real life

This is what it feels like to live in the closet.

 

Jane Ussher

Today, Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe is experiencing a joyous acceptance of his sexuality by the Australian community. What he most feared might come to pass as a result of his coming out – derision, cruelty and the demise of his hero status – seems almost laughable in the face of the genuine ‘onya Thorpey’ sentiments that dominate the media today.

Many of us are not so lucky…

I made the decision to be open about my sexuality many years ago, as I could not live with the deceit of being in the closet. Why should I conceal the fact that my partner was a woman? It was nothing to be ashamed of. My family and friends were positive and supportive – unlike many gay and lesbian people who experience rejection or vilification.

However, at my work as an academic it was a different matter. A student I supervised complaining that I had “confessed” to being a lesbian, a complaint the University upheld.

I was formally told I should not make such disclosures in future – locking me into an officially enforced closet. When the story appeared in the UK national press, where I then lived, I was outed on a grand scale. I sympathise with Ian Thorpe this morning.

Public discussion of your sexuality is a very uncomfortable experience, however ‘out and proud’ you are.

The positive reaction Ian Thorpe is receiving today does not discredit the real fear that he would be rejected if he was open about his sexuality, as there can be severe negative consequences of coming out. Discrimination on the basis of sexual preference is not recognised by the law in Australia, so the fear of losing your job – or your sponsorship, if you are an international athlete – if you come out as gay or lesbian is very real. Ian Thorpe’s decision to be silent about his sexuality for so long was therefore a rational decision.

These negative responses to gay and lesbian people can have detrimental effects on mental health.

Rates of serious psychological distress are much higher in gay and lesbian youth, with bullying at school, discrimination, and parental rejection being rife. In some religious schools there is a general fear of being expelled. Being secretive can be the best strategy for survival, but that can result in fears of being found out, difficulties in forming relationships, and a sense of living a false life. It’s a double edged sword for many young people – damned of you do and damned if you don’t disclose.

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It doesn’t get any easier in adulthood. Depression, anxiety and risk of suicide are much higher in gay and lesbian adults. This is not because there is something inherently pathological about being gay, but because of the stress and discrimination in many people’s lives. Psychologists describe it as minority stress.

There is an upside to this discussion. Researchers have found that gay and lesbian relationships are more equal and supportive. Gay men are more satisfied with their sex lives than heterosexual men. Women in lesbian relationships are less likely to suffer from severe PMS. And children born in lesbian relationships have greater self-esteem and confidence, less behavioural problems, and better academic performance.

Sexuality and sexual identity are complex and multifaceted. We may be moving away from the world of compulsory heterosexuality first described by feminist Adrienne Rich, but many people struggle to come to terms with desires for the opposite sex. This struggle can last a lifetime – in an ongoing research study of the experiences of gay men with prostate cancer, we have interviewed men who had been married for 40 or 50 years, only coming out as gay in later life, when their partner dies.

The first, and most difficult, step is to come out to yourself, and then take the often scary step of exploring a physical relationship with a same sex partner. Nobody should have to do this in the public gaze. So we should applaud Ian Thorpe for his honesty and openness, acknowledge that he will be a positive role model, and leave him to explore his non-closeted sexual life in private.

I am longer in the closet at work.

In my current job, I was told I must declare my sexuality to all of the students I supervise, as I work alongside my partner, and it is important for people to know we are in a relationship. When I make this disclosure, I can see that some students are thinking “why are you telling me about your personal life?” I’m inclined to agree, but enforced coming out on a regular basis is better than being silent or secretive.

In coming out on national television Ian Thorpe has avoided ever having to disclose his sexuality again, as everyone now knows.

I envy him that.

Because coming out is always hard to do, no matter how many times you’ve done it.

Jane Ussher is Professor of Women’s Health Psychology at University of Western Sydney and MamaMia Scientist in Residence, as part of the Australian Science Media Centre’s Program, which places scientists in newsrooms across Australia to enhance the evidence-based content of stories.

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