By Ms. JD Editor • August 09, 2021•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Law School, Other Law School Issues
Whether it’s your first time or your hundredth, the decision to come out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is a brave and beautiful decision. My name is Erika Simonson, and I am a lesbian cisgender woman. While I vividly remember the first time I came out to my parents, I came out to myself long before that day, and I’ve been coming out to the people in my life, new and old, every day since. Coming out is personal and it will look and feel different for everyone. The process even looks and feels different for the same person in different situations or different periods of life. When I told my parents in 2009, I made them sit down. There were tears, lots of tears, and my heart felt like it had leapt into my throat and plunged into my stomach at the same time. When I came out to a stranger and her dog on the sidewalk last weekend, I casually mentioned that the playful pup at the end of leash belonged to my girlfriend and me.
When I applied to law school in 2016, I knew I wanted to be out in my new profession. Like coming out before law school, I was both nervous and excited. But unlike before, this was a new environment and a new audience. While I can only speak from my limited perspective, and one rooted in privilege at that, I want to share with any LGBTQ+ person entering law school the tips that helped me come out and live authentically in law school.
1. Identify your support system.
No matter when or to whom you are coming out, your safety and comfort are paramount. My parents always made me feel loved and accepted, and I felt emotionally safe coming out to them as a teen. I was on a busy sidewalk in New York City, and I felt physically safe coming out to the stranger walking her dog last week.
Before you even step foot on your law school campus, you should take steps to ensure your emotional and physical safety by identifying your support system. Many law schools will have LGBTQ+ student groups such as OutLaw or Lambda where you can build your community. Check to see if the city, county or state in which your law school is located has an LGBTQ+ bar association to join (if not, consider checking out the national LGBTQ+ Bar Association). Research your school and professors to find out if the school recognizes Pride Month or professors have written articles or sat on panels to discuss LGBTQ+ issues in the law. Check the office doors of your professors and school staff and administration for LGBTQ+ ally or safe space stickers.
Outside of the walls of your law school or the parameters of the legal profession, you should feel safe in your home and your neighborhood. In your search for law school housing, for example, research whether your potential new home hosts LGBTQ+ events or recognizes Pride Month. Find out if there are LGBTQ+ friendly places of worship in your neighborhood or LGBTQ+ therapists and other professionals close by.
If you have friends and family from before law school that support you and bring you comfort and peace, keep them close as you navigate your new journey. If you don’t, or you haven’t come out to people before, have no fear. There is an extensive network of LGBTQ+ lawyers ready to welcome you the community. One of my personal favorite ways to network with LGBTQ+ lawyers is the annual Lavender Law Conference and Career Fair!
If at any point you don’t feel safe or comfortable, remove yourself from the situation and notify the authority you see fit for the situation.
2. Come out on your own terms.
You are the narrator of your own story and coming out should always be done on your own terms. Who you tell, when you tell them, where you tell them, how you tell them, and why you tell them are up to you.
As you meet new classmates, friends, and professors at your law school, you may find yourself wanting to share your LGBTQ+ identity. To the contrary, you may not believe it is anyone’s business. Either viewpoint is okay, and who you tell is up to you.
However, I think it is important to remember that, for better or for worse, information travels. Take the time to consider if you want the people you tell to keep this information confidential and if they will do so or whether you are okay with other people knowing your LGBTQ+ identity.
You may feel inclined to come out in the first minute of meeting someone at orientation or you might wait until you’ve had the chance to get to know that person better. You may prefer to tell people in a group study session or in a one-on-one setting. You may tell someone because they already made you feel comfortable or because you’d rather let everyone know up front. You may tell someone by casually dropping that you have a partner or sit someone down for formally to share your whole story. Any time, place, or reason you come out is okay, and when, where, why and how you tell someone is up to you (hopefully you will sense a theme here).
3. Use language that is most comfortable for you.
Part of telling your own story is deciding what words you use to describe yourself. You also get to decide if you want to change those words at any time. Would you prefer to identify broadly as a member of the LGBTQ+ community or identify more specifically? Have you already identified publicly one way but realize a different term is better suited for you? Will you call your significant other your partner or boyfriend or girlfriend? Have you determined which pronouns you will use? You guessed it – any language you use is okay and up to you!
I often identified myself in ways that I thought would be easiest for others to understand. I didn’t say I was a lesbian because people around me used “gay” to refer to all members of the LGBTQ+ community despite the numerous distinct LGBTQ+ identities. I didn’t say I was homoromantic because I was nervous people wouldn’t understand the difference between homosexual and homoromantic. I was doing myself a disservice by letting others define my identity. When I got to law school and finally started using the language most comfortable for me, and not most comfortable for someone else, I felt like I was finally living most authentically.
4. Don’t feel obligated to debate your legal rights.
Once of the biggest differences for me between being out in college and being out in law school, was how often LGBTQ+ issues were debated in the classroom. LGBTQ+ rights will come up in your Constitutional Law, Family Law, or Employment Law classes when you discuss topics like marriage equality, parental rights, or LGBTQ+ equality in the workplace. I am thankful my professors kept the conversations civil and rooted in the law, but not all discussions on the topic will be the same.
You are not obligated to engage in debates about your right to exist as an LGBTQ+ person. You should not, as a student of the law, need to convince your classmates that you have the right to love, to marry, to work or participate in the activities of life. You are similarly not obligated to be a token and speak on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. People who identify as LGBTQ+ are not a monolith, nor is it the only aspect of your identity. Speak up if and when you feel comfortable and safe.
It’s also okay to feel angry or discouraged by the law and how it impacts you as an LGBTQ+ person. Public policy and law sometimes move in the wrong direction and new court decisions can impact your life. Make space for these feelings and know your feelings or law don’t make your identity any less valid or deserving of respect.
5. Love yourself unconditionally.
Whether you are out, haven’t come out, don’t plan to come out, are questioning or still exploring your sexuality and gender identity, your identity is valid. You are loved and deserving of love. And most importantly, love yourself. Self-acceptance is one of the most beautiful parts of coming out but is also an important form of self-care. Law school can be tough but having confidence in all aspects of yourself can get you through it.