Impacts of Nondisclosure
The consequences of staying in the closet
BY HEMI FRIRES
“I have said to you to speak the truth is a painful thing. To be forced to tell lies is much worse.”
– Oscar Wilde
LGBT rights have been improving for years now. In many Western cultures, homosexuality is no longer illegal and is becoming more socially acceptable. In some cases, equality at various levels is well on its way. Even many traditionally conservative organizations, such as the U.S. military, are allowing openly gay personnel to serve. Yet we continue to see and hear about many instances of people choosing to remain in the closet and keeping their identity hidden.
Coming out of the closet is an unending process. With each person they meet, gays and lesbians must make a decision as to whether to disclose, hide or maintain sexual ambiguity and let people draw their own conclusions. For some, coming out can be a terrifying process, so much so that some people elect never to disclose to anyone else and instead keep their orientation secret. That decision isn’t without consequence.
People often consider the impacts of coming out, but rarely consider the consequence of staying in. It is important to remember that people decide whether or not to come out based on a number of factors. For some, coming out is imperative—the need to be honest with people who are important in their lives is critical. Others stay in the closet to protect those people around them from feeling hurt. Some are almost forced to stay in the closet for their own safety. Whatever the case may be, it is important that coming out of the closet be done at a time and in a fashion that is as comfortable and safe as possible for the individual.
Keeping a personal secret places substantial and concerning strain on an individual. Sexual orientation is a significant part of one’s identity: who we love is part of our humanity and is often taken for granted in the heteronormative society we live in. Staying in the closet means keeping a part of that humanity separate, and it is well documented that keeping a secret of this magnitude often leads to anxiety and stress. This anxiety and stress can lead to alcoholism, drug use, depression and suicide. The strain of constantly striving to appear mainstream is largely invisible to others until a breaking point is reached, at which point it may be too late to get help.
According to Anita Kelly in Revealing Personal Secrets, in addition to the psychological impacts of nondisclosure, it has been documented that the concealment of personal information, such as one’s sexuality, can lead to physical manifestations such as headaches, nausea and back pain. “Of greater concern are research findings into gay men concealing their sexual orientation, which indicated an increased susceptibility to infectious diseases and some cancers,” wrote Kelly. Another body of research discusses the health benefits to be gained by disclosing personal secrets—benefits that might not be realized if one elects not to disclose their orientation.
Keeping one’s orientation secret has the additional impact of denying part of a person’s character to others, making it difficult to fully integrate with peers. If a person is out of the closet to some people but not others, it leads to a “double life” effect and isolation from the groups and people not in the know. While peers are exploring and experiencing sex, love and relationships, those in the closet often struggle to do the same and are left feeling alone. If there is a significant other, staying in the closet can raise many complications, such as applying for joint financial or tenancy authority and detailing next-of-kin information for insurance purposes and the military.
The decision not to disclose can also lead to a higher likelihood of engaging in risky behavior. The LGBT community is a diverse one: some venues are less safe than others. A degree of caution, born out of years of discrimination and harassment, is essential. To start exploring the gay community—the nightlife, the social scene and sexual expression—without a trusted friend at hand carries a degree of risk. It isn’t hard to believe that a young guy, out alone on a Friday night, might find himself in a difficult situation with nobody to turn to for help, all for fear of outing himself. Further, as stated in the New Zealand Medical Journal, risky behavior might have medical and health considerations. Therefore, it might be relevant for a doctor to know a person’s sexual orientation to provide better, more robust care.
The impacts of nondisclosure don’t apply only to the individual in the closet; it can have a significant impact on the people they associate with, too. Failing to share one’s life with friends and colleagues can lead to uncertainty, mistrust and emotional distance between the closeted individual and his or her peers. For example, it is quite normal in the workplace for colleagues to have some knowledge about each other’s personal lives. While there is no absolute requirement to share this information, it can be critical to trust, networking, mentoring relationships and friendships.
For example, I was on a training course with a friend who was in the closet. The members in the course forged a close group, but in a number of instances, this friend isolated himself from the rest of us for the sake of his hidden social life. He repeatedly left us feeling distanced and mistrusted by avoiding our social interactions, to the point that many in the course gave up on including him. By coming out, he could have placed context around his behavior and justified his absence at our social activities.
Staying in the closet also means fewer open LGBT people available to challenge stereotypes, raise awareness and act as role models within the community. Elements of society have strong opinions on what it means to be gay, failing to recognize that the LGBT community has as much diversity as does the wider society. Simply having people being open about themselves and accessible to those with preconceptions can be the biggest factor in destigmatising the LGBT community. It also helps show people struggling with their own sexuality it is possible to be happy, successful and gay.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office in the United States, famously said, “All over the country, they’re reading about me…the story doesn’t center on me being gay. It’s just about a gay guy who’s doing his job.” Milk recognized the challenges of coming out, but also the need not to blend in, and his fierce openness in the face of oppression and bigotry inspired a generation to come out. Not everyone wants to wave the flag and represent the community; however, we regularly see and hear about celebrities and public figures coming out of the closet for a variety of reasons, and these are some of the role models the LGBT community desperately needs. Undoubtedly, role models are needed close to home, too, and simply living an authentic life can inspire others to have the courage to live openly as well.
It is important to recognize that, for some, coming out of the closet is a significant and deeply challenging decision to make. While many advocates and researchers agree that embracing one’s sexual orientation is essential to the psychological well-being of the LGBT individual, the consequences, both for and against, should be examined to ensure an informed decision. If, for whatever reason, the decision is made to stay in the closet, the impact of nondisclosure on yourself and others must be considered and managed.