Two Studies on Gays Coming Out... or Not

Two recent studies that have gotten mainstream press attention point out something that gay people have known for decades: coming out isn't a light-switch, it's a process that never finishes. It's good to get that message out there, but it's an incomplete discussion without mentioning rampant anti-gay workplace discrimination.

A new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy think tank has found that 48 percent of college-educated lesbian and gay Americans hide their sexual orientation at work. About a third of them are leading "double lives," the report says -- staying in the closet at the office while being "out" in their personal lives.

Gay and lesbians who are not out at work are more likely to report job-related stress and isolation than their peers, and are also more likely to say they want to leave their current jobs. When coworkers chat about their husbands or wives and their weekend plans, closeted co-workers fall silent. This result is an isolated feeling that they can't bring their "whole selves" to work, the authors say, which affects productivity and job satisfaction.

Now, taking that 48% statistic as a hard fact would be a fallacy. There's little information in either the Yahoo! News article or on the Center for Work-Life Policy's website about methodology, but most likely they just surveyed workers. So that 48% there was the 48% of people who identified as gay or lesbian (not bisexual, apparently) who aren't out at work; gays who weren't willing to identify themselves as such for the survey (maybe they thought the results would be public, or they aren't entirely sure/aware of their sexuality, or they just didn't like the way the survey asked) wouldn't have been counted at all, which would only increase the percentage of closet cases at work. The real number is probably higher.

But the Yahoo! article doesn't seem to get how gay working people might feel they have to navigate these situations. Check out these paragraphs:

Despite the high percentage of workers who say they don't want to tell coworkers about their sexual orientation, many of the country's top companies explicitly extend protections and benefits to their gay employees. Nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and 57 percent of them extend benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees, the report says. Cisco even makes up the tax premium for its employees that gay couples in domestic partnerships pay over married straight couples, which is estimated to be at about $1,000 per year.

Karen Sumberg, a co-author of the report, says that gay-friendly policies aren't enough to encourage some employees to come out.

"It's not just the policies, but also how well they're communicated," she told The Lookout. "What we found is that people aren't always sure that they have these policies or what it means, both gay and straight."

OK, yeah, maybe the gays don't know that the policy is in place. Or maybe they just don't believe it'll be enforced. There are people who do get fired for being gay at companies that have anti-discrimination policies. There are also people who don't get explicitly fired for that, but just passed over for promotions, ignored, or made to work in a hostile environment.

Just because corporate leadership writes a policy doesn't mean that it's actually becomes reality. Gay people know this. It'd be nice to point out the fact that homophobia still exists in an article addressing a straight audience.

The second item on outness from this week was this study from the University of Rochester that surveyed several LGB people it found in online message boards. Again, coming out isn't a light-switch, but a dynamic quality. And it comes down to safety:

The research, which surveyed gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals recruited from online message boards, found that most of the volunteers were closeted in at least one area of their lives. Unsurprisingly, the participants hesitated to reveal their sexual identity in environments they judged as controlling and judgmental. About 69 percent said they were not open about their sexuality within their religious communities, for example, compared with only 13 percent who were not out to their friends.

When people did come out in a certain aspect of their lives, the benefits were tempered by how accepting that community was, said study researcher Richard Ryan, a psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York.

"We didn't find any overall negative effect of coming out in controlling environments," Ryan told LiveScience. "Rather, there sometimes was a negligible benefit. ... You got some benefit from not having to conceal, but also you're likely paying some social price."

At least LiveScience gets that homophobia still exists.

In a religious community, there's a lot to lose, and considering how homophobic a lot of religions are, it's a pretty sure loss. People are more likely to think that new friends can be made, though. That's not particularly "savvy," it's just knowing that things have gotten better, but are far from perfect.