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It’s 2023, and coming out is still complicated, study finds

In an era of unprecedented LGBTQ2+ visibility coupled with incredible backlash, coming out as a sexual minority can be a deeply ambivalent experience, according to new research.

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In an era of unprecedented LGBTQ2+ visibility coupled with incredible backlash, coming out as a sexual minority can be a deeply ambivalent experience, according to new research.

The study – “Distinguishing but not defining: How ambivalence affects contemporary identity disclosures” by Amin Ghaziani and Andy Holmes – appeared in Theory and Society.

“Coming out is about sharing your identity with someone, and it’s an ongoing process that happens at different times with different people. In the 1980s and 1990s, coming out was a transformative act, although still very much a struggle, in a homophobic society. In the 2000s and 2010s, the narrative changed from what we might call ‘struggle and success’ to ’emancipation’”’ as people in the West generally found more acceptance in society. Coming out became less formal and less fraught.

“But today, LGBTQ2+ people have more visibility than ever before, with more than 4% of Canada’s population identifying as LGBTQ2+ and 7.2% for American adults in a 2022 Gallup poll, double what it was when Gallup first measured sexuality a decade ago.

“Despite political progress on both sides of the border, there’s been a lot of troubling backlash. In Vancouver, violent anti-trans hate crimes have been on the rise for a few years. And in the US, state legislatures introduced 525 anti-LGBTQ2+ bills just this year.

And so for Ghaziani, “we live in a curious moment today of unprecedented progress and brutal backlash. How do these crisscrossing currents affect coming out? That’s what we wanted to figure out.”

In this study, the researchers used 52 in-depth interviews with recently-out individuals to explain how identity disclosures in the present moment can validate plural possibilities.

“Our findings show that ambivalence is the core narrative which animates the contemporary coming out process,” the researchers stated.

In short, stressed Ghaziani, “it’s complicated. Neither a narrative of struggle and success nor emancipation fully captures what it’s like to come out today. Instead, we found that people are deeply ambivalent.”

For Ghaziani, one reason for this ambivalence is an awareness among young people today of significant generational differences.”

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In any case, the respondents identified three interpretive frameworks that structure their experience of sexuality as at once incidental and central: generational differences, identity misrecognitions, and interfacing with institutions.

The researchers also detailed a fourth theme, intersectionality, “which shows the analytic limits of ambivalence in the coming out process.”

For the researchers, “these patterns suggest more broadly that sexuality, like ethnicity, may provide symbolic resources—“distinguishing but not defining”—in the service of crafting a modern sexual self.”

Ghaziani stressed that most people live in a grey area in between the extremes of a liberal, accepting society, and one wracked by relentless bigotry and discrimination. “That affects how we think about our sexuality: it distinguishes us, but it doesn’t necessarily define us, at least not all the time.”

And so “when it comes to practical steps, institutions still play a big role in the after-effects of coming out goes. Having policies that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is crucial for creating supportive environments. But when it comes to matters of culture, like what we see on the silver screen, we need more diversity of voices so people can understand and appreciate that there are many ways of coming out and identifying as LGBTQ2+.”


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