Straight people talk about coming out like it’s one big event LGBTI folk do. As if you jump out the closet once and then suddenly everyone knows your sexuality or gender identity. That no other problems arise.
This is not the case. We have to come out to every single new person we meet. It’s a constant process that can often work out okay in the best situations. In the worst case it can be annoying, scary, or downright dangerous.
Also, the problem doesn’t go away with age or being an out and proud activist. It manifests in different ways, affecting everyone. The closet is everywhere and sometimes LGBTI people go into them for our own safety.
1 Going into care homes
As we get older, we all will have to rely on extra care to live our lives properly. According to charity SAGE, there are 1.5 million LGB people over 65 in the US. By 2030, that number is expected to double. For many, living with family is not an option, whether that’s from being disowned or simply not starting one.
However, many older LGB people do not feel like they can be open about their sexuality in long-term care facilities. Trans people in particular have different healthcare needs, which they struggle to get recognized. Studies (such as Fredriksen-Goldsen et al 2013) explicitly indicate inequalities in the health system stemming from LGBTI people having poorer health, particularly mental health.
The stigma LGBTI people carry through their entire lives doesn’t stop just because they’re older. In 2011, six organizations that advocate for older LGBTI care published a study called LGBT Older Adults in Long-Term Care Facilities: Stories from the Field. The findings are worrying.
Only 22 percent of those asked said they could open up about their sexual orientation with staff at a nursing or assisted living home.
Inside a nursing home, many older LGBTI people say they are forced to go back into the closet for fear of social rejection from other, heterosexual people. This manifests in homophobic comments – or even more insidious ways. Like caring for a grieving heterosexual man while ignoring a grieving woman who’s same-sex partner just died.
In the UK, Care Home’s survey of 2803 care workers, managers and owners found one in 10 staff witnessed prejudice against their LGBTI residents.
Staff, too, can put LGBTI people at risk, especially if they are religious. In the same survey as those above, 35% of care home staff received zero specialist training about LGBTI issues.
2 Going to university
University is an exciting time. For many it’s the first taste of freedom. Away from home towns, some people are able to live as the sexuality or gender identity they truly are.
However, it’s not as easy for everyone. Meeting a group of new people and pressure to fit in can force people into the closet, especially those who are hanging around in same-gender groups or playing in sports teams. And despite the popular myth, not everyone at college is accepting – as is the case with these French college students accused of homophobic attacks.
It’s even more complicated for people attending religious colleges. There are several stories of people not being able to finish their degrees because staff found out about their sexuality. While this is illegal in some places, it’s a harsh reality in others.
3 After graduating and starting a new job
After the freedom and excitement of university, the ‘real world’ is a horrible reality check. Fear of losing a hard-won job or of being rejected by their workmates means many refuse to come out of the closet in these situations. A toxic work environment only compounds those problems – think of the stereotype of a sales office.
More than half (58%) of young LGBTI people did not open up about their sexual orientation or gender identity at work for fear of being discriminated against. 31% said they ‘went back into the closet’ when they started their first job (limited to just 18-25 year olds, this is 41%). The study, conducted by Out Now, spoke to 3200 18-35 year-olds in 15 different countries.
Localized to the UK, a 2015 survey by LGBT2020 found that only 45% of people were out at work. With increasing work hours, we are forced to spend more and more hours with our colleagues. LGBTI people shouldn’t feel like they have to hide who they are.
4 Hostels and traveling
Traveling is one of the most exciting experiences in the world. However, it comes with certain dangers – especially for LGBTI people.
Lots of countries ban homosexuality. Lots of people are incredibly hostile to LGBTI people. And even when they’re not, it’s always a roll of the dice whether someone will react well to you coming out.
Also, as travelers will meet a much higher amount of strangers than normal, this risk is greatly increased. The closet is then used for protection.
5 Family events
Most of us have come out to our parents and immediate family. But bring in the rest and it becomes a whole new problem. Do we tell our cousin, who has got weirdly into Ben Shapiro? Do we talk to our Ann Widdecombe-loving grandma about it?
Family events can transform into a minefield of awkward questions about when you’re going to settle down with the gender you’re not attracted to. Trying to set you up with people you don’t want to be set up with. It’s added stress when there shouldn’t be stress.
This is much worse for bisexual people. A 2013 survey by Center found that many did not even come out to their parents, because they either didn’t think it was important to say or because the subject never came up.
6 In a new relationship
A problem for bisexual and pansexual people is, if they get into a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, they might not come out to them. Not being able to be true to yourself is terrible – not being able to be true to the one you love is heartbreaking.
Pew Research Center’s study of LGBTI people found only 19% of bisexual people were out to the most important people in their lives. 26% were out to none of them. This is compared to 75% of gay and lesbian people being out to everyone they love and only 4% to none of them.
7 Playing for a sports team
LGBTI people love sports, it’s just we don’t get to enjoy it because of hostility by straight people. In the UK, the Premier League is the biggest soccer league in the entire world. However, not even one player has come out as gay. There are rumors of gay and bisexual players. None will come out for fear it will ruin their careers.
The figures are upsetting. The first international study into homophobia in team sport, called Out on the Fields (Denison and Kitchen 2015) spoke to 9000 participants in 10 countries (25% of them were heterosexual). 80% said they witnessed or experienced homophobia in team sport.
Only 1% of respondents believe LGB people were ‘completely accepted’ in sports and nearly half (46%) believed LGB are ‘not at all accepted’ or ‘only accepted a little’. It’s not limited to competitors – 78% said an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual person would not be safe at a sporting event.
Trans people constantly have to prove they should be able to play sport. Cis sports stars like Martina Navratilova have publicly slammed trans people competing in sports. Athletes like Caster Semenya are discriminated against for high testosterone levels – a by-product of this toxic trans debate.
8 Getting a haircut, taxi, or public transport
Even in simple situations, LGBTI people are made to feel uncomfortable. Gay and bisexual men will often have to go into the closet when getting a haircut, which may sound odd to heterosexual people. However, male barbers are incredibly masculine spaces. They can end up being pretty toxic. For some, going into the closet is the only way to get through the situation unscathed.
That’s not even mentioning the situation for trans people. Especially if they are using the barber for their gender identity for the first time.
For women, the experience can often be dangerous anyway. The addition of non-heterosexuality is enough for some men to become violent. This is the case on public transportation. Two women on a date in London were attacked on a bus by a bunch of homophobic thugs, who treated them as sexual objects to kiss in front of them.
9 Literally walking down the street
A real testament to the situation facing LGBTI people across the world is that even the streets pose a threat. A poll of 100,000 LGBTI people by the British government found that 68% of people are afraid to hold their partner’s hand.
Trans women – particularly trans women of color – can and do face death on the streets.
In the end, there’s no real escape from the persecution. We can be as ‘straight-acting’, ‘unclockable’ as we can, and it’s still not enough. We still face danger.
So the next time a relative – or yourself, if you’re cis and straight reading this – says LGBTI are safe now. They are accepted. Things are so much better now. Remember: things will only get better if you step in and help us. If you stop tolerating things like this happening to people you claim to accept.
This is the tip of the iceberg from 2019 alone…
And everything else not reported.