What does the term "coming out" mean?

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"Coming out" is a figure of speech that refers to the process of openly identifying as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) person. Coming out is not a single event. Rather, it is a lifelong process of learning to understand and acknowledge one’s sexuality and feeling comfortable expressing it in private and public.

In the past, coming out was prohibited due to social prejudices and laws against homosexuality. Due to the efforts of gay activists, many Americans have become accepting of LGBT people and homosexuality. The experience of coming out is very personal and can be difficult.


Historically, society has discouraged LGBT people from coming out. In twentieth-century America, every state with the exception of Illinois had laws that expressly prohibited homosexual behavior. Homosexual activity was punishable by fines and prison sentences, even if such acts occurred in private homes. Additionally, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder, cementing the idea that LGBT behavior was inherently wrong. Mainstream religion almost universally condemned homosexuality. As a result, LGBT people were often harassed, tormented, or imprisoned. Coming out safely was not an option during this time.

Gay Rights Activism

The Stonewall riots are widely regarded as the spark for the LGBT civil rights movement and gay acceptance in the United States. The riots began on June 28, 1969, when police raided a popular gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn. Although police actions against gay bars were common at the time, the bar’s patrons were infuriated by the invasion. They resisted arrest and fought with the police. The fighting spilled into the streets of Greenwich Village and became violent. Protests and demonstrations lasted for the next six days.

The riots inspired LGBT people in America to organize to support the rights of gay people, sparking the gay rights movement. The first gay pride march was held in New York City in 1970 to commemorate the riots. This became an annual event that eventually spread to other major cities. Within two years, gay rights groups had organized in nearly every large city in the United States. From the 1970s onward, these organizations helped to keep gay rights issues at the forefront of the media and government. Eventually, these groups paved the way for acceptance of civil protections, same-sex marriage, and a widespread—but not universal—acceptance of LGBT people in America.

A Deeply Personal Process

Although much of American society has become tolerant and accepting of LGBT people, coming out is still a deeply personal process and carries a risk of rejection. All LGBT people must decide if and how they will come out. It is important for an individual to feel that he or she is in control of the process. Additionally, LGBT people can choose to come out only to certain people or in certain groups. It is not necessary to be "out" in all places at all times. For example, one person might choose to come out to his or her family but not to coworkers. Another might feel comfortable living openly in all areas of his or her life.

For some people, coming out is a positive experience. These individuals feel confident in their sexual identity and have the support of their loved ones. They have no problem opening a conversation with family and friends and find comfort and understanding with them.

Not everyone finds the process easy, however. Some LGBT people may be confused about their sexual identity and unsure where they fit in society. They may feel undermined or dismissed by parents or teachers who try to convince them they are in a "phase." They may worry about being bullied by their peers or be concerned about risking their professional careers. All of these factors can impact the experience of coming out.

Why Come Out?

Most people who come out do so because they are tired of hiding their true selves. They want to express their real identities openly and honestly. They want the opportunity to explore and develop meaningful relationships with others, both platonically and romantically. They feel it is important for other people to know who they really are. This is a very natural feeling.

Coming out can have many benefits, such as feeling like part of a larger community. Additionally, coming out often reduces the stress that LGBT people feel about hiding the truth about themselves, stress that shows LGBT individuals are at a higher risk for mental health issues.


Dealing with the Risks

Coming out has risks, too. Although many Americans say they are tolerant of LGBT people, that tolerance is not universal. Not everyone will be accepting or supportive. Some people may be hostile. Physical safety may even be a concern in certain environments. Sometimes close friends or family members may react negatively. They may be shocked or confused. They may refuse to acknowledge or accept the truth. Some families may withdraw financial support or even ask their LGBT children to move out of their homes. This situation can be painful and dangerous for the LGBT individual.

Some LGBT people experience bullying, harassment, or discrimination when they come out. These incidents can occur anywhere and can be problematic at school or in the workplace.


Many resources are available, both online and offline, to help LGBT people, especially young people, learn about coming out safely. National movements, such as the Human Rights Campaign and the It Gets Better Project, provide information about the process and can help LGBT people decide if coming out is right for them. Professional counseling can also be helpful, especially when family members or friends are not be supportive or in cases of bullying or discrimination.


"Coming Out." Gender Equity Resource Center. UC Berkeley Gender Equity Resource Center. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. http://geneq.berkeley.edu/lgbt_resources_coming_out#1

"Resource Guide to Coming Out." Human Rights Campaign. Human Rights Campaign. Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/resource-guide-to-coming-out

"Introduction: Stonewall Uprising." PBS. WGBH Educational Foundation. Web. 7 Nov. 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/introduction/stonewall-intro/