Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Coming out and emotion
What is the emotional impact of accepting one's sexual orientation and 'coming out'?
Accepting one's non-heteronormative sexual orientation is sometimes a difficult process for many reasons. This chapter will discuss the history and social pressures surrounding homosexuality, exploring the emotional difficulties many same-sex attracted people face on a day-to-day basis, the emotional differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals, and what benefits there are to accepting one's sexuality and coming out of the closet.
What is emotion?
Emotions have many facets, can be positive, negative, or neutral, and can be adaptational reactions to the environment. They are biological reactions, subjective feelings, and a social phenomenon (Reeve, 2009). While Reeve (2009) notes that emotions have the four main elements, namely: feeling, arousal, purpose, and expression, Hockenbury (2007) labels emotion as a psychological state that involves a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a response that may be either behavioural or expressive. Emotions like anger can influence us to act in a way that is out of the norm, while in turn our behaviours can influence our emotions when it creates an inconsistency (or dissonance) between actions and values (Reeve, 2009).
How is it defined?
There have been several operational definitions that have attempted to encompass the various aspects that come together to create a person’s sexual orientation, or sexuality. Halperin (1989) noted that sexuality referred to a distinct feature of the human personality, which is the determinate source from which all sexual expression proceeds. This feature of personality includes characteristics such as sexual acts, desires, and pleasures. Wilkinson and Roys (2005) regarded sexual orientation as having three components that are directed toward either one or both gender. These components are erotic fantasy, romantic-emotional feelings, and sexual behaviour.
While the current social umbrella label ‘Queer’ currently consists of the following non-heterosexual orientations: lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender, intersex, ‘questioning’, and asexual (also known as LGBTIQA or LGBTIQ*), this chapter will simply refer to persons who are same-sex attracted, or, at times, 'queer'. However, the subject matter of ‘coming out’ is applicable to all members under this social umbrella as well as people who hide an aspect of their lives, such as mental illness, due to stigma and fear of discrimination.
Many people with non-heterosexual sexual orientations go through a process in which they come to accept and embrace their identities both internally (self-acceptance) and, but not always, publicly (revealing their sexual orientation to others such as family and friends). This process is commonly known as ‘coming out’ (Dank, 1971). This chapter explores the process of coming out, the emotional affect it has on persons who come out, and the external factors that buffer that emotional affect. But first, in order to understand the internal and external pressures placed on people under the 'queer' umbrella, we will look into the historical and social contexts of homosexuality.
History of sexual orientation
The concept of sexual orientation has not always been the same as it is today. The current word for people who are same sex attracted is ‘homosexual’, and its colloquial more commonly used word – gay. The term ‘homosexual’ stems from the Greek word ‘homo’, which emphasises the sameness of the people engaging in sexual relations (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948). The word heterosexual stems from the same roots - emphasising the two people’s natures (Kinsey, Pomeroy & Martin, 1948). However, in Ancient Greece the idea of sexuality was a completely foreign one. This non-distinction of a person’s sexual orientation existed even though homosexual behaviour occurred frequently (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948). In Athenian documentation sex was an action performed by a social superior unto a social inferior, regardless of the inferior person’s gender (Halperin, 1989). In Ancient Greece, culture sexual actions were determined by socially defined sex roles as the notion of sexual orientation did not fit within the culture’s notion of masculinity and femininity: the dominant (or penetrative) partner in sex was considered to be masculine, while the submissive (or receptive) partner was considered feminine (Halperin, 1989). Even in the times of the Ancient Greeks, not everyone agreed with ‘homosexual’ acts.
Three well-known Greek philosophers – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, considered homosexual acts as shameful, immoral, and depraved, and many other philosophical writers taught that homosexual conduct was inconsistent with proper recognition of the equality of men and women in intrinsic worth (Finnis, 1994). As the notion of making a distinction around people’s orientations based on their sexual acts did make its way into society, these orientations were met with much negativity from religious groups, such as the Christian and Jewish churches, who view these aspects of human sexuality to be abnormal and immoral.
Same-sex attraction in society
In the 1900s, homosexuality began to become a topic on interest in the psychological world. By the 1980s there was still confusion about whether homosexuality existed as a preference during adolescence, or if it was a strictly adult phenomenon. A study by Remafedi (1987a) found that a person’s sexual orientation was indeed fully formed, whether or not that person had accepted it. Even by the time when homosexual conduct was being decriminalized in places like in England in 1967 (Finnis, 1994) and in Australia from 1972 to 1997 (Cox, 1992), homophobia was still rife among western society. Wilkinson and Roys (2005) discovered that this negativity towards homosexuals, especially gay men, was more predominant when considering their sexual behaviour and not other aspects of the individual such as sexual fantasy or the individual’s emotions. These overt homophobic attitudes present throughout society were, according to Wilkinson and Roys (2005), reasons why any youth felt uncomfortable coming out, as they believed their parents would primarily focus on the stereotype of homosexual promiscuity while not considering their romantic or emotional attractions.
Being in a sexual minority
People who fall under the ‘queer umbrella’, including those who are same-sex attracted, have often been thought of as a sexual minority (Dank, 1971; Diplacido, 1998; Meyer, 2003; Saewyc, 2011). Meyer (2003) noted that, like other types of minority groups, those who are same-sex attracted much learn to expect negative regard, discrimination, and violence from members of the dominant culture. He also established that, to avoid these negative outcomes, they must constantly be vigilant. However, according to Ueno (2005) sexual minorities differ from other minority groups as they are generally not closely connected with each other. He noted that some sexual minority adolescents hide their orientation in an attempt to avoid violence or discrimination from their peers, which then in turn prevents them from establishing friendships with others in their sexual minority. The benefits of forming these connections in adolescence, as well as the effects of constant vigilance, will be further addressed later in the chapter.
Same-sex attraction, emotions, and individual differences
Nature and nurture: sexuality on a continuum
Nature and nurture are the two theories around the origin of homosexuality. The nature theory describes the origin of homosexuality as a result of various genetic factors. The nurture theory suggests that homosexuality is the result of a child’s upbringing, with environmental factors being the key in the development of a homosexual identity. But current research has suggested that sexual orientation is a combination of nature and nurture (Haslam, 1997).
Bem (1996) put a theory forward for both heterosexual and homosexual orientations, which contains aspects of both nature and nurture. He suggested that biological variables, such as genes and prenatal hormones, work together to form a child’s disposition towards sex-typical (heterosexual) or sex-atypical (homosexual) activities. These dispositions then lead children to feel different from opposite- or same-sex peers, giving them an image of unfamiliar or exotic. Bem (1996) hypothesised that it was this ‘exotic’ nature that produces heightened levels of arousal, which causes it to become eroticized. As he put it, ‘exotic becomes erotic’.
Haslam (1997) explored the idea that sexuality exists on a continuum, rather than in discreet categories, and suggested that single-gene effects or environmental factors alone could not completely account for the amount of variations in sexual orientations that he found. He suggested that sexual orientation was likely to be the result of a combination of factors, none predominating the others. The following were suggested as possible factors that influence sexual orientation:
- Maternal stress
- Multiple additive genetic or environmental factors
- An additive combination of several genetic and environmental factors.
At the conclusion of his research, Haslam (1997) established that sexual orientation, defined by sexual behaviour, desire, or attraction, vary in degrees on a continuum. However, a person’s placement on the continuum and its relation to the sexual acts they may perform are not likely to be directly correlated. While the continuum of sexual orientation encompasses everything from heterosexuality to homosexuality, Jorm (2002) noted bisexuality identification becomes less common with age as uncertainties about sexual orientation become resolved. This also suggests that homosexuality is a fluid concept that is able to move up and down the continuum. It is also important to establish that a person who has homosexual experiences or sometimes reacts to homosexual stimuli is discretely different from homosexual men and women (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1984).
The development of a non-heterosexual identity
The development of a non-heterosexual identity begins with the biological and environmental origins, but continues based on the environment a person is in and can either serve to assist or hinder the positive emotional impacts the process results in.
An important aspect to consider while evaluating the formation and integration of sexual orientation into the concept of self is the social context. For example, homosexual men and women forty years ago, when same-sex attraction was much more taboo than it is currently, had a much harder time successfully accepting their orientation (and even describing it) than the youth of today do. In 1971, Barry Dank asked subjects if they would have been able to describe the feelings and desires associated with being same-sex attracted at the end of Grade 12. These subjects, who were then open about their sexuality, reported that they would either have denied these feelings ever existing, or would have not been able to describe why they were different from their peers. A suggested reason for this rests in the concept of anticipatory socialisation, which is a process in which a person prepares to take on the roles that are expected of them (Dank, 1971). Since heterosexuality, being a sexual majority and indeed the expected norm, is the typical attitude that heterosexual parents hold, communication of what it means to be same-sex attracted is essentially non-existent (Dank, 1971). It is likely that the only exposure to the idea of same-sex attraction is through the stigma and discrimination that members of that sexual minority who are ‘out’ experience. In this situation, not only would a closeted man or woman not have the vocabulary to explain the desires they have, but once they do they would be likely to view those desires in a negative way due to the exposure to negative attitudes from society. Keeping in mind that the social views on homosexuality has shifted significantly in a much more positive, accepting way in the last thirty years, and thus it is likely that the anticipatory socialisation towards heteronormity and its effects on the vocabulary of people with same-sex desires has lessened.
The coming out process has been described to have many aspects that are common amongst people who come to accept their sexual orientation and integrate it into their concept of self. The two following processes both describe an internal and external shift, leading a person from denial about their sexuality to acceptance:
Rosario and colleagues (2001) describe the coming out process as being centred around identity formation and identity integration. Identity formation involves exploring the emerging sexual identity and reducing the cognitive dissonance that is the result of internalized negative social views of homosexuality. Identity integration involves the acceptance of one’s sexual orientation, and sharing that aspect of oneself with other people such as family and friends. Rosario and colleagues (2001) presented four dimensions in the coming out process:
- The self-identification of sexual identity
- Social or recreational involvement in homosexual activities
- A shift in attitude towards homosexuality
- Disclosure of sexual identity to others
Corrigan and Matthews (2003) expanded the idea of identity formation and integration into five stages of coming out:
- The first two stages, described by Corrigan and Matthews (2003) as identity confusion and comparison, involve feelings of alienation from members not in their sexual minority and a gradual toleration of their new identity. It often involves seeking out people like them.
- The third stage, identity acceptance, involves the disclosure to trusted others and a replacement of fear with pride.
- The fourth stage occurs when a person becomes immersed in their minority culture, rejecting the values of the dominant one.
- The final stage is identity synthesis, where the state of pride in the immersion stage causes their orientation to become a part of their identity.
Kinsey and colleagues (1948) noted that the patterns of sexuality may represent the values of the culture in which a same-sex attracted person is raised. Indeed, the environment in which a person comes out has a massive affect on the emotional impacts it results in. As much as the reduction of cognitive dissonance through the acceptance of one’s sexuality may relieve stress, the support of family and friends can either buffer social stigma, or present an individual with additional emotional concerns if they do not feel supported in their newfound identity .
Emotions & mental health
Same-sex attraction and emotions
Past research into differences in the mental and emotional states of heterosexual and homosexual people has found a significant difference in mental health. Young members of sexual minorities have been found to have higher rates of emotional distress, depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation (Saewyc, 2011). In a study by Remafedi (1987b), the majority of same-sex attracted subjects experienced school problems related to their sexuality, such as bullying, and even emotional difficulties that required mental health interventions. In a study measuring mental health differences between people with heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual orientations, Jorm and colleagues (2002) found that people with non-heterosexual orientations experienced more anxiety and depression. Specifically, bisexuals experienced more adversive life effects, more negative support from family and friends, and greater childhood adversity, and homosexuals reported greater childhood adversity and less positive support from family. Saewyc (2011) suggested that the reason for the differences between sexual minority and heterosexual mental health is that members of a sexual minority have greater possibility of exposure to stigma, discrimination, harassment, and violence.
Factors influencing emotional differences
Aronson (1969) defined cognitive dissonance as “a negative drive state which occurs whenever an individual holds two cognitions (ideas, beliefs, opinions) which are psychologically inconsistent.” He noted that in order to reduce the negative state brought on by these two opposing cognitions a person must change either one or both of them to make them fit together so them become more consistent with each other. Davis and Jones (1960) found that by changing one’s cognition to conform to the behaviour it is opposed to, a person could reduce the dissonance caused by the inconsistencies between cognition and behaviour. As a person struggles to accept their sexuality, cognitive dissonance is one of the states they experience that cause stress. This occurs when a person holds the beliefs they are brought up with, such as religious beliefs and the expectation of being in a heterosexual relationship, that conflict directly with the physical and emotional desires they have for someone of the same sex. Such conflicting views were common among the same-sex attracted men interviewed by Remafedi (1987a), who also reported that this conflict also caused a loss of self-esteem and turmoil as a consequence of the condemnation they felt would occur from members of the church. Elliot and Devine (1994) wrote that the change in attitude is done in service of lessening the psychological discomfort that has been caused by opposing behaviours and cognitions that are freely chosen. While the option to come out of or stay in the closet is generally a choice that every homosexual individual must make, many factorsinfluence whether or not they choose to do so.
A second factor that influences the emotional state of homosexuals is the stress of staying in the closet due to internalized homophobia. Meyer and Dean (1998) define internalized homophobia as the internalization of negative social attitudes towards homosexuality, which leads to people devaluing themselves, causing low self-esteem and poor self-regard. Overcoming internalized homophobia is an important step in the coming out process, but may be difficult due to early socialization toward becoming a heterosexual and continued exposure to homophobic attitudes (Meyer & Dean, 1998).
Being part of a minority exposes the queer community to many external stressors, particularly stigma, prejudice, and discrimination.
The following stressors were frequently reported by a group of openly homosexual men in a report by Remafedi (1987a):
- Strong negative attitude from parents and friends
- Verbal abuse from peers
- Physical assaults.
Discrimination and prejudice together form part of what is known as minority stress, which explains that minority members who are targeted by discrimination, stigma, and prejudice experience a stressful social environment based around their minority status (Meyer, 2003). These events can be exclusion, physical aggression, and gossip. In order to avoid this minority stress, the member of the minority must constantly be on guard or mindful that a person around them may be prejudiced against them (Crocker, Major & Steele, 1998).
Stigmas around sexual orientation, which is a daily concern for many queer youths (Rosario, Hunter, Maguen, Gwadz, & Smith, 2001), may lead to alienation, lack of integration with the community, and problems with self-acceptance (Meyer, 2003). Unfortunately these by-products of stigma interact in a way much like a feedback loop. For example, the less contact a person has within their sexual minority community the less likely they are to come to realise that being part of that community is not a bad thing through positive experience: Their lack of self-acceptance drives them away from the community where they would most likely come to find it . Miller and Major (2000) noted that concealment is often used as a coping strategy in order to avoid the negative consequences associated with people discovering a stigma, and that this strategy often becomes a source of stress. Diplacido (1998) found a similar occurrence – that concealing one’s non-heterosexual orientation was a major source of stress .
It was noted by Remafedi (1987b) that thesestressors might place these people at high risk for both physical and psychosocial dysfunction. However, with the recent change of views towards the queer community, the risk of these stressor events occurring in most countries has significantly lessened.
The closet - Why come out?
So far this chapter has addressed the environmental factors, such as social stigma and religious attitudes, that influence both the emotional state of same-sex attracted persons and whether or not they decide to come out and accept their sexual orientation. But why should someone come out of the closet?
The reduction of psychological distress caused by cognitive dissonance is the first reason. Part of the coming out process is accepting one’s sexuality and aligning previous counter-attitudinal beliefs towards it, as evidenced by Rosario and colleagues’ (2001) findings that being closeted is inversely related to emotional well-being. Corrigan and Matthews (2003) also mentioned that disclosing one’s stigma, like homosexuality, resulted in an increase in self-esteem and decreased distress. Even in the workplace, disclosing one’s sexuality has been found to have positive emotional outcomes. Griffith and Hebl (2002) found that disclosing more at work was related to higher job satisfaction.
Pennebaker (1995) established that expressing important aspects of one’s self with others is an important factor in maintaining mental health, but the emotional deficits of staying in the closet go further than just mood. In a study of 222 gay men over a period of 5 years, (elevated health risk) found that closeted men experienced significantly higher incidents of severe health issues. These health issues were concluded to be psychosomatic manifestations of the dissonance between their sexual orientation and the choice to remain closeted. The participants reported discomfort at the idea of their significant others knowing about their sexual orientation .
The initial opinions of others have found to bequite important in the coming out process in relation to emotional well-being. Supportive friends and family are a protective factor against stigma and discrimination, while helped buffer the negative impacts of coming out to people who respond with a negative reaction (Saewyc, 2011). These close relationships form a support network which an individual can lean on after coming out of the closet.
The fears associated with stigma and discrimination may drive people to conceal their sexual minority status, which in itself can create many negative emotional and mental problems. There are many factors that influence a person's emotional state after they come out of the closet. Coming out, especially when a person has found supportive family, friends, not only removes cognitive dissonance and promotes emotional well-being, but allows people to connect with others of their sexuality, which helps to create a sense of normalcy. By accepting one's sexual orientation, a person comes to feel happy and comfortable in their own skin, leading them to live happier lives.
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