By Jennifer Taub
This column begins “Research Corner,”a new Bi Women feature. Each issue I will take a look at research about or of relevance to bi women. Much of the research that includes bisexual women has been in the context of studies looking at “lesbian or bisexual women,” or at women who are not exclusively heterosexual. Some studies ask only for self-identification, others ask women to rate themselves on a Kinsey-type scale, while others look exclusively at sexual history and behavior. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell how a particular issue impacts bi women specifically, but I will do my best to tease out implications.
Since the theme of this issue is “Out at Work,” this issue’s column takes a look at “outness” across domains – work, family, friends – and the relationship to mental health.
Despite the potential negative consequences of being out, it has long been thought that outness is positively correlated to mental health. Twenty years ago, a researcher studying lesbians coming out stated, “The ability to be open about one’s lesbian identity is associated with the integration of personality, psychological health, and authenticity in interpersonal relationships.” (1) Since then, researchers have found that disclosure of lesbian identity (earlier studies did not look at bi women as a separate group) is positively related to self-esteem, perceived social support, positive affect and lower anxiety. (2)
There has certainly been a trend in recent years towards increased visibility in general for queer people (I will use “queer” for denoting non-straight folks of all stripes), and for gays and lesbians in particular. The National Lesbian Health Care Survey (NLHCS) (3) , which surveyed nearly 2000 women, found that 88% were out to all GLB friends, 27% to all family members, 28% to heterosexual friends, and 17% in the workplace. Almost 1 in 5 were not out any family members, and 29% were out to no co-workers. European-American lesbians were more likely to be out than African-Americans or Latinas.
Additional factors that are positively correlated with being out include age and stage of coming out and involvement with queer community. Self-identified lesbians are more likely to be out than self-identified bisexual women. Reasons for this may include that women who are partnered with men are less likely to receive inquiries about their sexual orientation, and are therefore less likely to disclose. Conversely, those with female partners are more likely to disclose. Therefore, it is probably more accurate to state that women who are partnered with women are more likely to be out than women who are partnered with men.
A comprehensive study of 2400 women (4) (Morris, 2001) looked in detail at mental health and outness across different domains, and looked at lesbians and bisexual women separately. While this study was completed a decade ago, the solid methodology and large sample size makes it notable. Researchers looked at different dimensions of sexual orientation and identity, including self-identification, sexual activity, and current relationship status. Completed just seven years after the NLHCS, this study found 71% of women were out to heterosexual friends vs. 28% in the NLHCS study. Women were out to an average of 65% of family members and 55% of coworkers. Outness differed by ethnicity, with European women and Latinas more out than African-American women, and Jewish women more out than non-Jewish women. Lesbians were more likely to be out than bisexual women. This study also supported the notion that being out was positively related to psychological health, and a lower risk of being suicidal. For bisexual women, the primary factor predicting outness was the number of years since one first identified as bisexual. Sexual activity and current relationship status were not factors related to outness for bisexual women, but were for lesbians.
Given the positive findings for being out and women’s mental health, research findings suggest that, in general, being out to more people, across more areas of one’s life, will have a positive impact on one’s mental health.
Jennifer Taub, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who lives in Boston. She has conducted research about bi women and is a proud member of BBWN.
- Kahn, MJ. (1991). Factors affecting the coming out process for lesbians. Journal of Homosexuality, 21, 47-70.
- Jordan, K.M. & Deluty, R.H. (1998). Coming out for lesbian women: Its relation to anxiety, positive affectivity, self-esteem and social support. Journal of Homosexuality, 35, 1-63.
- Bradford, J., Ryan, C & Rothblum, ED. (1994). National lesbian health care survey: Implications for mental health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 228-242.
- Morris, JF, Waldo, CR & Rothblum, ED. (2001). A model of predictors and outcomes of outness among lesbian and bisexual women. Amer Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71, 61-71.