BLACK VOICES

Coming Out Offers Health Benefits, Yet African-Americans Face Unique Challenges Doing So, Studies Show

01/29/2013 10:48 am ET | Updated Jan 29, 2013

Boston University researchers called it last year and now, a team from the Universite de Montreal are backing up their claim -- coming out of the closet is good for your health. And yet, African-American men face unique challenges coming out, according to researchers at Rutgers University.

In a study of 87 men and women that measured depressive symptoms and the cumulative impact of stress on the body, researchers at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) at Louis H. Lafontaine Hospital, affiliated with the University of Montreal, found that gay and bisexual men had lower stress hormone levels and fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression and burnout in comparison to their heterosexual counterparts. What's more: Gay men and women and bisexuals who were out to family and friends had lower levels of psychiatric symptoms and lower morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who were still in the closet, said the study's lead author, Robert-Paul Juster, in a release.

The study, published in the Jan. 29 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, "underline[s] the role self-acceptance and disclosure has on the positive health and wellbeing of LGBs," the university says.

But while the researchers in Montreal noted healthier, more stable levels of biomarkers such as insulin, sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, adrenalin and inflammation among study participants who had come out to family and friends, another study out of Rutgers University found that African-American men have a particularly difficult time doing so.

“The world already sees you as less than others. By being gay, you’re further hurting the image of African-American men,” said Michael C. LaSala, director of the Master of Social Work program at the Rutgers University School of Social Work and lead author of the study.

LaSala says that this sentiment was a common reaction among the male relatives of the black youth when they learned that their relative was gay -- an idea that underscores gay black males' struggle to cope with intersecting oppressions, including racism, homophobia and sexism.

“On a clinical level, targeted interventions, especially those that include the young man’s biological father or a father figure, can assist families to cope with what for many is an unexpected and troubling reality,” LaSala added, offering a practical component to his study, “African American Gay Youth and Their Families: Redefining Masculinity, Coping with Racism and Homophobia.” The study was published in the Journal of GLBT Family Studies and co-authored with Damien T. Frierson, from Howard University.

LaSala's research, which focused on gay black males ages 19 to 25, and their families, stresses the importance of involving a young gay man’s biological father, or a father figure, in discussions around gender roles and masculinity. It's also needed in order for parents of gay men and women to offer each other support.

"Black parents often feel guilty when they learn their child is gay and many African-American gay youths before coming out distance themselves from their parents," Rutgers officials wrote in a release. "In his study, LaSala observed that many parents found that having a confidante with whom they could share emotions, helped them realize that their sons’ sexual orientation was not caused by faulty parenting, and they risked losing their child if they could not accept his being gay."

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