Thanks to the Supreme Court’s refusal on Monday to hear appeals regarding state marriage bans, same-sex marriage is now legal for a majority of the U.S. population, according to new data from FiveThirtyEight. The decision, or lack thereof, comes just a few days in advance of National Coming Out Day on October 11th, an annual holiday marking the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
The Supreme Court’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. With the scales of same-sex marriage finally tipping in the right direction, there has never been a better nor a more influential time for LGBT Americans to come out of the closet. But with most LGBT people in the U.S. still closeted at work and facing harmful microaggressions—“everyday encounters of subtle discrimination”—in their private lives, we should be careful not to get too swept up in the intoxicating momentum of the marriage equality movement. There’s a long way to go yet.
The connection between acts of “coming out” and the cultural acceptance of LGBT people has always been a causal one. The first modern act of “coming out” is typically attributed to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German writer and activist who appeared before the Congress of German Jurists in 1867 to argue against the criminalization of homosexual acts. Ulrichs began reading a prepared statement, contending that an entire “class of persons is exposed to an undeserved legal persecution for no other reason than [their] sexual nature.” The room quickly exploded into chaos and Ulrichs never got to finish his statement. Later in life, however, he would say: “I am proud that I found the strength to thrust the first lance into the side of the Hydra of public condemnation.”
Ulrichs believed that acts of coming out would be the chief mechanism for moving acceptance of homosexuality forward, a prediction that has been borne out in the contemporary same-sex marriage debate. According to a 2013 poll from the Pew Research Center, over one third of Americans who decided to start supporting same-sex marriage did so because they know someone who is gay or lesbian, the largest factor by far in swaying public opinion.
Historical data from Gallup, too, confirms that support for same-sex marriage has increased alongside the electorate’s familiarity with gay or lesbian friends, relatives, and coworkers. In 1998, less than 40 percent of Americans knew someone who was gay or lesbian and less than 35 percent of them supported same-sex marriage. By 2013, 75 percent of Americans knew someone who was gay or lesbian and support for same-sex marriage had finally crossed the crucial 50 percent mark. Ulrichs was right: coming out has always been the best way to make change happen.
With state bans on same-sex marriage continuing to drop like flies—bans in Nevada and Idaho were deemed unconstitutional just two days ago—it might seem as if support for marriage equality has finally reached critical mass. But if the outness of LGBT Americans is indeed the motor for social change, then there is certainly still cause for concern.
According to a poll from the Human Rights Campaign, a full 53 percent of LGBT employees are not completely out at work. Bisexual people, too, tend to be particularly closeted both at home and in the office. While only a quarter of gay and lesbian employees are not out to a single one of their coworkers, nearly half of bisexual employees report being completely closeted at work. And although Pew found that the majority of gay men and lesbians are now out to “all or most of the important people in their life,” only 28 percent of bisexual people could say the same.
With same-sex marriages now legal in a majority of U.S. states, but a majority of LGBT Americans keeping at least one foot in the closet, we’ve arrived at a particularly awkward moment in the movement for LGBT equality, a time when structural and legal changes are fast outpacing the cultural shifts that typically bring them about. Sure, people in same-sex relationships can now get married in 30 states and counting, but firing someone for their sexual orientation or their gender identity is legal in nearly the same number of states. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which was originally intended to rectify this situation, collapsed earlier this year when religious exemptions threatened to creep their way into the bill.
Given this sad state of affairs, it should be no surprise that LGBT respondents to a Pew survey indicate that equal employment rights are a higher priority than marriage equality. How can we expect gay, lesbian, and bisexual employees to marry their same-sex partners if they would still be afraid to bring their spouse to a work party or to list their partner as anything other than a “friend” on an emergency contact form? By making marriage legal at a faster rate than we pass workplace protections, the U.S. is serving LGBT Americans the dessert course before they’ve even had a chance to finish their entrées. The enduring cultural stigma that prevents LGBT people from safely coming out to their employers isn’t clearing away fast enough to keep up with the bracing pace of the marriage equality movement.
Aside from the potentially deleterious financial consequences of being out, the act of coming out can also be harmful from the perspective of personal health. Dr. Kevin L. Nadal, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, has conducted a series of studies analyzing the impact of microaggressions on the mental and physical health of LGBT people. For LGBT people, microaggressions range from overhearing the use of casual homophobic language to being asked invasive questions by straight peers. In one 2011 study, Dr. Nadal and his team found that anti-LGBT microaggressions can disintegrate personal relationships and incur “chronic mental health effects” such as low self-esteem or post-traumatic stress disorder. On top of the already alarming rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide in the LGBT community, Nadal observes, the potential impacts of these microaggressions are a serious cause for concern.
As the Center for Disease Control notes, too, microaggressions are particularly pervasive for LGBT youth: 80 percent of LGBT teenagers and young adults have been verbally harassed at school while 40 percent have been physically harassed. As a result, more than a quarter of LGBT youth have skipped school to avoid harassment, and a discouraging percentage of them have turned to substance abuse and suicide. Support for same-sex marriage might be skyrocketing among people born after 1980 but microaggressions are still taking their toll on a rising generation of LGBT people.
Coming out might be the chief agent of social change but many LGBT Americans—even young Americans—still can’t afford to be out emotionally or financially. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s surprising move earlier this week, the movement for LGBT equality finds itself at a curious crossroads: the state of our culture hasn’t quite caught up to the new law of the land. Closeted LGBT Americans who want to effect social change in this historic moment face the same devil’s bargain they always have: coming out will accelerate social change but it also presents a serious risk in terms of job security and mental health. Meaningful equality beyond marriage will likely require almost everyone in America to personally know an LGBT person, but that won’t happen until it’s finally safe for everyone to come out.