A nascent body of research is growing on the issue of disclosing one’s sexuality, also termed “coming out,” and the implications for attitudes, behavior, and health. This research engages (a) the political attitudes of those reporting their sexual identity, and (b) the social conditions that lead people to express different forms of sexual identity. Four main findings help to characterize the relationship between coming out and political attitudes among sexual minorities. First, people who come out tend to be socially liberal, but the reasons behind this pattern remain unclear. Second, tolerant social conditions correlate with coming out; expressions of tolerant attitudes; and political engagement on behalf of lesbian, gay, and bisexual rights. Third, the reverse holds as well: Intolerant, homophobic social conditions correlate with the concealment of one’s homosexuality and the expression of homophobic attitudes. Fourth, homophobic social conditions also may lead to worse mental health outcomes, which in turn reduce political efficacy and participation. However, the causal relationships between social conditions, coming out, political outcomes, and health outcomes elude existing research. Future research can unpack these relationships and include more cases outside Western Europe and North America, where most research on this topic is conducted.
Even though it may be challenging to determine both someone’s sexual orientation and the time of their coming out, or sometimes even their gender for that matter, taking all those as the starting point for analyzing the proliferation of out LGBT parliamentarians will offer intriguing insights into a country’s political life. When following over some 40 years the developments in two European countries with a multi-party system, but with different proportional representation voting systems, such as Germany and Finland, one can notice interesting differences begging for closer scrutiny. In Germany, the list voting combined with constituency voting has allowed openly lesbian or gay candidates from all parties to enter the Bundestag, whereas in Finland only candidates from younger parties have made it to the eduskunta through the open list system. In both countries, gay men have been able to benefit comfortably from their incumbency advantage, whereas lesbians have faced far more difficulties in sustaining their political careers. Thus the descriptive representation and political careers of out lesbians and gays present themselves as highly gendered. This can be explained partly by the prejudices held by party selectorates, and partly by the gendered differences in symbolic representation of politicians in the media, which affects the electorate. It remains to be seen what effect the changing political meaning of politicians’ coming out will have in relation to substantial representation in an era when being lesbian or gay becomes ordinary, but, at the same time, LGBT issues get politicized and remain contested.
Mark R. Hoffarth and Gordon Hodson
Intergroup relations and contact between groups has historically been considered a mechanism to promote support for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights. However, LGBT identities are often concealable, and stigma discourages members of the LGBT community from disclosing that they are LGBT, which may prevent contact. Some subsets of the LGBT population make up a small percentage of the overall population, which may also decrease the quantity of contact. As such, the process of coming out to friends, relatives, and coworkers has been a common strategy of the modern LGBT movement. The strategy could be effective because the intergroup contact literature has found support for intergroup contact decreasing prejudice in meta-analyses. At the same time, researchers have challenged the assertion that intergroup contact promotes social change because intergroup contact is sometimes negative, or may be impractical or avoided, positive attitudes can coincide with acceptance of inequality, and intergroup contact may have unintended negative side effects. Research has generally found support for the notion that intergroup relations are more positive when there is greater contact. For LGBT people greater contact has been associated with decreasing anti-LGBT prejudice and increasing support for LGBT rights. However, similar to other domains of contact, the influence of LGBT contact is contextually sensitive, and a combination of psychological and structural barriers can decrease or prevent the positive effects of intergroup contact. There are strategies which may overcome these limitations, through policies (e.g., protection against discrimination), promoting types of contact that promote social change as opposed to merely positive attitudes, secondary transfer of contact effects, imagined contact, indirect forms of contact, and positive media representations of LGBT people. Gaps in the literature include a relative lack of research on contact with members of the LGBT community other than gays and lesbians (particularly non-cisgender people), intergroup contact between members of different subsets of the LGBT community, and a need for experimental and/or intervention-based research.