For gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals, coming out to friends and family is often seen as a necessary step toward living an authentic life, and studies have shown that being open about one's sexuality may boost mental health. But new research finds that many people are out of the proverbial closet only partially — and that psychologically speaking, such partial disclosure is sometimes a savvy decision.
The research, which surveyed gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals recruited from online message boards, found that most of the volunteers were closeted in at least one area of their lives. Unsurprisingly, the participants hesitated to reveal their sexual identity in environments they judged as controlling and judgmental. About 69 percent said they were not open about their sexuality within their religious communities, for example, compared with only 13 percent who were not out to their friends.
When people did come out in a certain aspect of their lives, the benefits were tempered by how accepting that community was, said study researcher Richard Ryan, a psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York.
"We didn't find any overall negative effect of coming out in controlling environments," Ryan told LiveScience. "Rather, there sometimes was a negligible benefit. … You got some benefit from not having to conceal, but also you're likely paying some social price."
Picking and choosing
Clinical psychologists have long contended with the fact that revealing one's sexuality is not always safe for lesbian, gay or bisexual individuals, said Ritch Savin-Williams, a Cornell University psychologist who studies sexuality and adolescent development, who was not involved in the study.
"Essentially, gay people are selective," Savin-Williams told LiveScience. "The vast majority don't just say to the world, 'I'm gay, I'm out,' most of us sort of pick and chose as we think it is safe or not safe."
The findings come just as the New York Times magazine highlighted in a June 16 article the push-and-pull of religion and sexuality for people who are gay but committed to evangelical faiths that do not accept homosexuality. In some cases, therapists find themselves in the position of counseling patients on how to stay in the closet in order to preserve their religious support system.
In the new study, an anonymous group of 161 gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals with a median age of 29, completed an online survey, answering questions about who knew about their sexuality and how supported they felt in various contexts. The respondents also answered questions about their mental health.
Friends, family and work
Friends were perceived as the most supportive group and religious organizations the least supportive, but there was variability in how many people were out in other aspects of their lives as well. Half of respondents kept their sexuality secret at school, and 45 percent had not told co-workers. About 36 percent were closeted even among family members.
When coming out in supportive communities, Ryan said, people got an expected mental health boost, showing less depression and higher self-esteem than those who keep their minority sexuality concealed. People who were out in unsupportive communities saw much smaller mental health benefits, Ryan said.
Ryan and his colleagues plan to study the secrecy-stigma trade-off more closely. They're especially interested in finding out what cues people use to decide whether an environment is welcoming or not.
"This shows the importance of creating atmospheres in workplaces and religious communities where people can feel support," Ryan said.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.