Adjusting to college can be a difficult process for any student. However, when a student also struggles with accepting and disclosing their own homosexuality or bisexuality, their college experience can become more complicated and challenging. College students typically further develop their sense of identify as they gain greater independence from parents and family. The stressful nature of this process may be increased due to the integration of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual sexual orientation, especially in situations where family and friends do not know of the person's sexual orientation (Hetrick & Martin, 1987).
"Coming out" is the process of disclosing one's sexual orientation (Rhoads, 1994), and it is described as a lifelong process. "No matter how many people know about one's sexual orientation, there will be others to whom that individual will have to come out" (Rhoads, 1994, pg. 77). Although there are many models of the coming-out process that have been described, a general pattern suggested by most is one that begins with self-acknowledgement and ends with the acknowledgement to others of one's sexual orientation. The stages are:
- Self-acknowledgement - This stage is characterized by the individual's learning how to accept oneself and/or admit one's own homosexuality or bisexuality. Often, students question their sexual orientation and ask, "Why me?" or wish they didn't have to explore this facet of their identity. Many students involved in Rhoads' project reported that they even made attempts to modify their sexual behavior in order to be straight. Self-acknowledgement of one's sexual orientation is regarded an important step in ending self-denial and claiming a sense of gay or bisexual identity.
- Disclosure Decisions - This stage is characterized by the individual's questioning when (if ever) and to whom he or she will disclose their sexual orientation. Telling family and friends can be very risky for many individuals, especially when they fear that others will reject them (Gluth & Kiselica, 1994). Many, if not most, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people self-disclose by age 21 (D'Augelli, 1991). Many homosexual and bisexual individuals have reported that they first disclosed their sexual orientation to someone, usually a friend, by age 16 or 17, followed by disclosure to a parent approximately one year later (Maugen, Floyd, Bakeman, & Armistead, 2002). Many individuals have reported coming out to homosexual peers first because they anticipate a lesser threat of rejection (Gluth & Kiselica, 1994). As an individual develops stronger social networks, he or she generally becomes more self-confident and self-accepting. As a result, he or she can learn to feel more comfortable disclosing his or her sexual orientation with those whom the threat of rejection is greater (e.g., family and friends).
- Disclosure to Parents - Many students have reported viewing this experience as being crucial to their developing a healthy sense of themselves as gay or bisexual people (Rhoads, 1994). For other students whom may not have close relationships with their parents, coming out does not seem so imperative. Many students may receive support and affirmation when they come out to their parents. However, many may not be so fortunate. Many individuals describe a period of tension with one or both of their parents. Often this tension decreases over time and parents become more accepting of the individual. Some times time does not serve to lessen the tension between the student and his or her parents. In extreme cases, some individuals are disowned by their disapproving parents and/or other family members. Nevertheless, a poor familial relationship can lead to greater stress for a homosexual or bisexual individual. Generally, individuals who have come out to their families have described a process in which their parents seemed to have to go through their own process of learning to accept their children's gay or bisexual identity.
There are many ways in which individuals may come out to others. Many psychologists recommend first making contacts in the gay and lesbian (or bisexual) community and practice coming out to these individuals first (Gluth & Kiselica, 1994). Therefore, the positive experiences that result from this tend to decrease the risk and/or fear associated with coming out with others. Furthermore, having such contacts with homosexual or bisexual individuals naturally helps one to develop a strong support network. A specific strategy for coming out to family members was reported by one student interviewed for Rhoads' (1994) project; this individual had sent letters to his family members and called them a day or two after they were expected to receive the letters. Another student described coming out to his parents during a family therapy session. Many students opt to disclose their sexual orientation in such ways that allow the parents to process their reaction, either on their own or with the aid of a professional, so as to potentially minimize any immediate negative and harsh responses they may be apt to share with their child.
Many individuals have described coming out as one of the most significant experiences of their lives (Rhoads, 1994). Many students have used words such as, "a great relief," or an experience that is, "freeing," "empowering," "frightening," and "challenging," to illustrate their coming-out process. None of the students interviewed in Rhoads' project reported any regrets about coming out. In general, homosexuals who have been able to come out tend to report more positive self-esteem, fewer anxiety symptoms, and less depression (Coleman, 1982). Research has shown that youths who have disclosed their sexual orientation to a wider range of family and friends experience greater self-esteem as adults (Jordan & Deluty, 1998). LaSala (2000) found that although almost all of the gay men in his study reported initial and ongoing parental disapproval for their lifestyles and relationships, most men believed that it benefited their same-sex unions to be "out". Advantages of coming out to their parents and their partners' parents included not having to hide the relationship as well as inclusion of one's partner in family events. Similarly, another study found that lesbians who more widely disclosed their sexual orientation expressed a greater degree of satisfaction with their relationships (Jordan & Deluty, 2000).
Indeed, there have been numerous studies which have shown that there are psychological benefits to coming out. If you are gay or bisexual and are considering whether or not to disclose your sexual orientation to others, hopefully, this information helps you make the healthiest decisions for yourself during this process. In addition, if you would like to learn more about the coming out process and specific strategies for doing so, the Human Rights Campaign has a website that is full of resourceful information.
If you are finding yourself struggling with coming out and/or experiencing greater depression or anxiety, you may benefit from individual therapy to discuss and explore your concerns. If you have any questions about individual therapy and how it may benefit you individually, feel free to schedule an appointment at the Wright State University Counseling and Wellness Services by calling (937) 775-3407 or visiting our office located at 053 Student Union.
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D'Augelli, A. R. (1991). Gay men in college: Identity processes and adaptations. Journal of College Student Development, 32, 140-146.
DiPlacido, J. (1998). Minority stress among lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals: A consequence of heterosexism, homophobia, and stigmatization. In G. M. Herek (Ed.), Stigma and sexual orientation: Understanding prejudice against lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Gluth, D. R., & Kiselica, M. S. (1994). Coming out quickly: A brief counseling approach to dealing with gay and lesbian adjustment issues. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 16(2), 163-174.
Hetrick, E., & Martin, D. (1987). Development issues and their resolution for gay and lesbian adolescents. Journal of Homosexuality, 14, 25-43.
Jordan, K., & Deluty, R. H. (1998). Coming out for lesbian women: its relation to anxiety, positive affectivity, self-esteem, and social support. Journal of Homosexuality, 35, 41-63.
Jordan, D., & Deluty, R. H. (2000). Social support, coming out, and relationship satisfaction in lesbian couples. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 4(1), 145-164.
LaSala, M. C. (2000). Gay male couples: The importance of coming out and being out to parents. Journal of Homosexuality, 39(2), 47-71.
Maugen, S., Floyd, F.J., Bakeman, R., & Armistead, L. (2002). Developmental milestones and disclosure of sexual orientation among gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 23(2), 219-223.
Rhoads, R. A. (1994). Coming out in college: The struggle for a queer identity. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.