Conceptualizing Outness about Sexual Orientation: Implications for Research and Practice
University of Kansas
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“Outness” about sexual orientation is colloquially understood to refer to the extent to which others know about one’s sexual orientation. However, conceptualizations of outness vary widely in research (Orne, 2011). Existing measures of outness, including the Outness Inventory (OI; Mohr & Fassinger, 2000) and the Nebraska Outness Scale (NOS; Meidlinger & Hope, 2014), may have limitations that affect their utility. The purpose of the present study was to investigate how participants conceptualized outness about sexual orientation and whether they believed it can be measured and to explore how well the OI and the NOS aligned with those conceptualizations. Participants were 170 women and men recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Nonheterosexual participants were oversampled; 122 participants identified as nonheterosexual, and 48 identified as heterosexual. I used thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) to identify themes in the qualitative data. I identified several different ways in which different participants conceptualized outness, as well as identified several concerns about the OI and the NOS. I investigated patterns in the relationships among participants’ self-estimated outness scores, OI scores, and NOS scores. I also investigated heterosexual participants’ responses to the same survey. Nonheterosexual participants described varying conceptualizations of outness. Most mentioned making decisions about disclosing or concealing their sexual orientation and assessing their own outness based on who in particular knew about their sexual orientation. Nonheterosexual participants also mentioned several concerns about the OI and the NOS, including that the scales overemphasized talking about sexual orientation and that the scales either included irrelevant social groups or did not include relevant social groups. Heterosexual participants mentioned many of the same themes that nonheterosexual participants did; however, many also stated or implied that outness is not relevant to heterosexual individuals because their sexual orientation is almost always correctly assumed. Researchers have investigated relationships between outness and numerous other variables (e.g., physical health variables, relationship satisfaction, internalized homonegativity). However, different people conceptualize outness differently, and some conceptualize outness as nonlinear or as fluid. Simply quantifying outness may not be sufficient for describing the experiences of nonheterosexual individuals.
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