How to Cope With the Stress of Being in the Closet

Legs and Converse sneakers

Legs and Converse sneakers

In a couple years I’ll be in college and out from under my parents’ thumb. Can’t I wait until then to let my rainbow freak flag fly?

My character's words came to mind when I received a lesbian dating advice question from an Indian college student who felt trapped between a friend's suspicion of her sexuality and her deep desire to remain in the closet through the rest of college. This woman was 20, and desperate to keep her secret hidden; I assumed this was because homosexuality is still criminalized in India and out gays and lesbians face widespread discrimination.

My character Rye feels trapped between coming out as bisexual to appease her "out and proud" best friend and staying closeted. She's overweight and already a target of school bullies. If they guess her secret she's afraid of the additional harassment it will bring. With Rye's struggle on my mind, I told the college student something LGBTQ folks don't often say.

It's alright if you need to stay closeted. Sometimes, the closet is the safest space.

I shared a little of my own coming-out story. While I'm out now, and write about LGBTQ experiences, I had my own struggles with coming out:

I grew up in a conservative homogenous suburb, and went to an even more conservative private school. My peers were sheltered; fag was a common insult, and anyone who was suspected of being gay was teased. I found the courage to take part in the gay-straight alliance—so obviously everyone thought I was gay—but I maintained that I was only an ally.

I gave the college student some options for handling her friend's probing questions without outing herself in the process (here's the column if you're curious).

Later, I remembered how lonely the closet can feel. I didn't offer her quite enough advice for how to stay in the closet and deal with the stress and anxiety of it all. So I'm sharing this with her—and with you.

Self Care When You're Closeted

You might be closeted about your gender identity or sexuality. You might be closeted on the job or among certain relatives or in your hometown. Whatever your circumstances is, it's a valid choice to be in the closet if you genuinely think it's the best and safest place for you* - and these self care tips are designed to help you process your feelings and nurture yourself with compassion.

*NOTE, this is different from plain and simple being afraid to come out. We're all afraid to come out on some level, whether it's worries about an aunt's criticism or a friend's invasive question ("So, how do lesbians have sex anyway?" being a favorite).

Find Community Online

When you're closeted, find ways to explore the LGBTQ community that feel accessible to you. Maybe you don't feel safe using the internet browser at work or school to check queer websites. Put password protection on your smartphone and browse that way.

Or download hookup and dating apps, or LGBTQ themed ebooks to read on your Kindle app. No one will see this content unless they know your phone password. Books were the first place that showed me what it looked like to be gay (and these we're 90's books so it wasn't pretty) and taught me there would be a place for me, too. You'll find connection, community, and inspiration once you start looking for it.

Get Out of Town

Visit a nearby city or state for a Pride weekend. Leave the country if you need to do that. There's something so special about being surrounded by out and proud queers of all stripes and ages. That energy can really uplift you and help you survive the closet.

I like to do this with sunsets -- I "fill the bank" throughout with great sunsets to last me through the Northeastern winter when it's dark by 4 p.m. When it's dark and depressing outside, I get in my glam bathtub, light candles, and sink into a memory of watching the sun set over the Hudson River (or the Mekong, or the Atlantic Ocean–I'm a water baby). Winter doldrums pass, and I find some more great sunsets to fill the bank again.

Heart hands watching sunset

Heart hands watching sunset

Being in a new state/city also lets you experiment with being out in gay spaces in public without the worry of repercussions, like being seen by a coworker. Until you feel strong enough to be out where you live, you can dip into queer life and enjoy the freedom to be authentically you, even if it's just for a long weekend.

Open Up to Someone You Can Trust

If you feel safe to tell one person the truth, please do it. It will relieve the pressure you feel if you know someone accepts and loves you for you. This person can also run interference, for instance by speaking up against a homophobic or transphobic remark if you're not comfortable doing that yourself.

My MC uses the gay-straight alliance at her school to explore her sexuality before she's ready to commit to a label. The friends she meets there support her on her coming-out journey without pressuring her to commit to a timeline.

Give Yourself Permission to Dream

The closet can feel so confining. When you're afraid to come out, you might start to feel like you'll never get there. It just becomes really easy to beat yourself up because you aren't out yet and you secretly worry you'll never feel safe enough. Stop it. Don't let your self doubt and fear get the best of you.

It just becomes really easy to beat yourself up because you aren't out yet and you secretly worry you'll never feel safe enough. Stop it. Don't let your self doubt and fear get the best of you.

Give yourself a space -- a notebook, a secret Pinterest board, an alternate Twitter account, whatever -- to dream about the life you want to live. Tweet all the gay news you would openly share if you were out. Pin images of gender nonconforming fashion and alternative haircuts you pine to try out.

Gay pride celebration

Gay pride celebration

Dream big in the other parts of your life that aren't constrained by the closet. Be your biggest boldest self in whatever ways you can. Nurture yourself. Trust that you will be the fabulous queer diva you know yourself to be someday, and that it's totally cool if you're not there yet.

Trust that you will be the fabulous queer diva you know yourself to be someday, and that it's totally cool if you're not there yet.

None of us started there.

Coming out is a process, and you're not less authentic of a queer person if you didn't come out until your thirties, or you were closeted for four years, or you let culture and politics push you back in the closet, or you waited until you had a boyfriend or girlfriend as "proof" of what you knew to be true.

Your light will shine. For now, your job is to nurture that light.