How to Cope With the Stress of Being in the Closet

In a couple years I’ll be in college and out from under my parents’ thumb. Can’t I wait until then to let my rainbow freak flag fly?

My character’s words came to mind when I received a lesbian dating advice question from an Indian college student who felt trapped between a friend’s suspicion of her sexuality and her deep desire to remain in the closet through the rest of college.

This woman was 20, and desperate to keep her secret hidden; I assumed this was because homosexuality is still criminalized in India and out gays and lesbians face widespread discrimination.

My character Rye feels trapped between coming out as bisexual to appease her “out and proud” best friend and staying closeted. She’s overweight and already a target of school bullies. If they guess her secret she’s afraid of the additional harassment it will bring.

With Rye’s struggle on my mind, I told the college student something LGBTQ folks don’t often say.

It’s alright if you need to stay closeted. Sometimes, the closet is the safest space.

Why Coming Out as LGBTQ Is Hard

While I’m out now, and write about LGBTQ experiences, I had my own struggles with coming out.

I grew up in a conservative homogenous suburb of Boston. I went to a conservative private school. Fag was a common insult and anyone who was suspected of being gay was teased. I was already the weird, quiet, bookish kid.

In this environment, coming out wasn’t an option.

The funny thing is, everyone thought I was gay anyway. I joined the gay-straight alliance and people made assumptions. Coming out would have been relatively straightforward. All I needed to do was say the rumors were true. But I wasn’t sure if I was a lesbian or bisexual or if it was a phase.

I kept going to GSA meetings. I said I was an ally. I ignored my growing feelings for women until college, when I was in a m ore accepting environment. My journey to accept myself started with coming out as bisexual.

I gave the college student some options for handling her friend’s probing questions without outing herself in the process.

When you feel like your whole world will change if people know the truth, it’s natural to want to hide. People sometimes stay closeted when they’re not sure how they identify or where they fit. Until they are sure, they convince themselves, it’s better to say nothing.

The closet is a lonely, scary place. It’s filled with stress and anxiety. From the closet it can feel like everything you want is out there, in the life you’re not brave enough to have.

The harsh truth is, even in an age of increased acceptance, it isn’t always safe to come out as LGBTQ. If you need to stay closeted to protect yourself, please find a way to manage the stress and anxiety.

Still in the closet? Reading coming out stories of LGBTQ folks can help you build the courage to come out on your own terms. Read 16 coming out as LGBTQ stories, and get the facts on coming out, LGBTQ acceptance and LGBTQ identities.

Self Care When You’re Closeted

You might be closeted about your gender identity or sexuality. You might be closeted on the job or among certain relatives or in your hometown.

Whatever your circumstances is, it’s a valid choice to be in the closet if you genuinely think it’s the best and safest place for you* These self care tips are designed to help you process your feelings and nurture yourself with compassion.

*Staying closeted for your safety is different from being afraid to come out. We’re all afraid to come out on some level, whether it’s worries about an aunt’s criticism or a friend’s invasive question (“So, how do lesbians have sex anyway?” being a favorite). Once you start coming out, it often gets easier. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can read 16 coming out as queer stories for inspiration and advice.

Find LGBTQ Community Online

When you’re closeted, find ways to explore the LGBTQ community that feel accessible.

Maybe you don’t feel safe using the internet browser at work or school to check queer websites. Put password protection on your smartphone and browse that way.

Or download hookup and dating apps, or LGBTQ themed ebooks to read on your Kindle app. Books were the first place that showed me what it looked like to be gay (and these we’re 90’s books so it wasn’t pretty) and taught me there would be a place for me, too. You’ll find connection, community, and inspiration once you start looking for it.

Get Out of Town

Visit a nearby city or state for a Pride weekend. Leave the country if you need to do that. There’s something so special about being surrounded by out and proud queers of all stripes and ages. That energy can really uplift you and help you survive the closet.

I like to do this with sunsets – I “fill the bank” throughout with great sunsets to last me through the Northeastern winter when it’s dark by 4 p.m. When it’s dark and depressing outside, I get in my glam bathtub, light candles, and sink into a memory of watching the sun set over the Hudson River (or the Mekong, or the Atlantic Ocean–I’m a water baby). Winter doldrums pass, and I find more great sunsets to fill the bank again.

Being in a new state/city also lets you experiment with being publicly out as LGBTQ without the worry of repercussions, like being seen by a coworker. Until you feel strong enough to be out where you live, you can dip into queer life and enjoy the freedom to be authentically you, even if it’s just for a long weekend.

Open Up to Someone You Can Trust

If you feel safe to tell one person the truth, please do it. It will relieve the pressure you feel if you know someone accepts and loves you for you. This person can also run interference, for instance by speaking up against a homophobic or transphobic remark if you’re not comfortable doing that yourself.

My MC uses the gay-straight alliance at her school to explore her sexuality before she’s ready to commit to a label. The friends she meets there support her on her coming-out journey without pressuring her to commit to a timeline.

Give Yourself Permission to Dream

The closet can feel so confining. When you’re afraid to come out, you might start to feel like you’ll never get there. It just becomes really easy to beat yourself up because you aren’t out yet and you secretly worry you’ll never feel safe enough. Stop it. Don’t let your self doubt and fear get the best of you.

Give yourself a space – a notebook, a secret Pinterest board, an alternate Twitter account, whatever – to dream about the life you want to live. Tweet all the gay news you would openly share if you were out. Pin images of gender nonconforming fashion and alternative haircuts you pine to try out.

Dream big in the other parts of your life that aren’t constrained by the closet. Be your biggest boldest self in whatever ways you can. Nurture yourself. Trust that you will be the fabulous queer diva you know yourself to be someday, and that it’s totally cool if you’re not there yet.

Coming out is a process, and you’re not less authentic of a queer person if you didn’t come out until your thirties, or you were closeted for four years, or you let culture and politics push you back in the closet, or you waited until you had a boyfriend or girlfriend as “proof” of what you knew to be true.

Your light will shine. For now, your job is to nurture that light.

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