Opinion: National Coming Out day aims to make the process of coming out easier for LGBTQI people by raising awareness of the process of "coming out." 

By Ger HealyJuliet McMahon and Sarah MacCurtainUniversity of Limerick

First observed during the height of the AIDS crisis in 1988, National Coming Out Day began as a protest to call out the lack of research on the epidemic caused by homophobic and stigmatising views which surrounded the illness. The day now aims to raise awareness and celebrate the process of disclosure of one’s sexual identity to combat the stigmas faced by LGBTQI people when they choose to "come out." 

Why can coming out be so difficult?

"Coming out" is a term with a number of meanings which has become synonymous with the process of disclosing ones sexual identity. Simply put, disclosure is "the action of making new or secret information known." Of course, disclosure as defined is not a phenomenon reserved for those with an LGBTQI identity. It is something that we all regularly experience, when we make any information known to others through our interactions with them.

Of course, not all disclosures are made equal. Disclosing certain personal information like whether you have children or marital status to a colleague or neighbour is generally not considered difficult and is probably a type of disclosure that most wouldn’t cast a second thought to.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, Irish comedian Eleanor Tiernan on coming out and her decision to share such a personal journey publicly at the age of 43

Stigmatisation

The reason why LGBTQI disclosure can be more difficult is because involves the disclosure of a particular identity, one which is both often concealable and often stigmatised. Stigma has been described as the presence of an "attribute that can be deeply discrediting" reducing the bearer "from a whole and usual person, to a tainted, discounted one" LGBTQI identity is not the only example of a concealable and stigmatised identity. Other examples include those with experiences of abuse or assault, HIV+ diagnosis, epilepsy, sexual orientation, abortion, infertility, substance abuse, illiteracy, deafness or possessing a criminal history.

The disclosure process model is one piece of research which examines when and why people with concealable, stigmatised identities choose to "come out." The model illustrates the complex and difficult process, informed by an array of factors that the discloser engages with, before choosing to reveal an identity. It finds that coming out is difficult when the individual concerned is aware of the stigma and stereotypes associated with their identity, and perceives that they may be unfairly labelled, devalued or even rejected as a result of making that identity known.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the model finds the role of the supportive confidant to be particularly important. The anticipated reaction of the potential confidant is found to be the single most important consideration to the decision to disclose in the first place. Their reaction can also determine whether the experience of "coming out," is positive or negative when the disclosure takes place.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Doc On One, An Extraordinary Affair looks at the late 18th century affair between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby and asks if these two upper-class Anglo-Irish women from Kilkenny, were the first ever women to come out in Ireland?

What to do to when someone chooses to come out to you

Considering the important role you play when someone chooses to come out to you, it is important to know what to do. There are four principles that can help and support an individual who chooses to "come out" to you:

Recognise the importance of the disclosure

Disclosure is seldom easy because of anticipated stigma, and fears of rejection, labelling, discrimination and stereotyping. Therefore, disclosure is an act of bravery. Even if the disclosure doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, it is likely a big deal to the individual. Knowing this information should help you to empathise with the individual and the vulnerability they may be feeling as they come out.

Communicate your support

Communicate your support for them and their disclosure. Reassure them about your relationship with them. Remember that their disclosure is not their identity, just a part of their identity. Ask them if they need you to do anything to support them.

Listen

It is important to listen. Take the time to listen to the individual. Let them take the lead, on what to discuss, & on what (if anything) comes next. They may want you to keep their disclosure a secret. They may wish for you to tell others. They may not know what they want. It is important to listen to, and respect their wishes regarding their disclosure.

Show that you are an ally

An ally is a person who supports, empowers, or stands for another person or a group of people to advance their cause. Allies inform themselves on the issues effecting minority groups and voice their support for them. With regard to the process of "coming out," a number of support and advocacy organisations including Belongto, Spunout.ie, LGBT Ireland provide great resources and advice on coming out on their websites. Being an ally is a powerful way to combat the stigma experienced by those who choose to "come out," making it easier for others in the future.

Ger Healy is a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School at ULDr Juliet McMahon is a Lecturer in industrial relations at the Kemmy Business School at the University of Limerick. Dr Sarah MacCurtain is a Senior Lecturer at the Kemmy Business School and Co-Director of the Strategic Healthcare Management Research Group at the University of Limerick


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ. If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, support information is available online