At The Gates of Coming Out

This guide is designed to share reflections, tools, and ideas for young people who are considering coming out at work or in their communities

October 8, 2020

By Zora Berman, Keshet

“Coming out” typically refers to an LGBTQ person telling others about their gender and/or sexual orientation. In a world that too often makes assumptions about gender and sexual orientation, coming out can be an empowering and life-changing way to express one’s identity and feel authentic. For others, there may be privacy and safety issues that affect one’s coming out. After weighing the positives and potential risks, each person can decide if and when to come out and in what setting. Coming out can be a one-time experience or a lifelong process. Every person’s decisions are valid and deserve respect.  

This guide is designed to share reflections, tools, and ideas for young people who are considering coming out at work or in their communities. While many tools can work for people of all ages, we seek to address the needs of young people, particularly those who would like help when coming out in Jewish religious communities or the Jewish professional world. This is why we provide Jewish frameworks to consider around the coming out decision. Our resources are meant to be an offering and not meant to be the “right way” to come out, as there is no one “right way,” and do not imply that coming out is always the best option.  

We hope our guide will help you with important questions and provide you with useful insight, ideas, and tools. Whatever “coming out” means to you, whatever choices you make to navigate your own comfort and safety, and however you decide to share (or not) this part of you, the choice is yours!    

Gevurah (Strength): Autonomy

Again — and we cannot say this enough — there is no one “right” or “real” way to come out. There is no obligation to come out at all!

  •  You do not owe it to anyone to share information about your gender identity or sexual orientation. Your story and your life are your own, and you get to choose when, with whom, and which parts of yourself to share!
  •  If you have been a part of a community or work somewhere you are making certain changes, such as your name or pronoun, there may be certain logistical things you ask of your community or workplace. This does not mean that you have to share your whole story. YOU control your narrative and how much you feel comfortable sharing about yourself.

Simcha (Joy or Celebration!)

Remember, your identity deserves to be celebrated! Being LGBTQ is good news, and in Jewish communities when a person shares any good news about themselves, a community celebrates together and offers a huge Mazal Tov! 

  • If you are preparing to come out to a particular community, and you find yourself nervous about how it will go, it can be helpful to remind yourself, “What I deserve is a huge Mazal Tov!” We will talk more later about how to assess safety and how to handle difficult reactions, but before we dig into that we want to be clear: LGBTQ identities are fundamentally good and worthy of celebration.   
  • This can also be a strategy in how you approach coming out. People in your community are likely looking to you for guidance about how to support you. If they see you experiencing this as good, exciting news, people may be more likely to respond in kind. 
  • This can be helpful even if you are feeling nervous!

Helpful phrases:

  • “I have some exciting news that I want to share with you!”
  • “Can I talk to you about something that I am really proud of?”
  • “I am so glad that we have a chance to talk! There is something important in my life that I have been wanting to share with you.”

Shmirat Haguf (Protecting the Body): Assessing personal safety and risk. 

One of the most important parts of coming out is thinking about your physical and emotional safety. This may be different for everyone, and is another reason why there is not only one “right way to come out”. 

Here are some things to consider before coming out:

  • Will this affect where you live? This is an important consideration. Those living with parents, with housemates, in gender-specific housing, or in other settings may wish to consider whether coming out as LGBTQ could impact their ability to continue living there, and weigh this into their decisions about whether, when, or how to come out.
  • Will this affect how you financially support yourself? You may want to assess what protections exist for you in the workplace, or if you receive financial support from your family you may want to assess whether coming out may put that financial support at risk.
  • Will you be safe at school or work from physical or emotional abuse? While it is true that there are many anti-discrimination laws in place it can still be unsafe to come out at school/work for fear of being treated differently, or not having your job next year. Unfortunately, there are many ways that queer and trans people can be made to feel unwelcome that are not defined in non-discrimination laws, and even in cases where nondiscrimination laws apply it can still be difficult and expensive to bring a case. 
  • What are your parents’, guardians’, or other adults’  thoughts on LGBTQ rights? For those who live with or are financially supported by parents/guardians or other adults, you may want to gather some information about their opinions on LGBTQ rights in order to make an informed decision about how/whether to share this with them. You may know this by what they share with you in reaction to the news. Or you could always bring up, “Have you heard that (a public figure) has come out as X. What do you think?”
  • Will this person out you? It is important to consider that when coming out to certain people and not others there is always the risk of someone outing you before you are ready. Do you trust this person to take your lead in coming out?

It is important to weigh the positive outcomes of coming out with these potential risks, and make the best decision for your personal situation.

Emet: Speaking Your Truth

There are many ways that people “come out.”

For some people this is something that they do multiple times in their life. We live in a hetero- and cisnormative world, and so sometimes people assume by default that someone is cisgender and/or heterosexual. (Find out more about LGBTQ terminology here!)  There are many ways that a person might share their identity with others — a short list of suggestions appears below, but it is by no means an exhaustive list! Some of these ideas might resonate with you, others may spark ideas that are not included in this list. Thinking about how you feel most confident and safe sharing this exciting news can help you find strategies that make the most sense for your level of comfort, safety and personality.  

What are some ways you can share the news?

  • During a supervision meeting with a manager or a supervisor
  • In a private meeting with your Rabbi
  • In an email
  • Writing a letter and giving it to someone in person
  • A social media post tagging important people in your life, like your Rabbi
  • If you are a religious school teacher, in a back to school letter, or weekly update sent to families.

What are some communication tools that will help you share the news?

  • Humor
    • Humor may be a helpful tool for you. Sometimes using humor can take the pressure off of a situation that could otherwise be tense. If it feels authentic, this can be one way to signal to people in your community that you are confident in your knowing and sharing this truth about yourself. Here’s just one example of a humorous Coming Out letter!
    • Bake a cake! Some folks have come out to their family members by baking a cake with a phrase written in icing. Head over to My Jewish Learning  or the Huffington Post to read stories about this approach! 
  • Matter-of-Factness / Concreteness
    • It can help to be very matter-of-fact about what you are sharing. The truth is, you deserve as much dignity and respect in response to coming out as a cisgender or straight person receives without having to come out. You are not asking anyone to do something difficult by addressing you by the correct name or pronouns, respecting your sexual orientation, etc. This conversation isn’t actually about their emotional reaction, surprise, or confusion. They might need some space to have or process those feelings later, but it is not your job to manage those feelings for them.
    • By approaching the conversation with the assumption that of course the person you are speaking with wants to know how to refer to you respectfully, you can help steer the conversation away from what they may feel about what you have shared and towards what they can do to treat you with respect. 
    • You may also choose to make a concrete request of someone in this conversation, to give them a stake in supporting you and to focus them on something concrete that they can do with this information. This does not work in every relationship, and tends to work best with someone who is used to being in a leadership or caretaking role. Making a small concrete request like support with paperwork / communicating with teachers / advice on a particular next step can help channel their anxiety or uncertainty into a task – and can gain you some really concrete support!
    • See helpful phrases below for some ideas of how and when this can be useful.
  • LGBTQ Media/Current Events
    • It could be useful to bring up some current movies, TV shows, or books with LGBTQ characters. If they are popular and well known pieces of media they can be easy starting points to open a conversation about LGBTQ people and topics. This can be a good conversation starter to find out more about someone’s feelings about LGBTQ people, or a way to ease into the news that you would like to share with them. If you are using this conversation to assess whether to come out to someone, be aware that it is possible that someone may assume that you are LGBTQ because you brought it up. 
    • LGBTQ current events can be a possible conversation opener as well. Current events can be easy to bring into a conversation, and may be a good way to gauge how someone feels about LGBTQ people. Current events also have the potential to be politically polarizing, so it can be useful to think about whether you actually want to be involved in a political conversation before using this tool. 
  • Using the Relationship
    • Another helpful tool can be to share your news in a way that connects the positive and respectful reaction that you deserve with the relationship you already have with the person you are sharing this news with. By starting the conversation by connecting to the way that they “have always been so supportive” or “have identified themselves as an ally” or “have given really helpful advice in the past,” you remind them that they feel good about being an ally/supportive parent/supportive supervisor/etc. People are sometimes more likely to respond in helpful ways when they are already thinking of themselves as a “helper,” “supporter,” or “ally.”
    • See below for some ways to weave this into a conversation.

Helpful phrases

  • To your supervisor or boss:
    • “I wanted to share something with you that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I am going to transition my gender. From [now/a particular date]_ onward, I will be called _________, and I will be using ______ pronouns.” 
    • “Since you have always been such a supportive supervisor, I would like to strategize with you about how to most effectively [communicate this with the team / with clients / handle documentation to that effect / navigate any potential reactions, etc – any task that gives the supervisor a concrete supportive “next step” and places them in the role of an active advocate]”
    • “You have been such a supportive mentor to me over the years and have shown by example how important it is to be true to oneself. I wanted to share with you that I identify as _____ and while there’s nothing explicitly that needs to change I would appreciate if you interjected on my behalf if one of our colleagues makes a remark that assumes that I am straight/heterosexual.”
  • To your Rabbi:
  • In response to a heteronromative comment or question:
    • “Oh, no thank you. I’m actually gay/queer/lesbian but thanks for thinking of me!”
    • “I’ve noticed that you have asked whether I have a girlfriend several times. I wanted to make sure that you knew that I’m gay, and don’t actually date women. Thanks! “

Shmirat Hanefesh (Protecting the Spirit): Boundaries

When you share these truths with others in your community and/or workplace, it is important to know what your boundaries are regarding questions about yourself or the expectation of teaching others more about LGBTQ people. 

  • Educating others about LGBTQ identities is an opportunity, not an obligation. For some, it is an empowering and positive experience to educate and advocate on LGBTQ topics. If this is you – go for it! If it is not an empowering or positive experience for you, there is absolutely no obligation for you to do so. When asked, you have every right to decline, direct the questioner to other resources, change the subject, or otherwise maintain this boundary.
  • Sometimes LGBTQ people are asked to speak or educate on behalf of the entire LGBTQ community. This is not fair to you or others, and is actually not possible to do. You can clearly let others know that you can speak for yourself and your own experiences, and while you may know some things about how to best treat LGBTQ people you cannot speak for the many different experinces within the LGBTQ umbrella.
  • Some people find that they are happy to answer certain types of questions but not others. This is a perfectly fine boundary to hold! If you decide that you are open to some conversations or questions, here are some possible ways to express that:
    • “I am very open to talking about my own identity with friends. However, I am finding that I get asked to explain the basics of gender identity pretty often these days. Here are some great resources that explain those concepts.”
    • “I am happy to talk about LGBTQ identities in general, but I don’t prefer to talk about [X part of my own identity].”
  • If you decide that your boundaries include not discussing your identity, that is perfectly fine as well! Here are some possible things to say to direct conversations away from this:
    • “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that.”
    • “Thanks for asking but I would rather talk about the torah portion this week…what is it again?”
    • “I’d rather not discuss that personally, but I know of a great resource to share with you.”
    • “I actually don’t have a lot of time to talk right now. I know of some useful resources that you can use to learn about this.”

Kehila: Community

Like any important moment in life, it can be helpful to reach out to community when coming out. Coming out may not be something that any of your immediate friends or family members have had the experience of doing, and it can be helpful to seek out other LGBTQ peers and other support.

Here are just a few places to start:

Online Groups

  • There are many different online social and support groups for LGBTQ identified young people, both locally and nationally. Check out Keshet’s Youth Programs here
  • Trevor Project
  • Gender Spectrum
  • JQY
  • You can often find local groups either by using a search engine and typing in “LGBTQ Support Groups” and then your local city/town or state. 

Keshet’s Resources

Keshet works for the full equality and belonging of LGBTQ Jews and their families. If you do come out at either your work or in your community there are resources that are available to do some of the heavy lifting of explaining the basics of LGBTQ identities. 

D’aat (Knowledge): Be Informed!

You can research your local state or province’s anti-discrimination policies and laws to be more informed. It may be helpful to look up your organization’s  nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies or talk to your organization’s Human Resources department in order to understand what protections apply to you..

You can do an internet search for “LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws + [your state/city/province]” to get more detailed information.

Keshet is not a legal organization, but here are some organizations that may be able to provide legal counsel: