Halfway Out: Why Many Stay Closeted in the Workplace

VIDEO: U. of Rochester study questions whether coming out is always a good thing.

When Eric Anderson came out of the closet, it was anything but halfway. It was 1993 and he was the first openly gay high school coach in the U.S.

"I knew I was gay since I was seven. When I finally kicked that closet door down in my twenties, I really kicked it down. I came out to my family, friends, my administrators at the school within a couple weeks. Within a two-day period I called everyone in my phone book and told them personally," says Anderson, who is now a professor of sociology and sports studies at the University of Winchester in the U.K.

Anderson's all-out brand of coming out, however, is relatively rare. A study released Monday from the University of Rochester, researchers found that 69 percent of lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals surveyed are still closeted in some sphere of their life, whether with families, colleagues or their religious community.

Research repeatedly shows that, in general, coming out is a good thing from a mental health standpoint: people report higher self-esteem, lower rates of anxiety and depression and closer interpersonal relationships.

What Monday's study shows, however, is that this psychological boost varies greatly depending on the environment one comes out to -- when an individual came out in a judgmental environment, there was almost no improvement to emotional well-being, researchers found; in a supportive environment, huge improvements.

This may explain why so many individuals choose to remain closeted in environments most likely to be judgmental -- work, church or among certain family members.

"What we're seeing is that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people are quite selective in where they come out. They're sensitive to some of the costs of coming out in an environment that may not be wholly supportive of their sexual orientation," says Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and co-author on the study.

"Coming out is a good thing, psychologically speaking, but what we're seeing is that the benefits are balanced out by stigma and non-acceptance in certain environments," says Ryan.

It all boils down to that personal decision of where it's worth it, he says.

For John, of San Francisco, coming out never seemed worth it at his last job. "My [boss] managed by fear and intimidation. He thrived on making people uncomfortable. I chose to keep to myself and not let my sexual orientation be any public topic."

When he switched jobs, however, John found himself in a much more supportive environment. He is now the only person "out" at his work, but everyone has been very supportive and there are no longer "snickers or whispers" among his colleagues, as in his past workplace, he says. Because John is not out to everyone in his life, however, he asked that we use only his first name.

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