Safe Zone - The coming out process

The term "coming out" (of the closet) refers to the life-long process of the development of a positive gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender identity. It is a very long and difficult struggle for many people because they often have to confront many homophobic attitudes and discriminatory practices along the way. Many individuals first need to struggle with their own negative stereotypes and feelings of homophobia that they learned when they were growing up.

Before these individuals can feel good about who they are, they need to challenge their own attitudes and take them from the lower end of that homophobic continuum (repulsion, pity, tolerance) to feelings of appreciation and admiration. But it often takes years of painful work to develop a positive gay or gender identity. Then, many individuals begin to make decisions about who to tell that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Many of these people are afraid to "come out" to their friends and family for many various reasons.

In our society, many people assume that everyone is heterosexual. So, LGBTQI individuals must continually decide in what situations and with whom they want to disclose their sexual orientation/identity.

The coming out process consists of many stages, and the process is not exactly the same for each person. Coming out does not solve all of an individual's problems. It may also create new ones. Determining the advantages and disadvantages of coming out is part of the process. There are different levels of coming out. LGBTQI individuals may be out to some but not out to others.

The coming out process can be a very freeing experience for LGBTQI individuals. The process allows them to live more honest lives and develop more genuine relationships with others.

Val Dumontier, 1993 and Northern Illinois University Safe Zone Program Ally Handbook
Abilock, T. (200). USF Safe Zone Ally Manual, unpublished document.


The Cass Model:Using Theory to Understand Gay and Lesbian Identity Development

There are many different models and theories used to describe sexual orientation development among Lesbian and Gay individuals. However, because each person has their own unique story, there is no particular model or theory that can describe all people and their development. Each person develops due to many various life factors and experiences. Some factors and experiences are still not yet account for within theory and research. Some factors, influences, and experiences include ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, ability, etc. Because there are some many differences, be prepared for these differences among the students and individuals that you meet and interact with.

One of the foundational theories of gay and lesbian identity development was developed in 1979 by Vivian Cass and is one of the most widely reference psychosocial model. Cass described a process of six stages of gay and lesbian identity development. The stages help explain a person's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and therefore help us know how to provide support. While these stages are sequential, some people might revisit stages at different points in their life. Following are brief descriptions of the six stages.

Remember that models are generalizations, and may not completely describe any one individual's experience. Not everyone will move through all of the stages. However, understanding theories and models does provide some explanation of an individual's identity development and helps us predict some of the development they have ahead of them in order to support them.



1. Identify Confusion: "Could I be gay?" This stage begins with the person's first awareness of gay or lesbian thoughts, feelings, and attractions. The person typically feels confused and experiences turmoil.

Task: Who am I? - Accept, Deny, Reject.

Possible Responses: Will avoid information about lesbians and gays; inhibit behavior; deny homosexuality ("experimenting," "an accident," "just drunk"). Males: May keep emotional involvement separate from sexual contact; Females: May have deep relationships that are non-sexual, though strongly emotional.

Possible Needs: May explore internal positive and negative judgments. Will be permitted to be uncertain regarding sexual identity. May find support in knowing that sexual behavior occurs along a spectrum. May receive permission and encouragement to explore sexual identity as a normal experience (like career identity, and social identity).



2. Identity Comparison: "Maybe this does apply to me." In this stage, the person accepts the possibility of being gay or lesbian and examines the wider implications of that tentative commitment. Self-alienation becomes isolation.

Task: Deal with social alienation.

Possible Responses: May begin to grieve for losses and the things she or he will give up by embracing their sexual orientation. May compartmentalize their own sexuality. Accepts lesbian, gay definition of behavior but maintains "heterosexual" identity of self. Tells oneself, "It's only temporary"; I'm just in love with this particular woman/man," etc.

Possible Needs: Will be very important that the person develops own definitions. Will need information about sexual identity, lesbian, gay community resources, encouragement to talk about loss of heterosexual life expectations. May be permitted to keep some "heterosexual" identity (it is not an all or none issue).



3. Identity Tolerance: "I'm not the only one." The person acknowledges that he or she is likely gay or lesbian and seeks out other gay and lesbian people to combat feelings of isolation. Increased commitment to being lesbian or gay.

Task: Decrease social alienation by seeking out lesbians and gays.

Possible Responses: Beginning to have language to talk and think about the issue. Recognition that being lesbian or gay does not preclude other options. Accentuates difference between self and heterosexuals. Seeks out lesbian and gay culture (positive contact leads to more positive sense of self, negative contact leads to devaluation of the culture, stops growth). May try out variety of stereotypical roles.

Possible Needs: Be supported in exploring own shame feelings derived from heterosexism, as well as external heterosexism. Receive support in finding positive lesbian, gay community connections. It is particularly important for the person to know community resources.



4. Identity Acceptance: "I will be okay." The person attaches a positive connotation to his or her gay or lesbian identity and accepts rather than tolerates it. There is continuing and increased contact with the gay and lesbian culture.

Task: Deal with inner tension of no longer subscribing to society's norm, attempt to bring congruence between private and public view of self.

Possible Responses: Accepts gay or lesbian self-identification. May compartmentalize "gay life." Maintains less and less contact with heterosexual community. Attempts to "fit in" and "not make waves" within the gay and lesbian community. Begins some selective disclosures of sexual identity. More social coming out; more comfortable being seen with groups of men or women that are identified as "gay." More realistic evaluation of situation.

Possible Needs: Continue exploring grief and loss of heterosexual life expectation. Continue exploring internalized "homophobia" (learned shame for heterosexist society.) Find support in making decisions about where, when, and to whom he or she self discloses.



5. Identity Pride: "I've got to let people know who I am!" The person divides the world into heterosexuals and homosexuals, and is immersed in gay and lesbian culture while minimizing contact with heterosexuals. Us-them quality to political/social viewpoint.

Task: Deal with incongruent views of heterosexuals.

Possible Responses: Splits world into "gay" (good) and "straight" (bad). Experiences disclosure crises with heterosexuals as he or she is less willing to "blend in." Identifies gay culture as sole source of support; all gay friends, business connections, social connections.

Possible Needs: Receive support for exploring anger issues. Find support for exploring issues of heterosexism. Develop skills for coping with reactions and responses to disclosure to sexual identity. Resist being defensive!



6. Identity Synthesis: The person integrates his or her sexual identity with all other aspects of self, and sexual orientation becomes only one aspect of self rather than the entire identity.

Task: Integrate gay and lesbian identity so that instead of being the identity, it is an aspect of self.

Possible Responses: Continues to be angry at heterosexism, but with decreased intensity. Allows trust of others to increase and build. Gay and lesbian identity is integrated with all aspects of "self." Feels all right to move out into the community and not simply define space according to sexual orientation.



Cass, V. C. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4, 219-235.
Abilock, T. (2001). USF Safe Zone Ally Manual, unpublished document.



Becoming Bisexual

Understanding one's identity as bisexual involves the rejection of both a purely heterosexual and homosexual identity.

Remember that models are generalizations, and may not completely describe any one individual's experience. Not everyone will move through all of the stages. However, understanding theories and models does provide some explanation of an individual's identity development and helps us predict some of the development they have ahead of them in order to support them.

Stage 1: Initial Confusion

This first stage in bisexual identity development is characterized by considerable confusion, doubt, and struggle. A person discovers their sexual attraction to both sexes as unsettling, disorienting, and sometimes frightening. Much confusion stems from attempting to understand one's self as either gay or straight (one or the other).

Stage 2: Finding and Applying the Label

For many, simply discovering the term "bisexual" serves as a turning point in their identity development. For others, a major step forward occurs as one realizes that sexual experiences with both sexes are desirable, or that one's continued and on-going feelings for both sexes does not require making a choice between them. Individuals begin to seek encouragement and support from other bisexuals, organizations, and community.

Stage 3: Settling into the Identity

Individuals become more self-accepting and less concerned with the negative attitudes of others about their bisexuality. They surround themselves with friends and community who are supportive of their sexual orientation.

Stage 4: Continued Uncertainty

This stage is unique to bisexual identity, with intermittent periods of doubt and uncertainty regarding one's sexual identity despite a strong self-identity as bisexual. This may be due to a lack of social validation for bisexuals, coming from both the heterosexual and homosexual community, as well as the ever-changing circumstances of one's relationships.

Adapted from The Off Pink Collective. (1988). Bisexual lives. London: Off Pink Publishing.


The Coming Out Process:Benefits, Risks, and Fears

The following are some benefits, risks, fears, and possible outcomes a "closeted" individual may be thinking about. This is not a comprehensive list. But instead, thinking about some of the possible outcomes of such a choice can help clarify an individual's decision of how, when, and to whom to come to. Thinking of these benefits, risks, fears, and possible outcomes also assists in preparing the individual for possible reactions.

Some Benefits of Coming Out
Ability to live one's life honestly, as an integrated whole and avoiding a double-life.
Building self-esteem through empowerment and greater self-awareness.
Developing closer, more genuine relationships with friends and family.
Alleviating the stress and fear of hiding one's identity and being "found out."
Connecting with others who identity as LGBTQI.
Being part of a community and culture with others with whom you have something in common.
Helping to dispel myths and stereotypes by speaking about one's own experience and educating others.
Being a role model to others.

Some Risks & Fears of Coming Out
Rejection - Loss of relationships
Being thrown out of family / home
Loss of financial support
Loss of job
Physical violence
Permanently changed relationships
Rejection from communities / groups (i.e. religious communities)
Discrimination (Discrimination based on sexual orientation is still legal in a majority of states. In most cases, there is no legal protection for people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. They may be fired from their jobs, denied housing, or denied insurance.)

Possible Feelings
Uncertainty (of how the person will react)


Possible Needs
Reassurance that relationships will not be negatively affected
Closer relationships
Acknowledgement of feelings/ Validation


Reasons LGBTQI individuals May Want to Come Out to Friends & Relatives

End the "hiding game"
Feel closer to those people
Be able to feel and be "whole" around them
Feeling of integrity
To make a statement that "gay is ok"



Adapted from:

"Coming Out," developed by Wall, V. and Washington, J. 1989. And the Northern Illinois University Safe Zone Program Ally Handbook.

Abilock, T. (2001). USF Safe Zone Ally Manual, unpublished document.



Reflections Before Coming Out

The coming out process is different for each person and in each situation. The following are some suggestions that one may want to evaluate for themselves before deciding to come out.


Are you sure about your sexual orientation?

Don't raise the issue unless you're able to respond with confidence to the question, "Are you sure?" Confusion on your part will increase others' confusion and decrease their confidence in your judgment.

Are you comfortable with your sexual identity?

Be clear about your own feelings about being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, or intersex. If you're wrestling with guilt or depression, get help before coming out to non-gay people. Coming out can require a lot of energy and a reserve of positive self-image. If you are comfortable with your identity, those to whom you come out will often sense that, and have an easier time accepting your disclosure.

Do you have support?

In the event you get a negative reaction, there should be someone or a group that you can turn to for emotional support and strength. Maintaining your sense of self-worth is critical.

Are you well informed about homosexuality?

The reactions of others may be based on a lifetime of information from a homophobic society. If you've done some serious reading on the subject, you'll be prepared to answer their concerns and questions with reliable and accurate information. For example, know some books that you can share with others who might want to know more or have a contact name for a Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) chapter.

Is this a good time?

Timing can be very important. Be aware of the mood, priorities, stresses, and problems of those with whom you would like to share your identity. Choose a time when they're not dealing with major life concerns. What people are dealing with in their own lives may affect their receptivity to your news.
Can you be patient?

Others may require time to deal with this new information. Remember that it often takes a long time for someone to come to terms with their own sexuality. When you come out to non-gay people, be prepared to give them time to adjust and to comprehend what they learned. Don't expect immediate acceptance, but try instead to establish an on-going, caring dialogue.
What's your motive for coming out now?

Hopefully, it is because you care about the people you intend to come out to, and you are uncomfortable with the distance you feel between you and them. Never come out in anger or during an argument, using your sexuality as a weapon.

Have you tried to anticipate others' reactions?

Consider your general relationship with those to whom you intend to come out. What might their concerns be? How can you address those concerns? What message do you want to send? For example, try to affirm mutual caring and love before disclosing your news. Emphasize that you are still the same person.

Have you thought about how you will respond to negative reactions?

Be prepared that your revelation may surprise, anger, or upset others at first. Try not to react angrily or defensively. Try to let others be honest about their initial feelings, even if they are negative. Remember that the initial reaction may not be the long-term one. Keep the lines of communication open with people to whom you come out. Respond to their questions and remember that they are probably in the process of re-examining the myths and stereotypes that we all have been exposed to. If someone rejects you, do not lose sight of your self-worth. Your coming out was a gift of sharing an important part of yourself, which that person has chosen to reject.

Is this your decision?

Remember that the decision to come out is yours -- you decide when, where, how, and to whom you wish to come out. Do not be guilt tripped or pressured into coming out before you are ready. Coming out decisions must be made carefully, and only you can weigh the potential benefits and the potential consequences.

Other tips

Remember that you have the right to ask anyone to whom you come out to not to share your disclosure with others. You may want to role-play and practice before you tell someone. Although coming out gets easier the more you do it, it's important that your words and thoughts be well chosen. Whenever you come out, reflect upon the experience and learn from it, because there will always be a next time.


Adapted from: Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. Coming Out to Your Parents; The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force About Coming Out.


Different Tasks in Coming Out

Things to remember about the coming out process...
Coming out is not a single, one-time event. Coming out is a life-long process, that every LGBTQI person confronts each time they meet someone new.
Coming out can begin at any age, stage, or circumstance in a person's life.
The coming out process is rarely exactly the same for every person.


The most frequently cited "tasks" in the Coming Out Process are:
An increasing realization, acknowledgment, and acceptance of one's own sexual orientation

It begins with a conscious awareness in one's self about intimate feelings for and physical attractions towards people of the same sex, or if one is bisexual, then emotional and physical attractions for both sexes. Self-acceptance of these feelings and attractions can mean unlearning the negative stereotypes, inaccuracies, and lies perpetrated in certain segments of society. Acceptance and self-acknowledgement often also involves "grieving" for the loss of an expected heterosexual life, due to the initial assumption that one will never be able to introduce their partner to their parents, or have a church wedding, or raise children. Fears of parental and peer rejection become prominent as well. Developing and maintaining a positive, self-affirming identity is a crucial part of this step in the coming out process.
Coming out to other LGBTQI people, and looking to them for affirmation

For many LGBTQI people, seeking out others of their same sexual orientation enhances their ability to "let go of" their previous heterosexual persona. It also decreases their sense of isolation, and helps to dispel the negative homophobic and heterosexist myths that might have become ingrained. A sense of LGBTQI community begins to develop, as does a sense of safety in coming out to others who share your sexual orientation. As a support network begins to develop, this phase of coming out may find the LGBTQI person joining organizations that validate their identity, participating in LGBTQI social events, and eventually exploring the possibility of coming out to non-LGBTQI people who are perceived as being supportive of LGBTQI causes and rights.
Coming out to non-lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered people.

As comfort for and affirmation of their sexual orientation grows, LGBTQI people eventually become more assertive in coming out to heterosexual friends, family members, and co-workers. "Hints" may sometimes be dropped beforehand, to gauge the reaction of these people. For example, without explicitly coming out, an LGBTQI person may introduce the topic of homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgenderism. Careful attention is then paid to how these non-LGBTQI people react. Other LGBTQI people become more comfortable with directly coming out to others, as a positive consequence of becoming more affirmative of their sexual orientation and identity. At times, if negative reactions from non-LGBTQI people surface, a period of "going back in the closet for a period of time" may result. Other LGBTQI reactions to negativity may include seeking alliances with both their LGBTQI support network and LGBTQI-affirming heterosexuals, while still another reaction may be to cut-off all relationships with people who are not accepting of their identity.


Adapted from the Northern Illinois University Safe Zone Program Ally Handbook


Coming Out Concerns for People of Color in the LGBTQI Community

It's easy to assume that the LGBTQI community might be more embracing of cultural differences among its members, given that all members of this community are subject to discrimination and oppression because of their sexual orientation.

Yet while the community as a whole does embrace the philosophy of celebrating diversity, individual members of the LGBTQI community are just as likely as heterosexual community members to direct both overt and subtle prejudice and discrimination towards its same-gender loving members. Some of the dilemmas facing same-gender loving individuals within their own community include:
Having the same societal stereotypes about ethnicity and culture found in the heterosexual community being directed towards them in the LGBTQI community.

"When gay Asian males are portrayed in the alternative media, their characteristics are often wrought with gross stereotypes. The common conceptions of heterosexual Asian men being weak, timid, unassertive, and not masculine likewise apply to gay Asian men."
(Tom Lee, Korean American, on

Being discriminated against because of their ethnicity.

"I started to meet them (other males) online...but once we exchanged pictures he had an immediate problem. He said he only dated other white guys." (Nick, Biracial, on

"During his junior year in college, Alex dated an Anglo male for a few weeks before being 'dumped' and told, "I don't date fortune cookies." (Alex, Asian American,

Having their ethnicity 'sexualized' in the LGBTQI community, where their race becomes exoticized.

"Like discriminating against a person based on color of skin, exoticism sees only color and culture instead of individuality and personal truth." (Angela Chang, Texas Triangle, April 2000).

"Asian American lesbians suffer particularly from the "Lotus Blossom Baby" stereotype of the 'passive and compliant' Asian American women who exists solely to serve..." (Patrick Cheng,

"Western (personal ad) authors seeking Asian partners tend to be older men looking for younger companionship, and...often use words denoting social, economic or social dominance...In their descriptions of their Asian targets, on the other hand, they are more likely to use words denoting dependence or passivity such as 'slim' and 'boy.'" (Rodney H. Jones,


Some of the dilemmas facing same-gender loving individuals within their own community include:
Having to feel as if they are forced to choose between associating with people who share their ethnicity, or associating with those who share their sexual orientation.

"Being a person of color and being lesbian and gay kind of puts you in no person's world. You have a foot in both worlds, but not quite." (Janet Black,

"I am proud of my African descent and I am proud of my bisexual identity. Although I have to admit that embracing one would, on many occasions, exclude me from people who embraced the other. (Marco,
Being made to believe that the entire LGBTQI community is composed of White people.

"I look at the pages of XY, OUT, Genre, and The Advocate (LGB magazines), and all I see are articles suited for the 'gay White male.'" (African American WPI student)

"If I didn't live in New York City and was exposed to other gay Asians, I would even question if gay Asians even existed. I feel alienated and alone- I am gay, but I am not represented." (Edward Kai Chui, Outyouth, N.Y.)

"If you are male and white, yes there is a gay community." (Latino "queer" quoted in

"I long for gay images that reflect my African reality" (Alicia Banks, Blackstripe Magazine, 1997).
Having to face the racism associated with White pre-eminence.

"...because he is not White, he can never fully measure up to White standards"

"Q: What do you call an Asian who likes White guys?"

"A: A potato queen."

"Q: What do you call a White guy who likes Asians?"

"A: A rice queen."

"Q: What do you call a White guy who likes other White guys?"

"A: Normal."

(from Liberation from Silence, by Patrick S. Cheng, 2000)


Having to face the same discriminations against immigrant status found in the larger society.

"The gay community isn't very hospitable to immigrants...I was called 'stupid' because I have an accent." (Marco, quoted by David Kirby in the Advocate, 5/27/2001)