The Coming Out Process for Lesbians and Gay Men

The term “coming out” refers to the experiences of some, but not all, gay men and lesbians as they work through and accept a stigmatized identity. The coming out process for many gay and lesbian people is a way of transforming a negative self-identity into a positive identity. This process is especially important to people who are trying to recover from substance abuse. For many people, feeling positive and hopeful about themselves is at the heart of recovering from addiction. It is noteworthy, however, that for many reasons not all gay men or lesbians come out. Many people who are attracted to, love, and/or are sexual with people of the same sex do not consider themselves gay or lesbian and do not go through any of the stages presented in this chapter.

What the Coming Out Process Means for Counselors

The coming out process is a very important one. Many recovering LGBT clients spend years working through issues related to coming out (both to themselves and to others) and working through their internalized homophobia to feel good about themselves. If all goes well, they will eventually be able to say, “I am who I am, and I accept myself as myself.” Because many recovery programs value authenticity and honesty, the process of coming out for many gay men and lesbians is crucial to becoming and staying sober.

Counselors who can accept and validate clients’ feelings, attractions, experiences, and identities can play an important part in those clients’ sobriety. Clients who drank and used drugs to medicate their negative feelings about being gay need to have those experiences understood. Others who used substances to accept their gay feelings and behaviors may need help in sobriety to work through those experiences again in a sober way. The coming out process does not happen according to a schedule. Some people may have come out during their teen years, and others may be working through the process during middle age or later.

No correct way exists to move through the coming out process. Some people may decide that they do not want to take on a gay or lesbian identity and may choose not to disclose their feelings and experiences to anyone. Counselors need to validate the needs of each client and find a way to understand their experiences.

A major issue for every client is how to become and stay healthy. To be most helpful, counselors need to assess at which stage of coming out the client is and understand the risks and needs of the client at that stage. For example, it is not advisable to refer a client in the first or second stages to gay or lesbian Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings or to suggest that the client discuss his or her sexual identity in group therapy. The counselor may be the only person a fragile client can trust during the early stages. Or, if an LGBT client is in the fourth stage and distrusts straight people, attending gay or lesbian AA meetings or finding a gay or lesbian sponsor might be beneficial. In general, counselors who can view coming out as a lifelong process of growth can help their clients with recovery and self-acceptance.