As a non-binary and queer person, I know from experience that deciding to share one’s gender identity or orientation is something to be celebrated. But the risk of people being unsupportive ratchets up the anxiety and has the potential to create upsetting and even unsafe situations.
If you are considering coming out to people who may not be understanding, creating a cope-ahead and planning in advance can be a great way to work through your worries.
Creating a cope-ahead is a practice I’ve picked up in my personal experience with dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT. Essentially, you map out a situation that you think may cause you emotional distress and plan for how you’ll cope. Cope-aheads can be as thorough or surface-level as you need, but they generally include these three components:
Step one is outlining the situation. The “what” is your coming out, but who will be involved? Are you coming out to a group of people, a handful, or just one person? When will this be happening? Will it be in person or virtual—on video, via texting, or in a phone call?
Remember: You get to decide on the terms. Would you feel more comfortable coming out to your entire friend group or to just one person in the group? Do you think your family will be more understanding if you tell them in person, or does it feel safer to come out over video chat so you can close the computer and walk away if you need to?
Writing down the specifics of the situation will help you anticipate possible responses, which makes coping that much easier.
Now it’s time for a bit of guesswork. How do you think you and others will be feeling at that moment? Happy? Angry? Sad?
Do you think the person you’re coming out to will shout, or perhaps cry? There’s a chance they may refuse to continue the conversation. If someone does begin to respond negatively, how will you respond?
In my own experience, if someone is shutting down a conversation that I think is important to have, I get frustrated and often begin to cry, which makes it harder for me to communicate. Knowing that and planning for it means that even if my emotions run hot, I can stay in control.
In any situation that brings up strong emotions, there’s a chance those emotions can run the show. The goal of a cope-ahead is for your brain and logical thoughts, rather than your impulsive feelings, to be in control.
Think about the emotions that may come up and how you’ll manage them. If I feel myself beginning to cry, breathing techniques can get me back on track. You might have something to fidget with if you get anxious; or if you’re worried about the conversation dragging on too long, preemptively set a time limit.
While you can’t control how others will respond, you can take steps to mitigate the negativity as much as possible. That’s what a cope-ahead comes down to: recognizing what you can control and empowering yourself.
While cope-aheads are helpful, they’re not a one-size-fits-all solution. Here are some other considerations that may help with your specific situation.
Prioritize your safety
There’s no way to perfectly predict how someone might respond to your coming out. In an ideal world, everyone would be immediately understanding and accepting—but we know this isn’t an ideal world, so let’s prepare accordingly.
Your safety, both physical and mental, is most important. Do you expect that someone may react with violence or aggression? Remember that you don’t have to come out. “Students are not obligated to explain or announce their sexual orientation or gender to anyone at any point in time,” says Marlys McKinney, program coordinator at the First-Generation and Transfer Student Center at the University of Texas in San Antonio and a member of the University’s LGBTQ faculty and staff steering committee.
If you do decide to come out, know what resources are available. “There are likely a variety of departments and organizations that can provide social support,” McKinney says. Connecting with your campus’s LGBTQ center and counseling services is a great first step. “There are also financial assistance programs if coming out results in changes to financial or living situations. I would recommend contacting the student ombudsperson as well. They are an impartial resource and will be able to help students determine their options.”
Additionally, ensure you will have immediate support during and/or after coming out. “The thing that helped me most was telling another trusted friend that I planned on coming out to this (potentially unsupportive) person,” says Kai P.,* a third-year undergraduate at Portland State University in Oregon. “So even if my talk didn’t go well, I’d have someone else who knew about the situation and would be able to talk with me and support me.”
If you don’t have someone to lean on in your immediate circle, know that there are hotlines available to help. The Trevor Project and the LGBT National Help Center are both ready and waiting to support LGBTQ individuals on the phone or via text or online chatting.
Instead of planning a grand announcement to the masses, it might be better to come out to one or a few people at first. Society often views coming out as a singular event, but the reality is it’s a lifelong and often repeated process. This means that for the most part, you get to control who finds out your identity and when.
Identify a few people you want to come out to. Is there anyone you feel confident will be supportive? Come out to that person first, so that you have a positive experience under your belt. Then, for more difficult conversations down the line, you can lean into the support you already know you have from others.
Connect with the LGBTQ community in other ways
If you’re reading these tips and starting to think, “Wait…maybe I’m not ready to come out yet,” that’s completely OK. That doesn’t mean you can’t continue to explore your identity and your understanding of the community.
Affinity groups are a great way to connect with members of the community without outing yourself. Many organizations hold space for LGBTQ members and allies—you can attend as an ally first, so you don’t feel pressure to out yourself. If you don’t want to engage with the group, listening to others can help you understand yourself better.
Reach out to student life offices such as the diversity center, LGBTQ center, or student activities to learn what groups are available on your campus. For a bit more anonymity, research local LGBTQ organizations online to get a sense of off-campus options. Whether you’re meeting in person or virtually, surrounding yourself with supportive people in a positive environment is an excellent step toward embracing your identity.
Ask for help
If you feel like you need more assistance, reach out for help. Speak with someone you trust about your situation. Ask them if you can role-play coming out to other people; the more you practice, the more confident you’ll feel when the time comes.
You might also ask someone in the LGBTQ community about their coming out experience to get more insight or to understand different ways to go about it. “I intentionally just slipped my sexual orientation into casual conversation while coming out for the first time,” says Tristan B.,* a fourth-year undergraduate at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.
Coming out isn’t always a positive experience, but there are people who can help ease the tension and support you through this process. Sometimes, the most important cope-ahead is reminding yourself that there’s an entire community of people ready to welcome you and celebrate you for taking this step.
*Names changed for privacy.
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Ferguson, Sian. (2019, November 25). 20 things to know before you come out and how to go about it. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-come-out
Human Rights Campaign. (2014, April). A resource guide to coming out. University of Southern California. https://lgbtrc.usc.edu/files/2015/05/resource_guide_april_2014.pdf
The Trevor Project. (2019). Coming out: A handbook for LGBTQ young people. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/821/2019/10/Coming-Out-Handbook.pdf
Seton Mind Institute. (2020). DBT intensive outpatient program. Ascension Seton.