Q: I’m in my first year of college, and I’m working up the courage to come out as gay. I’ve known I was gay for a few years but I never felt comfortable telling anyone. I come from a small town, and I’ve heard the people I know there say bad things about gay people before. I’m not comfortable coming out to my parents just yet, so I want to keep this from them for now and just see if I can explore at college. I live away from my town, so I feel safer around this. I have been to a gay bar just once before for a birthday party and wouldn’t mind going again, but I don’t really have anyone to go with and to be honest, I’m still scared about actually dating in real life. I know I’m queer and I’m happy to be queer, but I’m just not sure how to take it from my head to real life. I worry I’ll come across as inexperienced and naive, or just awkward. It feels like the right time, so how do I take the next steps?
Dr West replies: Firstly, well done for being in such a good place in your life where it feels right to be your true self. I can imagine it’s been a difficult process but I’m glad you’re here. It will be a whirlwind of emotions as you discover what your sexuality looks like up close and personal. You don’t have to experience this new world alone thankfully, as part of the joy of embracing who you really are is finding people who get you, and lift you up.
Your college most likely has a club or society for queer people, and they may arrange nights out, educational talks, or social events during the day. Finding your community is such a wonderful thing for our sense of connection with others. Having friends that are in the same boat as us helps us talk about other relationships, romantic or familial, and receive advice that feels relevant. Don’t worry about feeling shy — I would imagine every person there who seems so confident now was once as shy and scared as you. You have a lot of concerns bubbling around in your brain, and sharing them with others can help soothe your anxieties.
Gay bars will often have theme nights, like a drag show or bingo, and can be a way to explore the location if you’re not into just dancing. Like the student societies, you wouldn’t be the only person who was nervous but still found the courage to show up and make friends. I met one of my best friends at a storytelling event because she was there on her own, she sat next to me and said hello. We’ve been firm friends since and we often talk about how awesome it was that she was brave enough to talk to a stranger that night.
There are lots of support groups in Ireland for queer people. For your age group, BeLonG To (belongto.org) offers support for young people aged 14-23 and runs some excellent social events, while advocating for inclusivity in society and education. If you want to do something positive for others, ShoutOut (shoutout.ie) works with volunteers to deliver LGBTQ+ education in secondary schools, talking to people like your younger self and helping them feel less alone. There are a multitude of groups across the country for queer people with specific interests, such as running, football, knitting — you name it, there’s a strong chance there’s a group out there for it.
Don’t worry about feeling shy — every person who seems so confident now was once as shy and scared as you
Sometimes parents can be our biggest cheerleaders or our biggest bullies. I wish I could tell you that it is a guarantee your parents will accept you but unfortunately, it is a sad reality that not everyone accepts their LGBTQ+ child. The good news is, you are an adult now and free to live your life how you want to. If your parents don’t come around — and many do — your choice is to live your life on authentic terms or be the version of yourself that others want you to be and withhold love if you don’t comply. The path of least pain is a hard one to choose, but you get one life and deserve to be happy. Listening to the stories of others who have navigated their own coming out process will help you find what is right for you.
Do be mindful that for many people, coming out isn’t a one-and-done activity. Queer people often have to come out to new people in their lives, at work or in a personal context. And of course, in our society queer people still experience homophobia at too high a rate. Queer people often find themselves at higher risk of sexual violence too, and it’s important to remember that support services are not just for heterosexual people.
When it comes to dating, go at your own pace as you begin to take steps into real-life relationships and sexual experiences. Everyone who is sexually active needs to take care of their sexual health and be compassionate with themselves as they explore new experiences. Boundaries are essential to help you have the kind of intimacy that makes you feel good, so spend some time learning about your emotional and physical limits, and how you communicate what you do and don’t want to do with someone. Relationships can differ across gender or sexual orientation, but the same common factors exist. Understanding consent, learning how to communicate, and learning about adult sex education applies to everyone who wants to explore their sexuality with other people.
You have a lifetime of creating your own happiness, so try not to put pressure on yourself to discover everything at once, despite how tempting it may be. I wish you the best of luck in this part of your life and try to have fun – dating isn’t always scary, it’s meant to be fun and nourishing too!
Dr West is a sex educator and host of the Glow West podcast, which focuses on sex. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr West regrets she cannot answer questions privately