Gay Men Coming Out Later in Life: A Phenomenological Inquiry Into Disclosing Sexual Orientation in Aotearoa New Zealand
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Despite the passing of significant legislation in the late 20th century ("Homosexual Law Reform Act, 1986," ; "Human Rights Amendment Act, 1993") homonegativity remains an issue in Aotearoa New Zealand. For example, in the second decade of the 21st century, many gay people do not feel able to disclose their sexuality. The process of acknowledging and disclosing one’s sexuality is complex, and has been researched from various perspectives, with a focus in this country, on younger people. Limited research has been conducted into the experiences of older gay men. Using hermeneutic phenomenology, this is one of the first studies in Aotearoa New Zealand to investigate the lived experiences of gay men who have come out after the age of 40. In the thesis, I initially consider the historical background in terms of attitudes towards homosexuality from various perspectives: religious, healthcare, educational, and legal. I then examine the processes of disclosure, taking into account the barriers and enablers identified by research participants. These participants were invited to reflect on salient aspects of life before coming out, in contrast with their current experience of living openly as gay men in contemporary society. They also shared advice for gay men who are having difficulty in acknowledging and/or disclosing their sexual orientation. Given the epistemological challenges inherent in phenomenological research, the focus of this study is on gay Pākehā/European men; however, the findings may have implications for gay men and women of other ethnicities. Interviews from 12 participants were transcribed, and the subsequent narrative data were analysed with four key themes emerging. The first theme relates to the society in which the participants grew up, a society characterised by heteronormativity, heterosexism and homonegativity. One particularly striking finding relates to the historical and residual homonegativity apparent in various denominations of the Christian Church. The second theme relates to the processes involved in coming to understand one’s sexuality. Some participants displayed strong self-awareness from an early age, while for others, self-insight was comparatively limited, and in some cases, impeded by a mechanism which I term ‘protective ignorance’. Participants became aware of their sexual orientation at different stages, in different ways: one participant knew at the age of five; others became aware during adolescence; for some the catalyst proved to be a sexual encounter with another man much later in life. The third theme relates to the types and intensity of psychosocial pain associated with acknowledging and disclosing one’s sexual orientation against a backdrop of homonegativity. The final theme relates to the sense of fulfilment associated with having worked through the coming out process, and the quality of life associated with living life openly as a gay man in contemporary society. The research argues that despite the multiple advances on many fronts, including the passing of legislation and concomitant softening of negative attitudes towards same-sex issues, there is, nevertheless, evidence of persistent homonegativity throughout contemporary society. This impacts people throughout their life course, and has serious implications for gay people of all ages.