Erin Oliveri started to realize she was a lesbian when she was about 13. “We’d be playing kissing games at parties and I didn’t want to kiss any of the guys,” she says.
For the next few years, she struggled with figuring out her sexual identity. Growing up on Staten Island -- a short ferry ride away from Manhattan but light years apart in terms of attitudes toward homosexuality -- she went to a small, Catholic, all-girls’ high school where everyone knew everyone. “It wasn’t the most welcoming environment. I was very worried about telling people,” says Erin, who’s now 23 and works in public relations in New York.
Coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual ,or transgender can be tough at any age, but teens have a lot more to think about. Is it safe to come out at school? Will your mom or dad reject you? Will you be kicked out of the house?
Erin knew her family loved her, but she decided to come out in baby steps. “I came out first to a friend from a different school when I was about 15. I definitely knew she was gay,” she recalls. “Then, one of my good friends just kind of knew, and she was really open and almost asked me, so I knew she’d welcome it.”
Next, she told her older sister. “She was the cool one who’d let me hang out with her friends,” Erin says. “I knew she’d be OK with it, and I thought maybe she’d give me some pointers and help me figure out how our parents would react.”
That was the biggie. Erin’s parents are conservative, and always preached against things like sex before marriage. So when at 17, she decided to tell her dad during an Outback Steakhouse lunch after one of her soccer games, Erin was almost shaking with anxiety.
“I said, ‘Dad, I’ve really been wanting to tell you about something. I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure because I didn’t want you to think it was just a phase,’” she recalls. “I looked down at this point and he knew what was coming next. I led off with, ‘I have a girlfriend, and I’m gay.’ I looked up and he had tears in his eyes, and he said, ‘Yeah, we know.’ He looked sad, but he said, ‘You’re Erin, we always love you. It doesn’t matter.’”
Erin instinctively took a wise approach in many ways, says Colleen Logan, PhD, coordinator of Walden University's Master's degree program in marriage, couple, and family counseling. Logan specializes in gay, lesbian, and transgender issues. “Everyone’s coming-out experience is different, but there are a few common things that can make the process of coming out easier for teens.”
So if you’ve spent the past few months or years figuring out that you’re gay, bisexual, or transgender, you may want to tell someone else. You want to be true to who you are. How can you do that safely and with support?
Get Comfortable with Yourself First.
“You need to be firm in your own identity and work through some of the issues you might have with your sexuality first,” says Regina Hund, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Pace University Counseling Center in New York. “It’ll be easier to allow other people to go through their process of understanding if you are comfortable with yourself first. You’ll be less vulnerable to rejection.”
Find a Safe Person.
“We want you to have a success early on,” Logan says. With “That’s so gay,” and “That’s so queer” as common expletives, you’re probably hearing lots of negative messages, no matter how accepting a community you live in. “So if the first time you come out can be a successful, welcoming experience, that’s huge, Logan says.
Like Erin Oliveri, many teens come out first to someone they already know is gay, Logan says. “Think about who’s safe. A school counselor? A trusted friend? A cool aunt or cousin?”
Take Your Time.
Don’t feel forced or pressured. Erin Oliveri waited about two years from the time she told a gay friend until she finally came out to her parents. “Your sexuality isn’t a choice, but the when, how, and who of coming out is,” Logan says.
And if you don’t feel safe, sometimes it’s best to wait to come out either at home or at school, or both, says Kathy Belge, former director of the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center, Oregon's largest program for LGBT teens and the author of Queer: the Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens. “You may want to hold off until you are out of the house and not financially dependent on your parents," or if your school is not supportive, Belge says.
Choose Your Moment.
You may be tempted to respond angrily to someone’s anti-gay slur with “Oh yeah? Well, I’m gay, so shut up!” But that’s not likely to get a good reaction.
Pick your time and place carefully. “I don’t recommend giving a monumental dissertation at a holiday dinner. It tends not to go well,” Logan says. “Instead, try for a relaxed afternoon that doesn’t have a holiday or a big event tied to it.”
She suggests writing down what you’re going to say first, and role-playing with someone else who already knows.
Choose Your Person.
Logan says that most LGBT teens choose to come out first to their mom, but her research shows that coming out to the opposite-gender parent is often most successful. “Boys coming out to their moms tend to get a better reaction than boys coming out to dads, and girls coming out tend to be more successful with their dads,” she says. “It may be because the same gender feels like you’re rejecting their parenting.”
That happened with Erin Oliveri. Although her father was emotional, he immediately accepted her declaration that she was a lesbian. But her mom took longer, at first protesting that Erin was just going through a phase, like when she tried the guitar for a few months.
Of course, you don’t have to come out to everyone. Just because you’re out at home doesn’t mean you want to or have to be out at school, or at church.You need to feel comfortable about how the person may respond. “People need to earn the right for you to come out to them,” Logan says.
Remember, it probably took you awhile to adjust to the idea of being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. “Have empathy for parents if their reaction is shock and not immediately embracing,” Belge says.“It was a process for you. Your family and friends haven’t necessarily done that process yet and they need an adjustment period, as well.”
Find Your Tribe.
You’re not alone. There are literally millions of other kids out there who’ve been where you are. You need to find them and help each other.
Look for a high school gay-straight alliance or a local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG, www.pflag.org), or the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN, www.glsen.org). If there’s nobody local, you can find support online through communities like PFLAG, GLSEN, the Trevor Project (www.thetrevorproject.org), and Lyric.org.