Hello, I'm Stigma
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
By Lily Patterson
Image via yourtango.com
Times are changing, yet the stigma around coming out has remained. Being a member of the LGBTQ+ community is unfortunately still seen as abnormal and is commonly dismissed as a "phase," which perpetuates the uncertainty and fear of coming out to family and friends. For teenagers, this realization of identity can be particularly difficult, and each person has their own unique experience. Often, those experiences are influenced in some way by society’s stigma around the process of coming out.
The onset of societal pressures begins from the moment LGBTQ+ teens first choose to come out, or even begin questioning. “It took me a long time to come out to even my closest family and friends because I had been influenced so heavily by common stigmas. From the very beginning of questioning I had been incredibly hard on myself,” says a teenage member of the LGBTQ+ community, Astro (she/they). “I had even experienced some of my own internalized homophobia in an attempt to persuade myself that I was straight,” they continue.
Astro isn’t alone in this uncertainty. In fact, uncertainty and stress are a familiar feeling for many teens who have come out. Stephanie Bishop (she/her) didn’t have the liberty of coming out on her own terms. “Since I wasn’t ready myself, I spent two years going back and forth thinking I was a lesbian or straight, and felt super pressured to figure it out since people were now aware,” she comments. Like many other teens, Bishop points to the “stigma surrounding being bisexual”- the perception that “‘it’s not real’ or ‘you’re actually just gay or just straight and confused’”- as causing the pressure she felt to come out.
However, some were influenced by the stigma around coming out in an entirely different way. “The whole stigma of ‘coming out’ made me want to not care about it, so I wasn’t smart about how I came out (not that there is a wrong way)...” begins Grace Schroeder (she/her). “I was a bit reckless with coming out to people I trusted, but as time went on and I started having some negative reactions, I became more nervous - even [with coming out] to people who were also part of the community,” she mentions.
The confidence felt by many LGBTQ+ teens when coming out is all too often dashed by the shame and uncertainty that these stigmas perpetuate. Elizabeth Breden (she/her), who was young and “naive” when she came out as bisexual, shares “I wasn’t worried about the social aspect because I hadn’t really been exposed to it. It wasn’t until I started telling people about my sexuality that they threw all these stigmas onto me, which then affected my mental health and made me feel like there was something wrong with me because I was different.”
The effect of this stigma on mental health is unfortunately common and can affect a number of teens who face the daunting experience of coming out. “So many people think [LGBTQ+ rights] are up for debate. The way that society treats our rights and us as individuals is horrific, and I believe that leads to a lot of self hate and loathing in queer people,” offers teenage member of the LGBTQ+ community, Bren (they/them). “I come out everyday. I don’t fit the perceived ‘normal,’ and the world shows me that time and time again. Nobody expects what I tell them, and while the initial coming outs to my family were liberating, the everyday ordeal is just exhausting and discouraging,” they add.
It is evident that the stigma that surrounds coming out needs to change and dissipate, but the timeline and actions to be taken in order to promote that change are still unknown. “I think there’s a lot that can and should change, but I don’t imagine that happening anytime soon. We’re in a very divided time of history, and I foresee big change happening slowly but surely,” says Astro. Other members of the community, including Stephanie Bishop, agree. “...Maybe generations from now it’ll be different, but something that should change is the pressure surrounding [coming out] and the idea of heteronormativity. If we stop pushing the idea that you’re essentially straight until proven otherwise there’s less pressure to even pick a label,” she advises. “We simply need to dismantle all of the fear and stigma and at least get people to a place where they can coexist,” offers Bren.
The idea of creating a more diverse atmosphere from the start is another popular idea that can indisputably make the coming out process easier on every member of the LGBTQ+ community. “I think we need to start using more gender-neutral terms and need to get out of our heads that the ‘default’ is straight… we need to see [being a member of the LGBTQ+ community] as something that’s just as normal as having a certain hair color,” says Grace Shroeder. Bren elaborates on this idea saying, “History has shown us far too many times that we are not wanted. That we are not the status quo. That we don’t deserve to live. And when that is pounded into you from a young age, it can lead to a staggering amount of fear, which is unfortunately well placed.”
This shift towards inclusivity is a hefty task and not something that can be accomplished by the LGBTQ+ community alone. “I think people outside the community should be more caring and just love everyone. Everyone is so focused on what’s right and wrong that they don’t see that we’re people too,” says Elizabeth Breden. “To an extent, it’s a matter of understanding. If people outside the community remain willfully ignorant about what it means to be LGBTQ+. then the stigma is perpetuated,” adds Astro.
Jacob (he/him) believes that normalization is an important step in defeating the stigma, and that if people “teach kids these things early on… it'll become a normal part of their lives instead of something they have to understand later on.”
Coming out is seen as its own beast, an intimidating figure standing in the way of feeling comfortable with your identity. After experiencing this process for themselves, the support among LGBTQ+ teens is something to marvel at. As other teenagers begin questioning or preparing to come out, most members of the community are there to offer advice or even help along the way. “Don’t let anyone make you doubt who you are, only you know that… It’s okay to fluctuate,” begins Grace Schroeder. “Tell the people you want to tell and remember you don’t owe anyone anything,” contributes Elizabeth Breden.
Another piece of advice given is to take coming out in your own time. “I always felt like I had to come out immediately, but you shouldn’t rush it. And you might change your labels over time, which is still valid. Start trying to recognize that as growth instead of as a kind of fraud,” shares Astro. Grace Schroeder advises caution and recommends that “even if you trust the person you are planning to come out to, test the waters by just seeing their opinion on the LGBTQ+ community in general before deciding if you’ll come out to them or not. And just be safe.”
Stephanie Bishop also highlighted the advantage of coming to terms with your identity first. “Work on gaining confidence in yourself before coming out, because people will always have something to say, so it’s really important to have a strong sense of self.” Jacob also includes his piece of advice, saying that in his experience “It’s very worth it in the end.”
Especially in the world’s current political environment, members of the community argue that coming out is becoming far more stressful for closeted teens. “We need to take our rights out of politics,” demands Bren. “Some people who I’ve been out to for over a year still dead name me. It’s exhausting and scary and with the never-ending political change, I am truly terrified for not only my rights but the rights of those in my community who do not benefit from white privilege. Stop putting us up for debate. We are people, too,” they explain with defiance. “There’s no doubt that I’m worried,” begins Astro “Our rights have been repeatedly threatened and unfortunately it doesn’t seem like that recurrence is just going to stop. We’re still made to be a target, and we shouldn’t be,” she says.
The experience of coming out remains a stressful one, plagued with oppressive societal stigma and prejudice. The hope is to break this stigma down until LGBTQ+ people are seen as, well, people. By understanding varied experiences and being open to learning from other community members, we can all begin to take steps in the right direction. Bren put this notion into their own words with ease. “It’s okay to question and grow. Just remember, this is your story, and you get to write it, nobody else.”
Written by writer Lily Patterson