National Coming Out Day is Sunday, October 11. The day, founded by LGBTQ+ activists Robert Eichberg and Jean O'Leary back in 1988, is used to celebrate coming out, to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues, and to elevate LGBTQ+ individuals' stories. But for some, the experience of having to come out over and over can feel like a burden, not a joy. Max Battle (who uses the pronouns they/them), the Crisis Services Digital Supervisor at The Trevor Project, imagines a future where people don't have to come out, because being cisgender and straight isn’t seen as the norm.
Coming out, while often depicted in movies and TV shows as a momentous occasion in a young LGBTQ person’s life, was not a one-time experience for me. I’ve come out several times, first to my peers at boarding school when I was 15 years old, and since to my family, friends, co-workers, and just about every new person I meet. It looks different every time, based on the day and how much I feel like explaining.
Coming out continues to be a challenge for me, no matter how many times I have to because there isn’t just one tidy label or description that feels like it captures the complexity of my gender or sexual identity. I’ve never felt like I could boil my identity down to a single descriptor, despite society repeatedly asking me to do so.
I started dating a girl in high school before I transitioned, and even though I didn’t feel ready, I only had two choices: to come out or keep my relationship a secret. Luckily, I grew up on Long Island with liberal parents and attended boarding school in Connecticut where being queer was considered cool and even trendy at times, so my decision to come out was largely accepted. Yet, despite the positive reaction to my publicly queer relationship, I struggled. It was so important to my girlfriend at the time to be an out gay couple that it made sharing my unresolved feelings around my gender identity next to impossible. I felt like I had little control over my coming out narrative. And looking back eight years later, I wish it could have been different.
I wish I could have figured out my identity on my own time, without the pressure of society trying to fit me into a box. With the work I do now at The Trevor Project, where I frequently speak with LGBTQ young people who are struggling to come out, I know that the pressure and anxiety I felt is only intensified for those who don’t have the same supportive home environment or progressive peers that I did.
At its core, the idea of coming out is problematic because it hinges on the assumption that people are cisgender or straight until proven otherwise. It creates an enormous burden for young, marginalized people who are often already grappling with their identities and figuring themselves out – who they are, what they like, what they don’t like. In a way, the expectation for a person to come out is asking young people to explain what desire is and translate their feelings into rigid labels, a concept even most adults can’t comprehend.
Coming out is a set of extremely personal decisions that should be made in one’s own time, whenever it feels right and safe. I identify as queer and trans, and I use they/them pronouns. The way I describe my identity changes depending on how I feel and who I am in a room with. Since coming out, I’ve created that space for myself and it's something I’m incredibly proud of. It’s on all of us now to create that same space for LGBTQ young people and reframe the principles around coming out.
As a Crisis Services Digital Supervisor at The Trevor Project, I coach and support our digital crisis counselors through any tough chats during their shift. We talk to a lot of young people who are exploring the idea of coming out, and our approach is to provide them with the space and safety planning they need to feel comfortable being themselves and sharing what feels right to them. In practice, this means guiding them with smart, open-ended questions, but also letting them guide us. It comes down to listening to what they want and taking their feelings seriously.
We all need to approach conversations about gender and sexuality with this same level of openness and empathy. We need to stop assuming that young kids are straight and cisgender until they tell us they aren’t, and instead ask them what feels good and right to them without questioning why.
According to new research from The Trevor Project, 58% of LGBTQ youth said that someone attempted to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. And youth who experienced attempts to change their LGBTQ identity were significantly more likely to attempt suicide than their peers who had not had similar experiences. These findings directly reflect the fear and pressure young people feel to figure out the nuances of their identity and share it with the world – often before they are ready.
Let’s move away from the broad strokes concept of coming out and start looking inward. Ask yourself: Why do I want to know how this person identifies? How will it change how I view them? Why do I assume that someone might identify a certain way based on how they dress or speak or act? At the end of the day, we’re all just individuals who might want to have relationships with other individuals. Why does coming out have to be such a fixed and daunting part of the equation? What if we just let people express themselves, reserving any assumptions or conclusions based on their desires and choices?
It’s unfair to ask LGBTQ people of any age to define their identity just so that it’s easier for the rest of the world to understand, but it’s especially troubling for kids who are still figuring out their way in the world. We need to veer away from the traditional notion of coming out and give young people space to explore who they are on their own timeline. Maybe they’ll never define it in terms that are satisfying to you, and that is absolutely okay.
If you are an LGBTQ person thinking about suicide, please call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.