction

If your folks are going to react badly, they’re going to react badly regardless of whether you have a cute girlfriend who makes delicious casseroles and has a 401K. And because you don’t know what reaction to expect, throwing a new partner into a potentially volatile situation is not the greatest idea. While it’s nice to have a partner when you come out (for the support, which we’ll get to in a bit), it’s not necessary. You don’t need a girlfriend to say you like girls.

Prepare in advance

It’s really hard to predict how someone is going to react to you coming out. And, in fact, many of the reactions you expect to get will be wrong, so try not to assume anything. Instead, what you should do is put some thought and time into preparing for different kinds of responses. Ask yourself what you will do if a loved one says that they love you, that they don’t believe you, that they don’t care, and worst case scenarios like fighting, disowning, or verbal attacks. Knowing what you will say if these situations arise will help you react more calmly, confidently, and less emotionally (i.e. cry-hyperventilating and not being able to speak) if such tough talks are required.

Liking ladies is just one aspect of your personality

Remember that being queer is one of a thousand traits that make up who you are. It’s not ALL that you are. It can be helpful to remind those you’re coming out to that you haven’t “changed”; you’re simply sharing something about yourself that they didn’t know.

It does get better, but sometimes it takes a while

A recent study, “Sexual Orientation and Disclosure in Relation to Psychiatric Symptoms, Diurnal Cortisol, and Allostatic Load,” found that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals who were out about their sexuality exhibited less depression, anxiety, and burnout (emotional exhaustion, cynicism). They also had lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone) than those who were closeted to friends and family.

Not only is being out positively correlated with less stress overall (and stress is one of the main reasons we get sick), being out also made people better equipped to deal with stressful situations overall, not just those related to sexuality.

It might take your family time to adjust to seeing you in this new light. But consider the alternative. Consider the impacts that lying, withholding, and running to your room to cry when your dad makes a homophobic comment are having on your emotional well-being in the long run.

You will not be “forever alone”

Around the time you come out, it’s important to have a support network that you can turn to if things don’t go exactly as planned. This involves having a place to crash if necessary, but more so in the arena of providing emotional support. If you have a therapist, ask if you can schedule an emergency phone call or session. Don’t be shy about reaching out to friends you trust or even online networks.

Remember, too, that almost nobody gets along with their families all the time. People clash; people lose touch; fights break out over trivial matters in no way related to sexuality. But even if you come out and find that certain family members and friends don’t support you, I guarantee that other people will. You might have to seek them out yourself, but there will always be people who embrace you for who you are—your “chosen family,” as it were.

As time goes on and you come out to more people, you’ll find still more of these folks. You’ll learn the joy that only true freedom can entail. You’ll learn to say “fuck off” to those whose opinions don’t matter and don’t change who you are. You will find what the poet Robert Graves called “the shining space between dark and dark.” You will embrace your authentic self, and watch as the weight of the world slowly slips from your weary shoulders.

Coming out seems scary now because you’ve built up the worst scenarios in your mind, but once you take those first small steps in the direction of your truest self, you’ll wonder how life ever could’ve been another way.

Anna is a freelance writer in Oakland. Get overly personal emails and haiku from her at tinyletter.com/annapulley. Or Twitter @annapulley. Send her your Hook Up questions at askthehookup@gmail.com