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Headwork: ‘Coming Out’, Context and Reason

‘Coming out’ as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) for the first time is a significant milestone in an individual’s identity development. How ‘coming out’ is achieved is, in part, socially constructed – an individual’s expectations are influenced by the way in which s/he views and enacts the process, and by the meaning s/he creates within her/his social context. However, ‘coming out’ is also a cognitive process based upon a series of inductive and deductive observations of the world which offers a subjective assessment of potential risk to psychological well-being, social support (from family, friends, and significant others in the community), safety and liberty (as a result of legal, cultural, or public censure)

To date, despite the wealth of autobiographical accounts of ‘coming out’, researchers have paid little attention to the ways in which young people acquire ‘knowledge’ and the reasoning underpinning this milestone in lesbian and gay development. In the case of bisexual development, it is often presumed that those young people follow a trajectory similar to that of lesbians and gay men, however, in effect there is little evidence to support this other than where a bisexual person embarks upon a same-sex relationship.

To fill this gap in our understanding of the research literature, and to explore more critically the contextual and cognitive process of lesbian, gay, and bisexual emergence, this project has four broad aims:

  • To develop and pilot a semi-structured interview schedule that further enhances our understanding of young LGBs’ reasoning in the context of ‘coming out’.
  • To offer a deeper understanding of the context in which ‘coming out’ is considered,  the issues that are perceived to be of greatest importance, in terms of their order/salience, and the logic that frames their beliefs and decisions.
  • To gain a greater appreciation of the tensions (constructed or otherwise) that exist in a young person’s mind when they contemplate ‘coming out’, exploring both the linear and non-linear mental representations s/he uses.
  • To better understand that barriers that exist or have been created to inhibit positive ‘coming out’ paying particular attention to the nature and type of agreements made by young people and their families/significant others, or those imposed by a society or culture.

Based upon the work of Anthony D’Augelli and Pennsylvania State University, this project uses a framework in the form of a decision tree (click on the image) to plot the logic behind young LGBs’ decisions to ‘come out.

The study uses the decision tree as a guide to explore the internal dialogues and debates that young people have before they ‘come out’. Rather than use a structured or semi-structured interview, the plan is to ask young people to narrate their coming out story and, at appropriate points, to ask about the decision they made using the decision tree as a guide. To fully understand the internal debates young people had, a series of prompts adapted from interpersonal process recall counselling interview will be used:

  • What do you wish you had said to him/her?
  • How do you think he/she would have reacted if you had said that?
  • What would have been the risk in saying what you wanted to say?
  • If you had the chance now, how might you tell him/her what you are thinking and feeling?
  • Were there any other thoughts going through your mind?
  • How did you want the other person to perceive you?
  • What did you want him/her to tell you?
  • What do you think he/she wanted from you?

A pilot study for this project has already been published in the first issue of the new journal Psychology and Sexuality.


For many, ‘coming out’ to family members represents a critical milestone in lesbian, gay and bisexual development. This study explores the cognitive aspects of ‘coming out’ focusing on the inductive and deductive reasoning used by the authors of 400 ‘coming out’ stories and the conditional responses that followed. Results indicated that men were more likely to use inductive reasoning than deductive when compared to women. Furthermore, among those who reported conditionals being set or agreed upon, the majority were emotional in nature. This investigation suggests that there is a great deal to be learned about the nature of the reasoning employed by young lesbian, gay, and bisexual people ‘coming out’ to family members, which may better inform those who counsel them.

Reference: Rivers, I. & Gordon, K. (2010). ‘Coming Out’, context, and reason: First disclosure of sexual orientation and its consequences. Psychology & Sexuality, 1(1), 21-33.

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