Coming out is considered a crucial component in the formation of any gay South African man’s sexual identity. Identity development theory posits that gay men progress through a chain of developmental stages. This includes disclosing one’s sexual orientation to family members, appraising the responses received, and internalising the reaction. Coming out is central to being a homosexual man and forms a significant milestone in each gay person’s unique journey. The positive response from important individuals in the gay person’s life, such as parents, encourages the development of a healthy gay identity. A negative reaction, however, may result in adverse psychological outcomes. These include depression, internalised homophobia, low self-esteem, and high-risk sexual behaviour - all important issues in South Africa.
The process of disclosure is not always stress-free. There are often many challenges that a gay person must undergo. Research in South Africa and abroad shows that most parents react negatively to a son coming out. One reason may be that homosexuality has, for many years, been recognised as a triad of sin, disease and crime. Thus, striking rejections are still frequent in the family context of gay men, making this population the most likely to receive prejudice, intolerance and discrimination – even from parents.
A significant predictor of a parent’s reaction is the family unit. Families can handle stressful and traumatic life events if resources are in place before the onset of the stressor. This framework draws on a social system approach and aims to delimit and systematise factors that influence a family’s reaction to trauma or stress. A family’s primary motivating factor is to strive for equilibrium amongst members. When a family member discloses his sexual orientation, the family system is disturbed by this new stressor. This salient event questions the family’s values, roles and expectations. Hence, a family with resources in place before a son comes out may be better equipped to respond favourably. The opposite goes for a family with limited resources.
The coming out process often results in families and close relationships experiencing destabilisation. While this process can have adverse consequences, there is also room for growth. This includes the construction of meaningful relationships, higher self-esteem, and a better sense of self. By openly accepting the gay individual, a healthy relationship is mirrored. This may provide an important reflection for a young gay man.
While coming out is a deeply personal and scary decision for most South African gay men, the person’s gay identity needs to be seen within a social and cultural context instead of just on an individual level. In other words, the experience moves beyond the individual self and involves those around him. Families can be a valuable resource to a gay son. This includes providing support when he discloses his sexual orientation and allowing him to openly share his experience so that solidarity is fostered in the family. This mind-shift also empowers advocacy to promote a healthy gay culture and strengthened gay rights.
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