Stigma Management Strategies for Sexual and Gender Minorities (page 2)
The process of managing one’s stigmatized identity, also termed stigma management, is complex for sexual minorities. If they tell others about their sexual orientation, they run the risk of being charged with “flaunting” their sexuality; after all, heterosexuals do not make such proclamations about their identities. Alternatively, choosing to withhold such information may lead to isolation and loneliness.
Researchers have found that sexual minorities use a broad variety of behavioral strategies in order to manage their identities. These strategies entail elements of concealment and self-disclosure (Cain, 1991) and include censoring oneself, actively preventing others from acquiring personal information, and supplying false information about oneself (Herek, 2003; Zerubavel, 1982). This process often involves performing an internal cost–benefit analysis in which “lesbians, gay man, and bisexuals must constantly decide whether or not to tell, whom to tell, and when to tell” (DiPlacido, 1998, p. 149).
De Monteflores (1986) was interested in the types of behavioral strategies that sexual minorities use to cope with social prejudice. The first of these was termed assimilation to refer to “passing” or acting straight so as to escape detection. This requires continual vigilance, accommodation, and fragmentation. A second behavior was termed ghettoization and referred to removal of oneself from contexts that are heterosexual. The last of De Monteflores’s strategies, confrontation, encompassed existence in both heterosexual and gay cultures, with the ability to “be out” in contexts that are not necessarily open and accepting. In their discussion of sexual identity management in employment settings, Chrobot-Mason, Button, and DiClementi (2001) identified behavioral strategies similar to those proposed by De Monteflores such as avoidance (eluding personal questions and talking in generalities about one’s personal life), counterfeiting (altering gender-specific pronouns, fabricating stories about dates or relationships), and integration (revealing one’s true identity and managing the consequences of this disclosure).
Regardless of the type of coping responses sexual minorities use to manage their identities in a heterosexist context, “constant self-monitoring and vigilance over safety consume a fair amount of psychological energy” (Fukuyama & Ferguson, 2000, p. 99).
Gender minorities experience similarities to as well as differences from sexual minorities in terms of managing their identities (Gagne et al., 1997). Many sexual minorities have the option of concealing their identities from others, while many gender minorities cannot conceal their identities from others, often because their gender nonconformity is visible to others.
As is true with sexual minorities, gender minorities’ stress is mediated by the extent to which their gender nonconformity is visible to others. Gender minorities who want to transition or move to change physical aspects of their bodies are generally more vulnerable to discrimination and to acts of violence. This vulnerability severely limits their ability to go out in public (Felsenthal, 2004). In their qualitative interviews with gender minorities, Gagne et al. (1997) noted the extent to which their sample feared entering public spaces and developed distinct survival strategies for going out into public arenas. For example, many often started very slowly, initially going to public places that were perceived to be “safe zones,” like gay bars.
Gender minorities must make the same cost–benefit analysis that sexual minorities do in terms of disclosing their identities. Often they must sift through friendship networks in order to determine whom to avoid and from whom to seek support (Nuttbrock et al., 2002). As Gagne et al. (1997) point out, cross-dressers and gender radicals have greater control over the self-disclosure process than do male-to-female transsexual persons, primarily because the former, as a group, are more limited in their need and desire to publicly enact their feminine selves.
Gender minorities often use the term woodworking to describe “blending into the woodwork” as their desired gender (Boyd, 2007). Alternately, passing is defined as “presenting clearly as one gender, erasing any trace of multiple or conflicting genders, and avoiding confrontation” (Hill, 2003, p. 125). The intent among many gender minorities is to be able—with the aid of hormones, electrolysis, plastic surgery, voice therapy, and other surgical interventions—to successfully present themselves as their desired gender without detection. For many, once the transition process is complete, they want to be identified in terms of their new gender. In a sense, once the transition process is complete, many become “invisible” as gender minorities. Hill (2003) likens this to the sense of invisibility that many bisexual persons experience.
Sometimes despite their intentions, gender minorities are “read” or identified by others. Perhaps they make conscious decisions to identify outside the gender binary as gender variants, or the medical procedures are too costly and painful, and/or their basic body type makes their attempt to transition more noticeable to others. In the past decade, many transgender activists (e.g., Feinberg, 1998) have advocated that transsexuals and other gender minority persons “come out” and identify themselves as transgendered. In our current era, the focus has shifted from using surgical and hormonal interventions to enable gender minorities to “pass” to affirming the unique identities of transgendered persons. Gagne et al. (1997) observed that despite the emerging trend among some gender minorities to seek free gender expression outside of the gender binary, there are a number of formidable obstacles in doing so:
To challenge the binary, individuals must overcome a number of interactional, organizational, and structural barriers. They must learn to live and find ways to cope with the discomfort and hostility that others express at not being able to categorize them within an existing gender category. They must find ways to establish themselves as legal and social actors within institutions that recognize only two sexes and two congruent genders. Given these pressures, it is understandable why most transgendered individuals come out quickly and cross over to the “other gender” category. (p. 504)
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