Each June, the LGBTQ+ community parades, poses, and posts their way through Pride, using these 30 days to celebrate love, acknowledge how far the queer community has come, and demand more progress. Many people also use this time to speak their truth for the first time, a process we colloquially call ‘coming out’.
Coming out, according to therapists who specialize in working with LGBTQ+ community, offers individuals a deepened sense of self. That’s not all, though: There are legitimate health benefits of coming out. Read on for a breakdown of these potential perks (which, for the record, stand no matter what time of year someone comes out).
What Does Coming Out Mean, Exactly?
Before we outline its health benefits, let’s settle on an understanding of what coming out really means. “Coming out is the entire process of becoming aware of, proclaiming, and/or sharing with others who you are,” says Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC.
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Usually, we use the term “coming out” to refer to the process of sharing information about sexual orientation. But according to Kahn, we can also use the phrase in reference to the sharing of information like gender, romantic orientation, relationship orientation, relationship structure, and/or personal kinks.
Coming Out Is An Ongoing Process
Typically, coming out is defined as a big one-time event or discussion during which someone who is LGBTQ+ shares that information with all the other individuals in their life. This may take the form of a social media post or an announcement at a family gathering or on a team-wide work Zoom call.
While this understanding encapsulates an early step of the coming out process for many people, it oversimplifies how everlasting and exhaustive the process of sharing your sexuality really is. The reason, according to Kahn: In a society that assumes someone is heterosexual and cisgender unless proven (or told) otherwise, LGBTQ+ individuals are put in that position during menial day-to-day conversations. For instance, we’re often asked questions like “Do you have a boyfriend yet?” or “Oh, I didn’t know you had a wife!?” at work, at a party, or in the locker room under the assumption that we are heterosexual and cisgender.
In these instances, the individual has to use context clues to gauge their safety, as well as their emotional bandwidth, before being able to answer. With someone they believe to be an LGBTQ+ ally, they might answer honestly. For instance: “Actually, I have a wife” or “I don’t have a wife, but I do have a boyfriend.” However, in situations they interpret as unsafe, they might need to laugh it off, bend the truth, or ignore the question altogether in the name of self-preservation.
The Health Benefits of Coming Out
The opposite of coming out is known as being ‘in the closet’. In practice, it requires protecting—and in some instances actively hiding—who you are from those around you. Over time this can lead to something called cognitive dissonance, according to mental health professional Kryss Shane, L.S.W., L.M.S.W., author of The Educator’s Guide to LGBT+ Inclusion. This is the mental discomfort that comes from living in a way that is not congruent with your true, inner self.
“Cognitive dissonance can make you feel like you’re living a double life,” she says. It can also ultimately lead to mental distress, anxiety, and depression. Someone who can’t share their sexuality or gender at work, for example, might notice that they’ve begun to feel anxious every morning, are distracted during the day, or feel emotionally exhausted when it’s time to clock out, explains Shane.
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Assuming those around the individual receive the information with acceptance and warmth, coming out can relieve these side effects, says Shane. In fact, one 2013 study published in the journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals who were out to their families had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, or burnout compared to those still in the closet.
The results led the researchers to conclude that “coming out is no longer a matter of popular debate but a matter of public health.” Importantly, though, they note that coming out might only be beneficial for health “when there are tolerant social policies that facilitate the disclosure process” in place.
In addition, coming out can also help connect individuals to like-minded individuals and communities, as well as help them find potential partners, Kahn notes. This makes sense considering previous research has linked a strong social support system with a variety of health benefits, including decreased rates of depression, lower blood pressure, and even a longer life.
Consider Your Safety Before Coming Out
While there are certainly some proven benefits to coming out, whether or not you do so and who you do so with is a personal choice that should prioritize your safety.
Some LGBTQ+ people choose not to come out because they are living with, employed by, or connected to someone they know to be homophobic and are afraid of losing their access to a house, income, or sustenance, says Shane. Others are afraid to come out and become the target of discrimination. Sadly, neither of these fears are misinformed. LGBTQ+ individuals face rates of homelessness that are nearly three times those of people outside of the community, and data shows that 33 percent of LGBTQ+ Americans faced discrimination of some kind in 2020.
If you are considering coming out, Shane suggests looking for signs that someone is going to be accepting. Someone who trash-talks a newly-out celeb or makes an off-handed comment about recent LGBTQ+ legislation likely won’t receive your news with kindness. However, someone who celebrates Pride month, puts their pronouns in their social media bios, and talks positively about their gay sister likely will.
If you do come out and end up feeling unsafe afterward, seek shelter ASAP. If there’s someone in your life already who knows and accepts all of you, reach out to them. Otherwise, get in touch with any LGBTQ+ adult in your life and explain that you need a place to stay.
For immediate assistance, you can also call the TrevorLifeline at 1-866-488-7386 (if you’re under 25), or The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender National Hotline at 888-843-4564.
Simultaneously a big reveal and ongoing process, coming out can help an individual form community, find love, and experience a plethora of health perks. But that does not mean coming out is mandatory, nor that it needs to be done right this very second.
“Everyone is on their own journey and coming out doesn’t look the same for everyone,” Kahn says. Coming out is a personal decision and we all get to decide what it means for us, looks like for us, when we do it, and if we do it at all.