It is 25 years now since I first came out: I swore a friend at school to utmost secrecy and told her about a girl I fancied. The world did not come crashing in – as I expected it would – but neither did my 'out' gay life start then either. The girl in question, once I plucked up the courage to tell her, said 'thanks but no thanks' and proceeded not to speak to me for a year. We came through that and are now good friends.
I spent the next few years reading everything I could find in the library and scouring copies of 'Spare Rib' (an 80s and 90s feminist magazine) for any mentions of lesbians. There was no internet then, so there was no possibility of actually meeting, messaging or talking to anyone who was gay, so I was on my own.
It wasn't until my third year at university that I met real live gay people and started coming out properly, to old friends and new. It was awkward, but came with a sense of relief. It look longer to tell my parents, but I'm not sure why. We have a good relationship, but we were the sort of family that talked lots about books and politics, and less about emotions. Over dinner one night, once I'd graduated and had moved away from home, I stumbled out that I thought I might be gay. Again there was no high drama. They were worried, unsure but not exactly surprised.
The hardest thing about coming out was not telling other people, I'm aware that I've been very fortunate that my friends, by and large, were sensitive and understanding and my family in time became not just accepting, but proud. It was hardest to come out to myself. My Christian faith has gone through many changes and developments over the years, but has always been very important to me. And being a lesbian seemed in direct contradiction with all that I had ever been taught.
Thankfully, with the help of a new group of LGBT Christian friends, my horizons gradually expanded, my faith grew and adapted and I was able to reconcile the two parts of myself. I still hold on to a belief that everyone is created in the image of God – whatever sexual orientation, gender identity or background – and we are all equally cherished by God and called by God to love and cherish each other.
Of course, as any LGBT person knows, you don't just come out once. You do so over and over again, as you encounter new people and enter new situations. Now that I'm in a civil partnership and have children, it's easier. When people notice my wedding ring and ask what my husband does I quickly correct them 'actually, my partner', mention her name and talk at great length about her job to give them a chance to recover from any shock or surprise.
Mostly coming out is a casual conversation now, with no one batting an eyelid. However there have two occasions when I'm come out very publicly.
The first was my civil partnership celebration, back in 2005. Few people had ever been to one before or even heard of them, so explaining to everyone from the people behind the bar to the hairdresser to the marquee hire company that there were two brides took time and energy and could be confusing at times.
The second was being invited, several years later, to take part in a very short Channel 4 programme about family Christmases. I – along with my family - were only on screen for a couple of minutes, but hundreds of thousands of people would have seen us, including friends and people at my work. I knew then that I was truly out – and it felt good.
Here are my coming out tips:
- Come out first to someone you think is going to be sympathetic. Try sounding them out first about their attitude to LGBT issues, before taking the plunge. Then you have someone on your side before you tell anyone else.
- You don't always have to come out. Clearly it's only right that your nearest and dearest know, and if you have a same-sex partner or children, it's crucial to be proud and open about your family for all your sakes. But you don't have to tell everyone all the time.
- In general, it is much easier coming out now then it was 25 years ago. There are more role models, more legal protection and more ways to meet others in similar situations. But in some communities, particularly religious ones, you may still meet with a negative reaction. But you do not have to give up your faith or your identity when you come out, plenty of people manage to reconcile the two and find strength in both.
- It's not always safe or easy to come out, but if you can be out and proud, it's not only feels better, but it can be a great inspiration and help for other people just coming to terms with being LGBT.