The road to self-acceptance can be a rocky one, especially when it’s paved with others’ reactions. For many LGBTQ+ people, coming out as their true gender or sharing their sexuality comes fraught with fear over how family members will react, whether they’ll lose friends once they bring their authentic selves into the light, or if their workplace, church or community will look at them differently.
And even as Pride flags ripple from many homes and storefronts and everyone from the Google doodle to your favorite snack food seem to have turned rainbow-hued for Pride month, we’re still a long way from full equality. An estimated 5.6% of the U.S. population identifies as LGBTQ+ according to the most recent Gallup data, but not everyone feels safe and accepted in their identities. A recent Human Rights Campaign Foundation survey found that, of 10,000 teens ages 13–17, 31% feared they would be “treated differently or judged” if they came out. Another 30% said their family was “not accepting” of LGBTQ+ people and 19 percent were scared or unsure about how their families would react.
We spoke with 20 adults from all across the LGBTQ+ spectrum about their coming-out stories, to unfurl the beautiful array of experiences the journey entails. Here’s what they had to share.
Georgia Clark, author
I came out to my mother at 18, in the coffee shop of a fancy Sydney department store. I’d become a raging student activist, dying my hair blue and getting regrettable facial piercings. I think my mum assumed the fact I’d fallen in love with my best friend would be another attention-seeking phase. It wasn’t: I was deeply, wildly, in love. “Can you tell Dad and William?” I’d mumbled into my iced chocolate, partly to avoid the awkwardness of discussing my sex life with my father and little brother, and partly because I was lazy.
My family are jazz-loving liberals who recycle. We were close but had never discussed sexuality beyond my mother suggesting to me as a tween that I wash my hands before I “touch myself” after getting a rash from chronic masturbation (to this day, I can still recall the way each of my internal organs liquified from sheer mortification). My sexuality felt like a mystery they weren’t particularly interested in solving: there were no follow-up questions. This used to annoy me, but I’m an artist and thus always moping that no one is as interested in me as I think they should be. Now, my family loves my wife more than me. “How’s Linds?” they’ll ask in our FaceTimes, craning their necks to get a peek at my sunny spouse, the one who never mopes no one’s paying her enough attention. “What’s she up to?”
Finnegan Shephard, writer and entrepreneur
I am one of those trans people who was always very clear that I was a boy. That was very obvious to me since birth. I think there’s a natural androgyny to children. I dressed like a boy, I cut my hair like a boy and played with boys. The body was this sort of irrelevant, almost anatomical mistake, that really didn’t impact my day-to-day life. Puberty obviously made things more complicated, and then I got Type I Diabetes when I was 15. Diabetes requires you to be in constant contact with your body, and I was really trying to just distract myself from the body entirely. So I felt in that moment like I would die if I didn’t learn to live in the body that I was in. And I guess that means I’m a lesbian. But I never really came out, as such. With my mom in particular, I went downstairs one day and my mom was reading on the couch. And I was like, “Well, I’m attracted to women.” She just kind of looked up at me like, “Of course you are. Can you unload the dishwasher?” For the next 12 years or so, I didn’t particularly identify with my body but transitioning just wasn’t something I think I was ready to deal with.
And then, when I was 27, I was actually engaged when I met somebody else who just saw that part of me and put a name to it. I think my biggest fear was that if I told the world that I was male, that the reaction would either be one of pity, or that people would think I was crazy. And I couldn’t live with that. Somebody else saying it first just protected me and made me feel like I could do it. Then it quickly became this sort of snowball, where I told my sister, and then a couple weeks after that, I told some friends and then I told a lot more friends and I was met with just complete support and acceptance. I really do believe in the importance of stories. And there’s a lot of interest in trans stories now, but we also have historically been pretty calcified in the kinds of stories that we are used to hearing and associating with trans experience. That has ripple-down effects on how people feel it’s OK to be trans and I’m all about encouraging people to realize that it’s OK to be ambivalent, it’s OK to have some hesitations around medical transition, it’s all OK. I just encourage people to reach out and find that space for themselves, sharing the broadest spectrum of stories that we can.
Jen Winston, author
I delayed coming out as bisexual because I thought bisexuality wasn’t significant enough to warrant making an announcement to the world. For years, I tried to skirt by without a label, broadening my dating app settings to include women and other genders, but whenever I actually went out with someone who wasn’t a man, we didn’t seem to click. After several failed hookup attempts, I realized I was convincing myself I wasn’t queer enough to be there. This helped me understand that using the b-word out loud for myself was important — it helped remind me of my own truth. I didn’t want to call my parents directly so I did the cowardly 2019 thing: I shared an Instagram post announcing myself as bi with a caption about my own imposter syndrome, explaining that not being open about this truth had hindered my opportunity to actually live it. I expected comments telling me I was being dramatic, but got way more comments saying “totally relate” and “I’m bi too!” My parents weren’t mad that I’d told social media before telling them. Instead, they called and said, “This might up your odds for meeting someone!” It was a joke, but sure enough: A few months later, I went on a fantastic date with a nonbinary person. We’ve been dating ever since, and moved in together last month.
Harma Hartouni, author
When I was growing up as an Armenian kid living in Iran, I always knew something was different about me, but I didn’t dare say it out loud. I was attracted to other boys. People definitely had their suspicions; I was generally less soccer and more dance. I was teased and bullied throughout my childhood, and I could never let my guard down, even at home. Let’s say my ultra-conservative Middle Eastern parents weren’t exactly in the running for any PFLAG awards. Iran is not accepting of LGBTQ people, and it’s very dangerous to be gay in Iran. But as they say, a mother always knows, and mine did; she was just in denial. There was always a giant rainbow-colored elephant in the room. Eventually, after we moved to the U.S., where being gay was safer than in Iran, I realized I didn’t have to lie about who I was, so I came out to my mom. After telling her, she locked herself in our apartment and threatened suicide unless I stopped being gay. Later, she tried to enroll me in conversion therapy.
Things came to a head when she called into the most popular Armenian radio show in L.A. asking for advice on having a gay son. Though it was anonymous, she gave so much detail about me; I had been outed to our entire tight-knit Armenian community by morning. Thanks for doing the legwork, Mom! My mom’s struggle to accept me was rooted in fear. She feared judgment from our community, but more than anything, she feared for my safety and the challenges I would face as a gay man. I can’t blame her. I had the same fears. After all, it took me the first 21 years to accept myself; how could I expect it to be instant for my family? So, my advice to any parent trying to navigate allyship for their LGBTQ child is this: if you want a glittery gold star, lean into your love, not your fear. I guarantee your kid is scared too.
Ariele Lanning, yoga teacher
I always believed in a God that cared for me, but under the influence of religion, the love remained conditional. How could a loving father hate people because of who they loved? I tried to take my life in the spring of 2012 after I had left my high school boyfriend for a woman, concluding that I had done enough damage and that I would never be able to manage my “desires.” Now looking back, I think I wanted the punishment Hell guaranteed. A few months later, I met my now-husband. I was improving, until my high school sweetheart died by suicide. His death inflamed my guilt, initiating a downpour of health problems. Every night before bed I would puke, and cry myself to sleep.
After my now-husband and I got pregnant, I got a second chance at living a balanced, healthy life. When my daughter was six months old, I started yoga and quickly fell in love. Eventually, I signed up for yoga teacher training, where I learned I was suppressing many parts of me, including my bisexuality. As my views began expanding with mindfulness practices, I began intimately studying my bible to prove religion could be more inclusive. Yoga and meditation allow me to hold the pain of my guilt, without becoming it. Now, I want to help free people from the illusion that tells them they can’t love who they want, be who they want, experience what they want, and live a life of joy.
Pat and Paulette Martin
I first knew I was a lesbian at the age of five, and came out to my family and mother at my high school graduation. I always knew exactly who I was; it was my mother who was confused. She said my actions were not normal, even going to the extreme and taking me to a psychiatrist. My mother’s homophobia was one of the reasons I waited to come out. Every time my mother would see a gay woman, she would say, “if one of my children becomes like that, I’ll kill them.” During my high school graduation, I walked across the stage in a dress to get my diploma. Afterward, I went into the bathroom and changed into a suit. When my mother saw me, she said, “What the hell is this?” I responded, “This is me.” I got my girlfriend and left, and never looked back. Now, I’ve been out for more than 50 years. In 2015, I met my now-wife Paulette at an event hosted by SAGE — an organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT elders — and got married in 2018 at the age of 67. We both continue to advocate for rights for the LGBT+ community, especially for elders. —Pat Martin
Unlike my wife, Pat, I didn’t come out until I was 40 when my youngest child was 16. Growing up, I thought if I got married and had a baby, I wouldn’t have to tell my mother that I was gay and could be normal. However, pretending I was something that I was not for all those years to avoid the punishment of social and familial shame did not make me feel normal at all. In reality, I felt suffocated and trapped. I took out all of my repressed frustrations on others, including members of the LGBT+ community. After I got divorced from my husband, I realized I wanted to start living as my authentic self. While the seismic shift caused friction in my family relationships, the burden of living a lie was gone. But I still faced numerous challenges along the way, including discrimination and racism for simply being myself. Later in life, having just moved from Long Island to East Harlem, I fell head over heels for Pat. The romantic spark was real. We were married on April 10, 2018, at the age of 67. Today, we reside in East Harlem — an area of New York once notorious for being hostile to those in the LGBT+ community — and walk hand-in-hand through the neighborhoods as our authentic selves. —Paulette Martin
Elizabeth Coffey-Williams, actress
Assigned male at birth in 1948, I knew I was a girl from an early age. Despite attending a parochial school, I wore my hair shaggy and dated boys. As the oldest of five kids, I first came out to my family as transgender in the late 1960s, when the language of gender identity wasn’t what it is today. My family didn’t know what being transgender meant and were afraid it might be “contagious,” so I was sent to live with a relative across town and was forbidden to see my younger brothers and sisters, which was traumatizing for me.
In 1970, I hitched a ride to Baltimore where I met rising film director John Waters and quickly became one of the Dreamlanders — Waters’ ensemble of regular cast and crew members. I later appeared in four of his films, including a memorable role in Pink Flamingos. While there, I heard about John Hopkins’ groundbreaking work as the first American academic institution to offer gender confirmation surgeries. In 1972, I received the surgery and completed my transition, becoming one of the first women to participate in the Johns Hopkins program. I remain a defiantly out and proud trans woman.
After my siblings learned about my transition, I got an unexpected knock on the door. It was my little brother, Billy. His visit was a big step for my family, who was dealing with understanding me as a woman. It made me feel loved, wanted and like I was getting my family back. I’ve been a strong advocate for the transgender community for nearly 50 years and I have no intention of sitting down. Currently, I co-facilitate the TransWay support group at the William Way LGBT Community Center, help conduct tours of the Center, serve on the endorsement committee of the Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, and as a board member of the Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld Fund, as well as a tireless advocate for LGBT Senior housing. An avid quilter, I’ve served as a facilitator of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a national collection of quilt squares commemorating those who died from HIV/AIDS and my quilting work has also been shown in the Art Institute of Chicago.
Rachael Lippincott, author
I’d known for a few months before I finally came out to my mom. I mean, I’d probably known for longer than a few months, but it’s pretty hard to continue to ignore all the signs when you are literally dating a girl. I’d kept it a secret as my mom went through cancer treatments, not wanting to add to the pile, but the scans were looking good, she’d gone into remission, and her reconstruction surgery was scheduled. She was driving me to school one morning, and I just knew today was the day. My heart was palpitating the entirety of the 15-minute ride as I worked up the courage to finally tell her. Of course, I waited until she pulled into the parking lot to finally squeak out: “I think I like girls.” Adding quickly afterward, “But, I mean, I’ll always think Johnny Depp is super hot.” Johnny Depp just happened to be her favorite actor, and I thought it could be some kind of padding to the truth. Some kind of commonality that we could still share as I upended her perception of me. She parked that car and looked at me, letting me know that she loved me, and she didn’t care who I loved, as long as I was happy. We hugged. We cried. I was still, and always will be, the same person she knew and loved and raised. If anything, she just knew me a little better.
Ruth B. Carter, lawyer
I knew I was different as young as four. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it; I just knew that I was different than my peers. Now I identify as pansexual and nonbinary, but earlier in my coming out, I identified as bisexual. I didn’t realize that there was more than two genders. I didn’t understand that I had feelings for women when I was younger, because the way I have a crush on a guy is different than the way I have a crush on a woman. And so I just did not connect the dots. I was 23 when I came out to myself, my friends and shortly thereafter, my family. I was in grad school at the time and we had a weekly meeting with my classmates. A question my professor threw out was, “What’s something you learned about yourself this semester?” I was like, well, “There we go.” A few months later, I had my family reunion. I went into it thinking, OK, worst-case scenario, they reject me, I’m just gonna get back on the plane tonight. Told my parents and they were fine with it. They’re not waving the rainbow flag, but they’re fine.
And then, when I was in my 30s, I learned about nonbinary people. And that made a whole lot of things click into place. Because I had grown up in Catholic school and I was a gymnast, so I was on a team full of girls. And I remember in fourth grade, I stopped talking to the girls in my class, because they were just so obnoxious. They were just being like, tween girls, but it just wasn’t who I was.
My parents seem to be OK with it. I would not be surprised if my dad does not use they/them pronouns for me when I’m not around, but I think my mom tries. I’m training for an Ironman race, and she called it an “iron person” and then like, two seconds later, she says, “You go girl!” Certain things are challenging. I’ve learned that there are words missing in our vocabulary. We have sir and ma’am, but we don’t have gender-neutral options for when someone wants to address me politely. That word doesn’t exist. When my sister was pregnant, I was like, “What am I to this baby?” We came up with “Auggie,” because to say I’m her mother’s sibling isn’t convenient. I think part of it is, this is still a new thing. We’re still in the phase where people are realizing like, this is not a fad. This is people. And everyone deserves to be acknowledged.
Randi Dee Robertson, pilot
I knew as a preschooler I was somehow different. By nine years old, I was certain that I was a girl. But my family, and the community I was in growing up, was certain I was a boy. Blessed with loving parents, three wonderful siblings, and a caring community, I thrived all while hiding the truth because I knew sharing it would have consequences I was not ready to confront. By my early 30s, I was happily married with two children and a nephew to raise and well into a career as a United States Air Force officer and pilot. Because of my commitments and love for my family, as well as my career, I stayed deeply closeted to insure financial stability for my family. I first came out to my spouse in 2006. My spouse confronted me after finding my hidden collection of women’s clothing and accessories. I shared details of my journey and we decided to keep it between the two of us until I retired from the Air Force, which was still several years away. After retiring in the spring of 2011, I came out to my counselor, siblings, parents and children. While this revelation was shocking to everyone, my family reassured me that I would always be accepted and loved.
My mother’s response was particularly interesting. She asked me, “Why would you give up your male privilege?” Knowing some of the challenges my mother has encountered as a woman based solely on the basis of her gender, I have come to appreciate that remark, especially having inherited some of those characteristics. Over the next few years, I slowly came out to friends, colleagues, associates and strangers. Each time I met someone new and I get to know them, I have to decide if they are worthy of knowing the truth. If I decide they are, I come out to them as well. Now, at age 58, I actively advocate for policies, and practices that create a more welcoming environment for LGTBQI+, women, and other underrepresented groups. My personal experience can prove that businesses, organizations, communities, and our nation can be stronger and better when we create inclusive spaces so each person can be the best of who they are.
I’ve known I liked women sexually since I was in elementary school. A friend and I sat in her closet for hours and would touch each other and talk to each other about it. In fourth grade, my best friend Emily started calling me her boyfriend because I would buy her snacks and walk her home and stuff. We held hands, sat together, fourth grade stuff. A group of older boys followed us one day and started yelling stuff at us and threw rocks at us. I punched one of them and then Emily’s mom wouldn’t let us hang out anymore. No one ever said anything about women liking women being bad specifically but I definitely heard anti-gay rhetoric from some family so I never said anything.
Years later, it bothered me how men would stigmatize gay men but sexualize gay women and I got a little more open with my sexuality but wouldn’t say I was bi. It wasn’t until I dated a woman for several months that I embraced the term, but I had no plans of coming out to anyone. The people around me knew. My partner knew. That was enough. However, my “nephew” (an older cousin’s son) was debating coming out and so scared because of a lot of the anti-gay and bigoted rhetoric he had heard around him, his family and in the media. To encourage him, I posted on Facebook “Hi: I’m bi. Bye” and didn’t think much of it. Because I was already steadfast in my sense of self, I didn’t need the validation, which I think is such a privilege for me as a white, straight-passing cisgendered woman. Then, last summer in having a lot of conversations around BLM and anti-racism and bigotry, my maternal grandmother used gay slurs and I let her know it was unacceptable and that she shouldn’t speak that way as a Christian and having a gay granddaughter. She told me that all of my opinions regarding BLM and Trump “made sense now” and I broke contact with her after some more insults were hurled around. My mom approached me, asking about me being gay and how she didn’t know. I told her I didn’t feel like I needed to come out because it’s inviting someone into a part of my life that’s only shared with sexual partners. She said she was proud of me for standing up for myself and asked if I wanted pizza. I’ve taken to using the term “invite in” instead of “coming out.” I’m not secretive about who I am, but I dislike the box that coming out puts you in, as I think about sexuality and gender as fluid.
Danica Roem, journalist and politician
Coming out isn’t typically a one-stop shop, one and done. For me, the process unfolded over about 14 years, using sexuality as a stepping stone to my gender identity. In 2001, when I was a senior in high school, I told a few people I was bi. Then, when I was accepted to St. Bonaventure University, 344 miles away from my little town in Virginia, that was my chance to hit the reset button and start coming out. But as it turned out, one person who was from my town also went there, and I was so afraid that word would get back home to my mom, and I didn’t want to disappoint her. That kept me from pursuing therapy. But I was so fortunate that I found women I could trust and confide in, people who let me be my authentic self and, in turn, I could let them know that because I wasn’t a man, they could talk to me like any other woman. I wasn’t a threat to them. But I wasn’t out to any of my guy friends at all, because I wanted my identity to be the metalhead, the funny guy, not the gay guy.
A lot of the social pressures at that time made the idea of living as an out trans woman and living a happy, fulfilling life beyond my reach. So I went stealth. I would go out at the gay clubs or industrial metal goth shows (where all the guys are wearing more makeup than the girls anyway), but it wasn’t my day-to-day reality. Then, in 2005, I competed in a gender bust competition where I got to dress as a woman. I looked amazing and I felt absolutely euphoric, until I saw the reaction to photos posted online by the campus newspaper. They were so negative, they shoved me violently back in the closet.
After I graduated and got my first job as a reporter, I came out as gay to my editor, but I knew that where I lived and worked, being gay and being trans were two different things. My fear was, if I came out as trans, my sources wouldn’t see me as a neutral, dispassionate observer and that would affect my career. Then in 2012, my gender dysphoria became suffocating. There was a hand that had been closing around my throat since I was 10 years old and I needed to do something. By the end of that summer, I called a psychologist, told her I was trans, and that I needed help. Not long after that, I called my boss and said I was transitioning. In 2014, I got my name changed and updated my byline in the newspaper, then came out to everyone in 2016. I knew the lie that I was living had expired and I was done with it. Living as a man, I always felt incomplete. But being authentically me, out in the world, I feel whole.