How The 'Coming Out' Process Is Evolving For LGBTQ People
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
The "coming out" process is widely considered a major milestone in the lives of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other sexual and gender minorities. Traditionally, coming out means disclosing your true identity either to the public or to specific people of importance, such as your family, classmates, work colleagues, and others, presumably after previously being assumed to be cisgender and straight by those people.
These days, though, the coming out process might look a little different, according to the results from a newly released Tinder survey. Their research team polled 1,000 LGBTQ+ people between ages 18 and 45 and found a few major trends in the way they experienced and talk about the process of coming out:
1. Some people are shrugging off the formal coming out process.
Nearly one in three LGBTQ+ adults say they never actually "formally" came out, Tinder reports. That can mean a lot of things: Perhaps this chunk of people are, in fact, still closeted in some parts of their lives. There can be some negative ramifications if that's the case, as research demonstrates being unable to present your authentic self can impact your health and well-being.
On the other hand, it could mean some LGBTQ+ people simply never felt the need to "come out" in any kind of big, dramatic fashion because their sexuality was never assumed to be straight or cis. Indeed, 38% of respondents told Tinder they feel formally coming out "has become less important due to normalization," and 43% say increased normalization has made it easier to be "open and honest" about their dating lives. When asked to describe how they felt about their identity, the No. 1 emotion was "proud" (31%). And a lot of these advances are recent: 79% of LGBTQ+ adults say they believe they face less stigma today than they did just five years ago.
When people stop assuming things about your sexuality and gender, there's no longer a need for self-disclosure to be a big event. Through this lens, the fact that a third of LGBTQ+ people didn't feel the need to formally come out might be a hopeful sign of progress toward the mainstreaming of gender and sexual diversity.
Of course, not everyone agrees that coming out doesn't matter anymore: 68% of folks reported having some kind of coming out process, no matter how much anti-LGBTQ stigma has decreased.
"People still usually identify these elements of who they are and begin telling others. We're hard-wired to share our stories," says Michael J. Salas, a therapist who specializes in working with LGBTQ people and founder of Vantage Point Counseling Services in Dallas, Texas, in an interview with mindbodygreen. "People usually look back and say that they always knew or that they had an idea, but without a broad cultural acceptance and understanding, it can still be a process to identify this."
2. People are younger when they come out.
The most common time to come out was between ages 16 and 20; Tinder found 39% of people came out in that age range. A notable 23% of people came out between ages 11 and 15, including 40% of Gen Z LGBTQ folks.
Tinder's findings align with other reports on the coming out age ranges from the last several years: A 2013 Pew Research Center report found 68% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals were age 14 or younger when they first thought they might not be straight, but just 10% had told a close friend or family member about their sexual identity by that age. In 2018, though, the Human Rights Campaign surveyed over 10,000 LGBT teens ages 13 to 17 and found nine out of 10 were out to close friends, and 56% were out to immediate family members.
Salas agrees that people are starting to identify, specifically as gay or lesbian, at younger ages. "There are more representations in the media, so there are fewer assumptions that kids growing up are straight," he tells mbg. "However, those assumptions are still mostly there. There usually is still a dispelling of that heterosexual and cisgender assumptions that have to occur internally and externally. That is still a process, but it does happen younger than when I was growing up."
3. The internet has made coming out a whole lot easier.
One in five LGBTQ+ people came out through social media, Tinder found. Furthermore, a majority of respondents (64%) disclosed their identity privately online or in a closed group before they formally came out, including 75% of Gen Z LGBTQ folks and 55% of Gen X LGBTQ folks. That digital support system can be transformational: 78% say being able to be their true selves online was part of what gave them the confidence to formally come out in real life.
Dating apps might also be making authenticity a little easier: 80% of LGBTQ+ adults say online dating and dating apps have helped their community, with 52% saying it's specifically made it easier for them to be themselves and 45% saying it's made it easier to explore their identity.
Of course, that doesn't mean the internet is without its flaws: Salas expresses concern over the way social media can create space for bullying and sometimes shut down meaningful conversations around identity. That said, he believes the internet has been good overall, and it does a great job exposing us to people who are different from us—and clearly, for those of us who grow up feeling different ourselves, the internet can help us find communities of people like us.
There's still a long way to go, of course.
Salas points out that while there's more acceptance for LGBTQ+ identities, that's not the same as saying that those identities are widely considered normal and expected. "There still typically has to be a statement of coming out that occurs with friends and families. Otherwise, there are just assumptions and gossip. We're still in a culture that gossips about people's sexual orientation...and it's never gossip about whether that person is straight," he says. "People may accept it more, but they still view it as different from the norm. If it was the norm, people wouldn't have anything to gossip about."
He adds that gay and lesbian people have gained greater mainstream acceptance, but that's not necessarily the case for other genders and sexual identities. "The experiences of gay and lesbian individuals can be vastly different from bisexual and transgender people," he explains. "So when people say there is greater acceptance, I think this has to be carefully considered."
It's also important to consider the experiences of people who don't live on the coasts or in big cities, where there's generally a lot more diversity and inclusivity, Salas explains. In many rural areas, the discrimination and ostracization of LGBTQ+ folks is still the cultural norm.
Rethinking the words "coming out."
All that said, the results of this study suggest some people in the community may be forgoing the formal "coming out" process for any number of reasons. In a recent essay for Tinder's Swipe Life, writer Colleen Barrett explains why she doesn't like to use the closet metaphor to describe her own story: "It's such a lose-lose term. You're either coming out because you were hiding, or you're coming out because you lived an unexamined life and just woke up to who you are. Both make me feel bad about myself, and I didn't come all this way to feel that."
It's possible that, these days, there may not always be a big turning point when you cross over from confusion to revelation or from ambiguity to clarity. Sometimes the journey might be much more complex; sometimes it might actually be quite simple, a non-event even; and sometimes it may simply be ongoing.
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