Identifying yourself as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) and disclosing this to other people is often referred to as 'coming out'.
'Coming out' usually takes place in the early to mid teenage years and is generally a positive experience. However, coming to terms with confusion about identity can affect a young person's social relationships, school work and self-esteem both negatively and positively.
It can be a difficult time for many young LGBT people when they decide who to tell about their sexuality. In making this disclosure they are often fearful of negative reactions, rejection and causing upset and distress to the person they are telling. Sometimes a young person may 'come out' to a supportive teacher or a school friend before talking to parents, in order to rehearse their own part and to judge reactions.
There are several theories about the elements of the 'coming out' process. Each has its own emphasis but all of them are developmental models which regard 'coming out' as a series of stages. These stages do not necessarily last the same length of time and there is no one age when the whole process begins and ends. These stages can be described as follows:
'I remember feeling very upset when the teacher in our sixth form called me and my friends the 'gay young men'. We were interested in art and hated sport. He thought we were wimps. It is funny, so far about four out of the eight of us have since come out. I don't know whether the teacher knew more about us than we did about ourselves.' Peter
'I felt as if I had nothing in common with people. There was no conversation - I don't like sport, I don't like any of this stuff.' Tom
In this stage a person generally begins to feel 'different' to other people of the same sex. Sometimes they recognise that they are not very interested in people of the opposite sex but more often they feel they are not really interested in things which are supposed to be appropriate for their sex. Most people report just feeling unusual when they compare themselves to other people of their sex. Commonly this happens before or in early adolescence when friendships and relationships between the sexes begin to change.
Confusion about identity
'I didn't even know what a lesbian was. It was a sort of tradition that girls in the lower end of the school had crushes on older girls. They were everything you wanted to be and admired. I did wonder once if my crush was just a bit stronger than it ought have been but I was brought up to believe I would meet Mr Right and settle down to 2.4 kids so I just expected it to go away when we started to go out with boys.' Katie, 21
There are usually four elements which contribute to confusion about identity:
Feeling that perceptions of the self are altering;
Feeling and experiencing heterosexual and homosexual sexual arousal;
Sensing the stigma surrounding homosexuality;
Lacking knowledge about homosexuality.
Research indicates that most young gay men first decide they are probably gay between the ages of 12 and 17, and most young lesbians first decide they are probably lesbian between the ages of 16 and 20. At this time they have to deal with feeling that they have changed, as have their relationships with other people around them. Some also have to combat the potentially powerful feelings of self-recrimination and disgust that come from describing themselves as homosexual. There are various strategies for coping with this emotional upheaval.
Some young people who think they are lesbian or gay will try to deny it to themselves and even seek help to eradicate their feelings. Others will try and avoid thoughts and feelings which remind them that they have homosexual inclinations. In these situations young people can avoid getting any information about sexuality in order to avoid confirming their suspicions about their orientation.
Some young people have great difficulty in managing their relationships with peers and family. They may avoid situations in which they encounter opportunities for heterosexual relationships so that they are not forced to deal with their lack of sexual interest in members of the opposite sex or have it exposed. They may, alternatively, persevere with heterosexual relationships to try and 'convert' themselves and/or conceal their homosexuality from others.
'You'd keep her for a while, just to keep your mates happy. And then after a bit you just dropped her, saying, 'Ah, didn't really like her, broke down. So you constantly went through the heterosexual bit until you found you were strong enough to go out on your own and tell people.' Rod
In some extreme cases young people may try to avoid confronting their feelings by expressing strong homophobia or turning to drink and drugs in order to find temporary relief from them.
Finally, some young people fall back on a strategy of redefining their feelings and behaviour in such a way as to convince themselves that it is not really homosexual. For example, they may describe their experiences as a 'phase' or a 'one-off' or they might put them down to extreme emotional or physical circumstances such as the break-up of a relationship or drunkenness at a party. In this stage feelings are becoming more concrete. Young people may well have partners of both sexes and find their moods and feelings shifting as they feel more or less certain about their identity. This period often lasts throughout adolescence.
Assuming a lesbian or gay identity
Clearly, living with confusion about identity is emotionally exhausting and potentially destructive. For some people this period is followed quite quickly by a stage in which they come to accept their identity and are able to express it in a positive way. For both young men and women growing up mixing with other young gay people - in social settings or through support groups - can help them feel able to accept who they are. For some people, particularly in larger towns and cities, LGBT support groups provide a safe environment for 'coming out'. Elsewhere local and national LGBT telephone helplines provide a listening ear for people who want support.
'I think when I fell in love it all became so much more concrete for me. I was suddenly very certain of what I wanted and why I wanted it. I mean, I still found myself thinking every now and then, 'why am I gay?', but I came more and more to think, 'I am gay because I love another man'. And I'm proud of that. I am proud of him and I'm proud of me and I don't care who knows it.' Martin
The final stage in the process of 'coming out' involves becoming openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and recognising that it is a central aspect of, 'who I am', and, 'how I want to live my life'. People begin to feel that homosexuality is a valid way of life and develop a sense of contentment with being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They often have the experience of being in a relationship or falling in love at this time and, perhaps as a result, feel more confident, fulfilled and able to combat the social stigma that they may suffer.
At this time some people begin to feel proud of their sexuality. The expression of this pride in being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a powerful force in challenging the stigma attached to homosexuality by people with prejudiced attitudes and provides positive role models to others less sure about 'coming out'.