Academic journal article College Student Journal

Out of the College Closet: Differences in Perceptions and Experiences among out and Closeted Lesbian and Gay Students

Academic journal article College Student Journal

Out of the College Closet: Differences in Perceptions and Experiences among out and Closeted Lesbian and Gay Students

Article excerpt

This study found differences between out and closeted lesbian and gay (LG) students in their perceptions of the campus climate and experiences on a Midwestern college campus. Eighty LG students responded to an 87-item survey; 44 were categorized as the "low out" (closeted) group and 36 as the "highly out" group. The study was primarily descriptive, but used independent t-tests and chi-square analyses to compare out and closeted students on core variables. Out and closeted students reported differences in the need to hide their identity, perceived unfair treatment, perceptions of an anti-LG campus, knowledge of LG issues, involvement and activity levels, and the presence of a LG student network.


Many lesbian and gay (LG) college students remain in the closet, while others take their first step out on campus. Outness has been conceptualized as disclosure of sexual orientation to family members, friends, and coworkers (Bradford, Ryan, & Rothblum, 1994). Coming out involves a complicated process of self-realization of one's sexuality, then disclosing one's realization to others (Herek, 2003). Disclosure to others has been acknowledged as a "rite of passage" and an important layer in the bricks of a student's self-construction (Garnets & Kimmel, 2003). Conversely, remaining "in the closet" (passing as a heterosexual) causes students to lead double lives and endure psychological stress (Herek, 2003).

Universities and colleges are often the setting in which students disclose their sexuality to others and subsequently, endure various positive and negative consequences (Evans & D'Augelli, 1996). LG students typically face a "chilly" climate, including experiences of discrimination, along with feelings of fear (Evans & D'Augelli, 1996; Rhoads, 1994; Waldo, 1998). They also face higher rates of harassment, assault, and intimidation than do heterosexual students (Bieschke, Eberz, & Wilson, 2000). LG students report experiencing verbal and physical assaults (Baier, Rosenzweig, & Whipple, 1991; Brown, Clarke, Gortmaker, & Robinson-Keilig, 2004; D'Augelli, 1992), perceptions of an anti-LG campus (Brown et al., 2004; Herek, 1993; Rankin, 2003; Waldo, 1998), fear of future harassment and discrimination (Buhrke & Stabb, 1995; Evans, 2001), and the need to hide identity from other students and staff (Rankin, 2003).

The campus environment has a strong impact on the number of LG students who are out on campus (D'Augelli, 1989; Evans & Broido, 1999). Perceived and experienced peer hostility toward LG persons may prevent students from disclosing their sexual identity (D'Augelli, 1989). Conversely, perception of a supportive LG campus climate and having LG role models on campus encourage students to come out (Evans & Broido, 1999; Rhoads, 1995).

The Purpose of the Study

This study compared the campus experiences, perceptions, and needs of out and closeted LG students in hopes of providing insights for improving the campus learning environment for LG students. Because very limited research has explored the heterogeneity of LG students, this study focused on five questions: (1) Is there a difference between out and closeted LG students' perceptions of unfair treatment and need to hide identity from various persons on campus? (2) Is level of outness related to students' perceptions and experiences on campus? (3a) Is level of outness related to students' knowledge, interest, and activity level in LG issues and events? and (3b) Why do LG students not become more active in the LG issues and events? (4) To whom would LG students most likely report anti-LG behavior on-campus? and (5) What needs do out and closeted LG students report and what sources do they seek out? (Questions 1-3 were analyzed inferentially and 4-5 are discussed descriptively.)

Method and Procedures


This study was conducted at a Midwestern state university with an enrollment of approximately 22,000 students. …

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