‘Coming Out’ – What Does It Mean?
Recently I was invited to speak about coming out in later life on Anna Richardson’s podcast ‘It Can’t Just Be Me’. Her guest was Dr. Ranj Singh, who was married to a woman for several years before coming out to her as gay. Anna is part of the LGBT+ community, preferring not to label herself specifically.
We spoke about: labels and how people identify as queer/LGBT+, continuing loving relationships as our identity changes, coming out repeatedly, identity and sexuality being fluid over our lifetimes, and discrimination even within the LGBT+ community due to the binary way society views sexuality.
‘Coming out’ is itself a concept worth exploring. If we believe what we see online, coming out is a one-off act done very publicly (sometimes with balloons, glitter, and rainbow paraphernalia) and the person coming out is met purely with support.
Whilst this is some people’s experiences, for many this is not the case. Coming out can be unsafe, terrifying, and perhaps a decision not fully in someone’s control. In viewing the above example of coming out, we overlook several important factors.
Primarily, the first person we come out to is ourselves. As such, coming out can be a private act, perhaps navigated in secret within a world that assumes straight-ness, cis-ness and mono-normativity.
Queer people have varying experiences on having a validating relational/societal ‘mirror’ to support a developing sense of self, compared to people from dominant societal groups. This is exacerbated when the queer person has intersecting identities such as: being working class, a Black person or person of colour, a person with a disability, etc.
Coming out is not only a process of disclosure, but a simultaneous re-organisation of relational and cultural values for a queer person. For some it can be a risk, either in terms of personal safety or perhaps losing a loved one who may not accept or understand them.
Hammoud-Beckett’s (2007) view includes ‘coming in’: inviting people in to one’s life. This may remove shame from one’s experiences of becoming themselves, particularly when not being open with others (for whatever reasons) is helpful:
‘… silence is sometimes a resource for people to use to survive. So, instead of people being silenced, they take up the silence when they need to.’ (p. 36)
Similarly, Chikwendu (2013) states that intersectional queer identities are ‘circular [forms of] consciousness’. We can choose which elements of our identities are at the foreground or background, depending on the spaces we’re occupying and the people within them. They posit that this isn’t a denial of ones’ identity, but a fluid way to be oneself wherever you may go.
Coming Out as a Psychotherapist
Whilst the therapeutic field aims to be non-judgemental, when trying to access professional support LGBT+ people come may up against a lack of awareness at best and discrimination at worst. This can prevent someone for asking for help again in the future.
Whether it’s a well-informed and trained ally, or a Psychotherapist with lived experience, LGBT+ folks need assurance that they are in safe hands.
The topic of coming out as a Psychotherapist is so broad and nuanced that it’s well beyond the scope of this blog. However, for myself it’s a balance of signalling safety and knowledge, along with knowing self-disclosure can make a difference to clients either way. As the process is primarily about them, I am careful as to how much space I take up as we work together.
Signalling Safety in Psychotherapy
Role modelling and supporting someone to be themselves is important in a cis- / hetero- / mono- normative world. Psychotherapists can offer this via inclusive language:
- ‘Child’ rather than ‘son’/’daughter’,
- ‘Partner’ rather than ‘boyfriend’/’husband’, ‘girlfriend’/’wife’,
- Asking about ‘partners’ rather than assuming every client will be monogamous,
- ‘Relationship’ rather than ‘couple’,
- Asking ‘What is a healthy and fulfilling relationship for you?’ to facilitate discussion in broad terms rather than assumptions. This is inclusive of: consensual non-monogamy, forms of asexuality, people interested in kink, and other groups within the queer community.
Of course, it’s respectful and supportive to make use of any words clients use to refer to the important people/relationships in their lives. The above are simply helpful ways to ask questions without making assumptions.
Psychotherapists can also offer resources on LGBT+ matters throughout, especially if a client is socially isolated. One free example (cited on the podcast) is Barker’s ‘Mapping Your Sexuality’
Click here to listen to the Anna Richardson podcast on ‘Coming Out in Later Life’.
Chikwendu, M. (2013) Circular Consciousness in the Lived Experience of Intersectionality: Queer/LGBT Nigerian Diasporic Women in the USA. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 14(4): pp. 34-46.
Hammoud-Beckett, S. (2007) Azima ila Hayati – An Invitation in to My Life: Narrative Conversations about Sexual Identity. The International Journal of Narrative and Community Work. 1: pp. 29 – 39.