Differences in Coming Out Milestones for Same-Sex Attracted Men and Women
Coming out is the socially mediated developmental process of adopting a sexual orientation-based minority identity. A steady decrease in the social stigma associated with non-heterosexual sexual orientations seems to have helped create a more positive environment for coming out. Despite this many lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people continue to struggle through a difficult coming out process. Understanding how the coming out process has changed over time may enable us to more effectively target support for LGB people in diverse age cohorts. The current study examined how the process of coming out has changed over time by asking whether there are cohort differences in the age at which men and women reached important milestones in the coming out process.
This study was part of a larger mixed methods study investigating the changing nature of the coming out process. A convenience sample of 1131 participants was obtained via the internet. Requests for participation were distributed nationally via existing LGB community networks. Individuals who self-identified as non-heterosexual were invited to participate. The 1131 participants (650 female and 481 male) ranged in age from 18 to 85 years old (M = 39.3, SD 15.7). Eighty two percent of the sample identified as White. Participants were sorted into five cohorts (Pre-Stonewall, Stonewall, AIDS Crisis, Millennial, Youngest) based on the hypothesis that important LGB-relevant events occurring during adolescence would have had an impact on the coming out process for each cohort. Among other data points collected, nine milestones in the coming out process (e.g., When did you first realize a same sex attraction? When did you first have a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex?) were used to delineate the coming out process. These milestones derived from multiple previous studies examining the coming out process. ANCOVA was calculated for each milestone, with cohort and gender as independent variables and average age when the milestone was reached as the dependent variable.
Differences were found according to cohort for each milestone (p < .001). Post hoc analyses using the Bonferroni method found two major trends. The first was a general decrease over time in the average age of achieving important milestones in the coming out process. The second was a general narrowing of a gender gap between men and women in the average ages that milestones were achieved.
Conclusions and Implications
As the age at which important coming out milestones are reached has decreased, the quality of the coming out experience has changed from an adult activity to an adolescent process. Significant differences between men and women in older cohorts have disappeared, suggesting that mixed gender support programs may be more helpful to younger cohorts than to LGB elders. Social workers who gain a sophisticated understanding of the changing nature of the coming out process can better understand both the contemporary experience of LGB youth and the developmental significance of coming out for all age cohorts.