Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

To Come Out To a Stranger Or Not?

How coming out may be an ongoing process

It was an eye-opening conversation.  Jenna, an openly lesbian woman, said that it happens all of the time that someone presumes that she is heterosexual and she is placed in a position of having to determine whether to correct the person or deny an aspect of her identity by omission.  She spoke of going to a new dentist’s office and the receptionist glancing at her wedding ring and saying “Is this insurance in your name or your husband’s name?” a question the receptionist likely asked new patients countless times each day, but which presumed that Jenna was heterosexual.

Jenna described other situations where the same assumption had been made, a hair stylist who asked her if her boyfriend would like her new shorter hair style, a customer service representative from the local home repair store who asked whether her husband would be home when the new sliding door was going to be delivered.  It was amazing how many times her sexual orientation was brought up in casual conversation and by total strangers who, although potentially well-meaning, made an assumption about the gender of Jenna’s partner and put her in the awkward position of having to determine whether to correct them or let it slide.

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Studies have shown that over 50% of individuals in the United States support gay marriage and 13 states (and countless countries other than the United States) have legal gay marriage.  These statistics may lead to the assumption that the environment in the US is largely supportive of LGBT individuals.  However, many of the estimated 9 million individuals in the US who identify as LGBTQ suffer discrimination, sometimes on a frequent basis.

LGBT youth are two times as likely as non-LGBT youth to report being called names at school, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted at school.  92% of LGBT youth say that they are exposed to negative messages about being LGBT (whether from school, peers, the internet, religious leaders, elected officials, family, the media, or community leaders (click here for a full report on discrimination experienced by LGBT youth).  15-43% of LGB adults indicate that they have experienced discrimination in the workplace (8-17% fired/denied employment due to otheir sexual orientation, 10-28% denied a promotion, 7-41% were verbally/physically abused in the workplace, and 10-19% reported receiving unequal pay or benefits (click here click here for a full report on this).  Not surprisingly, perceived discrimination among the LGBTQ community is associated with a higher rates of psychological symptoms (Mays & Cochran, 2001) including depression, anxiety, and substance use. 

In the face of this pervasive discrimination, LGBTQ individuals must grapple with the stress of whether or not, and when, to disclose their LGBTQ identities.  Coming out has typically be conceptualized as an event that occurs in an LGBTQ individual’s life at a moment in time—usually focusing on the moment when an LGBTQ individual discloses their sexual orientation or gender identity to family and friends.  Nondisclosure of sexual identity has been associated with depression in lesbian youth (Rothman, Sullivan, Keyes & Boehmer, 2012) and disclosure has been related to decreased anxiety, increased positive emotions, and increased self-esteem in lesbian women.  However, disclosure has also been associated with job anxiety in gay men and women (Griffith & Hebl, 2002).   Thus, the context, including the environment in which one is disclosing one’s sexual orientation and to whom the individual is coming out, may play a role in determining the emotional effects of disclosure.

However, discrimination is not always as overt as the loss of a job or unkind statements made to LGBT individuals.  Sometimes discrimination can occur simply by assuming one’s sexual orientation, as has occurred in repeatedly throughout Jenna’s life, and leading the individual to have to decide whether to disclose something as private as one’s sexual orientation to complete strangers in random daily living situations.  Little is known about how frequently such presumptions are made in LGBQ individuals’ lives, how decisions are made about to whom to disclose one’s sexual orientation in these daily life situations, or what the emotional experience is of disclosing or not disclosing one’s sexual orientation in such situations.  Jenna

reported that it has influenced her choice of service providers and professionals.  She described one situation where she decided not to return to a service provider because she had not corrected the provider’s assumption that she had a boyfriend during their first appointment and realized that she either had to correct this at a later time point or deny her wife’s existence.  It simply became easier to go to a different provider and hope that the same assumptions wouldn’t be made than to navigate this social minefield, a situation that could have been avoided simply by the use of the gender neutral term of “partner” or “significant other.”  Unfortunately, we know little about this more subtle discrimination experience by LGBQ individuals and more research is needed to fully understand the impact of this daily stress on LGBQ individuals.

To participate in a study of coming out for LGBQ individuals, please go to: http://psychology.case.edu/research/fear_lab/lgbtq.html

 

Copyright Amy Przeworski.  This post and all portions of this post may NOT be duplicated or posted elsewhere (including on other websites) without permission of the author.

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Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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