Telling someone else (or others) about a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without their approval is also called “outing.” In some cases, it’s done without any harmful intent. But other times, the person revealing the information does so to retaliate or to bring shame. Whether an outing is deliberate or unintentional, it violates someone's privacy. And if you've been outed, it may seriously affect your physical, mental, and financial well-being.
Outing is different from “coming out,” which is when you voluntarily share your sexual orientation or gender identity. Coming out, especially if you have a supportive community to lean on, can bring emotional benefits and even help lower the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Outing, on the other hand, takes away the power of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (or questioning), or others (LGBTQ+) to tell their own story. Outing affects people across the gender spectrum, including those who are nonbinary, asexual, or intersex, too.
How Can Being Outed Harm My Health?
Telling others about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity may not seem like a big deal, especially if the person has opened up to a few people already. But it still violates their privacy. It can trigger serious consequences for the person at home, work, or school.
Outing can harm LGBTQ+ people of any age. Some health-related issues that have been linked to being outed include:
Mental health. People in the LGBTQ+ community already face a greater risk of mental health problems, in part from prejudice and discrimination. The invasion of privacy from outing can help lead to unhealthy behaviors or to issues like anxiety and depression. Not everyone gets help for these issues. One survey found that half of LGBTQ+ people ages 13 to 24 wanted counseling but didn’t get it.
Suicide. In some cases, the trauma of being outed has caused people to kill themselves. Young LGBTQ+ people have a greater risk for suicide than their peers. Transgender youths, specifically, are twice as likely to think about suicide or attempt it, compared to cisgender lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning youths.
Homelessness. This can happen if your parents, caretakers, or the people you live with reject you because of your orientation or identification. Almost one-third of LGBTQ+ people between the age of 13 and 24 dealt with homelessness or housing instability during their lives.
Substance abuse. People in the LGBTQ+ community have higher rates of substance misuse and substance use disorders compared to heterosexual people. That's in part due to the social stigma and other challenges they face.
Violence. Bisexual men and women, lesbians, gay men, and transgender people are all at higher risks for violence and injury from violence compared to cisgender people. Being outed can raise the potential danger even more.
Disease and obesity. LGBTQ+ people are at a higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer. Being outed, or the fear of it, may dissuade someone from seeking health care. And even at clinics or doctor's offices, people who are LGBTQ+ may be harassed or mistreated.
How Can I Avoid Outing Someone?
The best way is not to say anything about a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation. If the person confides in you, it may be a good idea to ask if they are out.
If you do out someone accidentally or unknowingly (like misusing their pronouns), you may want to apologize or discuss it with the other person openly. They may be hurt or angry. If you don’t say anything, it could be even more hurtful. Their identity is their story to tell, and you should respect their feelings.
What Should I Do if I’m Outed?
You may feel upset, betrayed, or angry. You also may feel powerless. But these tips may help you navigate situation.
See what you need in the moment. If you think you may be without a place to live because you’ve been outed, try to gather what you need to live elsewhere, at least for a while. Pack a bag with medications, clothing, and extra funds if you think you will be removed from your home. While this type of preparation may make you feel anxious, it may also provide you with some peace of mind that you’re prepared for the worst. Organizations such as the National Coalition for the Homeless can connect you with resources to find emergency housing.
Connect. Going through being outed can be isolating, especially if you haven’t come out yet. But there are some resources that may give you support that can protect your health. The Trevor Project has a free hotline and an online community. Your school may have resources to assist you with being outed (or coming out). You may want to seek counseling -- look for a professional with in-depth knowledge of issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. There are also many places onlineto connect with others.
Know the laws. Schools can’t share a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity to their parents or other staff, even if you’re a student who has told others at school. Companies can’t discriminate against you based on your sexual orientation or gender identity, according to the federal Title VII law. Title VII doesn’t apply to LGBTQ+ people who are students, but many lower courts have addressed those rights.
Title VII only applies to organizations with more than 15 workers. LGBTQ+ people still face tough choices to come out (or can feel forced to come out) at work or fear being outed. You may want to see if your company has a policy in place to protect you. Being aware of the legal actions you can take can’t prevent outing, but it can empower you to take action if you’ve been outed. Groups such as Lambda Legalcan provide you more information about how to protect your civil and legal rights.
Think about how you want to respond. It may not seem like it, but you do have power, even if someone violated your rights. How you react can enable you to make positive changes at school or work and position you to inspire others.