“Coming out” by telling people about your orientation can be a liberating and exciting experience. It can also be confusing, emotional, and in some cases, scary — especially when you’re coming out to a parent.
Nobody should feel pressured to come out, but if you feel safe and ready, we’ve compiled a guide to coming out to a parent or guardian at any age, no matter your orientation.
Remember that there’s no “right way” to come out. This guide is intended to help you prepare and process coming out; it isn’t a prescription that you have to stick to! Come out in whatever way feels good and safe for you.
Your comfort and safety matter most
You don’t have to come out unless you want to.
A lot of how queerness is discussed centers on “coming out of the closet.” But it’s important to remember that you don’t have to come out in order for your orientation to be valid.
Before coming out, you should consider whether you feel emotionally ready to do so. Also, importantly, you need to consider your safety.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t grow up in accepting and tolerant homes. Safety can be a real issue if you live with a parent or guardian that isn’t tolerant of your orientation.
You might also feel like it’s not safe for you to come out if you live with, work with, or go to school with people who might bully or harm you because of your orientation.
Make sure you consider the following
Before you come out to someone, you may find it helpful to ask yourself the following:
- Do you think this person will be accepting?
- Can you trust them not to share this information without your permission?
- Do you think they might hurt you if you come out to them?
- If they aren’t receptive, how will you handle it? For example, if it’s someone you live with, could you move out if they harm you? If it’s someone you go to school with, could you avoid them?
- Do you have supportive people that you could turn to if coming out doesn’t go well — for example, friends, a therapist, or a counselor of some kind?
These questions can help you determine whether you feel safe enough to come out.
Start with one person
It’s often helpful to come out to one friend at first, and later tell a parent or guardian, family, and other friends. This way, that first person can support you while you come out to others.
It’s best to choose someone who you’re sure will be accepting and supportive. Ask them if they can be there when you tell others. They might be able to give you support — either in person or over text — while you come out to others.
Sometimes, you might feel like coming out to one person is enough.
From the writer
“Personally, I came out to one person and then didn’t tell anyone for years, because I didn’t feel ready to tell anyone else. I’m glad that I waited, because I had support while I figured out my orientation for myself.”
Consider which method you’re most comfortable with
Depending on what you find comfortable, you could come out in person, via text, via phone call, on social media, or using whatever method works for you.
In some cases, you might want to have a formal conversation with someone, especially if they’re very close to you.
Other times, it’s easier to just drop it in conversation.
For example, you might say, “I’m hanging out with my girlfriend this weekend” or “I’m going to a queer meetup” or “I read this great article about bisexuality” and use it as a segue to coming out.
This can be a more casual, less overwhelming way to come out.
From the writer
“As a younger Millennial, I watched most of my friends come out on social media — and it seemed to work well for many of them! I came out to my friends at camp, but only once the lights were off because I was too shy to look anyone in the eye. Others have full-on coming out parties. It’s really up to you!”
Regardless of the method, consider the time and location
In some cases, it’s better to come out in a private space (like your own home) because that’s a good place to have a conversation. You also might not want others to overhear it, especially if you’re a private or shy person.
In other cases, it could be better to have the conversation in a semi-public place like a restaurant.
In general, it’s a good idea to have the conversation in a place that’s quiet, so that you get the chance to talk about your feelings. If you come out via phone call, make sure that the other person is also in a quiet place and that they have time to listen to you and offer support.
Text can be a great way to come out, but it’s best to avoid texting someone when they’re at work or on vacation. In that case, they might not be able to send a positive message back to you right away.
Prepare for questions and potential disbelief
Sometimes, people respond to a person coming out with disbelief. This can hurt.
In our society, heterosexuality is the assumed norm. In other words, you’re assumed to be straight unless you say otherwise.
When people come out, others are often surprised because they think they’ll “know” when someone’s not straight. This isn’t always the case!
Being shocked isn’t the same thing as being unsupportive, though, even if it can feel icky at the time.
People might ask questions, like:
- “Are you sure?”
- “How do you know?”
- “When did you know?”
- “Are you dating someone?”
- “What does [insert your orientation here] mean?”
Often, these questions are well intended, but you aren’t obligated to answer them unless you want to. If you don’t feel comfortable getting into detail, you can just say that.
Sometimes it’s helpful to direct them toward an article explaining what your orientation means. (Hint: We have a useful list of orientations and sexualities here!)
What to say
Actually getting the words out can be tough, which is why many people prefer texts or social media posts. Regardless of how you come out, there are a few ways to phrase it.
- “I’ve figured out that I’m bisexual.”
- “Since you’re important to me, I want to let you know that I’m gay.”
- “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I want to let you know that I’m pansexual, which means I can be attracted to people of any gender.”
You could also mention it more casually. For example, you could mention your partner in passing or say that you’re going to a Pride march.
Allow your parent or guardian space and time to process the information
Just because someone doesn’t respond positively immediately doesn’t mean they don’t support you. Many people don’t really know what to say. They might need time to process the information.
Again, it can be helpful to redirect them towards an article (like this one from PFLAG) about being supportive when your kid comes out. This could give them an idea of what to do and say, and how to process the information themselves.
Make sure they know whether they can share this info and suggest resources to learn more
If you don’t want them to tell other people, be totally clear about that. You can say something like “Please keep this between us, as I’m not ready to tell everyone yet” or “I’m going to tell my grandparent(s) next week, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone until then.”
You can send them resources about how to support LGBTQIA+ people. Before you come out, it might be helpful to find one or two resources that resonate with you and keep the links handy. These resources could be articles, videos, podcasts, or even social media pages they can follow.
Try not to take any negative reactions personally
Unfortunately, coming out doesn’t always go super well. Sometimes, people react negatively — and you need to prepare yourself for that possibility.
If someone is bigoted toward you, that says more about them than it does about you. Your orientation is a part of who you are — it’s not a personal failure or a source of disappointment.
Sometimes people react with disbelief or confusion at first, and later they become more accepting and supportive. Again, this isn’t your fault.
Try to have someone you can vent to about the coming out process. This can help you process your feelings and find support if you need it.
If you feel like your safety is in question, you have options
If a parent or guardian threatened to harm you or evicted you from your home, there might be options for you.
Try to arrange to stay with a supportive friend or family member, or find an LGBTQIA+ shelter in your area. The National Coalition for the Homeless has some directories to shelters in the United States.
If you’re in the United States, you can also contact The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. This hotline offers support to people who are suicidal or in crisis. They’re also available if you need to vent to a sympathetic ear.
Lambda Legal has also put together a list of resources for LGBTQ youth by state; you might find helpful resources there.
Lean on your chosen community and surround yourself with a support system
It can be so helpful to have a supportive community before, during, and after you come out to your loved ones.
No matter your situation, it’s a good idea to connect with other LGBTQIA+ people. Even if the straight people in your life are totally supportive, having a community of LGBTQIA+ friends can be empowering.
Your school or university might offer counseling and support groups. Otherwise, you might find a support group or meet-up group through a local LGBTQIA+ organization.
If you’re not ready to talk to people in person or if you can’t find a local group, the internet can be an amazing space to talk with others.
Online forums can be a lifeline for LGBTQIA+ people. Just be discerning about who you talk to online.
It’s ultimately on your terms
Who you tell or don’t tell, which words you use, how you talk about your orientation — that’s all up to you. It’s your life, your orientation, your identity, and it should be on your terms.
If you don’t want to come out at all, that’s fine—- it doesn’t mean that you’re any less brave than those who are out.
It’s an ongoing, never-ending process
Because society assumes everyone is heterosexual unless stated otherwise, you’ll likely have to have to come out a lot over the course of your life.
Many people will assume you’re straight, which means you may have to correct dozens of people throughout your lifetime. As such, “coming out” typically isn’t a single event, but something you do over and over again.
This can be pretty exhausting. But remember, it’s on your terms entirely. If you don’t feel like correcting them, that’s OK. If you don’t feel safe enough to talk about your orientation, you don’t have to.
It’s your orientation, your identity, and your decision.
Sian Ferguson is a freelance writer and editor based in Grahamstown, South Africa. Her writing covers issues relating to social justice, cannabis, and health. You can reach out to her on Twitter.