Learning about your sexual orientation and gender identity can be incredibly empowering, but sometimes the decision to publicize your identity is taken away from you. If you’re outed, your identity was shared without your consent with others. You may feel isolated and betrayed—which are both completely valid responses—but at some point, you’ll have to try to move forward from the betrayal. Here are five ways to process, move forward from being outed and come out even stronger!
1. Know your feelings are valid
Your first reaction when you realize someone has been telling others about your sexual orientation or gender identity could be shock, anger, sadness or anything in between.
Cam, a student at Mount Holyoke College who identifies as nonbinary, explains that being outed by a professor announcing their birth name was absolutely humiliating.
“Having such a vestigial and non-important part of my past identity leave me so exposed was one of the worst experiences I have ever had at college regarding my gender identity,” they say.
Shelby Chestnut, co-director of community organizing and public advocacy at the Anti-Violence Project in New York City, an organization committed to empowering LGBTQ+ and HIV+ individuals and communities, says, “First and foremost... recognize that being outed is a form of violence.” As such, it’s only natural to feel angry and vulnerable – you were victimized by someone who (intentionally or unintentionally) shared your personal information!
“This is never your fault, and you are not to blame for this,” she says.
2. Talk to the person who outed you
Once you find out who’s been spreading your identity, confront them if you feel safe enough. The damage of being outed could range from your hurt feelings to more serious situations, so it’s vital to find out how public your identity has become. Get in contact with the person who shared your identity without your consent and find out who they told so you’re not completely in the dark about what people know about you. However, if it doesn’t go well or if you feel endangered, don’t hesitate to remove yourself from the situation. Not everyone is going to listen to you, and your safety is always the number one priority.
“For a trans person who might not be out as trans and is passing at school or work, for them being outed can have… greater impact as there is very little [legal] protection,” Chestnut says.
On the other side of the coin, sometimes the outing could have happened in a less aggressive or intentionally negative way — it could even be that the “outer” thought everyone knew about your identity already or that they wanted to make sure your pronouns were being respected.
But even if the outing could have been coming from a very positive place (e.g., letting people know what pronouns to use for someone who identifies as trans), it’s still important to make clear your boundaries about who knows of your identity. Having a frank conversation about expectations of privacy will only strengthen your relationship with this person. It could end up really helping your friend become more sensitive and mindful of others’ boundaries and personal lives!
3. Take this opportunity to educate the person who outed you
You don’t have to educate everyone, but if you feel like investing time, you could stop someone else from being put in this situation. Chestnut advises that allies understand it is never appropriate to out people and that it “is the individual’s choice 100 percent of the time, as only the individual truly knows the impact that outing will have on their life, friends, family, education and employment.”
This could simply be miscommunication about what is and isn’t private, so refer the person who outed you to some resources for how to be a better ally. Be sure to let them know that outing someone could have serious consequences. LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to be physically assaulted, kicked or shoved at school than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Cam has found that people ask follow-up questions so they can learn more about Cam’s identity and how they may respect Cam as a person. People could end up being very receptive and more inclusive of different sexual orientations and gender identities if you took on the responsibility of educating them, but again, you don’t need to shoulder that burden of responsibility. You don’t have to be the spokesperson for everyone who’s LGBTQ+, but you could make a real, fundamental difference if you were in the right headspace to educate!
4. Look on the bright side
Though being outed means that you need to process a lot of emotions, there are parts of it that could end up being positive in your life.
“Things aren’t great family-wise, but I can say that I felt an immense relief once they knew because there were no more secrets,” says Taylor, an alum of Wellesley College who was outed. “Having people find out and be okay with it is liberating. Being outed to people who don’t support you is incredibly rough, but it is also a learning experience.”
Being outed can help you distinguish who your true friends are as well. You don’t want to be around people who won’t support you because of one aspect of your identity, so although the situation wasn’t ideal, at least you can see who are and aren’t the best people with whom to surround yourself.
5. Tap into support networks
If you’re outed, the people who will know best how to help you will be at your campus’s LGBTQ+ resource center. There could be people there who have been outed in the past, who are willing to help your family and friends support you better or who are trained to make sure you’re doing okay after you’ve been put in such a vulnerable position.
There are also tons of communities online you can tap into in order to feel included and embraced in the LGBTQ+ community if you’re having a hard time! Check out some of these wonderful LGBTQ+ vloggers, most of whom host Q&A sessions where they help their viewers through tough times – you could get some really great tips about how to handle being outed!
Nobody has the right to take your voice away from you, and nobody except you has the right to decide who should know your sexual orientation or gender identity. With these five tips in mind, you’ll get through it and possibly end up growing so much from such a hard experience! It feels rough right now, but give it some time, and you will be okay. You’ll come out with a better perspective on yourself and those around you.