The 'coming out' process for lesbians : a comparison of lesbian and heterosexual perspectives
Coming out', defined in terms of identifying self as lesbian, as well as disclosure of this information to others, is seen as an issue only within a heterosexist society. Heterosexism serves to reflect and create social representations, containing inflexible conceptualizations of gender, and social identities, incorporating power inequalities. The study was based on content analysis of individual semi-structured depth interviews, with forty lesbians on perceptions and experiences of coming out; thirty heterosexual women and men on attitudes to homosexuality; and twenty women on communication with family and friends. Lesbian and heterosexual interviews were supplemented with stereotype tasks, including the Bem Sex-Role Inventory and the Personal Attributes Questionnaire. Coming out to self was shown to be based upon strong emotional feelings directed towards women, together with awareness of lesbianism as an option, and a level of emotional acceptance of homosexuality. Coming out to family, heterosexual friends etc. involved risks and benefits. The study revealed a social context reflecting lesbian 'invisibility', heterosexuals' lack of interest and minimal contact with lesbians; perceptions of threat and abnormality; and a masculine, abnormal, aggressive, lesbian stereotype. Heterosexual subjects defined 'lesbian' in terms of sex only, and perceived lesbians as masculine. Lesbian subjects perceived lesbianism as more than sex, and lesbians as androgynous. Communication issues most similar to coming out concerned identity, relationships, or a different way of life; threat, loss or stigma; or reactions of others. Case studies analysed within Breakwell's threatened identity model suggested extension of the theory to include additional identity principles of authenticity/integrity and affiliation. It is argued that changes, at the level of social representations, relating to gender conceptualization, and the consequent power inequalities, are necessary for aiding the coming out process.