Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Sexual orientation and coming out

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Sexual orientation and coming out:
What motivates people to come out?
Figure 1. Caption goes here

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Ellen Degeneres (right) with spouse Portia de Rossi in September 2012

The option to reveal one's inclusion in a sexual orientation minority presents a dilemma to many same-sex attracted people. One on hand, self-disclosure of one's homosexuality may create new and exciting possibilities, however it may also lead to discrimination or abuse. This chapter examines what gives an individual the energy, direction and drive to reveal their sexuality, that is, what motivates an individual to come out.

As self-disclosure of one's sexuality is virtually unanimously referred to as 'coming out', that will be the terminology used in the remainder of this chapter. Meanwhile, someone who is choosing to keep her or his homosexuality private is said to be 'closeted'. Also note that only homosexual men and women are directly addressed in this chapter, however the concepts can also be applied to people who are bisexual, transgender, transsexual or intersex. Finally, note that this page does not incorporate research from many countries around the world as LGBT rights are too poor in these regions to safely gather data. See LGBT rights by country or territory for more information.

Coming out information[edit | edit source]

McDonald (1982) refers to coming out as a process that starts with self-awareness of homosexuality and ultimately leads to long-term same-sex relationships and a positive homosexual identity. Garnets and Kimmel (2013) consider a similar line of thinking, stating that self-disclosure of one's homosexuality is but one stage of an entire coming out process. However, this chapter will only consider coming out to be the act of revealing one's homosexuality to another person or people. Nevertheless, even under the refined definition, coming out can happen on many different levels and is generally considered to be a very important occurrence in one's life.

Why is it an issue?[edit | edit source]

Subordinate or minority groups consist of people who are distinguishable by human characteristics and who possess less power in society than the majority group. For example, Indigenous Australians are a minority group within Australia, as are those living in remote areas. There are typically both advantages and disadvantages to being part of a minority group. For example, Indigenous Australians are often victims of stereotyping and discrimination, however they have strong community ties and a rich cultural history.

While Indigenous Australians' inclusion in their minority is known from birth by their families and often assumed by wider society because of their appearance, this is usually not the case for homosexual men and women. Unlike many subordinate groups, self-disclosure of one's sexuality is generally required to reveal whether an individual is part of that group (Corrigan & Matthews, 2003). Therefore, a homosexual person has a choice about whether she or he wants to take on both the advantages and disadvantages that come with being part of their minority.

Historical information and trends[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs

While there is evidence of homosexual activity throughout history, coming out as it is known today has only been a more recent phenomenon. The first public declaration of the benefits of self-disclosure of one's diverse sexuality was by German writer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1869. He believed the process would lead to improvements in the rights of homosexual people and is now generally considered to have laid the foundations of the modern gay rights movement. Countrymen of Ulrich, Iwan Bloch and Magnus Hirschfeld, also promoted self-disclosure of diverse sexuality in their respective publications. In 1906, Bloch encouraged self-disclosure to family and friends, while work by Hirschfeld printed in 1914 discussed the positive impact a mass reveal of homosexuality could have on the rights of the subordinate group.

Hirschfeld's assertion proved to be correct: declarations of homosexuality generally resulted in improved rights of homosexual people. This then led to more people coming out, hence creating a snowball effect. However, it wasn't until the Stonewall riots of 1969 that the gay rights movement gained significant momentum. From that point, an increasing number of homosexual social support groups were formed, some of which were even called "coming out groups". As well as providing social assistance to their members, many of these groups continued to press for greater social acceptance and political rights. Research shows that society's acceptance of people of diverse sexuality continues to improve; in a 2013 survey, Taylor (2013) found that 92% of LGBT respondents felt that attitudes towards their minority had improved in the preceding decade and will continue to improve in the next decade.

In order to calculate the percentage of homosexual people who decide to come out, the overall percentage of people who are homosexual must first be established. However, determining the demographics of sexual orientation is fraught with difficulty for a number of reasons including defining what qualifies an individual as homosexual. Another reason is that closeted individuals are unlikely to report their true sexuality if they are not highly confident that survey anonymity will be retained (Turner, Rogers, Lindberg, Pleck & Sonenstein, 1998). However, Turner et al. (1998) provided strong evidence that online surveys produce the most accurate accounts; their study reported that just 0.1% of male respondents acknowledged they had performed a certain homosexual act when a hard copy questionnaire was used, versus a 0.8% for the online version.

Figure 3. Percentage of couples that are same-sex in Australia according to the Census of Population and Housing[factual?]

While the percentage of homosexuals who have come out cannot be reliably measured, it is undeniable that the percentage of all people who choose to come out is increasing. This conclusion can be made for several reasons. Firstly, as figure 3 shows, a higher percentage of people are declaring themselves to be in same-sex relationships. Secondly, a higher percentage of people are stating that they know a homosexual person (Taylor, 2013). Finally, more public figures are self-disclosing their diverse sexuality.

In 1997, Ellen Degeneres became the first television personality to reveal her or his homosexuality, an announcement so profound at the time that it was the cover story of an edition of Time Magazine. However coming out has increasingly become commonplace among celebrities as well as other public figures such as sport stars and politicians. Some of the more famous or powerful people to have come out include singer Ricky Martin, actor Jodie Foster, swimmer Ian Thorpe, member of the UK Parliament Angela Eagle, Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Scale[edit | edit source]

While the aforementioned people have come out to a very large audience, people usually first come out to just one person, typically a close friend or family member. A survey conducted by Taylor (2013) found that 94% of homosexual women and 96% of homosexual men had come out to at least one friend or family member. After coming out to someone for the first time, homosexual people usually come out to more people. Table 1 summarises some findings of Taylor's (2013) survey, indicating which people and groups of people gay men and lesbians have come out to over the course of their lives.

Table 1

Percentage of gay men and lesbians who have come out to various people/groups

Circumstance Percentage of gay men Percentage of lesbians
Come out to a close friend or family member 96 94
Come out to their mother 70 67
Come out to their father 53 45
Come out to at least one sister (if applicable) 75 80
Come out to at least one brother (if applicable) 74 76
Come out to most co-workers 48 50
Come out online 53 50
Ever attended a rally or march in support of LGBT rights 58 44
Even been a member of an LGBT organisation 48 49

Note that these statistics only provide an upper limit of the percentage of homosexual people who come out as only those who were willing to identify as non-heterosexual were eligible to take the questionnaire. A further limitation is that the results are highly dependent on the age of respondents: a young person has had significantly less time to come out to different people or groups.

Motivations behind coming out or staying closeted[edit | edit source]

There are several mini-theories of motivation (Reeve, 2009) that can be applied to the decision of coming out. The three theories most relevant to this topic are discussed.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The defining characteristic of being homosexual is a sexual attraction to the same sex. Therefore, being able to fulfil this attraction is likely to result in greater psychological well-being; Abraham Maslow provides theoretical weight to this statement. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943) posits that humans must fulfil a set of needs before other needs are pursued. Physiological needs, such as food and water, comprise the first set of needs and, once met, individuals are motivated to achieve safety. Maslow's model is best explained through Figure 4. The key rule to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is that only once a lower level is satisfied are individuals motivated to achieve the next higher level in the pyramid.

According to Maslow (1943), once physiological and safety needs are met, people pursue love and belonging. Sexual intimacy is a key component of this level and coming out will help satisfy this need as it opens up the possibility for more rewarding partner relationships (Beals & Peplau, 2001). Also, Kadushin's (as cited in Corrigan & Matthews, 2003) study found that, across all sampled participants, coming out improved family rapport on average, another element of the love and belonging level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

However, Maslow's model also displays a pivotal reason why homosexuals may not want to self-disclose their sexuality: coming out may place their safety in jeopardy. Most closeted individuals are strongly aware of the potential for abuse if they reveal their sexuality. This is due to acts of abuse often being highly publicised (Silver, 2014) as well as the sheer level of discrimination. A survey by Taylor (2013) found that 49% of gay men and 22% of lesbians had been threatened or physically attacked. Enhanced feelings of family belonging are also far from guaranteed, with Taylor's (2013) survey reporting that 43% of gay men and 51% of lesbians had been rejected by a friend or family member at some point in their lives.

Cognitive dissonance theory[edit | edit source]

Closeted homosexuals often behave and think, both privately and publicly, in ways that conflict with their inner beliefs and desires. This is a form of cognitive dissonance and produces unpleasant feelings that they are motivated to eradicate. According to Reeve (2009), there are four ways in which an individual can attempt to lessen the turmoil associated with cognitive dissonance: the dissonant belief can either be eliminated or reduced in significance, another consonant belief can be added, or the consonant belief can be increased in significance.

A closeted person can immediately reduce distress caused by cognitive dissonance by coming out. This is because the individual will no longer be required to behave in a way that is inconsistent with their desires (eliminating the dissonant belief). Although this is a very straight-forward solution, other pressures may lead the individual to reduce their cognitive dissonance in alternative ways. One way is to embrace sexual abstinence (reducing the significance of the dissonant belief). Another is to partake in homophobic behaviour (adding a consonant belief) (Adams, Wright, & Lohr, 1996). Yet another option would be taking greater interest in a one's heterosexual relationship (increasing the significance of the consonant belief) (Isay, 1998).

The preceding alternatives provide insight into why so many people do not come out when they become aware of their diverse sexuality. There are several other ways in which people can alleviate cognitive dissonance than to come out, all of which avoid the stigmatisation and discrimination that is often inflicted on homosexual people (Taylor, 2013). However, Corrigan and Matthews (2003) argue that remaining closeted "activates a set of cognitive processes that lead to an obsessive preoccupation with the secret" (p. 241) which only intensifies the longer the secret remains undisclosed. Hence the conclusion that coming out is the only way to eradicate long-term cognitive dissonance in homosexuals.

Expectancy theory[edit | edit source]

In order for behaviour to be energised and directed, one must believe that she or he has the capacity to carry out the behaviour as well as expect the action will lead to favourable results. Victor Vroom developed expectancy theory, which states that the motivation to select a behaviour over other alternatives derives from a personal judgement of efficacy and how desirable the outcome will be if achieved.

Figure 5. In 2014, Ian Thorpe came out in a televised interview[when?] after years of publicly denying his homosexuality.

In the context of coming out, efficacy expectations relate to whether the individual believes she or he has the ability to self-disclose to others. This ability is directly linked to the person's self-efficacy. Outcome expectations of coming out relate to everything that may or may not happen as a result of self-disclosure. The person considering coming out tries to weigh up all possibilities, including the listener's reaction and whether he or she can be trusted to maintain secrecy. Outcome expectations may also include relief of revealing one's secret and the potential for stigmatisation (Cain, 1991). While outcome expectations are an important component of expectancy theory, efficacy expectations or self-efficacy is often the deciding factor as to whether one chooses to come out (Corrigan & Matthews, 2003). Self-efficacy is one's confidence in achieving goals in spite of what obstacles arise in the process. When coming out, someone with high self-efficacy is confident she or he will be able to make spontaneous adjustments to generate the best final outcome. On the other hand, those who are not confident that they will be able to effectively negotiate adversity remain closeted (Cain, 1991). For example, someone with high self-efficacy will stand up for her or his work rights if she or he is fired due to her or his sexuality, while someone with low self-efficacy may leave without resistance.

According to Bandura (1977), there are four sources of self-efficacy: personal history, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion and physiological responses. If one was able to obtain a positive outcome each time she or he self-disclosed her or his sexuality, then self-efficacy is strengthened through personal history. Self-efficacy can also be heightened by vicarious experiences (also referred to as social modelling), for example when a celebrity self-discloses to positive public response. An example of verbal persuasion improving self-efficacy is when friends or family encourage someone to come out to more people. Physiological responses, such as increased perspiration, typically reduce self-efficacy. However, when physiological responses are understood to be normal and independent of ability, feelings of personal empowerment may result. Personal empowerment occurs when one's level of self-efficacy is sufficient to exercise control in all aspects of life (Reeve, 2009).

Individual differences[edit | edit source]

There are infinite variables pertaining to how, why and when people choose to come out, or whether they choose to come out at all. While overarching trends exist, as well as common motivation themes, every coming out story is different. Follows is a cross section of firsthand accounts:

"I told the person whom I am closest with. She was a little taken by surprise but took it well and supports me. Life is far too short to be hiding away and putting on acts so others will accept you. Hopefully I can get more courage and find better ways to express this feeling to others I love." - John, interviewed by Forrest, Biddle and Clift (1997).

"I often think how different life would have been if I could have lived my life as a whole person. No hiding, no lies, no fake boyfriends." - Lisa, 62 (

“[I did not come out to my father because] he was homophobic, plus we had a rocky relationship. I was very conflicted about him. I wanted his love.” - Gay man, age 86 (Taylor, 2013).

“When I was 18 I couldn't handle it and attempted suicide. I became religious thinking God would make me straight. I gave that up at 26 when I finally realized it wasn't God who had a problem with me but his followers.” - Gay man, age 64 (Taylor, 2013).

“Coming from a strong evangelical Christian upbringing, and still applying that to my life, it's been difficult. A lot of people (some or most of my family included) don't approve or want to have anything to do with it, and choose to ignore my partner.” – Lesbian, age 28, first told someone at age 16 (Taylor, 2013).

"Before I came out I was moody, snappy, angry and by some accounts, a real prick. Afterwards I gather that I was much nicer and easier to be around." - Gareth, aged 31 (

Many more coming out quotes, as well as detailed coming out stories, can be found at This website also provides articles relevant to coming out and enables visitors to contribute their own coming out experience. Note that all contributions were made by people in developed countries. Individuals in some developing countries have virtually no choice but remain closeted as the punishment for same-sex sexual activity is imprisonment or death.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Although there is no definitive evidence, several factors indicate that the percentage of homosexuals who come out is increasing. Therefore it is reasonable to assume that the motivation to come out is increasing and/or the motivation to stay closeted is decreasing. This page discussed three theories that may help to explain people's coming out decision.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs provides the simplest explanation as to why more and more people have the drive to come out in countries where it is relatively safe to do so. Improved rights for homosexual people in recent decades means that physiological and safety needs are still met after self-disclosure. Higher levels of Maslow's pyramid can then be pursued, and coming out often helps in this pursuit. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that an individual may come out to alleviate distress caused by actions, thoughts, beliefs or desires that are inconsistent with each other. The theory may also explain how homosexuals are able to reduce their inner conflicts through actions other than coming out. However, according to expectancy theory, whether someone comes out or remains closeted ultimately depends on her or his self-efficacy and outcome expectations. The theory posits that one will only be motivated to come out if both are sufficiently high (Reeve, 2009).

The decision to come out is very complex and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, cognitive dissonance theory and expectancy theory only provide a degree of insight into the motivations behind sexuality self-disclosure. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive analysis as everyone's coming out experience is unique.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Adams, H. E., Wright, L. W., & Lohr, B. A. (1996). Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal?. Journal of abnormal psychology, 105(3), 440.

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.

Beals, K. P., & Peplau, L. A. (2001). Social involvement, disclosure of sexual orientation, and the quality of lesbian relationships. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25(1), 10-19.

Corrigan, P., & Matthews, A. (2003). Stigma and disclosure: Implications for coming out of the closet. Journal of mental health, 12, 235-248.

Garnets, L., & Kimmel, D. C. (Eds.). (2013). Psychological perspectives on lesbian, gay, and bisexual experiences. Place of Publication: Columbia University Press.

Forrest, S., Biddle, G., & Clift, S. (1997). Talking about homosexuality in the secondary school. Avert.

Isay, R. A. (1998). Heterosexually married homosexual men: Clinical and developmental issues. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68(3), 424.

McDonald, G. J. (1982). Individual differences in the coming out process for gay men: Implications for theoretical minds. Journal of Homosexuality, 8(1), 47-60.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Silver, K. (2014). Homophobic bullying commonplace in high school physical education classes, new research suggests. ABC News. Retrieved from

Taylor, P. (2013). A survey of LGBT Americans: Attitudes, experiences and values in changing times. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Turner, C. F., Ku, L., Rogers, S. M., Lindberg, L. D., Pleck, J. H., & Sonenstein, F. L. (1998). Adolescent sexual behavior, drug use, and violence: Increased reporting with computer survey technology. Science, 280, 867-873.

External links[edit | edit source]