“Coming out” in the military

“Coming out” means openly expressing your sexual orientation or gender identity—as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ). It can be a difficult process, but it also can be an important step toward improving one’s health and well-being.

Coming out is an individual process with gains and risks. Gains might include feeling more comfortable around and accepted by others, higher self-esteem, and gaining a new community and its support. Risks include discrimination, harassment, and possibly losing family and friends who don’t understand—or seeing such relationships change.

What are DoD’s policies on expressing sexual orientation and gender identity?

Military Service Members who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual have been legally allowed to express their sexual orientation openly, without being discharged, since 2011 when the 1994 “Don’t Ask Don't Tell” (DADT) policy was repealed. (DADT excluded people who were openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service, while allowing those who did not disclose their sexual orientation to serve. It was considered a compromise between full inclusion and the 1982 policy prohibiting LGB individuals from serving.)

The policy around allowing people who identify as transgender to serve openly in the military has been revised in the last couple years and additional changes may still come. So, the decision to come out as transgender while serving might have different repercussions as DoD policy changes. It’s important for anyone in uniform who might be considering coming out as transgender to stay informed of the most current policies before doing so.

The letter Q in the acronym for people who don’t identify as heterosexual has been added in recent years to describe those who are queer or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. However, there are no active military policies specifically citing those who identify as questioning or queer. The “Q” is not yet typically used within DoD issuances or within much of the military research literature.

When should someone come out?

If—and when—you or someone you know chooses to come out is an extremely personal decision. There’s no "right" time or place.

Ultimately, the decision to share your sexual or gender identity should come down to the pros outweighing the cons. It’s understandable for Military Service Members to be hesitant about coming out due to fear of repercussions, hostility, and possible lack of promotion due to discrimination. But concealing your identity can also have negative physical and mental health impacts. Expressing yourself openly can create deeper and more authentic relationships. It’s important to take your time and carefully consider the pros and cons of coming out until you feel ready.

Other factors to consider include leadership support, potential resistance from unit colleagues, and the current policy on transgender Service Members.

Who to tell and what to say?

After you feel comfortable with your identity internally, the process of sharing it with others can be gradual with varying degrees of “out-ness.” For example, you might begin coming out by telling only family members, but not those at work—or vice versa. Just make sure you trust those you decide to tell.

Opt for private conversations in a one-on-one setting, so you can manage reactions and answer questions. Avoid having the conversation when you’re tired, stressed, or dealing with other issues too. Map out and rehearse what you plan to say to help ease your anxieties.

Expect any number of reactions

You’ll likely get a variety of reactions from different people. Some will react positively (offering acceptance, talking openly, injecting humor, and sending nonverbal signs such as hugs or smiles), while others might react negatively (showing denial, asking inappropriate questions, shaming, or becoming angry or aggressive). Others might not react at all, need time to process the information, not show their true feelings, or accept the news but want to keep it a secret from others.

Try to approach the conversation with openness and acceptance, regardless of what the response might be. You might even try to validate the other person’s reaction to help keep the conversation moving in the right direction. Be prepared for difficult questions as others try to understand. Give the people you confide in a chance to be supportive, and reach out to trusted friends, coworkers, and family members for support.

Support is available

The stress of coming out can be tough to handle. Negative reactions and unsupportive environments can lead to depression and low self-esteem. Help is available. Healthcare providers, mental health counselors, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can provide support. Many LGBT-friendly organizations and the Human Rights Campaign provide encouragement, resources, and tips to help you go through the process. 

Resources

Alford, B., & Lee, S. J. (2016). Toward complete inclusion: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Military Service Members after repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Social Work, 61(3), 257–265. doi:10.1093/sw/sww033

Human Rights Campaign Coming Out Project. (2013). A resource guide to coming out. Retrieved from Washington, DC: Human Rights Campaign Foundation. https://hrc.org/files/assets/resources/comingout_resourceguide_042013.pdf

Johnson, W., Rosenstein, J. E., Buhrke, R. A., & Haldeman, D. C. (2015). After “Don’t ask don’t tell”: Competent care of lesbian, gay and bisexual military personnel during the DoD policy transition. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(2), 107–115. doi:10.1037/a0033051

Manning, J. (2014). Positive and negative communicative behaviors in coming-out conversations. Journal of Homosexuality, 62(1), 67–97. doi:10.1080/00918369.2014.957127

Meadows, S. O., Engel, C. C., Collins, R. L., Beckman, R. L., Cefalu, M., Hawes-Dawson, J., . . . Williams, K. M. (2018). 2015 Health related behaviors survey: Sexual orientation, transgender identity, and health among U.S. Active-duty Service Members. Retrieved from Santa Monica, CA: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9955z6.html

Ryan, W. S., Legate, N., & Weinstein, N. (2015). Coming out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual: The lasting impact of initial disclosure experiences. Self and Identity, 14(5), 549–569. doi:10.1080/15298868.2015.1029516

Stebnicki, M. A., Grier, P. J., & Thomas, J. F. (2015). Best practices in the healthcare of LGBT military service members, partners, and families. Journal of Military and Government Counseling, 3(3), 150–171.