Stage 1 – Self Discovery as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender
Becoming aware of same-sex attraction or a different personal gender identity often causes emotional conflict. This may include worry about being non-heterosexual, confusion, anxiety, and denial of feelings. This internal conflict often leads to attempts to behave as heterosexual (i.e. “passing”). Sometimes individuals attempt to “overcome” their sexuality or gender identity, particularly if they fear being condemned by their faith. LGBTQ people are usually “in the closet” at this stage, which refers to keeping their identity to themselves. The same is true for transgender individuals before they begin to disclose to others. However, many seek out information online or through reading or friends. This stage may be deeply, privately maintained until the individual is more independent as is seen in the large number of LGBTQ individuals who come out during college and young adulthood.
Stage 2 – Disclosure to Others
Disclosure is an ongoing process. The first step in this stage is sharing one’s self identity with a close friend or family member. Rejection may cause a return to Stage 1, in which sexual orientation or gender identity is kept private. However, a positive response from others can lead to higher self-esteem and greater self-acceptance. In particular, the way parents respond when children come out will deeply shape the rest of their lives. Disclosure may extend to more people over time.
Stage 3 – Socialization with Other Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender People
As a transgender individual begins to find and connect with others who identify as LGBTQ, feelings of isolation and estrangement diminish. Though a lesbian, gay or bisexual acquaintance may not be transgender, there are often shared feelings and struggles they share. A positive sense of self is strengthened by validation, education, support and acceptance by a community of others who have shared experiences. Positive LGBTQ role models are particularly important during this stage.
Stage 4 – Positive Self-Identification
The hallmark of this stage is feeling good about one’s self, seeking positive relationships, and experiencing a sense of peace and fulfillment. At this point, an LGBTQ person begins to realize that same-sex attraction and relationships are a normal and healthy expression of human love. Transgender individuals find that living as the gender with which they identify feels honest and true.
Stage 5 – Integration and Acceptance
This stage involves an openness and non-defensiveness about sexual orientation or gender identity. Integration of this aspect of a person’s identity may manifest itself in different ways. Some may choose to openly proclaim their sexuality or gender change to others as a way of ending the invisibility of being gay or transgender. Others may be quietly open, not announcing yet not hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity, and being available to support others. Affirming relationships, family, friends, and communities of faith greatly impact an individual’s ability to be fully integrated and self-accepting.
Stage 6 – A Lifelong Journey
Coming out as LGBTQ does not happen just once. It is a lifelong process of discovering, accepting, and sharing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity with others. In our society, we usually assume that everyone is heterosexual and lives in their birth gender. LGBTQ people must continually decide under what circumstances and to whom they will disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. Coming out is an important step in self-acceptance and in fostering emotional, physical, and spiritual health. For LGBTQ people, coming out helps end the pain of secrecy and isolation.
Adapted from The Stages of Coming Out, by Richard Niolon, Ph.D. Additional content contributed by Parents Reconciling Network.