When my partner and I first started dating in 2005, we both identified as bisexual women (although I liked and used “lesbian” more.) Despite the labels “bisexual” and “woman” both feeling inadequate (and uncomfortable), we continued to use those words for 10 years without really talking to each other about it.
I tied myself into knots rationalizing this silence. Really, why not just keep using those labels? We were each other’s primary partner, married (albeit without the paperwork, this was pre-2015) and happy with each other. So what if we both realized the words we called ourselves (and each other) didn’t tell the whole story? Did that even matter, if the truth wouldn’t make a difference to our relationship?
But the words – and the truth – did matter. It mattered because who we are is important. Who we are deserves recognition, affirmation, and celebration. The nuances of our identities are worth exploring, redefining, and sharing with the people we love. It does make a difference, being openly and fully ourselves together.
I’m a queer nonbinary person. My partner is a pansexual nonbinary person. We’re the same people we were before we used these words, but we’re so much happier for knowing each other even just a little better. Happier because we have words that feel comfortable and true.
If you’re thinking about telling a partner about new words you’ve discovered, realizations about yourself, or fluctuations in who and how you experience the world, I’ve got a few tips for you!
Consider what you’re going to say, and don’t be afraid to do some research first to find the best words.
In my experience, it’s much easier to come out to someone when you know how to describe what you’re feeling. Even if all you’re trying to communicate is that you’re not sure yet – “I’m having some feelings about my gender identity” or “I think I might not experience sexual attraction, or maybe it’s just in certain circumstances?” – it’s helpful to read about feelings or circumstances similar to yours so you have an idea of what to say.
I didn’t talk about my gender until I had a word that I felt described me. (You might decide specific terminology isn’t important to you, and that’s fine too!) Until I started researching, I had no idea how many terms already existed. Human beings are highly individual, so it’s no surprise that we’ve expanded our language to describe our unique and nuanced ways of experiencing the world.
Try to find a good time for them to share your realizations.
It’s easy to get excited (or nervous) and blurt everything out on impulse. But hearing that parts of an intimate partner’s identity were previously unknown to you can be difficult. Be kind to your partner(s) and make sure they feel safe and comfortable before you initiate such a significant conversation.
A noisy, bustling restaurant might be a welcome distraction, but it’s not ideal if your partner prioritizes quiet intimacy for serious conversations, or if emotions escalate and other eaters take notice. If you’d like the safety of a public space in case your partner reacts very poorly, a park might be a better compromise. Timing is also important – you want to be able to have a full conversation. A quick confession over a rushed breakfast right before work won’t give you enough time to have a dialogue.
Be honest if you think things might change for you, and be open to discussing how this may impact them and/or your relationship.
When I first explained to my partner that I’m nonbinary, I mentioned that I might one day want to start HRT. It’s my body and thus my choice what to do with it, but I wanted to be upfront with my partner. My self-discovery might one day be paired with physical changes, and that reality was something they had to come to terms with.
(You might not yet know if you will want physical or lifestyle changes to live your best life, and that’s okay too.)
There are a lot of things a partner might have to mull over. This conversation (and the many that will follow) is about you, but it’s important to recognize that it involves and impacts your partner(s) directly. If you’ve come to the realization that you’re a man and your partner is someone who doesn’t usually date men, they’ll have to consider if their sexuality can accommodate that. If you’ve realized you’re not sexually or romantically attracted to your partner, you’ll both have to decide what that means for your relationship – and if this will result in an amicable breakup.
Be prepared to give them resources for more information and/or context.
How familiar is your partner with what you’re going through? Are there queer, trans, or asexual characters in their favorite TV shows? Do they read about LGBT+ people in the news, from publications that prioritize respectful, affirming language? Are they themselves LGBT+, or have close friends who are? When coming out, you need to consider how much your partner will know or be able to understand. If you think they might need help, make sure you have some articles or entertainment media to share with them that can help explain and normalize who you are.
Accept that it may take time for them to process, and how they react in the meantime may be dismissive or even hurtful.
It is not okay under any circumstances for a partner to hurt you. It is not your fault if this happens. You’re just trying to be honest with yourself and with them. If your partner responds with violence or verbal abuse, reach out to someone you trust, or to the closest LGBT+ center or domestic violence organization.
I have a patient and understanding partner, but other people in my life have reacted poorly to me coming out, both the first time and the second. Some people have argued that they know me better than I know myself, so there’s no way that I could be queer. Some haven’t understood the terms I use, so instead of letting me explain them, they insist it’s fake or I’m confused. These knee-jerk reactions can be deeply uncomfortable and even damaging, especially coming from people I previously trusted to respect me even when they need to be educated. Sometimes people reflect and apologize, but sometimes they don’t. I’ve still never regretted telling someone, even when I’ve decided to cut them off.
Human beings are flawed. If your partner reacts out of fear or confusion, they may come around once they’ve had time. Give them – and yourself – the space needed to think about how the conversation went, and what you want to do once the dust settles.
Remember that your identity is yours, and nobody else can dictate who you are, no matter how much you love them or how much they love you.
Your self-discovery – or currently ongoing exploration – might mean your relationship changes or even ends. That will be hard to go through, especially if your partner tries to blame your identity. Some partners may even try to convince you to “go back into the closet” so that things can stay the way they used to be. It’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with who you are, and everyone’s self-discovery journey is different. You’re not a bad person for not realizing sooner, or for not having the words until now.
If coming out means that you have to find new people to fill your life with love and support, that’s okay. The people we are – and the people we become – are worth knowing. There are people who do and will love you for being your whole self, and you will find them, just as you’ve found – and chosen to love and embrace – yourself by coming out.