Coming Out

“Coming out” is the process of becoming aware of your trans identity, accepting it and telling others about it. 

Navigating who to disclose your trans identity to and when to do it is a lifelong process – but it generally gets easier over time. There isn’t a simple set of steps to follow, however, this page will give you a few pointers to help along the way.  

Becoming aware

This section covers:

  • I think I might be trans
  • What can I do to feel more positive about my trans identity?

I think I might be trans

Only you can determine your gender identity. The realization that you’re trans can happen in an instant or unfold over many years. Some people know from a young age that the gender they’ve been assigned doesn’t fit with who they really are. Some people come to this realization as adults.

There’s lots of social and cultural pressure to conform to narrow ideas about gender. This can make it difficult to understand a gender identity that differs from mainstream expectations. Examples of these narrow expectations include that everyone will identify with the sex they were assigned at birth, that there are only two genders and that men should be masculine and women should be feminine. We now know that gender diversity exists across the globe and throughout history.

Acknowledging and embracing your identity may involve unlearning some of these misconceptions. Some people feel shame, guilt or other negative emotions when they consider the possibility that they might be trans. The truth is your gender is a beautiful part of yourself that deserves love and respect.

As you explore your gender, you might find it useful to work on replacing any negative messages about gender that you’ve been taught with your own more inclusive beliefs. It might be helpful to consider that:

  • Gender is different from sex. Gender has to do with your deeply felt sense of yourself as female, male, both, or neither. Sex has to do with your anatomy.
  • It is well documented that people throughout history and around the world have had a gender identity that was different from their sex.
  • There are many gender identities between and beyond male and female. Examples include Two-Spirit, genderqueer, bigender, and genderfluid identities.
  • There is no right or wrong way to express your gender. Masculine women, feminine men, crossdressers, and androgynous people are just as deserving of respect as anyone else.

Letting go of negative ideas about gender can open the doors to exploring who you really are. Here are some questions that can help you reflect on your gender identity:

  • How did you first start thinking about whether you have a trans identity?
  • How would you describe your gender identity?
  • If you could change your appearance to more closely match your sense of who you are, what would you look like?
  • Are there any activities you want to participate in, but haven’t for gender-related reasons?
  • How do you want others to see you in terms of your gender?
  • How important is it that others see your gender the way you do?
  • How do you feel about your body?
  • How do you feel about your name?
  • How do you feel about the pronouns people use for you (he, she, they, etc.)?
  • What’s helping you explore your gender? What isn’t helping?

Exploring your gender takes courage. Having people to talk to about your gender can be helpful, whether that person is a friend, family member or counsellor.

What can I do to feel more positive about my trans identity?

If you know you’re trans but are struggling to embrace this part of yourself, you may want to find sources of affirmation. Here are some trans-specific ideas:

  • Read or listen to books by trans authors
  • Meet and hang out with other trans people
  • Journal or write about your gender
  • Make art about your gender: collage, movies, cartoons, music, etc.
  • Listen to music by trans musicians
  • Go to drag shows
  • Watch movies and TV shows that respectfully include trans characters
  • Seek out role models

General strategies for boosting your self-esteem can also help. You may want to ask a counsellor about recommended strategies and resources.

Deciding

This section covers:

  • Should I come out?
  • Who should I come out to first?
  • Options for coming out

Should I come out?

Many people keep their trans identity and expression private all or part of the time. Some people refer to this as “going stealth.” This decision may be based on concerns about the responses of others. Coming out may involve an increased risk of being exposed to harassment, discrimination or violence, or of losing relationships or housing. The decision not to disclose may also be a reflection of the feeling that this part of your identity is private. All of these reasons are legitimate. You have the right to choose whether or not to disclose this part of yourself.

For many people, the benefits of coming out outweigh the risks. Some of the personal benefits of coming out include:

  • Developing closer, more open relationships
  • Building self-esteem from being known and loved for who you really are
  • Reducing the stress of hiding your identity
  • Connecting with other trans people

You may also help others, by:

  • Dispelling myths and stereotypes about trans people
  • Making it easier for future generations of trans people to come out
  • Becoming a role model for others

Of course, you can choose to come out to some people and not others. It may be helpful to weigh the pros and cons of coming out in each aspect of your life (family, friends, work, school) or to particular people in your life, and then to decide how much risk you are willing to take in each case.

Who should I come out to first?

Many people start by coming out to the people who are most likely to be accepting of their trans identity. This way, they’ll have a support network around them if they choose to come out to people who may respond negatively.

In order to gauge whether someone will be accepting, some people “test the waters” by bringing up a trans issue or trans person in the media, in order to see how that person responds.

You may also want to choose who you disclose to based, in part, on whether you trust their ability to maintain your confidentiality.

Options for coming out

There are many options for coming out. You might come out in person (i.e. face to face or by phone) or in writing (i.e. email or letter). Some people come out in person to those they are closest to, and in writing to others. An additional option is to write a letter that you read in person.

The advantages of coming out in writing are that:

  • You can take your time and think about exactly what you want to say
  • You can ask other people to read what you’ve written and get feedback
  • You can speak your truth before answering questions
  • You don’t have to hear a person’s initial response (initial responses can be intense, but often mellow after reflection)
  • The recipient can go back and read it again and again.
Preparing

This section covers:

  • What should I do before coming out to someone?
  • Responding to negative reactions
  • How can I connect with other trans people
  • What would I do if I’m outed?

What should I do before coming out to someone?

Safety

Do you feel safe coming out to this person? If not, or if you’re not sure, you may decide to:

  • have a support person alongside you
  • tell them in writing
  • have another person disclose the information on your behalf
  • arrange to have someone you can check in and debrief with after the conversation
  • ask the person not to respond right away, so they can take some time to let the information sink in, or
  • not come out to them

In situations where you are at risk of losing a sense of safety in your home, or at risk of losing your housing altogether, pre-arrange a back-up place to stay and have a bag packed with essentials in case you need to leave right away. It is good to have a safety plan in place.

Timing

You may want to make a timeline to indicate who you want to come out to and when, based on your own life circumstances and goals.

It’s a good idea to consider other people’s circumstances, too. Is someone you want to come out to going through their own major life event? If so, they may not be able to provide you with the support you are hoping for and you may want to choose a later time.

Practicing what to say

If you are coming out in person, you may find it useful to practice:

  • what you want to say
  • how you want to respond to positive and negative reactions, and
  • how you want to respond to various questions

Possible reactions

Some people react very positively when someone comes out to them as trans, and are supportive right away. Others may be surprised, or not understand what is means to be trans. Some people may have a lot of questions.

Not everyone is able to offer immediate understanding and acceptance. Some people may need time and space to adjust to the news you are sharing with them. Expect that the person could feel surprised, shocked, honoured, uncomfortable, fearful, supportive, disbelieving, curious, confused, angry or relieved.

Consider some strategies for dealing with reactions that don’t feel supportive. For example, you could say “I know this is probably a lot of new information to digest. How about you take some time to reflect on this. I’m ready to talk more about it when you are.” For more tips on handling negative reactions, see “Responding to negative reactions” below.

Requests

Even if the person you are coming out to is accepting, they will probably need some guidance from you about what feels supportive. For example, would you like them to call you by another name? Use a different pronoun? Use different family labels (i.e. sibling/sister/brother; daughter/son/kid; aunt/uncle/auntle; etc.)? 

What else do you hope for, in terms of support? Use your intuition to determine whether this is the time to make these requests.

Confidentiality

News can travel quickly. Let people know if you want them to keep your trans identity confidential. Be aware that some people may or may not honour this request. If you are considering coming out by email, keep in mind that email can be easily forwarded to others without your permission.

Resources

  • For more help on being ready and willing to answer people’s questions about trans identities, see Families.

Responding to negative reactions

There are different degrees of negative reactions. In response to a mildly negative reaction, you might say, “I understand that this information may come as a shock. You’d probably like some time to digest this. I’m open and ready to talk about this more when you are.”

If you need to leave a situation because it is emotionally or physically unsafe, do so. This will enable you to keep yourself safer and regroup before you have to further deal with the situation.

If someone is sharing information about your identity in a negative way at work or school, or in another public environment, go to the person in charge and describe the discrimination or harassment you are experiencing. If this doesn’t resolve the situation, you may need to work your way up the chain of command or file a formal complaint. Be sure to keep a record of each incident of harassment. 

  • For more about how to deal with this kind of situation, see Advocacy Tips
  • For more about the human rights complaints process in BC, see Legal Issues.

How can I connect with other trans people?

Connecting with other trans people can be a helpful way to appreciate the wide range of gender identities and expressions, learn strategies for navigating the world as a trans person, and anticipate potential challenges associated with coming out.

If you live in a rural area, connecting with other trans people can be a bit more challenging. Fortunately, there are plenty of online trans communities. You might want to join trans list-serves.

What should I do if I’m outed?

“Being outed” refers to a situation where someone discloses or discovers your trans identity without your consent.

Sometimes, the problem of being outed is caused by a lack of understanding rather than an intention to do harm. In these cases, you may wish to inform the person about your right to privacy and confidentiality, as well as the consequences of being outed for trans people. If you feel unsafe, you might choose to have an ally communicate this information for you.

If someone starts to react in a negative way, it’s best to stop them before they get too far. Put your hand up and say something like, “I was not actually asking for your opinion.” Exit the situation if you need to. 

  • For tips on dealing with a more hostile situation, see the Responding to negative reactions section, above.

Many trans people carry a letter from their doctor stating that they are trans and intend no deception or ill will. This can be useful if you are outed when, for example, you are crossing a border or dealing with police.

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