Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Coming Out--A Guide"

A note to the reader:
  • A few words of warning—this is not meant to be comprehensive, or legal advice, or any of that. This is more of  a “I wish I had known” list of suggestions and thoughts. Some of them I learned from direct experience myself, and others from what I have seen others deal with. Tailor this to your situation/needs/circumstances.
  • For my non-LGBT readers and friends--please take this as an education. Some of you are very aware of the issues and concerns I am discussing. Others may not be. 
  • And this is, of course, not the last word. There are many books out there on the coming out process; this is meant as a quick once-over--have you thought of this? What about that? Things I wish I or others had thought about before we came out the way we did.
  • And for all of you--any constructive suggestions for improving this are gratefully accepted! 

First of all, I’m discussing the practical aspects of coming out—not the emotional/spiritual/psychological sides, which are several posts—heck, several books—in and of themselves. Some of this practical stuff will affect and is affected by the other aspects, naturally—again, take what you need how you need it.

Much of it is applicable to any major life change—divorce, serious illness, birth of a child, etc. So it won’t all be geared to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered issues by any means, although that is the main focus. These are things to think about, consider, plan for, as you contemplate coming out. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

And of course, consult a professional for advice specific to your situation—lawyer, accountant, financial advisor, etc.

A very basic question: do you have enough independent income to live on? If you currently share expenses with someone else (spouse, partner) or are still living at home with parents/guardians, and you are not sure you will be able to continue in that living arrangement if you come out, you must be sure you can survive on your own. Add up all your expenses on a yearly basis—mortgage/rent, insurance (car, homeowners/tenants, life), car payment, utilities, amount spent on groceries, cell phone, medical care, pet care, home/car maintenance (tune-ups, furnace inspections, etc.), membership fees (professional associations, union dues, gym, etc.), condo fees, holiday gifts, birthday presents, vacations, savings—everything that you pay for throughout the year. If you’re in school, you’ve got tuition, room, board, fees, books, etc. Will you have enough money? What is “enough” will, again, depend on your situation. You may be willing and able to survive on noodle soup and a mattress on the floor of a basement apartment in order to live your truth. But if you have children, are finishing your education, or have a medical condition, you will want to be sure you have a safe, healthy place to live and a way to pay for your schooling and medical care. Only you know what your absolute rock-bottom needs are—make sure they can be met.

Remember, if you are currently married, and you end up divorcing, your spouse may or may not have to pay child support and/or maintenance—this varies depending on circumstances, including where you live. You cannot count on that income, and again, depending on circumstances, you may have to pay child support.

Some advice from that above mentioned experience, mine and others: before you make the coming-out statement, before you begin anything irrevocable, set your financial house in order. Pay down or off on your credit cards, pay off your car, make sure your insurance is paid up, be sure your have enough in your savings account to cover six months with no income plus the deductible on your car insurance…put yourself in a position of financial strength. We all hope that all will go well and those who are in financial partnership with us or are supporting us (parents/guardians) will not be vindictive or use finances as a way to control us. But we do not know how someone might react or what circumstances might arise. Look at it as starting your life anew, afresh, and that includes your finances.

This is related to finances.  Think about both your current job and your long-term goals or your occupation. Are they places where you will feel safe coming out? Your profession as a whole might be accepting, but is the company or office you are a part of comfortable with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people? You may want to look for a job in another company in the same field or another office of the company that you currently work for that is more accepting—make that part of your coming out. If your work location is not accepting and changing work locations or company is not feasible, how will you handle it? If you are part of a union, what are the union policies? Coming out to the union steward, if she or he is supportive, before coming out to your boss or HR head is wise. If you are self-employed, will coming out affect your ability to attract or retain clients/customers/patients?

You may find that you have to change professions or field if you come out—for example, some religious groups will not allow LGBT people to serve as pastors or even as lay leaders in congregations or in the administrations of churches or denominations, and until recently, the US military banned LGBT people from serving. Some school districts or principals will not be comfortable with an out LGBT person in the classroom, especially if you teach physical education. And so on. How will you make such a change? You may be able to transfer to another church or school district—but do you know what is required in order to do that and how long it might take? How will you find out what is needed? How will you support yourself if you must return to school or undertake an internship or other training program?

If you are in school, think about these same ideas in terms of school. What is the climate like at school? Does homophobic bullying occur? How do teachers and staff handle it—do they stop it, ignore it, say something but not follow up? Are there any out staff members? A gay-straight alliance? You probably cannot transfer schools easily, but if you can, you may want to consider it. If you are in college or university, the same questions apply, but you may be able to transfer schools or campuses more easily. Consider the possible effect on your student aid package—if your parents choose to discontinue paying part of your expenses, you may be eligible for more aid. There are also scholarships specifically for LGBT students.

We always hope for the best reaction from those we care about the most. Unfortunately, we don’t always get it. Think about your family and friends. How do you think they will react when you come out to them? It can be very painful, but think hard about which of your friends and family will stick with you—will you have a support system? You will need one, so look for four or five friends and family members  you know will be rock solid support for you and who can keep a confidence—maybe your parents, or a grandparent or uncle or aunt, maybe a former teacher, or your friend since grade three… They are the ones you will want to tell first. If you cannot come up with some friends and family who you are sure will support you, you may want to wait to come out to them until you have more of a support network.

If you are active in your local community, think about how coming out will be received by others in the community—the parents of the Little League team you coach, the other members of your Bible study group, your book club. If you hold offices in any organizations—from PTA to Kiwanis to a professional organization—how will the organization receive your coming out? Will you be asked to resign, to move to a less visible position in the organization, or will it have no effect?

Both physical and mental—how is your health? If you have a chronic illness, such as diabetes or fibromyalgia, you will need health coverage—how will any possible changes in your income or profession affect your health insurance? If you have had a serious illness that requires follow-up and continued care, such as cancer or HIV/AIDS, this also applies to you.

If you are subject to depression or another mood disorder, know that coming out can be very hard on your mood—expect changes, not always for the better. Your therapist should be one of the first you can and do come out to. If you don’t feel safe doing that, find another therapist! He or she can help you navigate the reefs of coming out into a new identity with your sanity intact.

Protection before coming out
Until you are ready to come out, be cautious. Not only do you need a support system, but you need to be ready, and to be outed before you are ready is devastating both for you and potentially for family and friends. You may face job loss, or upset family and friends, or comment in your local community. If you are married and your spouse does not know, there are even more potential issues. Therefore, I say be careful. I am NOT saying it’s OK to sneak around and intentionally deceive people. But you  have the right to maintain your own boundaries and come out when it is right for you—unless not coming out would hurt others more than coming out would.

Be aware that going to LGBT community spaces (bar, community center, support group) may expose you; visiting LGBT web sites may too, as may having a same-gender relationship. I am not saying you should not do these things—but be aware of possible consequences and plan for them.

And one more form of protection—if you do decide to engage in sexual behaviour, use protection—a condom or dental dam. As difficult as it is to come out safely, you do not want to add the stress of having to deal with a sexually transmitted infection on top of it—especially if you have had another relationship outside of what was supposed to be a monogamous relationship.

Reality check
Coming out will NOT solve all your problems. You will feel lightened, relief, as if a burden is gone. But you will also feel grief for the losses and changes in your life—even with the best outcome, there are always losses and changes. You will also find that while most people in the LGBT community are warm, kind people (one of my friends was hurt and upset that I came out to a mutual friend first, instead of to her), you will also find there are as many needy, clinging, arrogant, rude, and downright nasty people in the LGBT community as there are in the rest of the world. Simply because someone is LGBT and out does not mean they are friend material, much less potential partners. It can be downright depressing. But always balance that against continuing to live in the closet—coming out generally wins.

And what if you are “outed?”  Hopefully, you have been able to put some of this planning into action—you have people you know you can confide in, you have safe spaces, at least some of your work/school colleagues know and are supportive, and you have already contemplated the effect of coming out on your relationships—work, family, home, school, etc. If not, you will have to do a lot of work in a short time. Generally, even if people are not accepting, they are as upset that they didn’t know as they are about the fact that you are LGBT. With that in mind, have those conversations with crucial people—your boss (if it might affect your work), your spouse, parents, children, best friends. You may find that they suspected all along. If not, you have done your part—you have been honest with them. If they are upset or angry that you did not tell them earlier (before you were “forced” to), explain to them your fears and anxiety, and describe how the world still is not very hospitable to those who are different. If they still do not understand, keep an open mind and try to be forgiving. This is something you have known about yourself for a long time—they are just finding it out/having it confirmed. It will take them time, as it took you some time, to assimilate this new information about you.

I’ve gone through all this not to tell anyone when they should or should not come out, much less how to come out or to whom. There are some bedrock ideas—think and prepare before you come out, be sure you are in a safe place emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually before you do so, and that you have a support system in place, but also do come out as soon and as safely as you can. You will be healthier for it!

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