Coming out, in the sense of being open about one’s sexuality, has its origins at the start of the 20th century. Interestingly, then it’s meaning used to be quite different and it implied coming out into a community of peers who you were now joining, rather that the idea of leaving the closet and revealing one’s ‘true’ self as it is more commonly used today (see here). Then coming out was used to refer to gay men and drag queens who were literally presenting themselves at huge drag balls in cities like New York and Washington DC and was about showing unity and kinship to fellow brother and sisters . Today it’s used to refer to actually saying the words ‘I am gay’ outloud and for the first time, often to a friend, a family member or a colleague. This experience can be positive or negative as the quote below demonstrates:
‘I’ve already tried to tell her. To be honest, I’ve really told her, but she thinks
that it was a phase, to do with my age. But, my family are Lutheran
Protestants, so because of their religion it would be really difficult for them to
accept it. My mum said that she couldn’t accept this, that I have to fight
against this…that these things aren’t right and that it’s a sin and I’m going to
hell and that God wouldn’t accept this’
There are many reasons why coming out can be a difficult and nerve-wracking experience. A lack of acceptance from family and religion are just two of these, as the quote above from one of my own interviews (see full study here) highlights. Other reasons include, worry about discrimination, especially from those closest to us, lack of understanding from those we come out to and uncertainty ourselves about our sexual orientation or gender identity. It is exactly for these reasons that make Tom Daley’s decision to come out this week was so admirable and courageous. And not only did he come out, but he did so publically, on Youtube, and in the world’s media spotlight. His decision follows those of actors Wentworth Miller (perhaps best known for his roles in Resident Evil and Prison Break) and Ben Whishaw (aka Q in Skyfall) and actress Maria Bellow (who starred in Coyote Ugly) who have all come out since the start of the year (see link).
Not only are there an increasing number of celebrities who are open about being gay or lesbian, but amongst the rest of us mere mortals we are also out to an increasing number of people. In addition, we are making the decision to come out earlier than ever before. A recent Stonewall UK study by showed that for under 18s the average are to come out is 15 and that the coming out age has dropped by over two decades (see the full report
here ). On the other side of the pond the pattern is the same, the average age to come out has fallen from 25, at the start of the 90s, to 16 in 2010 in the US (see here
). Indeed, things have changed so much in the last ten or twenty years that now 2/3 of American gay or lesbian adolescents are out at school and an encouraging 9/10 are now out to their close friends (see here
Why is this so important? Well, research shows that gays and lesbians are happier after coming out. It is often a relief to be open about our sexual orientation and not to have to hide who we are, which can be stressful and worrying. Indeed keeping your sexual orientation hidden can be detrimental to our mental health and has even been linked to higher rates of suicide amongst gay and bisexual, even in what are seen as forward thinking countries such as Sweden. In contrast, being out can help give us the space to be honest and acknowledge our feelings and form a positive minority sexual identity, which can help self-esteem and improve our relationships with family, partners, friends and work colleagues.
The process of coming out and our feelings and understandings of our sexual identities impacts our sexual behaviour. The linkages between these two things, which include self-worth, mental health, self and community acceptance, are important factors which play a role in the risks we take sexually. At GMI our one-to-one support on the counselling, mentoring, and healthrainer programmes, explore these connections in a safe, non-judgemental environment and seek to help you come up with a plan to keep you safe sexually in the future whether you are in the closet or not. For more information on the programmes we offer please see our website.
The views above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the GMI Partnership.