Coming Out to Self and Others
One of the most important tasks of adolescence is to develop and integrate a positive adult identity. This task is even a greater challenge for homosexual youths because they learn from a very young age the stigma of a homosexual or different identity (Ryan & Futterman, 2001). Special challenges confront the person who believes he or she is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, including the need to establish a personal self-identity and communicate it to others, known as coming out (see the accompanying Sex in Real Life, “Coming Out,” and in Chapter 8, Personal Voices, “Don’t Forget to Breathe,” on page 228). A number of models have been offered to explain how this process proceeds.
Coming out refers, first, to acknowledging one’s sexual identity to oneself, and many homosexuals have their own negative feelings about homosexuality to overcome. The often difficult and anxiety-ridden process of disclosing the truth to family, friends, and eventually the public at large comes later. Although some researchers believe that the most stressful experience a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person faces is coming out to his or her parents (LaSala, 2000), others claim this process is not as traumatic as originally believed (Green, 2000). In any event, disclosure of identity plays an important role in identity development and psychological adjustment.
Gay men and lesbian women have been coming out at earlier ages in the past few years. Although first awareness of sexual orientation typically occurs between the ages of 8 and 9, gays and lesbians come out to others, on average, at around age 18 (Savin – Williams & Diamond, 2000). Some youths may come out early in their lives, whereas others remain closeted into late adolescence and adulthood (Taylor, 2000).
Coming out does not just happen overnight; being homosexual may mean for some a lifetime of disclosing different amounts of information to family, friends, and strangers in different contexts (Hofman, 2005). Deciding whether and how to tell friends and family are difficult decisions. Lesbian and gay adolescents usually come out to their friends before family members.
Discovering one’s own homosexual identity can be painful and confusing. One woman explains:
Here I was, with a good job, close friends who I knew would not abandon me when they learned I was gay. I had many gay friends, so I had a support network. My family is open, so I wasn’t worried about them rejecting me. And still, I cried myself to sleep every night and woke up each morning feeling like I had been kicked in the solar plexus. (Author’s files)