By Lisa Marshall
Is hiding who you are hazardous to your health? Does coming out make you healthier? And if every gay, lesbian, and bisexual could do so comfortably, would it save society a wealth of health care dollars?
Several intriguing new studies suggest the answer is yes.
One, published this week by researchers at the University of Montreal Centre for Studies on Human Stress, measured self-reported anxiety, depression, and burnout in 87 healthy adults, roughly half gay or lesbian, half heterosexual. Unlike studies before it, it also looked at blood, urine, and saliva samples to determine the physical toll stress was taking on participants.
It found that gays and lesbians who are “out of the closet” had significantly lower stress hormones and symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who had not disclosed their orientation. But the story doesn’t end there. Surprisingly, even to the researchers, gay men overall showed significantly lower levels of the stress-hormone cortisol than their straight counterparts, and a lower “allostatic load” (an index that looks at insulin, cholesterol, blood pressure, and other markers of stress’s impact on the body).
Why? “It may be that if you have had to face major stressors or trauma in your life (as young gays and lesbians often do) and you are able to find coping strategies, you may actually be a bit more resistant to stressors in the future,” explains lead author, Robert Paul Juster, a PhD candidate at University of Montreal. “Perhaps there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel.”
Take-home message number one: Coming out of the closet is good for your health (provided you are in an environment where you can do it safely).
Take-home message number two: As Juster puts it, “This is no longer a matter of popular debate. It is a matter of public health.”
Already, some public health researchers are framing the issue that way, and finding that in cities with more liberal policies toward gays and lesbians, those populations are indeed healthier, and overall health care costs go down. One 2011 study by researchers at Columbia University found that during the 12 months after the 2003 legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, medical care and mental health visits by gay men declined significantly, leading to a 14 percent reduction in health care costs.
“These findings suggest that marriage equality may produce broad public health benefits by reducing the occurrence of stress-related health conditions in gay and bisexual men,” lead author Mark Hatzenbuehler, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar, said in a news release.
There are already plenty of reasons to let people marry who they want to marry, love who they want to love, and feel comfortable telling whoever they want about it.
But as the Boy Scouts of America mulls ditching its dreadful anti-gay policies, and Coloradans once again gear up to consider a proposal to legalize gay marriage in the state, here is one more reason for policy makers to do the right thing.
And if you know someone in the closet, show them your support if and when they decide to come out.
We’ll all feel better in the end.
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer who lives in Lyons, Colorado. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.