Is Coming Out Always a “Good Thing”?
Coming out is an important part of identity development for LGB individuals and research has shown that disclosing an LGB identity to others is often associated with mental health benefits (e.g., Ragins, 2004). However, many individuals decide to conceal their LGB identity for various societal and personal reasons such as anticipation of stigmatization, negative judgments, or feelings of rejection. Non-disclosure or concealment of an LGB identity can come with costs such as mental health distress and suicidality, lower relationship satisfaction, fewer job promotions and more negative job attitudes (see Legate et al., 2012 for a review).
In light of this potential for social disapproval, many LGB individuals are selective, varying from context to context, in how much they disclose their sexual identity to others. Self-Determination Theory suggests that LGB individuals disclose to a greater extent in environments perceived as more “autonomy supportive,” or in other words, social settings where people feel accepted for who they are, are free to act and express themselves, and are more open to rely on others. These environments may reduce perceived risks for coming out, whereas in environments perceived as “controlling” (i.e., people feel pressured to appear, behave, or perform a certain way), individuals may be less likely to express a potentially stigmatized part of themselves that could incur disapproval.
To examine the associations among social environments (e.g., supportive or controlling), ‘‘outness,’’ and well-being across multiple relationships in people’s lives (e.g., family, friends, school peers), researchers conducted online surveys with 161 LGB participants (Legate et al., 2012).
The sample was recruited via online discussion boards, community and social networking websites, and e-mails to university LGB centers. Approximately 60% of the sample was female and participants ranged in age from 18-65 years (average age 29.9 years). The group was predominantly White (76%), and included 10.6% Hispanic, 6.2% Asian, and 3.1% Black survey respondents.
Survey findings of interest include:
- –Lesbians experienced the most “autonomy support” (or accepting environments)
- –Lesbians were most out (bisexual participants were least out)
- –Gay men had lower well-being across study measures
- –Individuals disclosed most to friends and least to their religious communities
- –Individuals experienced greater self-esteem with friends than family or school peers
- –Individuals were less depressed when with friends compared to family and school peers
- –Variability in outness was not significantly related to well-being
- –Individuals were more likely to disclose in autonomy support contexts, regardless of gender, age, or sexual orientation
- –Disclosure was related to less anger, less depression, and higher self-esteem in high autonomy support settings
This research supports the potential value of coming out, but the results are conditional. LGB individuals who disclosed more tended to experience greater wellness and positive emotional outcomes, but only in supportive environments. In contrast, coming out in unsupportive social contexts was not associated with positive health outcomes.
Source: Legate, N., Ryan, R. M., Weinstein, N. (2012). Is coming out always a “good thing”? Exploring the relations of autonomy support, outness, and wellness for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 145-152. doi: 10.1177/1948550611411929