The Five Stages of Coming Out

This is a summary by Paul Beeman of an article, “Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process,” by Eli Coleman, Ph.D., assistant professor, University of Minnesota Medical School, from A Guide to Psychotherapy with Gay and Lesbian Clients, edited by John C. Gonsiorek, Harrington Park Press, New York, 1985.

I found it to be pretty accurate. He does not assume that all gays and lesbians go through these stages in order, nor that all complete all five stages. Some may get locked into one stage and never progress. Even at the identity integration stage, coming out is a continuing process.

But there are developmental tasks inherent in each stage which need to be completed some time, in order ultimately to become fully self-actualizing and integrated. Here are the stages.

I. Pre-Coming Out
Some studies have found that core gender and sex-role identities are formed by age 3, thus sexual object choice is part of gender identity. If that is true, then heterosexuality and homosexuality are determined primarily during late infancy and early childhood, and may be identified at a pre-conscious level, or even a conscious level.

A child may grow up learning the family’s and society’s prejudices against being gay, while the child feels different, alienated and alone. Since individuals at this stage are not consciously aware of same-sex feelings, they cannot describe what is wrong. They may hide their feelings from themselves and others, suffer low self-esteem and depression, and only communicate their conflict through behavioral problems.

II. Coming Out
Individuals move into this stage when they acknowledge their homosexual feeling, which is the first developmental task of this stage. That may mean simply acknowledging a confusing homosexual thought or fantasy, without fully understanding or labeling what that means. Some studies indicate the median age fr this experience is from 13 to 18.

Once the feelings have been identified, the next task is telling someone, a vital function in beginning one’s self-acceptance. The confidant’s reaction has a powerful impact. If negative, it can confirm old prejudices and lower self-esteem. If positive, it can counteract old prejudices and permit individuals to begin accepting their sexual feelings and increase self-esteem. “But no one can develop self-concepts such as accepted, valued or worthwhile all alone.” Acceptance by a parent is an extremely powerful force for self-acceptance.

III. Exploration
This stage of experimenting with a new sexual identity is akin to the heterosexual adolescent’s first major experience of sexual activity with others. However, most individuals with same-sex preference do not experience adolescence in their teenage years. There is a developmental lag in their sexual adolescence, which can be confusing or even frightening to persons who have otherwise matured intellectually, vocationally and financially.

The developmental tasks are: development of interpersonal skills to meet and socialize with others who have homosexual orientation; development of a sense of personal attractiveness and sexual competence, by becoming involved in sexual relationships; seeing themselves not only in a sexual way, but recognizing other needs, like affection and support.

A major stumbling block appears in the use of alcohol and drugs to ease the pain of rejection and the ever-present lack of self-esteem.

IV. First Relationships
After a period of sexual and social experimentation, exploration can lose its intrigue, and needs for intimacy and a stable, committed relationship then become important.

The developmental task is learning to function in a same-sex relationship in a predominately heterosexual society. First serious relationships can be characterized by intensity, possessiveness and lack of trust, and therefore they are often temporary, discouraging and can end as a way to relieve the pressure.

V. Integration
This is an open-ended, ongoing process that will last the rest of one’s life. Such an integrated identity usually takes from 10 to 14 years after the first awareness of same-sex feelings. New feelings will emerge; new relationships will be enjoyed. This stage is characterized by non-possessiveness, mutual trust, freedom, and greater success.

Some may choose not to enter long-term relationships, others make permanent commitments such as marriage.

The gay liberation movement has facilitated the process of acquiring a positive homosexual identity by providing more social support. Yet, Dr. Coleman concludes, positive reactions by family and influential individuals may have a greater impact than all the direct and indirect reactions of society.

As I always encourage, build a net of loving people around you. If your family does not accept it at first, be patient and try to get them to read some pro-gay coming out literature for family members, to talk to an accepting pastor or contact a group like PFLAG.


Resilience can be learned.

Resilience is needed when we trade in an old identity for a new one. When some part of us dies and is replaced by some new facet, new face. Maybe it is a part we have harbored in secret for years. Maybe it’s a seed whose time has come and unexpectedly sprouts. Adolescence and coming out of the closet (any closet) require resilience.

Resilience is needed when we lose a part of our heart when a beloved is lost to us through death, or separation or divorce. Sometimes our loss may seem unbearable, and we may be tempted to run back into our closet and hide, cursing that the gods have unfairly punished us.  “Reverse this!” we shout.  It is not possible.

Resilience is needed whenever we start living outside our comfort zone and try something new. Anything new, even riding a bike.

Resilience is needed frequently on what seems like the battlefield of life. How hard it can be to simply lay down our arms and let someone hold us in theirs. We need to ask for support. Accept it when it comes.

Resilience comes when we learn to say “no” to some of the trappings of grief:

Say no to Personalization.  No, it’s not your fault. You will be tempted to blame yourself.  Immediately remove the word “sorry” from your vocabulary, at least as it pertains to this.
Say no to Permanence. No, this is not permanent. You will be tempted to forget you ever had a life where you could smile and laugh. But know that things will get better. Life will seem normal one day, or at least become the “new normal.”
Say no to Pervasiveness. No, this does not have to affect every area of your life.  You will be tempted to think that EVERYTHING has changed.  You may feel guilty if you allow yourself some small pleasure in another area of your life, because of the need to give this weight.  Yes, respect that this is HUGE, but it is not EVERYTHING. To compartmentalize is healthy, at least in this case.

Finally remember to be grateful. In the brutal moments when you are overtaken by the void of your loss, recall what is still there that you are grateful for: Those loved ones who remain in your life. That part of you that will always be there despite your metamorphosis.  Let not all be lost, and see with fresh eyes what you have previously taken for granted.

One door has closed, but so too has a window opened. Be bold and survey the new view. Catch the breeze when you can and remember to breathe.

10 Reasons to love Coming Out Support Groups

If you live in a large city that offers coming out support groups, I recommend taking advantage of them.  If you don’t have an in-person support group, the next best thing is a telephone support group (see resources.)  There are things a support group can offer you that a one-on-one session with a therapist cannot, though I recommend doing both if possible.

Peer support groups can be extremely powerful in the following ways:

  1. It’s important to know you’re not alone on your journey.
  2. There is enormous acknowledging and validating going on —  you’re all in the same boat with similar goals and you each have very similar struggles.  When you’re sharing your story, your other peer members are usually nodding their heads saying “That totally makes sense, that happens to me too!”  They may even chime in with “This is what worked for me when I was in that situation…”
  3. The facilitator or peer coach can help show you the “path beyond” when you are stuck.  It helps to have someone there that has been through it all before because they know there is an opening on the other side.  There is no way out, but through–and they will be the fearless leader walking by your side as you make your journey.
  4. There is great “peer wisdom” to be shared. Even in the midst of a struggle or emergence, there is a great wisdom that is generated within the group. Often the group will run itself without the need for the facilitator to interject.
  5. The peer group holds each other accountable to their greatness.  They call each other on “playing small” and encourage each other to create a life that will bring them joy.
  6. Your peers get to know you in many ways your family and friends may not because you’re talking in-depth about a subject that you typically aren’t sharing with many other people.  There is a bond or closeness that is created that can be like no other, particularly when in person, but phone is really good too.
  7. You laugh and you cry in group. It is a great release of all the pent up emotions you have been feeling.
  8. You can set goals if you want in group, but you will come out (or not) at your own pace with gentle encouragement.
  9. Homophobia tends to get nipped in the bud when the bond between you and your peers starts to form.  You respect and care so much for the other people in the group (who are also coming out) so how can you look down on gay people?  Some of the homophobia may have been engrained since childhood, so we work on that over time.  But a large part of the self loathing involved in coming out tends to melt away amidst the love of your peers.
  10. You may make friends for life.  Even if they turn out to be shorter term relationships, you are in the process of building a very important support network.

In our support groups we laugh and we cry.  But above all we are there for each other week after week, and we accept each other no matter the decision.

Welcome Intrepid Explorers!

Whether you are questioning your sexual identity or have already begun exploring it, you’ve come to the right place.  Feel free to write me about topics you’d like to see covered and post your comments or articles.  Ask me about the weekly support call and private Facebook group if you’re interested in joining a supportive group of “women-who-love-women” in the midst of coming out. Scroll down to read a plethora of articles on the topic.

Coming Out While Married

One of the most challenging situations to come out in the midst of is a heterosexual marriage.  Add children to the mix and the guilt can be excruciating.  This is not a rare occurrence I have discovered, so how does one deal with all the ensuing pain and guilt?  And how do you create a new lesbian or bisexual lifestyle and still maintain your straight friendships and close familial ties?  There is no simple answer, but the best advice I can offer is to join an LGBTQ or divorce support group, and find a gay-friendly therapist or coach, because girlfriend, you are in for a journey.  In the best of all worlds, sign up for all of the above and see what works best for you.  You cannot have too much support at this time!
Recently I have been meeting women who understandably afraid to leave their marriage nest, and some who are in the midst of a painful separation, finding it difficult to say goodbye to their old life.  It requires great reserves of strength to give up the life you’ve known and venture out like a vagabond into unknown territory.  You may feel that you don’t have the right to bring your children on such a “selfish adventure.”  You may tell yourself all sorts of unkind things, but be assured that honoring your true nature is not a selfish act.  It is the trailhead to discovering your true path and purpose. Only by being true to ourselves can we begin to be truly there for others and really make a difference in the world.
Take heart that I’ve also spoken with many women on the other side, who have created a wonderful new life for themselves, but it took time and a commitment to the goal of finding deep connection, love and intimacy within relationship.  Sometimes it helped to know that by being true to themselves they were teaching their children how to do the same.  Being a role model to your children, the neighbors, the world is a very powerful framework from which to gain strength.
Sometimes we may feel the “vagabond adventure” would be too disruptive of our children’s lives, but people get divorced all the time and manage to cope with overturning the apple cart.  Sometimes we do not have the financial independence to leave.  We may be dependent on our husband, particularly if we have been staying at home and raising the children for years. We may feel we won’t be able to provide for ourselves or our children sufficiently if we venture out on our own.  What steps can you take to help prepare for your journey now?
  • Do you want to learn some new skills to be able to provide for yourself and your children if you have been dependent on your husband?
  • What laws do you need to research in terms of child custody to make you feel safer about being able to keep your children?
  • What kind of emotional support system do you need to have in place to come out?  Is there someone you can tell that you know will love you no matter what?  What if you were to start there?
  • What physical support system do you need in place?  Do you have some place to go in case you need to leave your home?
No matter what your situation is, if you don’t have a system of support right now, take the time to build one up.  If you can talk with a friend, and find a way to meet other lesbians, this will help.
I have heard many women on their path to coming out lament that they are “Too old to be coming out.”  Know that there are women in their 50s, 60s and beyond that are still learning about their sexuality, sometimes after a husband has passed away or after the kids went away to college.  There is no such thing as being too old to come out and the advent of online dating makes it easier to find women in your age range, even if you are in a smaller town.  (You may have to drive a few miles to meet them!)   
Embrace this change in your life as though it were your next adventure (it is!), even if it feels horrible at times and you wish that you could wave a magic wand and be straight again.  It is life’s surprises that are the opportunities causing us to grow the most.  

Preparing for your “Leap of Faith”

Most of us are divided on the issue of being “special.”  On the one hand, we want to be unique, and on the other hand we want to fit in with the rest of the crowd.  The need to fit in dates back to our early tribal ancestors and is not to be taken lightly; if you were an outcast in those times you would not have survived. When we take the risk to come out, we are rubbing up against our primordial need to be loved and accepted by our clan.  We are risking exclusion.  Logically we know as adults that we have the means to survive without our families if needed, but it is nevertheless a scary step to take.  If we are still a youth, we may risk being kicked out of our homes, or bullied.  Even as adults we may be dependent on a husband or other caretaker that we now risk losing, particularly if we have been staying at home and watching the children for years. We may feel we won’t be able to provide for ourselves or our children sufficiently.

What can you do to develop multiple streams of support and take steps to grow your network of allies?

  • Reach out to gay people who you know and respect.  Ask if you can speak confidentially with them about your situation and ask what resources they found helpful when coming out.
  • You will likely be able to find a gay-friendly therapist in your area.  Social workers these days are trained specifically on issues of diversity and inclusion, which includes the LGBTQ community.
  • Find a support group.  In New York, Identity House offers coming out groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.   There is nothing as healing as being with other people who are going through the same thing as you.  You can laugh, cry and share your mutual struggles. I have also found internalized homophobia dissolves in the presence of a group of women whom you love and respect that are also coming out.
  • As a coach, I am here to talk if you need additional support.  I host an inexpensive and completely confidential Coming Out Group that meets in Brooklyn, New York, and am putting together a group via phone so women from anywhere in the United States can call in. Contact me at if interested.

We do have to make a leap of faith to come out, but rather than rely on total trust that we “leap and the net will appear,” we can take steps to build a web of information, skills and support to make our landing pad soft.  Realize that just taking a few steps means you’re already on your journey–be proud of yourself for your bravery.

What is the antidote to the fear of being different?  Sharing your story with others who can relate. Relishing in the very differences that make you unique.  There is no one like you.  Share below what makes you unique and tell us your story!

In closing, I had a mixture of difficult times and great support when I came out. I was bullied in high school for it and the thing that kept me strong was knowing that I was helping to change the world.  By bravely stepping forward and claiming who I am, I was showing others that they could do the same. Teegan and Sara have released a new song on bullying, which I thought I would share. How will your coming out make things right?  How will it change the world?

Enjoy building your net!

Teegan and Sara