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An LGBTQ+ Guide to Coming Out Safely and Happily

Queer son coming out to his parents
Image via Shutterstock

Today is a day for honoring coming out, and all the related hopes, fears, dreams, and expectations for the queer future.

(CNN) -- National Coming Out Day is October 11, established to honor LGBTQ people stepping fully into their true selves to others -- also known as coming out of the closet. It's a day for honoring the act, and all the related hopes, fears, dreams, and expectations for the future.

The designation started in 1988 on the first anniversary of the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in October 1987. (The first march was in 1979.)

"National Coming Out Day exists to promote a safe, inclusive, and loving world where LGBTQ+ people can live truthfully, openly, and without fear," said Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign. "Coming out isn't something you do once -- it's a decision that we make every single day of our lives. Whether it's for the first time ever or the first time today, coming out can be a challenging journey, but it's also a brave decision to live authentically."

The landscape

Much has changed since that historic political rally during the height of the AIDS crisis. In the decades since, anti-discrimination laws were enacted, same-sex marriage became law of the land, and HIV/AIDS went from a stigmatized death sentence to being manageable -- and even medically preventable.

Nearly everyone knows someone who is LGBTQ, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, and the number of people who identify as LGBTQ has ticked ever upward, now at more than 7% of the US population, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. Indeed, some people don't ever consider a closet something they need to step out of. More LGBTQ people are free to be themselves from a young age, with affirmative families and communities and laws that protect and empower.

Still, that proverbial closet remains. It's huge, in fact. More than 4 out of 5 LGBTQ people keep their true identities hidden from all or most people, according to a 2018 Yale School of Medicine study.

Rates of violence against LGBTQ+ people have climbed higher in recent years, according to FBI statistics. And there has been an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Following the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade in June, activists expressed concern that same-sex marriage and other LGBTQ+ rights could be next on conservative justices' agenda. LGBTQ+ people continue to face discrimination in every corner of civic life, including familial rejection, bullying in school, marginalization at work, social isolation and worse.

How to come out

How does a person come out? Are there good -- or terrible -- ways to do it?

Coming out isn't a one-time act, but a constant negotiation of deciding how to show up and what parts of one's identity can safely be revealed in a particular time and place. When do you hide that picture of your family on the Zoom job interview? Use gender-neutral pronouns to describe your spouse at the client dinner? Sleep in separate beds with a partner if traveling in a country that doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, or worse, criminalizes it?

Coming out, whether for the first time to family or friends, or in new situations at work or in social settings, can be anxiety-provoking. There are so many variables to weigh. But there are some considerations that can help guide the decision. Above all, an LGBTQ+ person should control their own narrative.

"Keep in mind that throughout the process of coming out and living more openly, you should be in the driver's seat about if, how, where, when, and with whom you choose to be open with," Madison said. "Coming out is so powerful -- our stories, our identities, and our experiences give us collective strength."

Coming out to family

Coming out to family, especially if still a minor or living at home, can feel like a make-or-break moment and can have devastating consequences for those who are rejected. Nearly 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ adults have been without a home at some points in their lives, more than twice that of their non-LGBTQ peers, according to a 2020 study out of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

"We know that many LGBTQ+ young people are coming out even earlier than before," said Amit Paley, CEO and executive director at the Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ+ youth.

"While most conversations around National Coming Out Day focus on the individual coming out, this observance day should serve as an important reminder for all of us to recommit to creating affirming environments where LGBTQ+ youth can feel safe and supported coming out on their own terms."

Some key considerations when determining how to come out to family include establishing financial independence or having a backup plan should the worst possible outcome become inevitable.

It may also help to come out first to a family member who is most likely to be supportive and perhaps become an ally who can approach others. It's helpful to remember that a negative reaction initially can change over time, particularly for those who haven't been privy to education about or exposure to LGBTQ people.

Still, not everyone will change their opinions. It's the reason why so many LGBTQ+ people have a "chosen" family of supportive friends.

A helpful resource for coming out to family is the Trevor Project's Coming Out Handbook, which offers a breakdown of the most commonly used terms, tips for practicing self-care and a guide to other groups that offer help and connection points.

Coming out at work

Coming out at work is a process that begins at interview time and continues with every new encounter and person. In the US, a 2020 Supreme Court ruling affirmed blanket protections for LGBTQ people at work, prohibiting discrimination or firing based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, 23 states and the District of Columbia have explicit workplace protections for LGBTQ people, and most major employers do, too.

Still, it's a good idea to check things such as a company's nondiscrimination policies, benefits plan to ensure they're inclusive, rankings by the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBTQ groups and how the employer has talked about LGBTQ support publicly. These are all good indications of how affirming the workplace might be and how comfortable and safe it might be to come out.

Resources such as the Human Rights Campaign's Coming Out at Work can be a helpful guide.

"We're always seeking psychological safety, in every room or office that we enter, to see if it is a safe environment to come out," said Todd Sears, founder and CEO of Out Leadership, an organization focused on helping companies attract and retain LGBTQ talent and to create more LGBTQ-inclusive workplaces.

"And while that is challenging, it actually makes us incredible leaders because we not only have to know ourselves to come out -- and that's a universal experience for LGBTQ+ people -- but then we actually have high levels of empathy for those around us, which makes us great leaders," he said.

Sears also acknowledged that allyships at work are critical. "Allies do have to come out just like LGBTQ+ people, otherwise we don't know who they are," he said.

Coming out in social situations

Telling friends may be easier than telling family, but similar guidance applies. Consider telling one friend deemed to be most supportive and then use that ally to tell others when the time feels right. Set the rules but also set expectations for yourself and know you can't always control how information gets disseminated.

"Expanding your circle slowly will allow you time to gather your thoughts and feelings, which will help you find clarity for expressing yourself in less receptive situations," said Kollyn Conrad, founder and executive director of Publicly Private, a nonprofit organization offering support to the LGBTQ+ community.

Coming out when traveling

Travel can present distinct challenges. Whether it's safe to come out or be out depends on the law and customs of the destination. Laws can shift, and LGBTQ+ people may face varying levels of protection in different places, not only based on the country but even by state.

An overwhelming number of LGBTQ+ travelers have hidden their true selves while away, citing safety as the reason, according to a 2019 survey by SAP Concur.

Resources such as the Movement Advancement Project's legislative map and Equaldex, a collaborative knowledge base for the LGBTQ+ movement which visualizes LGBTQ+ rights through maps and timelines, can help plan travel. The U.S. State Department also offers information and tips for LGBTQ+ travelers.

Be sure to check out the local laws in addition to the tone of the location, including whether it has spoken out publicly in support of LGBTQ+ or hosted Pride celebrations. Those are all indications of how safe it might be to come out or do things that might seem mundane but could be dangerous in some places.

Behavior that could be deemed dangerous or criminal may include holding hands with a person of the same sex, getting a single bed in a hotel with a same-sex partner or soliciting sex on a meetup app. In places such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria, among other countries, these acts might be punishable with a death sentence. In many other countries, LGBTQ+ persons might face imprisonment.

How to come out as an ally

For those who are not LGBTQ+ but want to be an ally, there are little things that can create a more supportive environment where LGBTQ+ people feel comfortable coming out.

Speak up if you witness an injustice. Use gender-neutral pronouns if you don't know how someone identifies and enter conversations without presumptions.

Mark your workstation or car or shirt with Pride or ally gear, or join a resource group at work or an organization and do volunteer work, or simply introduce yourself as an ally to someone you know who is LGBTQ+. That can go a long way in helping to make an LGBTQ+ person feel safe to come out.

Somewhere over the rainbow in an idyllic future universe, closets are collecting dust and LGBTQ+ people won't need to come out anymore. Until that day arrives, safety and self-preservation are paramount, and coming out will continue to be a deeply personal act that will take on different looks in different situations.

The-CNN-Wire(tm) & (c) 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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