June is Pride Month, a time for visibility, awareness, and of course, celebration. But Pride Month can be loaded and complex for many LGBTQ-identified people, especially those who aren’t out, or who have had a complicated coming-out process involving pushback or animosity from loved ones.
Coming out can be challenging, and for many of us, the coming out process is never-ending—feminine-presenting cisgender women are often perceived to be straight based on their appearance. For others, particularly transgender men and women, coming out can be dangerous.
Still, the coming-out process is a major turning point for most queer-identified people. Whether we’re coming out about our sexuality (lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, queer, etc.) or our gender (trans, nonbinary, agender, etc.), coming out is a game-changing, affirming, and often life-saving experience.
Studies have shown that the mere act of coming out of the closet, rather than remaining closeted, can improve mental and physical health. According to researchers at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) at the Institut Universitaire en Santé Mentale de Montréal (formerly l’Hôpital Louis-H. Lafontaine), LGBTQ-identified people who are out are more likely to have decreased stress levels and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Stress, of course, is linked to a range of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and more.
Anecdotal evidence from queer-identified individuals who have had positive coming out experiences supports this research. Henry*, a 26-year-old cis gay man, describes being “stressed, angry, and prone to mood swings” prior to coming out. In retrospect, he is now aware of how concealing his sexuality impacted his mental health. “Not acknowledging my sexuality kept my mental health issues kind of blocked in and inaccessible.” But after coming out, something “clicked” for Henry. “I was almost instantly a happier, less anxious person,” he says. “I was able to be much more level-headed and thoughtful.”
Maggie*, a 33-year-old woman who identifies as a genderqueer lesbian, experienced similar symptoms of anxiety prior to coming out. “I had a sense that I might die at any minute—in a car, on the subway, even just being outside of my apartment. I didn’t tell anyone about it and it got to a very bad point where I would have panic attacks regularly, or go out somewhere with the feeling that I may not return.” She started seeing a therapist, which allowed her to recognize that she had unresolved feelings about her sexuality. Coming out was freeing. “I will never forget the lightness, the feeling of so much weight being lifted from me. It was the greatest sense of relief and happiness I’ve ever experienced.” It’s not to say it was easy the entire time: “It was difficult for my family in the beginning—no one else in my family is openly gay—but with time and space, they’ve come to be incredibly supportive and proud.”
Ria*, a 26-year-old who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, notes how familial support varies based on cultural norms and levels of queer acceptance in one’s family. “As a gender nonconforming Indian person, my parents weren’t accepting at first.” Ria adds that she was “a very angry and distant kid” who had difficulty opening up due to a combination of “Indian cultural norms, homophobia, and our lack of ability to talk about our feelings within our family and community.” With time, Ria says that their parents have come to accept them for who they are, and home no longer feels like “a toxic environment.”
In addition to a personal sense of freedom, lightness, and that intangible “click” that something just finally feels right, the process of coming out can also lead to invaluable community building. “I ran to my LGBTQ siblings [aka friends who feel like family] for support,” says Ria. “I still have gender feelings I’m working through, but I’m appreciative that my friends and partners are so supportive and understanding.”
The importance of that community can’t be overemphasized. Research links supportive relationships to a longer life span. On the flip side, problematic relationships riddled with conflict have been associated with an early death. Of course, there’s not a lot you can do if the people in your life aren’t supportive, but coming out can be the first step in crafting a new community of people going through similar struggles. Many members of the LGBTQ community cherish how integral their local community support has been throughout their coming-out process, and how developing the ability to reconcile their feelings about being queer or trans better facilitates that community-building.
“There’s a self-awareness in owning your identity and living without fear or shame,” says Jake*, 27, who identifies as transmasculine. “I’m more likely to seek comfort and advice from others, to share more of myself with the people around me, because I have a better sense of who that person is.”
This empathetic community structure rings true for Henry, too. “Knowing that I can turn to friends who have been through similar things makes it easier to open up to people. And even if we come from different backgrounds, [based on] how we identify, or how we grew up, the LGBTQ community has a sense of empathy and understanding that is vital to a positive, supportive, and loving community.”
Now that’s something worth celebrating.
*All names have been changed.