The Safety Net: Communication within coming-out groups for LGBT people

Harry Underwood
Compare and Contrast Pt. 2
COMM 3010
3/26/2013

The Safety Net: Communication within coming-out groups for LGBT people

In the decades since the Stonewall riots of 1969, the mass movement for civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people has largely depended upon a willingness by the movement’s participants to self-disclose one’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a marker of identity and a challenging of social stigma. In the absence of a visible, persistent demarcation to personally indicate ancestral or other biologically-inherent backgrounds, the process of this self-disclosure, or “coming out”, has resulted in a sea change in the wider heterosexual and cisgender perception of the very concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity, leading to a greater integration of LGBT people into the socioeconomic life of human societies. The process of coming out, however, is one which strongly involves human communication between the “closeted” individual and the recipient of the disclosure, and the role of proper communication in any successful coming-out process is a mutually-sustained role, involving the behavior of the receiver in reaction to such news. This paper seeks to compare and contrast contemporary communication theories with each other in their explanations of aspects of the “coming-out group”, and to also explain the origins and utility of such a group.

The history of coming out to a peer group setting as a phenomenon derives in part from women’s “consciousness-raising” meetings in the 1960s, in which women shared their personal, everyday experiences as women with each other in a group setting. Through these events, women’s rights activists could inspire women to challenge their current lot in life and reassess their own humanity, sexuality and sense of power. An important tool in the growth of political awareness of women’s rights in the 1960s and 70s, consciousness-raising was imported by lesbians who had worked with the women’s liberation movement into the growing number of gay liberation organizations in the United States (Taylor and Whittier, 1998, p. 351). The process of self-disclosure, in itself, also derives from early suggestions by the likes of pioneering sexologists Magnus Hirschfeld and Iwan Bloch to early 20th-century German homosexuals to disclose their sexuality to their family and authority figures in order to push against anti-homosexual legislation (Johannson & Percy, p. 24).

Two theories can be applied to this phenomenon of the coming-out group: symbolic convergence theory and uncertainty reduction theory. These two theories come at the phenomenon of coming out to welcoming peers from slightly-differing perspectives. While uncertainty reduction theory is concerned with how “interpersonal relationships develop as individuals reduce uncertainty about each other,” symbolic convergence theory is more concerned with the development of a symbolic and fantastic narrative which engages, unites and propels the emotions of the participants (Yoo, 2004, p. 191). Uncertainty reduction theory, on the other hand, relies upon the pre-existence or prerequisite development of an active, certain relationship or a mutual openness to such. Furthermore, while symbolic convergence tends to be applied more to group settings, uncertainty reduction theory was largely crafted with interpersonal relationships in mind.

Both theories, however, are similar and compatible with each other in that they each find exhibition in the coming-out group’s changing or challenging prior assumptions about sexuality or gender among the participants. Uncertainty reduction is at play, as newer attendees who are unaware of how to properly approach their own or others’ sexual orientation become more aware of how to conduct their inquiry and exploration further on in the midst of peers. Ramón cites Soliz et. al on how families of LGBT people may become more distanced with their LGBT loved ones “if a new dimension is added to the relationship after a child’s sexual identity has been disclosed” due to the “parents often suffer[ing] cognitive dissonance when trying to understand the conflict between inundation of negative images surrounding homosexuality and the loving relationship they have established with their child” (Soliz et. al, 2010, p. 78-79; Ramón, 2013, p. 20). When such does arise, the next best solution for the LGBT person seeking to develop a social network which is less fraught by such images is to seek out a body of peers who already possess a minimum body of LGBT-affirmative symbolism and more likely to be open to a certain, more familiar process of welcoming of the individual from out of the closet. Stein calls the “coming-out” process “the gay community’s ‘development myth’. It was an account of heroism in the face of tremendous odds and societal pressure that was based on the ideal of being ‘true to oneself’, expressing one’s ‘authentic’ self” (Stein, 1999, p. 83).

In conclusion, there is a synergy which takes place between symbolic convergence and uncertainty reduction theories when it comes to assessment of the communication and interaction styles in a coming-out group. Such groups are likely to possess the prerequisites of both theories – a membership or leadership with a base familiarity and certainty concerning personal and mutual conduct and an oppositional narrative against, or parallel to, negative images – often making such organizations a more affirmative environment for LGBT people than their own estranged biological families. This convergence also demonstrates that coming out just as much involves and impacts the receiver of the news as it does the deliverer, and finding an infrastructure which is welcoming to the individual and prepared to consensually close the distance of uncertainty is paramount in the self-realization of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Works cited

Johansson, W. & Percy, W. A. (1994). Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. pp. 24. Harrington Park Press

Ramón, E. K. (2013). “Mom, I’m gay.” Homosexual language used in the coming out process and its effect on the family relationship. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Texas Digital Library). http://repositories.tdl.org/tamucc-ir/handle/1969.6/398

Soliz, J., Ribarsky, E., Harrigan, M. M., & Tye-Williams, S. (2010). Family communication with gay and lesbian family members: Implications for relational satisfaction and outgroup attitudes. Communication Quarterly, 58, pp. 77-9. Web.

Stein, A. (1999). “Becoming lesbian: identity work and the performance of sexuality.” The Columbia Reader on Lesbians & Gay Men in Media, Society, and Politics. Gross, L. P., & Woods, J. D. (Eds.) pp. 83.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Taylor, V., and Whittier, N. E. (1998). “Collective Identity in Social Movement Communities: Lesbian Feminist Mobilization.”  Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Reader. P.M. Nardi and B.E. Schneider (Eds.). New York: Routledge.

Yoo, J. H. (2009). “Uncertainty Reduction and Information Valence: Tests of Uncertainty Reduction Theory, Predicted Outcome Value, and an Alternative Explanation?” Journal of Human Communication, 12(2), pp. 187 – 198. Retrieved from http://www.uab.edu/Communicationstudies/humancommunication/05_Yoo_final.pdf

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