People’s "coming out" experiences are related to their psychological wellbeing years later

Last year, the US psychologists Clayton Critcher and Melissa Ferguson reported interesting research showing that fatigue from concealing sexual identity can actually hinder cognitive performance. This cost stacks upon others: complications in forming close relationships, concerns about inauthenticity, and damage to psychological and physical health in the longer term all suggest that concealment is not a great position to stay in. And yet “coming out” can also be challenging, and in some cases lead to no better or even worse life outcomes than before. Not all coming-out experiences are the same, as a new study shows.

William Ryan at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his team, recruited online 28 lesbian, 25 gay, and 55 bisexual people; overall the sample had slightly more women than men. Participants were asked to cast their mind back to up to four disclosure (coming out) experiences: to their mother, father, best friend, and the person they first disclosed to (in many cases also one of the first three).

For each disclosure partner, the participant rated how much 19 different descriptions applied to the way this person responded – some were negative (e.g. “be furious”), and others positive, (e.g. “thanked me for sharing”). Participants who experienced a higher frequency of negative reactions from a best friend or father reported significantly lower levels of present self-esteem, and negative reactions from disclosure partners of any kind were associated with current depressive symptoms.

These are associations between events often ten or more years ago and wellbeing in the present day, so you would be justified in wondering how this might be happening. Ryan’s team hypothesised that each coming-out experience provides insight into whether the discloser will be able to act freely and authentically around that person, as we know such a sense of autonomy is critical for wellbeing.

To investigate this, participants were asked to evaluate the amount of autonomy in each relationship as it currently stands, via items like “When I am with my [best friend], I feel pressured to behave in certain ways.” If negative reactions produced or prophesied low autonomy, and low autonomy was the true culprit for today’s low wellbeing, then the statistical relationship between past reactions and current wellbeing would be fully mediated by autonomy, and the data showed it was. But as always with cross-sectional research, it’s possible to sketch other directions for causality’s arrow: perhaps the negative aspects of past autobiographical events come to mind more strongly for those currently experiencing depressive symptoms.

That said, these postulated effects of past disclosure experiences on feelings of autonomy provide a plausible mechanism that provides the basis for more research (e.g. longitudinal). The results also revealed a further interesting possibility worth concluding on. Whereas the negative aspects of the disclosure were important for later wellbeing, the relative strength of any positive reactions – “See things through my eyes”; “accept my positive feelings” – didn’t seem to matter. This might suggest that your most important job when reacting to a disclosure from someone close is to Do No Harm. Don’t worry about a flawless response, just make it clear that your support for them isn’t conditional on their sexuality.


Ryan, W., Legate, N., & Weinstein, N. (2015). Coming Out as Lesbian, Gay, or Bisexual: The Lasting Impact of Initial Disclosure Experiences Self and Identity, 14 (5), 549-569 DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2015.1029516

further reading
When gay men reveal their homosexuality later in an interaction, prejudice toward them is reduced
Intervention helps reduce homophobia
Is sexism the reason why so many heterosexual men are prejudiced towards gay men?

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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