Coming out is when people acknowledge that they are LGBTQ+. Its an ongoing process, not a single event. LGBTQ+ people are coming out their whole lives– every time they take a new class, start a new job, meet new people, etc.
There is no one way or model that perfectly describes the coming out process. However, here’s what coming out might look like over a period of time:
- You come out to yourself.
- You tell 1 or 2 close friends.
- You tell a few more friends. You may tell classmates or co-workers.
- You tell a family member you trust.
- You tell other family members.
- You come out in public settings.
The 1979 Viviene Cass Identity Model is a fundamental theory on gay and lesbian identity development, along with Anthony R. D’Augelli’s Model of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Identity Development (1994), Ruth E. Fassinger Model of Gay and Lesbian Identity Development (1996) and Arlene Istar Lev’s Transgender Emergence Model (2000).
Consider following the below suggestions if and when someone decides to come out to you.
SUPPORTING LGBTQ+ STUDENTS WHO COME OUT TO YOU
- Offer support but don’t assume a student needs any help. The student may be perfectly comfortable with their sexual orientation or gender identity and may not need help dealing with it or be in need of any support. It may be that the student just wanted to tell someone, or simply to tell you so you might know them better. Offer and be available to support your students as they come out to others.
- Be a role model of acceptance. Always model good behavior by using inclusive language and setting an accepting environment by not making assumptions about people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and by addressing other’s biased language, stereotypes and myths about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
- Appreciate the student’s courage. There is often a risk in telling someone something personal, especially sharing for the first time one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, when it is generally not considered the norm. Consider the student’s coming out a courageous act and compliment them for their courage. Thank them for their trust in you.
- The best way you can help and support a student is to hear them out and let the student know you are there to listen.
- Assure and respect confidentiality. The student told you and may or may not be ready to tell others. Let the student know that the conversation is confidential, and you won’t tell anyone else unless they ask for your help talking to another person. If they want others to know doing it in their own way with their own timing is important. Respect their privacy.
- Ask questions that demonstrate understanding, acceptance and compassion.
- Have you been able to tell anyone else?
- Has this been a secret you have had to keep from others or have you told other people?
- Do you feel you have the support of others?
- Do you need any help of any kind? Resources or someone to listen?
- If there is anything you don’t understand, ask. Don’t assume or act like you understand if you don’t. It’s okay to ask the student. And remember, each person is an individual and has individual ideas and needs. Do not expect students to conform to societal norms about gender or sexual orientation.
- Validate the person’s gender identity and expression. It is important to use the pronoun appropriate to the gender presented or that the person requests. This is a show of respect.
- Remember that gender identity is separate from sexual orientation. Knowing someone is transgender does not provide you with any information about their sexual orientation.
WHAT NOT TO SAY WHEN A STUDENT COMES OUT
- “I knew it!” This makes the disclosure about you and not the student, and you might have been making an assumption based on stereotypes.
- “Are you sure?” This suggests the student doesn’t know who they are.
- “Don’t tell anyone.” This implies there is something wrong and that being LGBTQ+ must be kept hidden.
- “You can’t be gay – you’ve had relationships with people of the opposite sex.” This refers only to behavior, while sexual orientation is about inner feelings.