Coming out as a gay person or as an lgbtq+ person is not a one time event. Understanding the stages of coming out can go a long way in learning how to support yourself, especially if you are just coming out.
Understanding the stages of coming out is also very helpful if you are supporting a gay loved one as they begin the journey towards celebrating their authentic selves. Let’s go over the six stages of coming out as gay – what these are and what to expect during each stage.
I’m Coming Out! (It’s not that easy)
Coming Out Stage 1: Self-Discovery
This is the initial stage where someone discovers and starts to recognize for themselves that they have a same-sex romantic and / or sexual attraction (referred to as romantic and / or sexual identity OR romantic and / or sexual orientation. This stage can also refer to gender awareness – when someone begins to identify as something other than the sex and / or gender they were assigned at birth and in family of origen.
This is just the beginning of the journey. During this stage, it is common for the person to feel confused, ashamed, anxious (but sometimes a bit of excitement too) about what they are discovering about themselves regarding their sexuality and / or gender. In a lot of cases, there will be a cycle of denial that comes with this stage and overcompensation to try to avoid facing this reality
During stage one, a person usually keeps their discoveries about themselves quiet and represses them from others, and likely themselves. Fearing rejection, ridicule, or hostility, their secret (but what shouldn’t be a secret) stays their own. Secrets create shame. Secrets prevent receiving support.
Sometimes, the discovery of being gay starts off in childhood, or as a teenager, but at other times not into well past young adulthood. It’s during this stage of self-discovery where we also see people trying to “pass” as something they are not, as they try to grapple with their truth and what this means for them. And this is a very lonely and difficult time for many. What compounds the difficulty is that gay people until very recently didn’t benefit from having any gay role models or representation in popular culture. This can be psychologically damaging and traumatizing.
Someone might look at this stage and think of it as a “one and done.” The truth comes out to one person and then suddenly, it’s out to everyone. That isn’t normally the case at all. During this stage, a person may disclose who they are to someone who is close to them and whom they trust.
Or to a family member, such as a parent or sibling. Or even to a stranger if this feels safer to the person coming out. In the case of rejection, a person will often return to stage 1 and keep their secret longer (again what shouldn’t be a secret at all because being gay is 100% normal and natural0. In any case, disclosure doesn’t often happen all at once but very slowly over time as they feel ready to do so.
It is important at this stage that the person coming out is able to do so in a way that feels safe and affirming to them. The person coming out needs to be in control of their story and this is why ‘being outed’ can be so painful and wounding.
In the ‘disclosure’ stage, a person needs to feel that they are able to own their story at their own pace.
In this stage, someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ or being gay will begin integrating themselves with other members of the community. In this stage, the feelings of isolation and rejection are replaced with a greater sense of community and acceptance so long as the ‘new’ community is welcoming. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. As the expression goes, ‘hurt people, hurt people’.
If a person who is coming out is rejected by their new gay peers, it is very lonely and scary as it leaves the coming out person feeling like they have no place to be themselves. But as mentioned, coming out is a multi-stage process and each stage also takes time. So with time, most gay people discover fellow gay, lgbtq+ queer folx that support and celebrate the newly coming out person. It is during this stage that validation, education, support and acceptance is the most crucial for a person’s life and for the newly out person’s future identity formation.
Similar to stage 1, this is a stage of discovery. However, during this stage, it’s less focused on their sexual or gender identity. It’s the stage where there is self-acceptance that same-sex relationships are normal and is not an unhealthy way to love, but rather an equally valid and 100 % natural and beautiful variation in being human.
For many gay people this is an exciting time, but it can also feel scary and particularly overwhelming. Unlike their straight counterparts who develop a straight identity over many years (one could argue from birth), a gay person coming out often experiences many discoveries in a relatively short period of time. This is a lot to process and takes time and lots of self (and other) support.
In this stage, we often see full disclosure of who a person is to society as a whole. No longer are they slowly telling their truth, but confidently sharing who they are and how they want to show up in the world and in romantic relationship with others.
It’s a beautiful stage to be in after so many of us spent years or decades hiding away from the world (and ourselves) It’s the acceptance that we are who we say we are, in spite of what society wants us to be. Acceptance brings peace. Acceptance improves our mental health and wellbeing. Acceptance is what allows one to feel safe and reach their full potential as beautiful human beings.
The stages of coming out do not just happen once. It’s a cycle that you go through many times throughout your life and is also not necessarily linear either. It is always a journey of self-discovery and acceptance. And coming out to oneself and others is a process of continual commitment to being supportive to oneself and authentic.
Although this can bring with it many challenges, I also think that this is where gay people can realize the gift that being gay gives them. Being gay allows a person to face society earlier in life than others, and this grows confidence, as well as an awareness of one’s true values.
If you are in any way struggling to understand what stage of the coming out process you (or a loved one) are in, don’t hesitate to reach out. As a gay man, I have been there myself and I know how challenging and rewarding each stage can be. As a gay cbt therapist who specializes in providing therapy to gay men and the wider lgbtq+ community, I have many years of experience helping fellow gay people learn to unpack the meaning of being gay and how to learn to love themeslves and thrive.
Click HERE to learn more about therapy for gay men. If you are looking for support from a gay therapist, who is also a gay life coach, and specializes in providing therapy for the lgbtq+ community, please feel free to contact me at my Honolulu or London clinic. I am happy to offer you a free test drive session to learn more about how gay therapy can help you.
Also, I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in the USA and an Accredited CBT Therapist and Psychotherapist in the UK with over 16 years of experience. My expertise and passion is providing evidence based compassionate therapy for gay men and the lgbtq+ community. I have also completed advanced training in using Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Compassion Focused Therapy as well as life coaching for gay men and lgbtq+ people.