National Coming Out Day is observed each year on October 11th as a way to celebrate individuals coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or another identity (LGBTQ+). It began on October 11th 1988, exactly a year after the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place and half a million people held a demonstration in our nation’s capital. What followed this event was the founding of a number of LGBTQ+ organizations, including the National Latino/a Gay & Lesbian Organization (LLEGÓ), and collective momentum of the movement that led to the founding of National Coming Out Day the following year. This October 11th marks the 30 year anniversary of its inception.
With the history of this significant event at top of mind, we at Bespoke Surgical decided to conduct a survey to learn more about LGBTQ+ individuals’ experience of coming out. We asked respondents questions related to when they came out, the fears they had about it, their experience traveling as an out couple, and how they view the workplace. Our findings show that progress has been made, but there is still more to be done.
Coming out: The experience and related fears
In our survey, we decided to start with the basics. We asked individuals to tell us when they reached certain milestones of their experience as an LGBTQ+ person, which included the moment when they realized their identity, when they started dating as an LGBTQ+ person, when they had their first sexual experience as an LGBTQ+ person, and when they came out.
Overall, the average age a person comes out is 20.6, though our results show a notable difference among age groups. For millennials, the average age for this milestone is 18.1, around 4-5 years earlier than the average age reported by Generation Xers and Baby Boomers (23.0 and 23.4, respectively). This indicated to us that younger generations are able to come out sooner, generally after high school, than older generations did. Still, our results show that LGBTQ+ individuals don’t feel comfortable sharing their identity until 2-3 years after they acknowledge their sexuality.
We also wanted to learn more about how individuals experienced coming out, and the fears that they struggled with. We found that over a third of LGBTQ+ people (35.6%) felt that it was a negative process. 44.3% overall reported it as positive, with millennials even more likely to say so, which is a trend we hope continues.
The fears related to coming out weren’t necessarily surprising to us, but they were sobering. The most common reason LGBTQ+ individuals were or are apprehensive to come out is familial tension, isolation, or estrangement. This makes sense — people tend to come out around high school age, and at that point the majority of their support system is often their family. The fear of losing that by coming out is entirely understandable. The other reasons individuals avoided coming out were fears of social attitudes, personal struggles with identity, fears of violence, and fears of discrimination at work.
Being out: Homophobia and today’s climate
It’s important for allies to remember that to a degree, LGBTQ+ people are always coming out as they encounter new people. With this and the state of politics in mind, we decided to ask respondents more about their life in general. We found that 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ individuals experience homophobia at least once daily. Those who identify as queer were even more likely to report this — over a third, in fact.
The forms of homophobia most often seen are use of slurs, religious doctrines, cyberbullying, threats of violence, or actual violence. Any and all of these can be incredibly damaging, mentally and physically, and lead to feelings of low self-worth or depression. It can also be difficult to confront homophobia because of the risk of further verbal or physical abuse. Around a third of LGBTQ+ individuals report feeling uncomfortable confronting it, while only a third feels comfortable with it. The remaining third feels neutral.
No matter your political affiliations, it’s undeniable that the current climate in the United States is contentious. When asked about how it affects them, 39% of LGBTQ+ individuals reported feeling more inclined to be vocal on issues, and 14% feel less inclined. These findings indicate that this group has grown to be incredibly strong in the face of adversity, though a culture of hate will inevitably make some individuals feel silenced. This affirms the importance of events like National Coming Out Day, to remind everyone within the LGBTQ+ community that they are welcome and worthy in our society.
It’s not as commonly known, but discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals is present even when it comes to sex education and medical care. Over half of the people surveyed felt that they weren’t properly educated before their first sexual encounter — and the percentage is even higher for baby boomers (60%). We also learned that many LGBTQ+ individuals feel they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing medical and mental healthcare. Over 2 in 5 people report feeling this way.
Travel: How it differs for LGBTQ+ individuals
It can be difficult for LGBTQ+ individuals to feel comfortable being out even in their home city, so we wanted to learn more about how they feel when traveling somewhere new. Our results show that 64% of people feel comfortable traveling as an out couple within the U.S., and that younger generations feel even more at ease about it. Straight couples aren’t burdened by the fears that LGBTQ+ couples have, so it’s unlikely that thoughts about how they’ll be treated while traveling even crosses their minds. It’s our hope that all couples, especially LGBTQ+ ones, will feel comfortable traveling without fear of being themselves.
Often, fears in life come about from previous negative experiences or stories about other’s negative experiences, so we wanted to learn more about the details behind LGBTQ+ couples fear of traveling. Our survey found that 2 in 5 people have had a negative experience while traveling with a romantic partner. We also learned that the most common fears related to traveling are harassment (43%), silent judgment (35%), and physical violence (30%). Travel is meant to be a relaxing experience, but our findings suggest this is more difficult to achieve for LGBTQ+ couples. Knowing this, we weren’t surprised to find that 2 in 5 respondents have chosen not to travel somewhere because of its reputation as being anti-LGBTQ+.
The workplace: How LGBTQ+ individuals experience it
Work takes up over a third of each person’s waking hours, assuming they work full-time, so how comfortable someone feels in their workplace is incredibly important. We decided to ask respondents specifically about work for this reason. As it turns out, about 57% of LGBTQ+ individuals are out at work, and the percentage is slightly higher for women than men (58% and 55.3%, respectively). We also see a trend where younger generations are more likely to be out in the workplace.
We also felt it was important to find out when LGBTQ+ individuals feel comfortable coming out at work, whether that’s right away or after a certain amount of time working somewhere. Our results show that a notable portion (31.3%) are out at work from day one, however there’s also a significant group (31.9%) that reports not being out and never planning to come out. This makes sense, considering 20% of respondents reported that discrimination at work was or is one of their reasons for not coming out.
In recent years, more and more companies have made a point to position themselves as supportive to LGBTQ+ individuals and other protected groups. This is an important factor to LGBTQ+ people, according to our survey. In fact, 60% of respondents reported that a company’s reputation is significant when deciding whether or not to work there. Of course, there’s a difference between just claiming your company is inclusive and actually acting to prove it — and there are certain actions that LGBTQ+ people look for most. These actions include an explicit anti-discrimination policy, LGBTQ+ individuals in leadership positions, other LGBTQ+ employees, and work benefits that apply to them as a couple.
The LGBTQ+ community has made immense progress in the 30 years since the start of National Coming Out Day, but our survey results show there is more to be done. Younger generations report feeling more comfortable with being out, both in general and while traveling, but they still face discrimination that heterosexual individuals and couples don’t.
National Coming Out Day and similar events bring light to an issue that our nation still very much needs to resolve. It reminds LGBTQ+ individuals, whether they’re out or not, that they are valid and are not alone. It’s also an opportunity for allies to better understand the adversity that they, themselves, haven’t had to face personally. We hope that with events like these and studies like ours, we can continue the progress that has already been made.
About the Author
Dr. Evan Goldstein is the Founder and CEO of Bespoke Surgical. Dr. Goldstein has extensive experience educating and shedding light on health care issues relating to the gay community, and has been published in several national publications including The Advocate, OUT Magazine, Vice, Refinery 29, NY Mag and more.
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