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The Ultimate Guide to Coming Out in Your 20s

For many reasons, LGBTQ+ people don’t always come out in their teen years. It can take people time to figure out their identity, and they may be scared or in denial for quite a while. Many people find that they’re already in college, or living on their own, before they come to terms with who they are and decide to come out.

This is perfectly okay. But it can be terrifying and confusing—after all, a majority of coming out resources seem directed at the younger set, who are struggling with high school and their families at the same time. That’s why we made a guide to coming out in your early twenties (although this advice is applicable to anyone in their college years and beyond). We can face this huge, nerve-wracking thing together.

Coming to terms with it yourself

You may feel a little down on yourself if you’re not only coming out to friends and family for the first time, but you also just came to terms with your sexuality or gender identity, too. In this day and age, it might seem like everyone knows who they are at birth, but the reality is that we’re all constantly figuring ourselves out.

“By the time I was 23, I was married and now had two kids, but I had no clue who I even was,” says Erin Faith Wilson, a contributing writer for AfterEllen. “Most 23-year-olds are just starting to experiment with who they are and their sense of adulthood and I simply was on a different path.” The college and early post-grad years are tumultuous times of change for everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with taking time to figure yourself out before you share your truth with those in your life.

Many people are happy that they didn’t come out until later in life. “As I got older I worried less, and had a better sense of me,” says Lucy Hallowell, another writer for AfterEllen. Because who really knows exactly who they are—and is comfortable with that person—in high school?

Depending on your circumstances, when you’re an adult, you may feel freer to come to terms with your identity because you have distance and space from your family and the community you grew up in, especially if that community isn’t fully supportive. College and the years following are also a natural time of change for people, and your queer identity may be just one of things you’re figuring out, along with your career, love life and whether you want to cook dinner or order takeout.

Related: Your Complete Guide to Coming Out in College

Telling your friends

You’ve decided you want to come out to your friends. You feel it’s tricky, even if your friends aren’t normally closed-minded. You’re still a little worried they might wonder why you’ve waited so long to tell them, or if you’ve been hiding this the whole time you’ve known each other.

Laneia Jones, the executive editor of Autostraddle, explains that it can be hard for LGBTQ+ people to navigate this situation. They may feel guilty for not having said something earlier, even if they had inklings about their identity. “It can come as a huge shock to the people you know, because they’ve only known you this one way, and 180 degree pivots in adulthood can be alarming,” she says. “Definitely don’t apologize upfront like being queer is something you’re sorry about—you’re not.”

If you’re planning to tell your friends, you might want to preface it by explaining how long you’ve known and why you chose to tell them. Focus on the reasons why your friends matter to you and why you want to tell them.

You can also try coming out to someone who you think is likely to be a strong ally, especially if you have another LGBTQ+ friend.“Nearly everyone has a gay friend or relative now, so find those people and [talk to them first] so you at least know you have a soft place to land when you open yourself up,” says Dana Piccoli, an entertainment and pop culture critic for AfterEllen. “This will also help you gather courage to come out to people you fear will be less accepting.”

Rally your most supportive friends first, so you at least have people to fall back on if you run into trouble with others who are less understanding. Then, you can try bringing up your sexuality in a casual conversation instead of making it into a whole “coming out party.”

“If there’s a cute girl you like and you want to talk about it with your friends, try bringing it up that way,” suggests Hallowell. “Or if there’s a conversation about dates you can slide the information in that way.”

That way, you give your friends a moment to comment on learning this about you, especially if they’re new friends. If they’ve known you for a while, this might come out of nowhere, or they might just say, “Hey, we kind of had a feeling. Glad you’re finally letting us know!”

Marcie Bianco, a contributing editor at Curve Magazine, suggests people think about what they’re hoping to get out of coming out. “The question one should always ask is, ‘Why am I telling these particular people?’” she says. “Also, ‘What do I hope to get out of it?’ Is it for approval? Love and recognition? Acceptance?”

It’s important to remember that you can’t guarantee approval, love or acceptance, but if your friends are good friends, they will love you unconditionally, even if they’re surprised at first.

Telling your family

Coming out to family can be a difficult process, especially if you still live with them, if you depend on them financially, or if you’re unsure of their support. There are different approaches you can take towards coming out as an adult, especially if you’re living on campus, in your own apartment or otherwise away from your family.

If you’re truly unsure of how they’ll react or you think it may be negative, you could share the information with them online, over the phone or in a letter rather than in a face-to-face setting. “I wrote an email to the close family members that I felt should know,” explains Sam Dylan Finch, the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up. “I liked the distance and time that an email gave us all.”

If this is going to be an awkward subject to breach, a letter or an email could clear that up. You can also talk to family members over the phone if you want to have a more intimate conversation in real time, but you live too far away to visit just to share the news.

“If you feel safe physically, then secondly, I would say don’t wait too long,” Wilson says, stressing that if you’re the one coming out, you need to prioritize your own needs over the fear of causing family drama.

Sarah Jo Enloe, a senior at Westfield State University, says that she recently came out to her young sister. “She told me one of her friends was [bisexual], and I said I was too,” she says. “We both were like, ‘cool’ and then continued the conversation. To her it was the norm, which I loved.”

If you see your family often and you feel like they’ll support you, you can sit them down for the discussion, or you can try bringing it up as conversation allows, using some of the same tactics we suggested for talking to your friends.

Telling your employers or college faculty

One of the struggles that queer people coming out later in life face is that they may lack a built-in LGBTQ+ community, and may be wondering if it’s a good idea to come out in the community they already have, whether that’s a college campus or a professional workplace. If you’re coming out in college, you may not have had the forethought to plan to go to a specifically queer-friendly school.

Always take the time to weigh the pros and cons of coming out in each setting. It may come up in a classroom context or in the workplace in casual conversation, and you have the choice of whether or not to make your identity known.

Finch says that if you want to come out at work, you can try to find someone who will act as an ally in case it goes south. You might find this person in HR, or it might be a colleague who works in the same department. “Having a supporter who can help navigate things with you is critical,” he says.

Jones suggests the casual conversation route if you feel that your academic or workplace culture is accepting and that you’ll be safe—that you’re not in danger of being kicked out of college, discriminated against or fired due to your sexual or gender identity. “One super chill technique is to just drop blatantly obvious clues into your daily conversations,” Jones says. “If a co-worker asks how your weekend was, tell them about the day trip you and your girlfriend went on.”

Hallowell agrees completely. “Saying ‘my wife and I went out to eat at this great restaurant’ or something equally innocuous makes it hard for people to be weird,” she points out.

There are times when your gender or sexuality may come up in class or in the office, or even in a professor’s office hours—but it’s ultimately up to you how much you want other people to know, and when.

There’s no one easy way to come out, and no matter what your age, it’s always going to be a tricky, case-by-case situation. In some groups, you may feel that everyone just knows and is already completely fine with it, while you may struggle to tell other people. The most important thing is knowing yourself and what makes you feel comfortable. If you want to come out to someone or to a group, it’s your call when and how to do it. As hard as it may be, you need to prioritize your safety and comfort above all else.

Alaina Leary is an award-winning editor and journalist. She is currently the communications manager of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and the senior editor of Equally Wed Magazine. Her work has been published in New York Times, Washington Post, Healthline, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Boston Globe Magazine, and more. In 2017, she was awarded a Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her dedication to amplifying marginalized voices and advocating for an equitable publishing and media industry. Alaina lives in Boston with her wife and their two cats.
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