We look now at how gay people must deal with the conflict of being gay in a predominantly heterosexual society, and the poten­tially hostile social environment that is posed to them as a result. The decision to be secretive or open about their sexual orientation affects the lives of all gay men and lesbians.

The extent to which homosexual individuals decide to be secre­tive or open about their sexual orientation significantly impacts their lives in profound ways. There are various degrees of being "in the closet," and several steps are involved in coming out—acknowledg­ing, accepting, and openly expressing one’s homosexuality (Patter­son, 1995). Gays, lesbians, and bisexual people base decisions about coming out on issues of safety and acceptance for themselves and others. Individuals come out at all ages, including at advanced ages, as portrayed in the 2011 film Beginners. Being openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual can be personally liberating but may not be adaptive in every situation (Legate et al., 2012). Passing as heterosexual can help an individual avoid negative social consequences but exacts its toll in the stresses of maintaining secrecy (Malcolm, 2008). Individual circumstances significantly affect decisions about coming out.

Historical context also influences coming out, as indicated in a study of three different generations of lesbians:

1. Lesbians who became adults before the gay rights era began in the 1970s

2. Lesbians who became adults during the gay rights era, between 1970 and 1985

3. Lesbians who became adults after 1985

With each consecutive age group, women’s awareness of their sexual orientation, initial same-sex sexual experience, labeling of themselves as lesbian, and disclosing to others occurred earlier in life. For example, women in the youngest group were, on average,

20 years old when they identified themselves as lesbian, whereas

women in the oldest group were 32 years old. The most significant change over time

was that more and more women had sexual experiences with other women before

having such experiences with men. This was true for most women in the youngest

group, whereas the opposite was true for most women in both older groups (Parks,

1999).

Although coming-out decisions are unique to each individual and situation, many have common elements: self-acknowledgment, self-acceptance, and disclosure. We look at each of these in the following sections.