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‘It gets better,’ but only if you’re in a supportive environment, study finds

What makes a person who is gay, lesbian or bisexual decide to come out of the closet to family, friends, co-workers and other acquaintances? A big factor is the social environment and the degree to which it supports individuality or encourages uniformity, a new study finds.

People who are open about their sexual orientation in one context aren’t necessarily out in all aspects of their lives, and the study tried to understand why. The question is important because coming out is associated with better self-esteem and less anger and depression, according to prior studies.

Researchers from the University of Rochester in New York and the University of Essex in the Britain theorized that people were more likely to come out in environments where “people feel accepted for who they are” and are “free to act and express themselves.” On the other hand, if people live or work in a controlling environment where they “feel pressured to appear, behave or perform a certain way,” the risks of coming out may outweigh the benefits, they wrote. (To take an extreme example: During the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, members of the U.S. military had little to gain and much to lose by telling their co-workers that they were homosexual or bisexual.)

To test their hypothesis, the researchers emailed surveys to 161 students ages 18 to 65. About one-third of them were gay, one-third were lesbian and one-third were bisexual. The students were asked whether they were out to friends, family, fellow students, co-workers and members of their religious congregations.

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It turned out that the more that students were out, the less angry and depressed they were and the higher their self-esteem, but only if they were in supportive environments. In controlling environments, coming out was not associated with any of these benefits. Overall, lesbians were the most out and bisexuals were the least out.

In a future study, it would be interesting to find out whether gay, lesbian and bisexual employees are more productive when they work in companies with a supportive atmosphere compared with workplaces with rigid rules for self-expression, the researchers said.

The findings were published Monday in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.


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