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Coming Out Can Reduce Sexual Prejudice
Are Some Heterosexuals More Likely To Be Prejudiced Than Others?
COMING OUT - What psychology says
"Coming out" is a process in which you recognize your sexuality and integrate this knowledge into your personal and social life. It often includes disclosure to others.

Before deciding whether or not to tell others about your sexuality, it's important to consider both risks and advantages. Risks include rejection or abandonment by family and friends, loss of job, isolation from others (which is common in the early stages), discrimination, and victimization (sometimes even by family members). Whether or not these things happen, of course, depends on the attitudes of the people you tell.

In some cases, disclosure can result in an emotional crisis that resembles a psychiatric disorder, especially if you have multiple stigmas or identities. When you come out, lack of acceptance by others can lead to depression, attempted suicide, or internalized self-hate.

On the other hand, there may be significant advantages of telling others. It can lead to improved relationships, increased honesty, reduction of stress associated with feelings that you are deceiving others, and increased self-esteem and self-acceptance. Also, when other people know, they can help you cope with stigma and victimization. And being "out" results in increased visibility of sexual minorities which can eventually decrease prejudice and stigma.

Explore your reasons for disclosure carefully. It's not a good idea to tell others out of anger or a desire to provoke confrontation. Think about, and if possible, discuss with someone else, when and with whom it is safe to come out.

Studies have found that hiding your sexuality from your parents can lead to emotional distance and alienation. On the other hand, coming out to them can precipitate a family crisis. If you're considering coming out to parents, think about the possible negative consequences that could occur while you're dependent on them. It may be better to wait until you are living on your own.

If you decide to come out to your parents, keep in mind several things. Generally, parents' reactions are better when you can discuss things with them openly. It's worse when they discover your sexuality accidentally. Your parents will need time to process feelings and access information. Some parents grieve in a way that is similar to mourning a death. To them, finding out their child isn't straight is a loss of their hope for your marriage and their grandchildren. They may express sadness, disbelief, denial, guilt, or anger.

Like you, they'll also need to grapple with the stigma you face. They'll need access to information to dispel myths, misconceptions, and guilt-inducing psychoanalytic theories (such as the belief that they were poor parents). They will need to find support, resources, and role-models.

Some parents are rejecting or ambivalent, but others are accepting. Some eventually reframe their perceptions into new expectations, hopes, and positive acceptance. Their main concern will most likely be your happiness and well-being. They may be relieved that your hiding is over, and may appreciate an improved, closer relationship with you. They may eventually stop being concerned about your sexuality and be more upset by stereotypes and ignorance.

The following steps in the coming process are commonly accepted by experts in gay youth development. However, each person's experience is different, and the steps below often do not occur in a simple sequential way. In addition, youth with minority sexualities other than those who are same-gender peer-attracted have not been adequately studied, so their coming out process may be different.

Step 1. Sensitization - before puberty

The child often experiences feelings of being different from peers. He may engage in atypical or gender-neutral gender role choices or behaviors. This can result in an early sense of social isolation.

Step 2. Identity confusion - after puberty

Puberty brings an increased awareness of sexual feelings and thoughts (regardless of sexuality). Young gay adolescents often internalize society's misconceptions. Their need to hide prevents them from getting accurate information. However, many sense an inability to relate to stereotypes they internalize, causing feelings of confusion. They also lack role models of people with their sexuality. Their social isolation constricts their development. They gain a deeper sense that their feelings and perceptions are out of step with those of others.

Step 3. Identity assumption - mid- to late-adolescence or young adulthood

At this time, many sexual minority youth identify themselves with a particular minority group. They disclose to other people with a similar sexuality if they are available. They find access to a supportive community for social purposes and for information. This group can open up educational, occupational, and relationship choices for them, dispel negative stereotypes, and help them manage stigma.

They may still hide their sexuality from mainstream society and avoid situations that risk discovery. Some even deny, attempt to change, or repress their feelings through alcohol or drugs. Without adequate support and information, they may develop maladaptive coping behaviors.

4. Commitment - usually adulthood

In this stage, the individual incorporates his sexual identity into all aspects of life, leading to self-acceptance. He may enter into a close relationship, disclose to straight friends, family members, and close colleagues. Not all people complete this stage fully.

The coming out process plays an important role in identity development and psychological adjustment. Straight friends are a source of emotional support for most gay youth, but half of all gay youth say they lose some friends. The process can involve feelings of confusion and psychological distress which may resemble a psychiatric disorder. At that time, the youth is at risk for misdiagnosis, labeling, and inappropriate treatment. However, after the crisis passes, psychological distress resolves. Negative psychological reactions can be minimized by access to information and support.

Adapted from Caitlin Ryan & Donna Futterman, Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care & Counseling, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

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