Halfway Out: Why Many Stay Closeted in the Workplace

Coming out as gay may only healthy if the environment is supportive.

June 20, 2011— -- 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.

Out in the Workplace

Work may prove to be an especially large hurdle for LGBT individuals in the process of coming out. In the Rochester study, half of those surveyed were out among friends or family but not among colleagues or fellow students. In most cases, this was because the workplace was seen as a controlling, non-accepting environment.

"I know friends who wouldn't come out because they feared facing discrimination and a glass ceiling in terms of promotions. I know others who came out in their work place when it was not in the best interest of their career, but it was in the interest of their happiness. It's a choice everyone has to make for themselves," says Gregory Angelo, executive director of Liberty Education Forum, a gay rights think-tank.

But does staying in the closet at work do oneself a disservice? Does it do the gay community a disservice? This is a point of tension between the more radical gay activists and others in the LGBT community.

"There's two sides to coming out – those who view it as a political statement and those who view it as a personal statement," says Angelo.  "I tend to lean towards it being a personal statement."

Most psychologists would agree with Angelo -- coming out strategically may be the healthiest thing for the individual, depending on their situation.

Rich Savin-Williams, director of the Sex & Gender Lab at Cornell University,  says that he advises his college-aged patients to consider being selective in the way they come out.

"There is a political agenda that some gay people would advocate that everyone must come out everywhere, but from a psychological perspective, treating real people who have to live real lives, I wouldn't say that's a bright thing to do. For college-aged kids, coming out to a conservative family may cut them off financially or the family might withdraw from them school. I've seen both of these things happen and clearly that wasn't the ideal way to come out," he says.

"I think it's smart to at least initially be careful in how we come out and then as we develop the support systems we need, we branch out and take more risks," Savin-Williams says.

For Anderson, coming out across the board was worth the risks, but his sexual orientation certainly caused problems at his southern California school, at least at first.

"There was a total lack of support by my administrators and other students began to harass my team (he coached track) by a guilt by association process," Anderson says. Before a conflict resolution team stepped in, the "gay-bashing" had escalated to physical assault, with one of his athletes suffering a beating and broken facial bones at the hand of a football player.

Anderson doesn't regret coming out, however: by the final year of his coaching, the school had become much more tolerant of his sexual orientation and homosexuality in general as a result of his own openness with his sexuality.

And this should be the ultimate goal, Savin-Williams notes -- creating supportive environments at work, church, and in the community so that coming out is not something that has to be done strategically. This can be achieved through education, increased awareness, or in a work setting, through anti-discrimination laws, he says.

This is the take-home message researchers at the University of Rochester offer as well: if the psychological benefits of coming out are directly proportional to how accepting the environment is, then we must work to make all environments supportive of sexual identity.