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Support Is Key to 'Coming Out' Process for Gay People: Study

MONDAY, June 20 (HealthDay News) -- For gay and lesbian Americans, the rewards of "coming out" often hinge on the support of the local community, a new study shows.

Research has shown that gays, lesbians or bisexuals who reveal their sexual orientation typically boost their self-esteem and experience less anger and depression. And the new study found that disclosing one's sexual identity makes people even happier than previously thought.

However, the benefits of coming out are limited to socially supportive settings, and may not apply to those exposed to hostile or judgmental environments.

"In general, research shows that coming out is a good thing," said the study's co-author, Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in a news release. "Decades of studies have found that openness allows gay people to develop an authentic sense of themselves and to cultivate a positive minority sexual identity."

The researchers pointed out however, that by making no distinction between the different environments in which people came out, previous studies underestimated just how beneficial revealing one's sexual orientation can be when done in a supportive setting.

In the same vein, these studies also failed to account for the detrimental effects of "coming out" among disapproving groups.

After questioning 161 lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 65, about their experiences with friends, family, coworkers, school peers, and religious community, researchers found those who are open about their sexuality amid accepting groups reap psychological rewards.

Among hostile groups however, the stigma and consequences associated with identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual negate any benefits.

"Environment plays a huge role in determining when coming out actually makes you happier," according to Nicole Legate, a doctoral student at the University of Rochester in a news release. In more judgmental contexts, "those who come out may actually feel no better than those who conceal," said Legate.

The researchers noted participants most often kept their sexual orientation hidden in environments they described as controlling and judgmental. In fact, 69 percent of those interviewed still remained "in the closet" within their religious communities. Half of those questioned kept their sexual orientation a secret at school, 45 percent hid it from co-workers and 36 percent did not reveal their sexual orientation to their families.

"The vast majority of gay people are not out in every setting," said Ryan. "People are reading their environment and determining whether it is safe or not."

Among the most accepting groups for the gays, lesbians and bisexuals polled: friends. The vast majority, or 87 percent, reported feeling significantly less anger and greater self-esteem with friends than with any other group.

The study, published June 20 in Social Psychology and Personality Science, noted that "coming out" in some settings but not others has no effect on a person's mental health. The findings also stress the importance of creating environments that are accepting of all people, particularly gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals, concluded Ryan.

More information

The American Psychological Association offers insight into coming out and why it's important.

-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

SOURCE: The University of Rochester, news release, June 20, 2011.

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