Mental Health and Coming Out, On National Coming Out Day 2019
October 11 marks National Coming Out Day, a day to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community and the power of coming out
Therapist Emily Hilton reflects on what has changed since the first National Coming Out Day, 31 years ago
Owning our sexuality and identity can be challenging, either internally or externally. If you would like to talk to a therapist, start here
On the 31st anniversary of National Coming Out Day, I wanted to consider what it is like to come out in 2019, and how coming out can affect our mental health.
National Coming Out Day was created to celebrate LGBTQ+ identities, and to acknowledge the political and personal power of proclaiming them: the power of being visible, both to others who share our identities, and to those who criticise them. It aimed to counter homophobia by showing that LGBTQ+ people come from all walks of life, and that we all know and love many people who are part of that community – homophobic opinions shift much more easily when you learn that your brother, your best friend or your favourite teacher also identifies as LGBTQ+.
As coming out can be such a powerful, important experience, it may bring up a lot of emotional challenges. While for many of us the UK is not as homophobic a place as it was 31 years ago, it certainly isn’t homophobia-free either – a BBC article from September of this year lists very worrying statistics from 2018-19: a 133% increase in reported homophobic abuse since 2014-15, with a 20% decrease in prosecutions over the same period. Even in 2019, there is still a very real threat of abuse, and young LGBTQ+ people are still being rejected from their families and homes after coming out.
Both in my counselling room and my social life, I hear a great deal about how mental health can be affected by coming out. There are people who are unable to come out owing to fear of their friends’, family’s or colleagues’ reactions, trying to find a way to feel comfortable and happy as an LGBTQ+ person while also keeping that part of themselves hidden from those around them. There are people who have come out, been met with outright homophobia, and have needed to decide what to do about their relationships with those who have reacted that way – or even about their jobs, if they experience workplace bullying. There are people whose families appear to have ‘accepted’ their coming out on the surface, but whose reaction to meeting their new partner or being asked to use a different pronoun suggests that acceptance is only skin-deep. There are people whose coming out is met with ‘jokes’ that masquerade as acceptance, which can be really belittling – particularly as some may feel pressured to laugh along with the ‘banter’. There are people for whom it is really challenging to come out to themselves, let alone anyone else.
Finding ways to maintain good mental health when experiencing situations like these is essential. For some people, therapy may be one of those resources. Therapy offers a non-judgemental space, in which emotions like rejection, fear and loss can be explored. It is a space in which you can find your own answers for yourself, without anyone pressuring you to do anything that doesn’t feel right for you. It can help you untangle internalised homo-, bi- or transphobia, and the really difficult feelings that we might hold about ourselves as a result of what we learned about LGBTQ+ people while growing up. As many of us may have spent our childhoods protecting ourselves from criticism or bullying by trying to hide anything that might reveal our sexuality or gender identity, it can be difficult to break down those defences, and therapy can assist in working through this. Learning to accept ourselves can be a lengthy, knotty process: it deserves to be given time and attention - and to be done in whichever way works best for you - as it is so important to good mental health.
While we’ve seen there can be a lot of challenges, there are also many potential benefits to coming out. Just feeling sufficiently proud to be able to say the words that express your identity is very powerful. So too is receiving acceptance from people you care about, and being loved and respected for who you are. Finding an LGBTQ+ community you feel at home in can be absolutely revelatory, as can being in queer spaces: both contribute to good mental health by providing love and solidarity from people who can relate to your experiences, and share their own with you. Coming out - to yourself, as well as to others - may be a significant step towards being able to be open about yourself, and towards living the life that you want to live.
After that first experience of coming out, there will be many more, as we are presented with the decision of whether to come out or not with every new person we encounter – with significant relationships like new friends and colleagues, but also with people with whom we share small-talk about our lives: hairdressers; taxi drivers; the stranger sitting next to you on a long train journey. It is always your choice whether or not to come out, and every time you make that choice, it may well have a great deal of personal meaning to you. Perhaps today provides us the opportunity to reflect on that meaning, and to consider what we need to do to look after ourselves, our community, and the people for whom coming out is a bumpy road.