the effects of coming out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual

Many people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual struggle with the question of when and whether to come out to friends, family, and community. [1] I have often heard that it’s important to do so in order to change minds in favor of LGB rights. But quantitatively, what are the impacts of coming out? In a given case, it undoubtedly depends on a whole host of factors regarding the individuals and circumstances involved. But I decided to look at the average effects of knowing someone who has identified themselves LGB on a person’s attitudes about LGB political and social issues.

If you want to skip to the punchline: coming out has a substantial favorable impact (at least 10 percentage points on average) on the attitudes of others about LGB issues. The size of the effect varies in terms of the relationship between the people involved and their demographics, as well as the issues involved. Coming out can also have an effect on prejudice against other groups, not just LGBs. For details and citations, keep reading.

Some initial work by Gallup shows that knowing individuals who are gay or lesbian is correlated with less opposition to gay marriage and increased comfort around gays and lesbians. However, correlation is not causation, and there are plenty of reasons to think that the causal arrow might at least sometimes go the other direction — people might be more willing to come out to people who are already more accepting of LGBs and inclined to support gay rights.

Additionally, Andrew Gelman shows that the picture is more complicated than the Gallup poll shows, even just in terms of correlations. When plotted by age, the curves of how many people supports same-sex marriage and how many people know someone who is gay don’t look at all the same. [2] Support for same-sex marriage decreases steadily with age, but the percentage of people who know LGB individuals rises very slightly from 18 to 45 and then drops precipitously. Clearly there are a lot of other factors that go into attitudes about LGB issues which make it harder to see the connection between knowing LGBs and support for gay rights.

Gregory B. Lewis wrote a paper in 2008 [3] working to identify and better understand all the factors involved in the connection between knowing LGB people and attitudes about a number of LGB issues, including employment non-discrimination, gays in the military, sodomy laws, civil unions and same-sex marriage, and same-sex adoption. Lewis looked at 27 national surveys (with 38,910 total respondents) that gathered data about participants’ demographics, friendships or other relationships with people who identify as LGB, and attitudes on a number of LGB issues. He created mathematical models (logit analyses) to understand the strength of the effect of many different variables (e.g., participant age, religion, the number of gay people they know) on support for LGB rights in various domains.

To attempt to get a better grasp on the causal direction question (does coming out cause acceptance or does acceptance cause coming out?), Lewis performed a set of analyses that controlled for beliefs about whether homosexuality is innate and whether it is morally acceptable. He looked at his model results when he held those beliefs constant, under the assumption that those beliefs would be some of the main factors influencing whether an LGB person would come out to someone or not. He figured that by holding these beliefs steady and then looking at the relationship between knowing LGBs and supporting LGB rights, we could be more confident that we were seeing an actual effect of coming out, and not just a correlation.

So what did Lewis find? His methodology reveals that coming out has a substantial impact on the attitudes of others. A conservative estimate concludes that

coming out to someone who does not know LGBs appears to have a 1 in 10 chance of moving that person to a more positive perspective on gay rights. That effect has not shrunk noticeably over time, nor does it seem to be limited to particular issues.

Lewis also found that the effect is somewhat stronger when someone comes out to a friend rather than a family member or co-worker. He also found that

the effect was strongest for the youngest respondents, for liberals, and for less-educated respondents, but it appeared substantial even for college-educated conservatives.

Lewis found that knowing LGBs had the strongest effect on attitudes about hiring and employment discrimination (14 percentage points) and least strong effect on attitudes about marriage/civil union issues (still about 9 percentage points), with effects on attitudes about sodomy laws and other LGB legal issues falling in between.

More broadly, Pettigrew and Tropp (2006)  found that when people have intergroup interactions with members of other ethnic groups, sexual orientations, ages, etc — willingly or otherwise — it (on average) reduces their prejudice against all members of the group(s) they are interacting with. Interestingly, this effect is largest for interactions between heterosexuals and LGBs (the effect of intergroup interaction is also above average for interactions with people who have the physically disabilities, but is below average for interactions with the elderly and people with mental disorders). Intergroup interaction reduces prejudice most in children and college students, and has the smallest effect on adults.

One other interesting bit, if I’m understanding the research correctly, is that interacting with a member of an outgroup (e.g., member of a different racial or ethnic group) will frequently reduce prejudice not just toward other members of the same outgroup, but also toward other outgroups not even involved in the interaction in the first place. So, in other words, working to reducing someone’s prejudice against one group will often have an effect on lowering their prejudices more broadly as well.

All in all, there’s a lot of food for thought here about coming out and doing other work to reduce prejudice in general. And I am pleased to have found some data to go along with the general statements frequently made that it is helpful to come out to friends and family. Good luck to everyone out there who is thinking about coming out or doing any kind of work to reduce prejudice against any group of people.

[1] Much of the research covered here seems relevant to transfolk as well, but as they were not addressed in the papers I found, I am going to stick to writing about coming out as LGB for now. If anyone knows about similar papers regarding coming out as trans, I’d love to read them, though.

[2] Presumably many of the people who claim not to know any LGB people actually do, but don’t know that they do. But I’m going to abbreviate “know that they know LGB people” to “know LGB people”, in keeping with the polls and literature.

[3] Working paper; I don’t believe this work has been peer reviewed.


  1. joe Said,

    December 28, 2009 @ 3:43 pm

    Wow, that Lewis result is pretty amazing, thanks!

  2. dave Said,

    January 5, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    “working to reducing someone’s prejudice against one group will often have an effect on lowering their prejudices more broadly as well”

    For which relief, much thanks.

    This reminds me somewhat of the Asch conformity studies. ( Among the results he found was that:
    a) the more people are giving the same wrong answer, the lower the chances that a subject will give the right answer, BUT
    b) even one other person giving the right answer negates the effect of a lot of people giving the wrong answer, AND
    c) giving a DIFFERENT BUT EQUALLY WRONG answer has very similar effects to giving the right answer.

    I often explicitly clutch (c) to my metaphorical heart.
    I don’t have to be right.
    I just have to speak up.