October 11, 2006

Let’s Talk About It

Posted at 12:02 am (Pacific Time)

Happy National Coming Out Day.

October 11 is the day set aside every year to remind gay, lesbian, and bisexual people about the importance of coming out, and to remind heterosexual people how they can support their sexual minority family members and friends in living open, honest, and fulfilling lives.

This year, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians & Gays) have partnered in a campaign called Talk About It. As the title says, the goal is to encourage sexual minority women and men to discuss their experiences with their heterosexual relatives, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.

Toward that end, HRC and PFLAG have created a A Resource Guide To Coming Out, which provides information and advice for sexual minorities, and A Straight Guide to GLBT Americans, which is designed for heterosexuals who want to support and assist their gay, lesbian, and bisexual loved ones. Both guides are available on the HRC Web site.

This campaign gets it right — in many ways.

Coming out is tremendously important for sexual minority individuals. While concealing one’s sexual orientation can be highly stressful, being out of the closet is often associated with better mental and physical health. Not only does being open about one’s sexual orientation eliminate the need to be constantly vigilant and secretive, it also creates opportunities to get help and emotional support from significant others in the face of society’s prejudice against sexual minorities.

Moreover, coming out plays a major role in reducing sexual prejudice. For heterosexuals, knowing someone who is openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual often leads not only to a better relationship with that person, but also to more positive feelings and less prejudice toward sexual minorities in general. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, compared to other heterosexuals, straight people with gay and lesbian friends and close family members tend to be less prejudiced against all sexual minorities.

However, simply knowing that a friend or relative is gay, lesbian, or bisexual doesn’t necessarily reduce a straight person’s prejudice. It’s also critically important to talk openly. In my own research, I’ve found that the heterosexuals with the lowest levels of sexual prejudice are those who not only know someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but have also spoken directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority.

But many sexual minority adults don’t discuss this aspect of their lives with family members, friends, or coworkers.

In a recent national survey, I found that a majority of lesbians and gay men in the US consider themselves to be out to their immediate family members. However, substantial numbers never speak about lesbian and gay issues with their parents or siblings. A similar pattern holds in their relationships with other relatives, coworkers, and straight acquaintances. Bisexual adults are even less likely to talk with straight people about their sexual orientation and how it affects their daily lives.

Of course, coming out can be risky, and talking about one’s sexual orientation is often difficult. Here’s where the HRC/PFLAG project is right on target. The Talk About It guides offer practical suggestions to assist sexual minorities and straight people alike in getting those conversations started.

So today, on this National Coming Out Day, do something positive to fight sexual prejudice. Have a conversation. Talk about it.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.