Coming out

What is a coming out?

People in our society take many things for granted and don’t question them – ‘That’s just the way it is.’ They assume that certain things are simply true for everybody, particularly when it comes to people’s private lives. Most people would never even consider that the woman in front of them in the checkout queue might live with another woman, or that their customer that they greet with ‘Good morning, sir!’ would rather be greeted with ‘Good morning, madam!’ They do not expect to meet people in their everyday lives that do not conform to their idea of what is ‘normal’.

When others think that you are a certain way when in reality you are (totally) different, you have a choice. You can either stay silent and let them continue thinking that way about you or you can set things right and correct their assumptions. Coming out is this kind of clarification – you tell others that their ideas about you are not correct, and you correct them. The expression coming out refers to the idea of ‘coming out of the closet’, with the closet being a traditional hiding place.

Coming out is an act of self-determination that frees you from the expectations of others. You insist that other people cannot tell you who you are or who you ought to be, and that you make your own decisions. It can be a great relief to come out, but it is also often a difficult process. You need to deal with the fact that you do not meet certain expectations, that you do not conform to certain social rules (sometimes called norms). And sometimes, others find it hard to believe or even refuse to accept that their assumptions about you were wrong.

Many people say that they have to come out again and again. That’s because they need to explain their situation to more than just one person, which means they have to deal with the assumptions of others more than once. For example, you can come out to your friends, to your family, to the people you work with, etc. Everytime you meet someone new, you have to decide which aspects of yourself you want to show and make known.

Only you can decide who you are, how you are, and whom you want to share this with. There are no right or wrong decisions – regardless of what others might tell you. We hope that this text will help you decide what is right for you.

Coming out – as what?

We use the expression coming out particularly in relation to topics about which your social environment – and society as a whole – has rather strong expectations. People often have their coming out in regards to parts of their personality that are seen as ‘basic’ or even ‘essential’. One such part can be their sexuality (for example, if you are a boy and have to be very careful how to reply when someone asks you whether you ‘have a girlfriend yet?’), or their gender (for example, if people expect you to ‘be (like)’ a girl even though you feel you are a boy).

Sexuality & sexual orientation

Sexuality is a very broad term that includes everything to do with your sexual feelings, including whom you feel attracted to, that is, your sexual orientation.

A woman who only feels attracted to other women might call herself (a) lesbian, a man who is sexually and romantically interested only in other men is likely to call himself gay. Homosexual means both gay and lesbian (‘homo’ for ‘same’; the term refers to people who feel attracted to people of the same gender). Some still use the word gay also when referring to homosexual women, but this is becoming rare. Women who only like men and men who only like women are called heterosexual (‘hetero’ for ‘different’) or, more commonly, straight. People who are attracted to people of all genders might say that they are bisexual (‘bi’ for ‘two’, more closely linked to the idea of ‘man’ and ‘woman’), or pansexual (‘pan’ for ‘everything’, more explicitly including also people who do not identify as either ‘man’ or ‘woman’).

Some people identify as queer. This word used to be a very bad slur (and it is still used like that by some to insult people whose sexuality or gender they think do not conform to their expectations) but has been reclaimed as a word of pride by many non-heterosexual people.

While queer is sometimes used as an umbrella term to refer to all kinds of expressions of (non-straight) sexuality and (non-cis) gender, more and more people use it to challenge the very act of categorising people – into ‘men’, ‘women’, ‘straight’, ‘gay’, etc. – itself. In this latter view, queer is a term that can never fully be explained, because the moment you define it, it becomes just another category with which to classify people, and so it would cease to be queer.

People who might be interested in relationships on a romantic level, but, for a variety of reasons, do not want to have sex might identify as asexual.

All these words and categories aside, your own emotions and feelings are what’s most important here. Most people will expect you to be straight (heterosexual). If you are fine with that, that’s okay. Sadly, others often express their opinions in a very aggressive way, and everything that is not like they want it to be gets called bad, weird or ‘perverted’. Don’t look to how others want you to be. Instead, figure out on your own what feels right for you.

Gender identity

You probably have had to fill in a form at least once in your life that asked you to check whether you were ‘female’ or ‘male’. But what is really asked here? The word or letter on your birth certificate? What your genitals look like? Whether you prefer wearing trousers or skirts?

Our society sees gender as something extremely important. There are many rules and traditions (norms) that tell us how (all) men and (all) women have to behave and what they are supposed to look like. Those who break these norms often get in trouble. For example, a man wearing a mini-skirt will get many weird looks or will possibly even be beaten up. A woman letting her beard or body hair grow will be met with only little understanding, if any.

That is not to say that it is ‘wrong’ or ‘unnatural’ not to conform with gender norms! Only you can figure out what you feel comfortable with. It may be that your personal gender identity is the one that society has assigned to you – in that case, you would be cisgender, or simply cis. But you don’t have to conform with these expectations! It’s your own feelings that count: You can be a real woman no matter what your birth certificate says. You can be a real man whether or not you have a penis.

When your gender identity does not conform with the one that most people assign you or that is written in your personal documents, you can call yourself transgender or simply trans. The term transsexual is seen by many as outdated and is no longer used. Many trans* people use an asterisk (*) to hint toward the diversity of trans* identities.

Some people are intersex, which means that their bodies’ so-called ‘sexual characteristics’ (genitals, chromosomes, etc.) do not neatly fit either of the two categories ‘male’ and ‘female’. They might call themselves inter* or herm.

Some people identify as genderqueer, by which they want to express that they don’t think that the boxes of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are any use, and that they reject these gender norms completely. Some also call themselves genderfluid (to express switching between gender categories and norms) or agender/gender-neutral (to express that they have no gender identity or reject any gender identity).

Sometimes, we think we know everything there is to know about ourselves only to be surprised to find new parts of ourselves. Stay honest to yourself and explore your feelings, wishes, desires and needs. You can also decide to experiment and ‘play’ with gender and all the social expectations that come with it, without changing your basic identity. You are who you are, no matter how other people see you.

Why come out?

There are many reasons why people decide to come out. Maybe you want to stop living (with) a lie. Maybe you want to get rid of the pressure of keeping up pretenses. Maybe you want to finally introduce your partner to your parents. Whatever your reasons might be – think carefully about the pros and cons of every situation. Once you have come out of the closet, you can never go back in again.

Coming out to whom?

Coming out to yourself

You yourself are at the beginning of every coming out. It is important that you know how you feel (this includes knowing where you are not so sure yet!). Many people find it important to have a word for their feelings and ways of living – words can strengthen your identity and create a community with others that feel similarly. However, using words to express your identiy does not mean that you are entering a life-long contract to always use these words and no others. Identities and feelings develop and change over time. That change doesn’t make your present feelings less ‘real’, and neither does it mean that you cannot be part of the respective communities.

Coming out to others

When you have become aware of your feelings (including all the insecurities you might still have), you can think about with whom you would like to share them. Maybe you can first talk to someone whom you trust to react positively and not judge you. In general, it is always a good idea to use resources from the community (for example, by reading this text). Many of us have a lot of experience with coming out or are in very similar situations to yours – you are not alone! If possible, create your own connections to the community and get to know people that know what you feel because they have felt or feel the same way. The list of contacts at the end of this text can help you find such people.

How do I come out?

You can come out to others in many different ways – it doesn’t have to be the kind of grim conversation at a kitchen table that you might know from films. When planning your coming out, you can choose a situation that is comfortable for you.

For example, if you are worried about being too nervous when talking to your parents, you can try writing them a letter and leaving it on the table for them. You just don’t manage to tell your best friend the truth to their face? Tell them when chatting online. On the Internet, you will also find pictures of ‘coming out cakes’ – they provide something sweet to deal with the potential shock the person for which it was baked might experience. Others might simply prefer a face-to-face conversation with someone.

No matter how you want to come out, it is always a good idea to prepare as to avoid misunderstandings. If you are well-informed about your feelings and identity, you can deal with potential ‘counter arguments’ (for example, the assumption that ‘your feelings are unnatural’ or that ‘you are only going through a phase’). Again: You alone decide who you are. Nobody else knows what you feel and nobody has the right to deny your identity.

Having decided to come out does not mean that you have to be an open book, by the way. If someone asks you questions that make you feel uncomfortable, remember that you are not on trial. You offer information about yourself, but you don’t owe an exlanation to anyone. And don’t forget: Sometimes, it is better to honestly say that you are not sure than to lie. But not being sure does not mean that others can tell you what you are or what you are supposed to be.

If you are not sure how the person to whom you want to come out will react, you can try finding out how they think about the relevant topic. There is no guarantee that people who like Neil Patrick Harris, Conchita Wurst or Laverne Cox will automatically accept you as gay, genderqueer or trans*, but you can use their names to start a conversation. In general, positive depictions of non-heterosexual and non-cis people in media (for example, characters in films or celebrities that share your identity or way of life) can be good starting-points for coming out, even though they often conform very strongly to specific stereotypes.

Positive and negative consequences

Coming out can result in feeling freer. You may feel relief that you no longer have to hide and live a lie. When you share your feelings and identities with others, your connections to them might get stronger and you might experience a strong feeling of solidarity. However, when you make yourself emotionally vulnerable (for example by talking openly about your emotions when coming out), you create an opportunity not only for human connection but also for getting hurt. Unfortunately, it is still difficult to live openly as yourself in society. That’s because homophobia and transphobia, the rejection of and negative attitudes towards homosexual and transgender people, are still wide-spread.

Very often, it is impossible to predict how others will react to your coming out, which stereotypes they hold, or to what extent they are able to understand your situation. If you are financially or socially dependent on the people to whom you want to come out (for example, your parents or your boss), try to assess the odds of losing their support, and think about whether coming out to them is worth the risk.

Sometimes, people don’t accept a coming out, but many of us have had the experience of coming out to people who then liked us just as much as before. A coming out can have both advantages and disadvantages, and you have to decide for yourself what works best for you. Here, too, the community can help you to find the best way for you.

Dealing with negative reactions

Your coming out will probably be fine, but it is possible that someone refuses to accept who and how you are. That can hurt a lot, and is particularly bad if you depend on that person (for example, financially).

It is certainly a good idea to look for support before you come out, so that you are not alone if someone reacts negatively. For example, having the support of (some of) your friends makes it easier to come out to your parents, your classmates or your work colleagues, if you want to do so. Again, you can find support in the community.

When you have to deal with negative reactions, remember that no situation, as bad as it may seem, can decide and seal your future. Bad times are part of life, and there are means and organisations that you can rely on to make it through. You are part of a world-wide community of people who share your situation. This community has a long history full of people who, like you, had to be brave and find their own way. And you will find your own way, too.

Stereotypes

As said above, coming out means correcting the assumptions that others have about you. This includes, for example, the assumption that you identify as a certain gender and are sexually attracted to people of a different gender. When you correct these assumptions – and already before you do that –, you will be confronted with stereotypes.

Like all social norms – traditions and ideas that define what counts as ‘normal’ and what is ‘allowed’ in a given society or social environment –, stereotypes refer to expectations. Stereotypes are the ideas that people have of certain other groups of people. You can probably think of many stereotypes that people have of you, and maybe also of a few that you have of others.

For example, many believe that all men and boys like to play football and drive cars, and that all women and girls enjoy doing their make-up all day and read only gossip magazines. Stereotypes exist about almost all social groups. They might be true for some individual people – but very often and for very many people, they are false. Groups of people that are already marginalised – which means that they are not part of the ‘mainstream’ and instead are cast as outsiders –, such as trans* people, homosexuals, people with disabilities, people with a migrant background and others, become excluded even further through stereotypes.

No matter what your coming out is about, people will have certain stereotypes and apply them to you. (‘You’re a lesbian? I knew it! You always preferred to wear your hair short!’ / ‘You’re gay? But you love football!’) That can hurt a lot because it means that others see you less as yourself and more as a display dummy that they can dress up with their stereotypes. Confronting stereotypes can be very exhausting and frustrating.

It is perfectly normal not to want to conform to these stereotypes and feel that you need to show others that you are ‘not like that’. That’s okay, but don’t forget that there is nothing inherently wrong with conforming to stereotypes, either. What is important is that you don’t let the stereotypes other hold about you define you, your feelings or your life.

When you like playing football as a woman, then that is as okay as liking to go shopping for hours – or both! And, of course, you can and will change again and again over the course of your life. Maybe you will realise after a while that there is something that you don’t enjoy anymore as much as you used to, and that you want something else now. That is perfectly fine. Only you can find out how you feel comfortable – whether you conform to some stereotype or not.

Of course, you should try to help other people live their lives like that, too. Don’t reject or attack people just because they seem to conform to stereotypes from which you want to isolate yourself. If you insult a gay boy because he seems ‘too feminine’ to you, you contribute to homophobic violence. If you don’t conform to norms to which others expect you to conform, you should be able to understand better than most how painful it can be when others attack you for who/how you are or appear to be.

Discrimination

We talk about discrimination when some people are being treated worse than others simply because they (seem to) belong to a certain group of people or category, for example, a certain religion or sexual minority. Discrimination is tightly linked to stereotypes about members of such groups, as stereotypes are often used to defend and justify discriminatory statements or exclusion.

Discrimination exists in many forms. One form is legal discrimination, coming from and based in the law. For example, women were not allowed to vote in Austria before 1918. Not allowing lesbian and gay people to adopt children is also discrimination, as our sexual orientation says nothing about our ability as parents. Just because something is ‘the law’ does not mean that it is right.

However, discrimination happens regardless of a country’s laws in the everyday lives of many people. For example, homosexual couples caressing one another in public are often told to stop ‘displaying their sexuality’ (while nobody cares about kissing straight couples). This is why many people in homosexual relationships hesitate to hold hands in public – they are afraid of mean looks, hurtful comments or even physical assault.

These different approaches to different people mostly rely on ideas that we all learn while growing up in a given society, often without being consciously aware of it and through many ‘small’ things that we internalise. When we, as children and as adults, see that in basically every single film, a man and woman fall in love with one another, and never a man with another man or a woman with another woman, we learn that love between men and women is ‘the norm’ from which everything else deviates. And those who learn that there is only one norm, and never see anything else, will likely be insecure and afraid when they meet something else – something new –, which can easily turn into contempt or even hatred. This insecurity, fear and hate show themselves in homophobic, transphobic and other actions that attack certain (groups of) people.

Discrimination has many faces. Besides discrimination of non-heterosexual and non-cis people, discrimination can also be rooted in sexism, which means based on stereotypes of and negatives attitudes towards people of a certain gender (for example, when people say that men are bad at taking care of children or that women are too emotional). As men in general have a better position in our society than women, women suffer more (if not more strongly, then at least more often) from sexism than men.

Other forms of discrimination are racism and xenophobia. Xenophobia refers to being afraid of and having negative attitudes towards people that are perceived as ‘foreign’ in some way, for example because they have immigrated to their current home from a different country. Racism targets groups of people that are seen as bad or inferior just because of where they live, where they come from or how they look. For example, people with dark(er) skin are insulted on the street, children whose parents come from a different country are ridiculed as stupid, teenagers that talk to each other in Turkish in Vienna are seen as dangerous, etc.

Even people who suffer from discrimination themselves are not automatically immune to thinking or doing something homophobic, transphobic, sexist, xenophobic or racist. Some gay clubs, for example, do not let in people with dark(er) skin. Some people do not even consider certain others as potential (sex) partners just because they belong to a certain group of people or because they do not conform with our society’s very limited ideals of beauty (young, very slim, light skin, etc.).

That is not to say that you need to find everyone attractive. However, you should be aware that you, too, are influenced by the environment in which you live, and that you also have many stereotypes and wrong ideas that can hurt others. You do not need to feel bad when you realise that you hold stereotypes about others, too – nobody is free of stereotypes; they are unavoidable. But try to empathise with others and treat them the way they want to be treated. If someone tells you about having been discriminated against, listen carefully and keep an open mind. Even if you don’t experience certain forms of discrimination, they might pose serious problems for others.

Dealing with discrimination

What can you do when you or people you know are being discriminated against? We have to admit, you will not always be treated fairly, and sometimes you won’t be able to do anything about it. However, you are never completely helpless.

While the law is often responsible for many forms of discrimination itself, in some cases, it can also protect you from discrimination. For example, in Austria, it is illegal to refuse someone a job just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In this case, you can contact support organisations that will help you defend your rights.

Additionally, there are various groups and organisations that actively fight discrimination. Some of them are listed at the end of this text. These groups and organisations can help you when you are in need of advice or if you become a victim of discrimination. At the same time, you can join them to help others and become an active member in the fight against discrimination yourself.

Now it’s up to you

Gay, lesbian, bi, pan, asexual, queer … – or straight, after all? Boy, girl, woman, man, cis, trans* – or none of these, or everything at the same time? Coming out right now – or not? Now it’s up to you to think about how and what you feel, what you want and how you want to go on.

No matter what you do – whether you are already happy and content or have no idea what to do with your emotions, whether you are currently suffering from discrimination or not – never forget that there are always people on your side. It might be hard sometimes, but you are never alone!

Contacts & further information

You probably still have a lot of questions. The following groups and organisations can help you:

(Coming very soon …)

~ ~ ~ 

German text by Boka En, Michael En and Mercedes Pöll

Translated into English by Michael En