“You must come out,” cried Harvey Milk in 1978, in a time when living one’s entire life closeted remained a common practice. But Harvey Milk urged his queer audience to come out to everyone they knew, everyone involved in their lives in some way. Milk imagined this movement as a way of breaking boundaries.
The notion of “homosexuality” could no longer be such a distant, alien concept when someone’s brother came out to them, or someone’s daughter. By forcing people to come to terms with the very close existence of queer-identified individuals—sometimes even the people they cared about most—a revolution in mainstream society was set into motion.
“We are everywhere,” read the T-shirts, and people set about proving it.
But coming out has been shown to no longer just be a concern for the improvement of society. It is no longer merely a matter of group safety—although outright violence against queer individuals has been diminished—but also about health on a much more individual level.
In fact, on January 29, 2013, researchers found that “lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals who were out to family and friends had lower levels of psychiatric symptoms and lower morning cortisol levels than those who were still in the closet” (Psychosomatic Medicine). In most cases, remaining in the closet produced significant levels of chronic stress in individuals.
More often than not, coming out reduced this stress, and with it levels of anxiety and rates of depression—all of which contribute frequently to lower immune systems, isolation, and overall mood. Coming out made each moment of most people’s day-to-day lives a much more livable environment.
Of course, this is likely only to be true in environments that are relatively accepting;. Though it is difficult to find places with no queer stigmatization, cultures that call for punishment or alienation, as well as families that exhibit strongly hostile behavior, would more than likely increase these levels of stress. Not everyone has the access to reaping such stress-free benefits.
In the end, everyone’s timing is different, as everyone’s environments are different. For some people, it remains dangerous to come out before eighteen, when one’s activities are largely still in the hands of their guardians. For others, coming out will mean less exhausting, time-consuming, obsessive attempts to maintain a perfectly heternormative existence so that one’s motives are never questioned, one’s secrets never placed in jeopardy. To be closeted often requires a much greater understanding of what it “means” to be heterosexual than necessary for the individuals who need make no effort.
Moreover, outing someone forcibly does not, under virtually any circumstances, lead directly to a healthier life. Robbing someone of this important decision is cruel at best and violent betrayal at worse. Each person prepares differently, and each person must make the decision on their own terms.
Nevertheless, in environments that do not entail great risk, coming out promises a healthier, more livable, easier kind of world.