To celebrate National Coming Out Day on 11 October, four well-known women share their very different experiences.
This year is the 30th anniversary of National Coming Out Day, an annual celebration of coming out as LGBTQ+. The world looks very different than it did three decades ago. Back in 1988, Donald Trump was just some businessman, mobile phones were the size of a suitcase, and a 25-year-old George Michael had just gone solo.
Since then, there has been a huge amount of progress towards improving LGBT+ rights in many countries. However, there is still a huge amount of work to do to move past presumptions of heterosexuality and cisgender. Society still creates a need for individuals to speak up - or ‘come out’ - when they differ from the presumed script.
While popular attitudes are thankfully evolving towards acceptance, the process of coming out can be complex and fraught with uncertainty - and it rarely involves just one conversation.
But there are some signs of better LGBTQ+ representation in the media in 2018. Emmerdale now features a trans character, the UK’s first bisexual dating show The Bi Life starts on E! next week and last night, Channel 4’s show The Bisexual looked at one lesbian girl’s struggles to come out as bisexual to her gay mates.
National Coming Out Day was established in America in 1988 by psychologist Robert Eichberg and lesbian politician Jean O’Leary as a positive response to anti-LGBT+ sentiment and an opportunity for celebration. Thirty years on, Stylist asked Nicola Adams, Juno Dawson, Munroe Bergdorf and Lizzie Marvelly to share their experiences of coming out. Together they underline the fact that every single one of us plays a role in helping to edge society towards total acceptance. Hopefully, in another 30 years, ‘coming out’ won’t even be a thing.
The champion boxer, 35, from Yorkshire was the first female ever to win an Olympic boxing gold at London 2012, and successfully defended her title in Rio in 2016. She is bisexual, and came out to her mum in her teens.
“It took a lot of courage to come out to my mum. I knew one other person in my school who was the same and we talked. We hadn’t come out and we were thinking, ‘What is the best approach? How do I tell my mum?’ You never know how the family is going to react, so I was nervous.
“One day I’d prepared myself to do it. Mum was in the kitchen washing up, I was like, ‘I’ve got something to tell you…’ I was really sweating, and she said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I was just like, ‘I’m bisexual.’ And she was like, ‘OK, put the kettle on.’ She said she kind of already knew. I was expecting some big reaction and I’m thinking, ‘Why have I been stressing about this for months?!’
“No one has ever really cared about me being bisexual and I only came out to the general public because I had always been out, it’s just they didn’t know. I’m quite fearless. I’m like, let’s just go out there and do this and see what happens. But I never did a big coming out thing. I never thought it was necessary. Should it really be nationwide press who I’m going out with? I am hoping one day it will just be a thing of the past completely.
“I’ve never had a bad reaction to my sexuality. Racism, yes. Sexism, yes, in boxing - people saying women shouldn’t box. But I’ve never come across homophobia. I’ve overcome many obstacles in my career and in my life. My hope is that everything I do helps more people realise they can be who they are and do anything they put their mind to. Without my own role models, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Empowering the next generation is something I’m passionate about.”
Nicola Adams’ autobiography Believe: Boxing, Olympics and My Life Outside the Ring is out now
Born James Dawson and raised in West Yorkshire, Juno came out as transgender in 2015, 18 months after starting her transition. She is an author and activist and lives in Brighton.
“There is definitely still a need to come out in 2018. Our culture is still inherently straight, white, cis-body and able-bodied. There are little green shoots of change, but there’s still a long way to go.
“Heterosexuality and gender cis is assumed, but there is a huge number of people who identify as something else, which means they must ‘come out’.
“I came out twice. The first time I was 15 when I told a girl friend I thought I was gay. She was great about it, but I didn’t tell anyone else. Then in my early twenties my mum sat me down and asked me outright if I was gay. I think she had figured it out and made peace with it, so there was no drama when I said I thought I was.
“But neither of us was right. I was nearly 30 when I came out a second time - as transgender. This time was much worse. I’d been living as a gay man, but I realised I had questions about my gender that gay men didn’t have. Even when I was very young I had a very definite idea of the woman I was going to be, and couldn’t picture myself growing up as male.
“I had so many anxieties around telling my parents. I thought it would be the end of our relationship. I had a year of counselling before planning the trip from London to Leeds to tell my mum. It felt like death row. I can’t remember what I said, but she totally accepted it.
“On the advice of my therapist I came out to my dad in a letter, to give me a chance to get all my thoughts down. He immediately text me to say “all I ever want is for you to be happy, and if this is what makes you happy then I’m behind you 100%”.
“I get lots of letters and emails from young people asking how they should come out. The thing I say is you’re going to need patience. It isn’t just one conversation. I had therapy, and I was very lucky that mum and dad were so understanding. My only regret is I didn’t join the dots and do it sooner. It would’ve been great to transition in my youth and have my whole life as Juno.”
Juno Dawson’s latest book Clean is out now
Model and activist Munroe Bergdorf regularly appears in the national and international print, digital and broadcast media to comment on race, diversity, gender and LGBTQ+ topics. Her first film What Makes a Woman?
“I hope that in the future people start to place less importance on sexuality and gender. Ultimately, it’s no one else’s business if you chose not to disclose. But if you do, it can also be celebrated. We should all just take each other for who were are on the information we choose to disclose.
“I’ve always been quite vocal in my discovery of self and as I’ve grown within my identity, so has my understanding of my own sexuality. I’ve come out three times, first as gay, then as trans, then as pansexual or sexually fluid.
“I was petrified before I first came out to my parents. I think all children feel pressure to be the child our parents dreamed of, and its very scary when you feel like you’re deviating from that. I clearly remember coming out as gay to my mum. I think the fear of rejection of losing a loved one makes your senses super sharp. We were waiting for my brother in the school car park and I said “Mum, do you love me no matter what? Would you love me less if I said I liked boys?” I came out to my dad later as I was more scared what he would think, but by that point he’d guessed anyway.
“My parents took a little time to adjust but they just hadn’t been exposed to many queer success stories. Their sense of dread was from the media’s homophobic reporting and fear-mongering. Once they saw I was happy, they became super supportive.
“When I was 25, I told my parents I was trans, and then at 27 I came out as sexually fluid when I started dating my girlfriend. By that point my parents were just like “whatever makes you happy”.
“I do feel coming out is important in 2018, but no one should do it against their will. If you’re ready then do it, if you’re not then take your time. It’s a personal decision that nobody should feel bullied into because its no one else’s business but yours.
“I planned my coming out over and over, but I came to realise there is no ‘right time’.
“There is still a sense of shame and guilt that society imposes on queer and trans people that makes it hard to be our true selves. I feel that having queer role models plays a big role in educating the public and empowering queer youth.”
Follow Munroe Bergdorf on Instagram and Twitter @MunroeBergdorf mbergdorf.com
The singer from New Zealand came out as bisexual after turning down a Celebrity Ally Award for her activist work on sexual violence and the trans bathroom issue.
“Earlier this year I was honoured to be nominated for the Celebrity Ally Award at the LGBTQI Awards. I couldn’t accept the nomination, however, because I am bisexual.
“Over the last few years, I’ve slowly been going through the process of coming out. First, I came out to my friends, then to my family, then to my colleagues, and then the general public. I know it’s 2018 and it shouldn’t be a big deal, but honestly, it hasn’t been easy.
I didn’t know I was bi until my early 20s. I didn’t know if the people I loved would be okay with it. I’m a very private person when it comes to my personal life, and I didn’t know whether I could deal with the scrutiny of having my sexuality highlighted in the media.
It’s taken time, but slowly I’ve come to realise that being true to myself is important to my wellbeing. I’ve always tried to be authentically who I am and this is no different. I am proud of who I am, and I want to be open about my identity. And so, while I feel really honoured that someone nominated me to be recognised as a straight ally, it’s important that I acknowledge that I’m actually a member of the rainbow community. I hope in time that coming out will be easier, or perhaps not necessary at all.”
Visit Lizzie Marvelly’s website villainesse.com