LGBTQ Coming Out: Data and Stories
Data, quotes, and historical anecdotes put LGBTQ coming out of the closet in context. It’s here to help you better understand and engage with the LGBTQ+ experience so you can be a better ally and engage with the community.
This resource covers:
The history of the term coming out of the closet when people come out
Americans’ sexuality and gender identities, including across generations
LGBTQ Americans as a percentage of the general population
FAQ about coming out as LGBT, including coming out at work and how to respond if someone comes out to you
Coming out in their own words: LGBTQ people say why it matters
Coming Out of the Closet: A Brief History
We think about coming out as a queer thing. But the LGBTQ community borrowed the phrase from the debutante ball scene, where young women “came out” by being introduced to society publicly.
Yes, there were drag balls that followed.
The ball scene gave queer people a chance to be themselves and express themselves fully, even if it was only behind doors.
In public life, many LGBTQ people were closeted about their sexuality due to widespread homophobia and bigotry. Discriminatory laws were widespread; LGBTQ people did not have the civil and legal protections we do now.
Stonewall represented a turning point. For the first time, LGBTQ people, led by BIPOC drag queens, fought back against police. They stood up to demand fairer treatment.
Following the Stonewall riots, LGBTQ people stepped into a more public light. They began holding marches on the anniversary of the Stonewall riot. These later became the annual Pride parades celebrated each June.
During the 1970s and beyond, LGBTQ people began to come out in greater numbers. They did so despite the lack of legal protections. These individual acts of bravery helped to create more acceptance and tolerance for the next generation of LGBTQ people. In the 1980s, AIDS ravaged the gay community. Politicians dismissed and ignored the problem, while religious leaders shamed and blamed queer people.
The queer community was literally fighting for their lives. Coming out continued to be a personal and political tool used to advocate for anti-oppression.
As queer people came out, their friends and family members realized they knew someone who was gay. They became allies and advocates for LGBTQ rights. For this reason, coming out helped to shift cultural norms and change laws to better protect LGBTQ equality–of course, there is still a long way to go!
What are people coming out as?
Americans are identifying as LGBTQ in higher numbers than ever, at 5.6 percent of US society.
This figure is from a Gallup poll of 15,000 Americans over 18. Participants were able to select from a range of identifications, so the new data provides more accurate insight into how, specifically, LGBTQ Americans identify.
Some believe the increase in LGBTQ affiliation is a generational divide.
Two percent of Americans over 56 identify as LGBTQ, while 16 percent of Gen Z affiliate themselves with an LGBTQ identity.
Some suggest the real change is in comfort level–that younger Americans are more comfortable coming out to strangers than older Americans, who may not be open about their true feelings with a pollster (or even with themselves).
Americans’ LGBTQ identities
On Gallup’s most recent poll, this is how LGBTQ identity broke down:
Bisexual: Bisexual is the most common affiliation, at 54.6 percent – a surprising figure considering that bisexuals are statistically less likely than their LGBTQ peers to come out
Gay: 24.5 percent identified as gay
Lesbian: 11.7 percent identified as lesbian
Trans: 11.3 percent identified as trans
Queer/other: 3.3 percent picked another label to describe their sexuality, including queer
LGBTQ identity across generations
Generation Z: 15.9 percent of Gen Z identify as LGBTQ, and 78.9 percent identify as straight
Millennials: 9.1 percent of Millennials identify as LGBTQ, and 82.7 percent identify as straight
Generation X :3.8 percent of Gen X identify as LGBTQ and 88.6 percent identify as straight
Baby boomers: 2.0 percent identify as LGBTQ and 91.1 percent identify as straight
Traditionalists: 1.3 percent identify as LGBTQ and 89.9 percent identify as straight
Survey participants were allowed to select “no opinion” on their identification, so the numbers above don’t add up to 100 percent.
What about other labels?
The Gallup poll wasn’t fully comprehensive of identities under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, including intersex and asexual. Data suggests that:
1.7 percent of Americans identify as asexual, according to the Williams Institute.
1.7 percent of people are born intersex, globally. The Intersex Society of North America breaks down the statistics on sex anatomy variations that all under the intersex label, though there isn’t always agreement on what ‘counts’ as intersex.
1.2 million Americans identify as nonbinary, according to the Williams Institute. Nonbinary is an umbrella term for gender identifications that fall outside the male/female binary. The study also found that:
a majority of those who identify as nonbinary are cisgender
nonbinary adutls tend to identify as queer, bisexual, pansexual or asexual
nonbinary adults make up 11 percent of the US LGBTQ+ population
4 to 5 percent of Americans say they’re polyamorous, and 20 percent have attempted some form of non monogamy (such as open relationships) in their lives, Rolling Stone reports. Researcher Dr. Rhonda Balzarini reports that most people who identify as poly also say they’re bisexual or pansexual. While a poly identity isn’t part of the LGBTQ umbrella, there is a large overlap between these communities. Nonmonogamy, for instance, is widespread among gay men.
LGBTQ Americans as a percentage of US population
Extrapolating by sample size, here’s how much of the US population identified as LGBTQ:
Bisexual: 3.1 percent of the US population is bisexual
Gay: 1.4 percent of the US population is gay
Lesbian: 0.7 percent of the US population is lesbian
Trans: 0.6 percent of the US population is trans
Queer/other: 0.2 percent of the US population is queer or other affiliated
Coming Out FAQ
When do LGBT people come out?
Queer people come out at all ages. Statistically, the median age when queer people come out falls from 18-21, per Pew Research Center. Gay men tend to come out earlier, and lesbians tend to come out later. Bisexuals have a median coming out age of 20, and come out less often than other queer people.
Many bisexuals have been discriminated against within the LGBTQ+ and heterosexual communities. They may be perceived as straight if their partner is opposite sex (bisexual erasure), face sterotypes of promiscuity, or have their identity questions. These experiences of stigma keep many from being open about their identity.
Resource to go deeper: “Bisexual Invisibility,” San Francisco Human Rights Commission
Who do LGBTQ+ people come out to?
Data from Pew Research Center indicates that 86 percent of LGBTQ+ adults have told a close friend their sexuality. 56 percent have told their mother and 39 percent have told their father. Pew reports that gay men and lesbians are more likely to be out about their sexuality than bisexuals.
While the most common media representation is coming out to friends and family, LGBTQ+ people come out all the time, to all kinds of people: doctors, dentists, therapists, attorneys, tax preparers, student loan servicers.
Name a service provider, and a queer person has probably come out to them. The last person I came out to was a TSA official who asked about the family relationship between me and my wife!
Why do LGBT come out?
Not all LGBTQ+ people do come out. Some don’t feel it’s a very relevant part of their identity, or want to be private about their sexuality. Others feel that it is the only way to live authentically, without hiding or pretending.
Why is coming out difficult?
Coming out may be stressful for lots of reasons.
Some people fear rejection, or disappointing a loved one, particularly if their new identity disrupts their relationship. Consider coming out to adult children, or coming out to a spouse after admitting your sexuality later in life.
Some people worry about negative comments, being reduced to a stereotype, or having their identity invalidated. “It’s just a phase” is one of the typical, harmful comments queer people may worry they’ll hear.
LGBTQ+ people still don’t have the same legal protections as cisgender, heterosexual peers, so in some cases coming out can correlate with a real or perceived loss of protection or status (CITE).
Coming out can also be joyful, affirming, and validating.
Why do LGBTQ people stay closeted?
LGBTQ identity is criminalized in 72 countries and punishable by death in 8 countries, as of 2019, Yale School of Medicine reports. Globally, many LGBTQ people stay closeted to protect themselves.
Within the US and abroad, LGBTQ people stay closeted for a variety of individual reasons, including:
- Fear of backlash or stigma within family or social circles
- Concern for physical safety if they were to come out
- Concern over loss of privilege, particularly within the workplace
- Not wanting to share private or personal information
Forty-six percent of LGBTQ workers were closeted at work as of 2018, reports HRC. This is a drop from 50 percent closeted in HRC’s initial survey of LGBTQ workers from 2008.
We may be in the era of corporate DEI initiatives, but many workplaces are not safe for queer workers. Over half of LGBTQ employees report hearing gay jokes in the office. Twenty percent say they’ve been asked to dress more gender-affirming. LGBTQ workers say they don’t report bias incidents because they don’t believe HR departments will do anything.
Over 30 percent of LGBTQ workers said they were depressed or unhappy at work. The pandemic has exacerbated queer employees’ isolation and mental health struggles.
“Many LGBTQ+ employees continue to face discrimination, discomfort, and even danger in the workplace,” McKinsey reports in a 2020 study of 2,000 LGBTQ employees.
Over 25 percent of employees surveyed by McKinsey said they were closeted at work. Women and junior-level employees tended to stay closeted while those at senior levels were more likely to be out.
LGBTQ employees report pressure to outperform cis, straight colleagues to have a chance at promotion. Barriers to workplace advancement are higher for BIPOC, female, and trans LGBTQ employees.
Some queer workers believe it’s easier to keep quiet about sexuality and pass as cis or straight until they’ve climbed the corporate ladder. Others worry about a perceived loss of status or privilege if they come out.
The Hidden Costs of Staying Closeted at Work includes statistics and quotes from LGBTQ employees on why they stay closeted and their experiences coming out at work.
Job Hunting While Gender Nonconforming explores bias in the hiring process with a focus on trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming employees.
Why does coming out matter if LGBTQ people are more accepted now/if they have rights?
Coming out allows LGBTQ people to choose the language they want to use to describe their gender, sexuality, and pronouns. They can be identified in ways that feel affirming. LGBTQ people deserve to live openly without feeling pressure to hide or change themselves.
How to respond when someone comes out to you as LGBTQ+?
If your family member or friend has come out to you as LGBTQ+, you may be wondering how to respond. You might be confused and have questions, relieved to know what’s been on your loved one’s mind, or hurt that they didn’t tell you sooner. Or there may be a mixture of emotions, questions, and thoughts. It’s hard to know what to say, and you can feel pressured to “get it right.”
If you’re family or friends…
When someone comes out to you, they want you to know who they are. If you’re a friend or family member, they may be looking for love and valuation. If you can, assure them that you love and care for them. Thank them for trusting you with this information. If you have questions about their identity, ask if this is a good time to ask. While some queer people will be open to answering your questions, others may not be up to the task of educating you on their identity–and they shouldn’t have to. There are many online resources to learn about LGBTQ+ sexuality.
If it’s a business relationship…
If you’re a service provider or colleague, the information is likely more practical. Consider a married gay couple booking a hotel who want a room with one king bed. Or a new coworker who drops their partner’s they/them pronouns when explaining weekend plans.
In a professional context, you generally don’t need to offer support or affirmation. Treat them just like any other client or colleague. If there’s a request that’s been made, as in the hotel room example, let them know how you are able to meet it.
How can I support someone who has just come out?
Take your cues from them. If they come out via chat or note, a simple acknowledgement like “that’s cool, thanks for letting me know,” might be all they’re looking for.
If it’s a big sit down conversation, give their admission the seriousness it deserves. Say things like “I support you” or “I’m so glad you told me” lets them know you care.
Some LGBTQ+ people may want to process their admission with you. Some don’t want to take extensive questions or help you understand what a label means to them. If you have questions, ask first whether they’re open to answering. Then respect their decision. Even if they don’t want to process their coming out with you, ask who else knows. This way, you won’t accidentally out them to someone they haven’t yet told.
What if I know someone who isn’t ready to come out?
Respect their timeline. Be a good ally to the LGBTQ community in other ways, and know they’ll come out if/when they want to.
Is it ever okay to out someone who is LGBTQ?
No, it’s not okay to out someone.
Coming out is a personal process. That person may not be ready to come out, or they may not feel safe to do so.
If you’d like to let someone know you’d be a safe ally to come out to, mention LGBTQ topics a couple of times casually in conversation, such as by bringing up a queer celebrity. They’ll get the hint.
Coming out in their own words: 15+ LGBTQ people on why it’s important to come out
- As an openly polyamorous person, I know LOTS of people who remain closeted about being non-mongoamous even as society becomes more open-minded toward LGBTQ people. It’s important for bisexual and pansexual people to come out so we can see that you can have any kind of relationship style and still be bi/pan, and also more and more people are coming out as polyamorous so we can be open about who we love even if it’s not within the confines of monogamy. A lot of people in the LGBTQ community don’t want to come out as non-monogamous since that is still rarer and less acceptable than a monogamous same-sex relationship!”
– Jennifer Martin, identifies as bisexual and polyamorous
2. “National Coming Out Day is being able to be yourself and not feel insecure about it. This day means a lot to me because in the communities of color we’re encouraged to have machismo which goes against queer culture.”
– Marcos Martinez, coming out coach and black gay lifestyle blogger at Men Who Brunch, identifies as gay
3. “We still live in a cisheteronormative society where coming into your identity and coming out to others is intimidating, challenging, and sometimes dangerous. It is important to honor the bravery of our ancestors, fellow community members, and ourselves for embracing our authenticity, both privately and publicly.”
– Lina Mafi, Psychotherapist, Intuitive Healing Psychotherapy, identifies as bisexual and queer
4. “I identify as a lesbian, had kids young, and have always passed. I also found my person later in life who happens to be a guy, so I’ve stopped trying to engage with a lot of queer spaces because of the existing stigma of having a primary attraction to womxn, yet having married a cis-het man. And two of my children are non-binary/genderfluid and they need positive reinforcement that they’re not wrong for feeling the way they do about their bodies and budding attractions. Their bio-mom doesn’t support them, and regularly deadnames and misgenders them.” – Temperance Delonkcra, The Peacock Witch, identifies as a lesbian
5. “Coming out is not a one and done experience but is a continuous developmental process that LGBTQ people go through on a daily basis.”
– therapist and coach John Sovec in Pasadena CA, identifies as queer
6. “LGBT Pride means this to me: Outpacing anyone that ever spoke ill of me because of my sexual orientation. That translates to being more charitable and a compassionate neighbor.”
– Sam Russell, celebrity stylist and found of Giving Closet
7. “I’m a bisexual nonbinary Palestinian human who has definitely experienced bi erasure and biphobia because I appear to be a woman who’s married to a cis man. People, even those within the queer community, don’t seem to think of me as bi despite repeated reminders. A trans friend recently said she was tired of bi women like me marrying straight men. I am bisexual and they should treat me as such, regardless of who my spouse is.”
– author, freelance writer, and book reviewer Mandy Shunnarah, who identifies as bisexual and nonbinary
8. “I came out at 38, after being a Mormon suburban housewife for 17 years. When I came out, I lost my church, my business, and my entire social network. I gained an entirely new community of friends who cheered on my coming out process.
Looking back I realized that how people reacted to my Coming Out was a massive tell in how our relationship would progress. Almost all of my then-current friends and family said to me Well, I love you no matter what. It’s three years later and hardly any of them are still speaking with me. Once my partner and I moved in together, it was radio silence. Apparently, that was beyond the ‘no matter what.’
The ones who responded with ‘What courage, Elena. You’re being your authentic self even though you’re going to face so much backlash. I admire that and I value you and your experience.’ Those people are still with me today. They’ve had my back every step of the way.
It’s not just the LGBTQ+ people who have to come out. My kids have to come out as having a lesbian mom every time one of their friends comes over. My fifth grader has to come out to her teachers who assume she has a Mom and Dad at home. And my 72-year-old Dad takes great pride in coming out to his golf course cronies as a Rainbow Dad. It’s the best and the worst. As is every coming out journey.”
– Elena Joy Thurston, founder of Pride and Joy Foundation, identifies as a lesbian
9. “It’s still difficult to come out for millions of people across America and the whole world. First, many people live in conservative parts of the country where they still risk violence or bullying for being themselves. Second, even in big urban centers, it’s still risky for members of the trans community to come out. People continue to see our trans brothers and sisters as a source of ridicule, and they face discrimination in employment, housing, and services. I came out as nonbinary around six months ago. Ten years ago, even five, people knew little about nonbinary people. I was born a boy, but realised I never fitted in as a boy. At the same time, I was happy with my body, but felt so much confusion until I learnt about being nonbinary. It made so much sense for me.”
– Sam Johns of ResumeGenuis.com, identifies as nonbinary
10. “It *is* true that expansive gender and sexuality options are generally celebrated among younger generations much more than even when I was in high school in the early 2000s. But it is not universally true. There are still plenty of places in this country let alone the world where you will be bullied for being LGBTQ+, and there will probably always be pockets of intolerance.
Even though we have made strides toward eradicating various forms of discrimination, people from marginalized groups will always face some extra challenges as a result of their status. If it helps even a little bit to model to kids that people should be celebrated for coming out, it is worth doing.”
– Emily Stork, who identifies as gay and founded gay-owned, BIPOC-owned, female-owned business Worth The Fight Boxing & Fitness Studio with her wife
11. “I came out late in life at age 37 after meeting my now wife. After coming out, my Mom distanced herself from me and in some ways emotionally disowned me. She did not plan on coming to the wedding. It was one of the hardest things I’ve experienced alongside one of the happiest times in my life (planning my wedding).
Looking back I see many times I pushed away my queerness for fear of being rejected or ostracized. I tried to come out at 13 and was told it wasn’t real and couldn’t happen, so I went along with that. Later, in college, I watched my best friend receive death threats for being gay. He was also asked to leave parties on our campus because he was openly gay (this was Texas). Though I felt attraction to women I wanted to pursue, I was terrified for my safety and pushed those feelings away. When I came out later in life, both straight and queer people in my life doubted my sexuality, wondering why I hadn’t come out sooner. I never felt more myself when I came out but having my experience repeatedly doubted and questioned was painful.”
– Jenny Walters, LMFT, identifies as queer
12. “As a femme bisexual person, I am frequently subject to other people’s assumptions about my sexuality. Most commonly, people will assume I’m straight, because I don’t necessarily “look queer” if the person looking is someone who’s primarily familiar with queer stereotypes rather than queer reality. Coming out is a way of combating the erasure that bisexuals, and particularly femme bisexual women, often experience. It also signals that I’m a safe person to talk to if you’re confused about your sexuality or think you might be bisexual yourself.”
– Kate Sloan, writer
13. “There were 10,000 individuals packed into a mega church in the Chicago suburbs. I was the guest of honor being celebrated as the favored candidate for a major political office. There was a lot of buzz surrounding this event. I was warmly introduced as a young Reagan or Kennedy. A changemaker. Those folks gave me a standing ovation that morning. Putting their full support behind my campaign. Eventually everyone calmed down & took their seats.
Then within three minutes, the pastor ascended the pulpit and gave a fiery sermon about the evils of homosexuality. All 10,000 people again stood. Jumping and cheering furiously. Me…sitting there numb. They all loved me. They just did not know my secret. I did something unexpected that day. After this display of such loving hatred. Those wonderfully rabid oxymorons helped me find the courage for my coming out day. I made an announcement in the church after the service ended. It was this moment that changed my life forever.”
– Ron Blake, Blake Late Show
14. “As a woman who identifies as bi and is traditionally feminine presenting, I have experienced bi erasure both within the LGBTQIA+ community and outside of it. There are many stereotypes of bi women including that we are promiscuous, unfaithful, greedy, and undiscerning when it comes to choosing sexual partners. Heterosexual men often fetishize us and do not view our attraction to women as valid, as evidenced by the many requests I have received on dating sites to be a “unicorn” (a single, bisexual woman willing to join established couples in the bedroom) and men classifying my sexuality as “hot.” Dating other women is also difficult as many lesbians assume that my sexuality is a phase or for attention and will refer to me as a “straight girl.” This is frustrating to the point that I no longer disclose my sexuality until I’ve been able to vet the person’s intentions.”
– Erin Scully, LMHC, identifies as bisexual
15. “I’m demisexual homoromantic (though I often just say lesbian/gay/queer). In addition to being queer myself, I work as a therapist with a lot of individuals who are LGBTQ+.
We still live in a heteronormatiove and cisnormative society and culture. People will assume I’m straight and ask about my husband or boyfriend instead of my girlfriend or partner. I also work with a lot of individuals who grew up religious and it can be even scarier to come out in a conservative religion. I didn’t officially come out more broadly until last year (when I was almost 30), in part because of the blowback I was afraid I’d get from people at church.”
– Colette Dalton, therapist who identifies as demisexual homoromantic
16. “I’m a gay cis man originally hailing from rural South Carolina. Queer visibility is important specifically because of the kids (like me) who are living in places where queerness is not celebrated or visible.
Growing up, I didn’t have openly queer friends or role models outside of very specific areas, like community theatre. It left me, and a lot of my friends, feeling alone and vulnerable and isolated. I didn’t know that a full, happy life as a queer person was possible until several years into my college experience, mostly because the queer folks I had seen were on TV (and were viciously made fun of by people in my high school) or distantly connected friends-of-cousins.
The South is changing a lot, and it now houses the largest group of queer people in the country. But the rural South in particular is a very hard place for a queer person to grow up. And queer visibility is about more than just that one kid. It’s about parents and friends seeing queer folks as something other than the threat that they’ve been conditioned to believe in.”
– Cory Alpert, founder of South & West, identifies as gay