A common storyline in LGBT+ movies goes like this: One “out” queer person falls for one closeted queer person, and chaos (read: heartache and heartbreak) ensues!
Case in point: 2020’s “Happiest Season” starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis.
But this setup doesn’t just happen on the big screen — it happens in real life, too.
Here are tips for honoring both (or all) partners’ needs when one partner has not announced their sexuality to the world or the workplace.
The closet may be a popular metaphor for explaining whether other people know about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But to be frank, it’s a bad metaphor.
Why? Because it suggests that there are just two options. You’re either in or you’re out.
But that’s not the lived experience for many LGBT+ people. For starters, some people are out in some parts of their life but not others.
“Someone could be out with friends and family, but not at work if they feel their workplace would discriminate against them due to their identity,” says certified sex therapist Casey Tanner and sexpert for pleasure-product company Lelo.
Plus, the metaphor ignores the fact that coming out is a lifelong practice. Every time an LGBT+ person meets someone new — be it a mutual friend, new clinician, or potential partner — they have to decide whether to share their identifiers.
Someone who is LGBT+ also has to decide to come out whenever they’re asked about their significant other, weekend plans, dating life, celebrity crushes, or even favorite TV shows or movies growing up.
“Coming out exists on the spectrum,” says Tanner. “There isn’t one right or wrong way to come out, and it’s something that’s ongoing.”
The only reason LGBT+ people need to come out is that we still live in a world where people are assumed to be cisgender and straight unless told or proven otherwise.
As such, people in the LGBT+ community have to explicitly name their identities in order for those identities to be known, explains Tanner.
Sure, there are moments when being explicit about your sexual orientation and preferred labels could feel empowering or community building, they say. But the reality is that having to name your identity to have your identity known can feel like a burden.
There are several other reasons someone may not want to — or be ready to — come out to some or all of the people in their lives.
To name just a few:
To be very clear: Relationships where just one partner is out can work! Likewise, throuples or quads where one or more of the people aren’t out can also work.
Ultimately, a relationship’s ability to work short- or long-term depends on a variety of factors.
This includes each partner’s ability to:
- communicate with care
- accept some conflict as natural
- take care of their own needs
- safely share and reestablish boundaries
If you’re reading this and aren’t out, you may be nervous that it will impact your ability to find mutual care. “It’s not,” says Tanner.
“Many people in the LGBT+ community are more than happy to support loved ones and partners through the coming out process, understanding that most of us have been there at one point or another and have leaned on the wisdom and support of ‘elder queers’ through that journey,” they say.
And more specifically: how that makes you feel.
1. Know that you *can* have this conversation
Yes, it is possible to be cognizant of the fact that everyone deserves the grace of sharing their sexuality when and with who they want to and to share how you’re feeling.
“Two truths can exist at once,” says Tanner.
2. Share how you’re feeling
“Remember: sharing your feelings isn’t the same thing as requesting an accelerated coming-out timeline,” says Tanner. While the former is OK, requesting the latter is not.
Here’s what that might look like:
- “I respect the decisions you’re making around who to come out with and when. I’ve also noticed that it brings up some anxiety for me because of where I am on my journey. Would you be open to sitting down and talking with me about how we can navigate this together?”
- “Baby, it hurt my feelings when you introduced me as your friend rather than your girlfriend at that party. I’d love it if we could talk about how we can handle those kinds of questions in a way that feels good to both of us.”
- “I love that you’re exploring your identity and learning more about yourself, and I’m struggling with feeling like you’re ashamed of our partnership.”
3. Don’t give them an ultimatum
You may want your partner to share that you’re dating with their friends, parents, or co-workers. But you can’t pressure them to do so by using “If you don’t X, then Y” language.
Because coming out can cause someone to lose their job, access to family, and even lead to violence, giving an ultimatum is ultimately not a fair or just way to approach this conversation.
4. Get specific about what you need
If you already know what would help you feel better appreciated, more desired, and ease any anxieties you have about your partner’s care for you, go ahead and share that.
If not, invite your partner to brainstorm with you on the topic.
Here’s what that could look like:
- “When you don’t hold my hand in public, I start to doubt that you’re physically attracted to me. Can I ask that you make extra sure to compliment my appearance or outfit after a day out of the house?”
- “When you call me a ‘friend’ to other boys, I fall down an anxiety spiral where I tell myself that you want them to think you’re single because you’d rather be with them. I think I’d feel more secure in this dynamic if you more explicitly told people that you’re not on the market or currently looking.”
- “The fact that you haven’t told your parents about us makes me question our long-term potential. I think some other representation of our commitment would be really helpful for me, be it a tattoo, shared lease, or ring, ”
That said, you may have to do some self-worth work on your own time. Because while your partner not shouting about your love may feel personal, it isn’t … at all.
5. Reassure your partner, if you can
If you’re not planning to leave your partner, you should make that clear, says Tanner.
“This will help you create a more secure container for your conversation,” they say.
6. Encourage your partner to seek support
Whether you’ve been out for 1 year or 10, odds are you remember that not being out is emotionally taxing.
And if you don’t remember that? Trust us, it is!
If your partner isn’t out to their close friends or family, they’re not getting emotionally re-filled from their usual support system.
As such, you might encourage them to go to an LGBT+ support group or queer-inclusive therapist so they can talk about the emotional drain and process what’s keeping them from coming out.
It’s OK if you don’t want to date someone who isn’t out
“Offering your partners grace as they explore their identities is wonderful, and it’s also not for everyone,” says Tanner.
“It’s perfectly okay to want a partner who is solidly living in their queerness, and who celebrates your queer love openly,” they say. Desiring this doesn’t make you impatient, demanding, needy, or any other similar adjective.
“You can appreciate their coming out journey and choose not to be a part of it,” says Tanner.
There are reasons someone who is out might want to date someone who is also out.
You may have a greater shared experience
The experience of coming out is, in one word, unique.
“Due to systemic and interpersonal homophobia and transphobia, coming out is an emotionally taxing process,” says Tanner.
Beyond just being emotionally taxing, coming out has forced many LGBT+ people to experience things such as homelessness, abandonment, discrimination, safety concerns, and more.
“People might experience the loss of certain relationships in their lives, either because those people reject the person who is coming out or because the person who is coming out no longer chooses to connect with homophobic and transphobic people,” they say.
Someone who is out and who has experienced injustices may want to be with someone who knows first-hand what it’s like to survive through them.
It may be less emotionally challenging
“For folks who have already gone through the most difficult parts of the coming out process, partnering with someone who has not yet begun that process could bring up old emotions that the person doesn’t want to re-live,” says Tanner.
For instance, dating someone who isn’t out may mean that the out partner can’t:
- share that they’re dating someone
- share who they’re dating
- bring a plus-one to events
“The experience of being ‘re-closeted’ can be a traumatizing experience for those who have worked hard to have their identities seen and known by others,” says Tanner.
It could also make the partner who is out feel like they’re awaiting doom (read: discrimination).
The feeling that discrimination is just around the corner could make someone feel uneasy, untrustworthy, paranoid, and closed off.
When you love someone it’s natural to want them to soft (or hard!) launch you on their TikTok, write song lyrics and Instagram captions about your morning breath, and shout your name from the rooftop.
But these public gestures can feel impossible, and even downright dangerous, for someone who has not yet shared that they date people of the same or similar gender as themselves.
That doesn’t mean that your S.O. doesn’t love you or that they’re not proud of you. It simply means that we live in a hetero-patriarchal society.
Still, whether you choose to move forward in this relationship with patience and love — or leave it to preserve your mental well-being — is wholly up to you. Because at the end of the day, it is totally OK if, as an LGBT+ person, you would prefer to date someone who is also out to their colleagues, friends, and family members.
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.