“Coming Out” of Gay Men and Lesbians
“Coming out” is a means of identifying one’s sexual orientation as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. At its most basic, “coming out of the closet,” means being honest with those around you—friends, family, colleagues, and so forth—about your sexual orientation, about whom you are. It also means acknowledging one’s sexual orientation to self. Such disclosure is an ongoing, lifelong process rather than a one-time event. New personal, social, and professional situations require gay men and lesbians to make decisions about the degree to which they can be open about their sexual orientation (Morrow, 1996).
Sexual orientation is one of the four components of sexuality and is distinguished by an enduring, emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectionate attraction to individuals of a particular gender (Bailey and Bobrow, 1995). According to Bohan (1996), the other components of sexuality are biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female) and social sex role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior). There are three sexual orientations that are commonly recognized: homosexual, attraction to individuals of one’s own gender; heterosexual, attraction to individuals of the other gender; or bisexual, attractions to members of either gender. Persons with homosexual orientation are referred to as gay (men or women) or lesbians (women only).
At the start of the 1960s homosexuality was referred to as primarily a private affair, supported by the universal belief that homosexuality was a disease or a sin. The majority of Americans indicated that homosexuals were considered harmful to American life. A fear, dislike, hatred, or prejudice of gay men and lesbians, known as homophobia, became widespread. Americans found that their homophobic attitudes surfaced in the following irrational fears: a fear of homosexual tendencies in oneself; the fear that heterosexuals would be converted to the homosexual lifestyle; and fear that if they are accepted, procreation and the human race would be altered or extinct.
The climate of the 1960s was turbulent. This decade was marked by many political movements, which reflected support for non-establishment themes. During this time the “sexual liberation movement” became a popular cause. This intensified social and political interest helped many disadvantaged groups to receive support and attention that previously had never been received. As part of the nation’s desire for sexual political liberation, gay liberation became visible.
The gay liberation movement occurred in Greenwich Village, New York. In June 1969, police invaded the Stone Wall Inn, a bar for gays. The gay people at the club became angered by the police actions, because they felt that it was unprovoked harassment. They fought for several nights, refusing to have the bar closed. This incident, generally referred to as Stonewall, has been noted as the beginning of the awakening of gays into personal and sexual liberation.
After this rebellion, homosexual individuals began to openly express their non-heterosexual preference or “closet experience” and the term “coming out” was coined. Substantial differences existed between how gay men and lesbians reacted to there coming out of the 60s. For lesbians, it was more of a political battle and the patriarchal approaches to sexual activity were frowned upon, in many cases leading to sexual avoidance. For gay men, on the other hand, sexual freedom was often linked to frequent casual sex. In support of this mind set, bathhouses and sex clubs became popular. Unfortunately these facilities led to the rapid spread of venereal diseases, hepatitis, and enteric disorders. It is also believed that the sexual “coming out” during this time contributed to the rapid spread of the HIV virus among the gay community, although it took years for scientists to make the connection to the disease and how it was being spread (Harrison, Thyer, and Wodarski, 1996).
It is apparent that homosexual behavior existed in all societies throughout history. Sometimes, it has been accepted and encouraged, and at other times it has been condemned or punished. For this reason persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors. But rules and sanctions in society have some affect on the degree of visibility and openness of behavior. Some portions of society have shown increased tolerance of or support toward homosexuals, but this is a slow and painful process. But keep in mind that tolerance does not mean acceptance (Cole, 1996). Many people in society just prefer to ignore the influence that these forms of alternate relationships can have on a gay or lesbian’s life.
Many individuals continue to deny the awareness and support of the individual who chose an alternative life-style. For many people, this make the “coming out” process very difficult. But most people come out because, sooner or later, they can not stand hiding who they are any more. Once they come out, most gay and lesbians admit that it feels much better to be open and honest than to lie and hide. But the first and toughest person you have to reveal your true identity to is yourself (Gelberg, 1996). Then you can deal with friends and family. “Coming out” to yourself means recognizing and accepting that you are primarily attracted to the same sex.
Sharing that aspect of themselves with others is important to their mental health. The process of identity development for lesbians and gay men, usually called “coming out” has been found to be strongly related to psychological adjustment – the more positive the gay male or lesbian identity, the better one’s mental health and the higher one’s self-esteem. Although it helps mental health and self-esteem, the “coming out” process is difficult for some gays and lesbians. Because of false stereotypes and unwarranted prejudice toward them, this process can be a very challenging process, which may cause emotional pain. Lesbian and gay people often feel “different” and alone when they first become aware of same-sex attractions. They may also fear being rejected by family, friends, co-workers, and religious institutions if they do “come out” (Barret and Borzan, 1996).
In addition, homosexuals are frequently the targets of homophobia and heterosexism. These oppressive social forces serve as social silencing mechanisms. Homophobia is the fear and hatred of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, and heterosexism is the perceived superiority of heterosexuality over non-heterosexuality. Those who keep their sexual orientation a secret expend significant emotional energy to hide a central aspect of their identity. The emotional toll of secrecy can result in internalized shame and self-doubt. To be “out” in a heterosexist culture requires courage (Morrow, 1996). But the price of keeping the secret can be high, whether the price is counted in the stunning number of teens who kill themselves or in the high rate of alcoholism and drug abuse among homosexuals. There are also, many that are comfortable with keeping their homosexuality hidden, and they do whatever they have to do in order to conceal their sexual orientation.
Society looks down on homosexuals for seeking sexual gratification from a partner of the same sex (Clark, 1997). This lifestyle is not considered the norm, society and family members usually frown it upon. They have also had to try and overcome hostility from family members when they refuse to accept their sexual orientation. It has become easier for them to keep their choices a secret and do not flaunt their preference in public or on their jobs in fear of being ridiculed. They feel that their private lives should be kept behind close doors. By not “coming out” they can keep their jobs, housing, dignity, and take advantage of rights given to all citizens in society. But many have chosen to fight back and demand equal rights and treatment form society and under the law.
The strengths of the gay and lesbians in their solidarity involve “coming out.” The members of this group that have “come out” have accepted the responsibility of being homosexual in this society. They unite together against the negative labels, criticism, rejection, and discrimination lesbian and gay people experience (McNaught, 1997).
There are several practice issues that gay males, lesbians and bisexuals have in common. In the practice of social work the worker needs to examine their personal values. First they need to explore and cope with their own homophobia. Then examine homophobia from two perspectives: (1) Their own perspective involving soul searching and evaluating values, (2) be aware of the oppressive impacts of homophobia on families of gay and lesbian clients. Be aware of your opinions and professional values. Remember that the social work code of ethics emphasizes individual client rights to make choices. Professionally and ethically you cannot tell clients what to do or how to act (Ashman-Hull, 1999). Social workers must be aware of unfairness and sensitive issues that face the gay and lesbian population. The social worker may use plans and interventions that target improving the gay and lesbian situation. They can also exert pressure for dissolution of laws and policies.
Teaching the client skills such as assertiveness, stress management and problem solving are important. Referring them to a support group may be necessary. Educating is often beneficial. Abide by ethical principals #2 and 3 especially (right to fair and equal treatment and the right to free choice). Social workers can help them evaluate the circumstances that may result if they “come out” to family members, friends and children. Social workers can help them get information regarding custody battles and what the stresses are involving such action. The worker may have to empower the client by giving information necessary to write to elected officials concerning laws (Ashmon-Hull, 1999). A worker must have the knowledge of the legislative process by which they can advocate (e.g.….arranging for sponsorship of a bill, revising a bill or educating the public). Be aware of the resources available such as legal services, housing, or counseling agencies and then select the best resource system that can help the client.
In summarizing practice issues of social workers they need to address the following issues when working with gay males, lesbians or bisexual individuals. The practitioner needs to be knowledgeable about and nonjudgmental toward these individuals. As a product of society, most of us have been socialized into the stereotypical and prejudicial behaviors we must now identify and work to eliminate. Identifying how our traditional beliefs and values (what we believe to be right and wrong) affect us is not an easy task. Homophobic behavior needs to be viewed in the same context as any other prejudice against a particular minority group (e.g., women, blacks, etc.). The social worker must first educate himself/herself on the subject. This can be done by reading professional literature and attending workshops, in-services and seminars which cover non-heterosexual behaviors in general and homophobic reactions in particular. The social worker must also become familiar with resources in the gay male and lesbian communities.
At all times, social work practitioners need to subscribe to the highest of ethical and moral standards. Professions typically publicize their ethical standards in the form of codes of ethics. According to Jamal and Bowie (1995), codes of ethics are designed to address major issues. These must include the right of client self-determination and respect and support for whatever sexual preference(s) a client has chosen. Being a gay male, a lesbian, or a bisexual, in a homophobic society where they are often stigmatized and ostracized simply for the company they choose to keep, is a difficult burden for even the strongest of individuals. In essence the social workers goal should be to support this unnecessarily stigmatized group (Harrison, Thyer, and Wodarski, 1996).
In conclusion we must realize that there is much variability in gay male, lesbian and bisexual experiences, and these experiences are affected by the sex of the individual (male vs. female), class occupation, personality, geographic location (small town vs. large city) and other factors. Some individuals choose to be open about their sexual preferences and other do not. Of those who do not, many maintain conventional relationships and live outwardly as heterosexuals. Our society tends to behave in a heterosexist manner, i.e., assuming everyone is heterosexual and that only images and models of a heterosexual life-style are permissible. Same-sex relationships do not conform to this model, and for individuals who are uncomfortable with their own sexuality or with differences from the status quo, homosexuality and bisexuality can be very threatening. As social workers, we must work toward a society which is more accepting of all human differences.
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