Unlike other stigmatised groups, such as ethnic minorities or the elderly, people who are homosexual usually have the option of concealing their sexual identity when they interact with others. This raises an obvious question – does it make any difference to the risk of a negative reception, whether a gay person discloses their gay status early or late in an interaction?
David Buck and Ashby Plant investigated this issue in relation to gay men. Forty-five heterosexual male and female undergrad students and non-students took part in what they thought was a study of first-time social interactions. Tested alone, they listened to a pre-recorded interview with a man who they thought they were going to meet soon afterwards. The taped interview lasted eight minutes and the man was asked about his life and his interests. Crucially, he was asked about his romantic situation either at the start (the second question) or right at the end of the interview, and it was in his answer to this question that he disclosed his sexual orientation as gay. Half the participants heard the early disclosure version, half heard the late version.
Among the male participants only, the timing of the disclosure made a big difference. Those who heard the early disclosure subsequently reported more frustration at having to meet the man, more negative expectations for how the meeting would go, and more negative prejudice towards gay people generally, than did the male participants who heard the late disclosure recording.
It was a similar story in a second study involving a further 85 participants, with the following changes: the interview was shown on video, not just audio; there was an additional comparison condition in which the interviewed man disclosed that he was heterosexual; the participants chose traits that they felt best described the man, thus revealing how much they had stereotyped him (e.g. as ‘feminine’, ‘artsy’, ‘melodramatic’); and the participants also chose letters for the man to use to compile a word (choosing difficult letters for him was taken as a sign of hostility).
Once again, for the male participants only, the timing of the man’s disclosure about his gay status made a big difference – an early disclosure led the male participants to feel more negative about the man, to show more hostility toward him and to attribute him with more gay stereotype traits. In fact, the stereotyping mediated the effect of early/late disclosure on all the other factors. The message is clear – an early disclosure coloured the male participants’ perception of the remainder of the interview, rousing their prejudices towards the man. By contrast, male participants who heard the late disclosure appeared to form a non-stereotyped view of the man, thus reducing their prejudice and hostility even after he disclosed his gay status. In contrast to these effects, timing of disclosure made no difference to perceptions of the man in the condition in which he revealed himself to be heterosexual.
So, what are the lessons from this research? A ‘grim interpretation’ Buck and Plant said, would be for gay men to hold back on revealing their homosexuality, so as to reduce the likelihood they will be the victims of prejudice. However, they noted that that would be to focus solely on the implications for the victims of prejudice – what about the perpetrators? ‘By understanding these issues we may be better equipped to identify situations in which bias might be more likely to occur and, thus, have the opportunity to more effectively reduce discrimination,’ the researchers said. ‘Our hope is that rather than encourage people to conceal their sexual orientation, this research will help to advance a culture in which people will not feel the need to hide.’
Further research is needed to establish whether similar processes occur for lesbians and for other stigmatised groups where it’s possible to control the timing of disclosure (e.g. people diagnosed with a mental illness). Another issue ripe for investigation is whether the effect of disclosure timing varies according to the timescale – a disclosure after weeks, rather than eight minutes, might well have a different outcome.
Buck, D., and Plant, E. (2011). Interorientation interactions and impressions: Does the timing of disclosure of sexual orientation matter? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (2), 333-342 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.10.016