When news breaks about a famous athlete, typically it’s what they say that matters, not how they say it. But there is a recent exception – Shawn Barber.
The World Champion and Olympic athlete recently came out as gay to friends and family on Facebook. Ten years ago this would have been a big deal. Reactions would be mixed. He may have lost friends, potentially being shunned from his sport. Crude jokes about gay men and pole vaulting would be widespread.
Fortunately, in 2017, Barber’s coming out news has landed as gracefully as one of his signature vault moves. The metaphorical shoulder shrug response to Barber’s coming out signals a positive shift toward acceptance of gay athletes.
What is significant about his story is his method of disclosure. He chose to use a public Facebook status post to disclose his sexual orientation to the world.
And though we don’t know exactly why he choose this approach, it is becoming more common among gay and lesbian people around the world. We also know their experiences have tended to be positive, mitigating some of the heartache of an emotionally challenging life experience.
Coming out the traditional way, in face-to-face meetings and with friends and loved ones, can be exhausting. The person coming out has to not only deal with their own emotions, but also immediately confront the emotional responses of others.
In a study we conducted, we found that gay men who used Facebook to come out did so to avoid repeated, draining discussions about their sexuality. Like most people who share their sexuality online, these men wanted to avoid traumatic, holiday-type conversations with loved ones. Facebook statuses like Barber’s give LGBT people a much-needed break from the sit-down “talks” of the past.
Another positive consequence of coming out on Facebook is that the men who did so garnered extensive support, both online and in person. This happens in part because people who come out online are able to determine when and how this information hits the news feeds of others. Coming out online is more efficient in that it significantly decreases the time it takes to disclose the information to loved ones.
It makes it easier to communicate the same information to friends, acquaintances, or the public all at once. When you send the message yourself, in writing, misinterpretations appear less common.
Facebook also allows LGBT people to manage how their disclosures are shared. Negative reactions might be shamed by others or squelched by a flurry of positive responses. Shaming or ambiguous comments can also be deleted – which in and of itself can be therapeutic and symbolic. Importantly, coming out online is not right for everyone. For some people, the “old school” method is still the preferred, or needed approach.
In our research, we also found that people who disclose online typically inform family members prior to their online positing. Barber’s status update signals that he likely came out to his family before posting on the social network.
If true, his decision to privately come out to family members mirrors the decisions of men from our study. Coming out to immediate family members happens only once.
More importantly, Shawn Barber’s Facebook disclosure represents a larger phenomenon at play: How we share important information about ourselves is evolving, especially for LGBT people who are coming out online.
Facebook isn’t just for selfies, cute kitten videos, and political rants anymore. Social media sites can also facilitate efficient, supportive and relieving coming out experiences. And that is news worth sharing.
Matthew Chester is a doctoral candidate studying counseling psychology in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Aaron Rochlen is a professor of educational psychology in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.
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