New Research Shows When Saying "I Am What I Am" Matters Most

A meta-analysis pinpoints the upside of disclosing less-visible stigmas at work.

Posted Feb 26, 2019

Sharon McCutcheon/Pexels
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/Pexels

People who are open about less-visible stigmas (e.g., sexual orientation) at work are less stressed, happier, healthier, and more productive than their peers who stay “closeted” about discussing less-visible stigmas, according to a recent meta-analysis of 65 different studies.

This paper, “Stigma Expression Outcomes and Boundary Conditions: A Meta-Analysis,” is currently available online and will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Business and Psychology.

This 65-study meta-analysis was a collaborative effort between seven researchers from various academic institutions across the United States. This team included co-authors Isaac Sabat of Texas A&M University; Alex Lindsey and Kristen Jones from the University of Memphis; Eden King of Rice University; Carolyn Winslow from the University of California, Berkeley; Ashley Membere of George Mason University; and Nicholas Smith from Portland State University. 

The authors describe why stigma expression is such a complicated issue: “The decision to express a stigmatized identity inside and outside of the workplace is highly complex, with the potential for both negative and positive outcomes. This meta-analysis examines the intrapersonal and interpersonal workplace and non-workplace outcomes of engaging in this identity management strategy.” 

Notably, the researchers found that those with a less-visible stigma (that wasn't automatically apparent) who chose to share the "chinks in one's armor" with colleagues were more likely to experience beneficial outcomes.

Those with a concealable stigma—who chose not to hide their true identity at work—were more productive in the workplace and happier with their overall lives. “Workers who expressed their non-visible stigmas experienced decreased job anxiety, decreased role ambiguity, improved job satisfaction, and increased commitment to their position,” the authors said in a statement.

However, in a surprising twist, Sabat, Lindsey, King and colleagues discovered that the same positive results of openly expressing less-visible stigmas at work did not necessarily apply to those with visible traits that might carry some stigma such as race, gender, or physical disability. 

"Identities that are immediately observable operate differently than those that are concealable," co-author Eden King said in a statement. "The same kinds of difficult decisions about whether or not to disclose the identity—not to mention the questions of to whom, how, when and where to disclose those identities—are probably less central to their psychological experiences. Also, people react negatively to those who express or call attention to stigmas that are clearly visible to others, such as race or gender, as this may be seen as a form of advocacy or heightened pride in one's identity."

"The decision to express a stigmatized identity is highly complicated," Rice reiterated. The researchers emphasize that more research is needed to fully understand the positive and negative consequences—as well as the prosocial motivations—for expressing both visible and less-visible stigmas.

Ultimately, the researchers hope their meta-analysis (Sabat, Lindsey, King et al., 2019) about what happens after people in a work environment disclose a stigmatized identity will “help workplaces and policymakers protect individuals with stigmas from discrimination.”

As a member of the LGBTQ community, this meta-analysis of 65 studies on the potential upsides and downsides of being "your true authentic self" in work and non-work environments resonated with me on a personal level. My life experience corroborates the complexities unearthed by the recent meta-analysis on stigma expressions and why it's not always advisable to openly discuss potentially stigmatic traits.

Autobiographical Examples of the Pros and Cons of Disclosing Less-Visible Stigmas Publicly

The following section of this post is a first-person narrative that shares some autobiographical stories of how I benefited from coming out to others in the gay community during adolescence. And, on the flip side, why I don't regret my decision to stay in the closet and not "out myself" at home or school in the early 1980s.

On July 3, 1981, the New York Times unwittingly reported on early warnings of the AIDS pandemic in an article, "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." On September 24, 1982, the CDC first used the term "AIDS" (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The Times published their first front-page story mentioning AIDS, "Health Chief Calls AIDS Battle ‘No. 1 Priority'," on May 25, 1983. 

As a closeted gay teenager in the early 1980s, gradually learning more and more about this mysterious virus and deadly disease filled me with crippling anxiety. Even more terrifying than my internal, intrapersonal fear of HIV/AIDS was the dramatic spike in nationwide homophobia and the vilification of gay people during this era.

The pandemonium surrounding HIV/AIDS in the late-20th century (before protease inhibitors) took the "less-visible stigma" of homosexuality to the nth degree. Suffice to say: Being "out loud and proud" in most public places in the early-to-mid 1980s seemed like a dangerous, bad idea to me. So, as a survival mechanism, I learned to keep my sexual orientation on the DL and have no regrets about this decision.

That said, throughout the winter and spring of 1983, just after turning 17 years old, I experienced a debilitating major depressive episode (MDE) exacerbated by extreme social isolation.

Luckily, that summer, I got my hands on a really good fake ID, which meant I could sneak out of my house in Brookline, Mass. and take the Green Line to a gay disco next to Fenway Park called "Metro" on Sunday nights. The liberation of being able to be my "true authentic self" publicly for a few hours every week as a gay teen made all the difference to my psychological well-being and mental health during this difficult period.

Although a gay discotheque is about as far away as one can get from a "workplace" environment, being able to express otherwise "non-visible stigmas" interpersonally with others made me a much happier and healthier person overall. Thankfully, in 1988, after graduating from Hampshire College, I moved back to Manhattan, joined ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and was able to be openly gay 24/7 with minimal risk of being the victim of a hate crime.

Coincidentally, during the summer of 1983, when I first started sneaking out to the Metro on Sunday nights, Gloria Gaynor had just released a DJ-only test pressing 12" vinyl record of her disco version of "I Am What I Am," which would go on to become a timeless LGBTQ anthem. The original version of this song was written by an openly gay man, Jerry Herman, for the Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles.

To this day, anytime I need some positive affirmation about the importance of being true to oneself and an injection of courage not to be ashamed about sharing my less-visible stigmas with others, I blast "I Am What I Am" and sing along (completely out of tune) at the top of my lungs.
Regardless of what type of stigmas you might be experiencing, hopefully, learning about the new meta-analysis (Sabat, Lindsey, King et al., 2019) and hearing this Gloria Gaynor song will inspire you to let your guard down and to be yourself—whenever doing so doesn't risk having a detrimental impact on your mental health or your physical safety.


Isaac E. Sabat, Alex P. Lindsey, Eden B. King, Carolyn Winslow, Kristen P. Jones, Ashley Membere, Nicholas A. Smith. "Stigma Expression Outcomes and Boundary Conditions: A Meta-Analysis." Journal of Business and Psychology (First published online: January 4, 2019) DOI: 10.1007/s10869-018-9608-z

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