About the presenter: Jill Douglass, M.S., PhD, CCC-SLP, is a senior lecturer in the Speech and Language Therapy Programme at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. She has worked as an SLP in the hospital, university clinic and private practice setting primarily in the state of Louisiana. After attending her first National Stuttering Association conference in 2007 she shifted her doctoral studies to dedicate her career to advocating and giving a voice to people who stutter, as well as the critical component of educating future clinicians.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2012.

Covert Stuttering: Coming out of the Stuttering Closet

by Jill Douglass
from New Zealand


In 1997 Ellen DeGeneres disclosed her sexuality to all of America by not only making it part of her sitcom's plot but also appearing on the cover of Time magazine with the caption, "Yep, I'm Gay" (Handy, 1997a). The metaphor of "coming out (of the closet)" was discussed in households across America. Although controversial, the general population began to realize that coming out of the closet was a process. A 1997 Entertainment Weekly publication recognized Ellen as the "Entertainer of the Year," giving perspective to Ellen's coming out, "DeGeneres allowed herself to become a poster girl - not for lesbianism, but for honesty. . . . DeGeneres risked her professional reputation for personal freedom" (Schwarzbaum, p. 18). Personally choosing to come out became a celebrated stage in the process of disclosing one's sexuality. The gay community shed a spotlight on transitioning from living in the closet to coming out of the closet identifying as a person who is gay. Although the topics differ, the reasoning is similar for those who covertly stutter. Understanding the closet for other populations will begin to aid our understanding of the possible consistencies with the experiences of persons who stutter covertly (PWSC).

Covert Stuttering

Research is sparse in regards to understanding covert stuttering alongside passing in society, life in the closet, and coming out of the closet. Covert stuttering has an evolving definition; just as the definition of overt stuttering cannot be simply stated, neither can covert stuttering. Covert stuttering can be understood as successfully hiding stuttering the majority of the time from listeners, and also the ability to maximize the use of accessory behaviors and social techniques to not stutter (Douglass & Quarrington, 1952; Murphy, Quesal & Gulker, 2007). People who stutter covertly (PWSC) are able to make their speech disfluencies not visible to the observer. Covert stuttering raises controversies due to the disproportionate emotional response to a stutter that is audibly non-existent. Anxiety levels among the general stuttering population (i.e. not specific to PWSC) suggests a higher prevalence of anxiety disorders among persons seeking therapy for stuttering (Kefalianos, et al., 2012; Iverach, et al., 2009) and temperamental differences such as a heightened response to stress-related situations of children who stutter (Eggers, De Nil & Van den Bergh, 2010). The research linking anxiety as a result of overt stuttering, can lead us to hypothesize that the additional pressures of remaining covert have the likelihood of exasperating the awareness and sensitivity to stuttering. Although the definition may be under construction, one matter is for certain: the covert stuttering population exists and is creating grassroots support via listservs (e.g. Covert-S), blogs (e.g. stutterrockstar.com), podcasts (e.g. stuttertalk.com) and support groups (e.g. The National Stuttering Association).

The simple definition does not do justice in describing the complex response to stuttering. Anecdotal reports and coverage of the topic discuss a PWSC's response to their stuttering may include undermining career options, not developing friendships, refraining from speaking, and creating a false name. The personal experiences of covert stuttering are documented by Cathy Olish (2009), Lisette Wesseling (2011), Pam Mertz (2009), and Terry Dartnall (2003) in former ISAD publications. Due to the paucity regarding the link between the experience of a PWSC and their experience of life in the closet and coming out of the closet, we will delve into the general concepts of what has been documented about this process for other populations.

The Closet

The closet metaphor is popular and researched within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender populations though the relevance of the term does not end with that population. Theoretical comparisons have been made associating sexual orientation to disabilities (Wendell, 1996). Additional populations pass in society, including persons with a hearing impairment, high functioning autism, psychiatric disorders, learning difficulties, epilepsy, and other non-visible exceptionalities and illnesses. A common thread among the given exceptionalities, including covert stuttering, is the lack of visibility and shared identity with family members and close friends (Samuels, 2003). Compensating or not disclosing an exceptionality due to the lack of visibility allows a person to pass by default (e.g. not appearing as a person who has a seizure disorder unless an onlooker witnesses a seizure) or to pass deliberately (Samuels, 2003). Individuals who perceive themselves as "disqualified" members of society may find themselves attempting to pass deliberately as "normal" or typical (Goffman, 1963), creating a closet to de-identify with their exceptionality. Society plays a role in negatively valuing individual differences. The social stigma reinforcement and awareness only enhances the shame of an individual; increasing the desire to pass deliberately.

Life in the closet, out the closet, and everything in between

There is an over-simplified and socially created binary grouping which attempts to clarify the vague nature of a stigmatized group (Cover, 2000). The oversimplification is seen with the closet: one is either in the closet or out of the closet. Creating a false concept such as one or the other is done by the majority who are disjointed from the complex lived experiences of the given population. In the example of sexuality, this binary grouping is understood as either straight or gay; with mental illness, the person is either mentally ill or sane; with stuttering, a person either stutters or is fluent. This simplistic duality is based on naive reality rather than data and evidence (Corrigan & Matthews, 2003). A binary lens diminishes the richness of the coming out experience. Certain complexities of the decision making process are discussed.

Choosing to Pass

The imperative for individuals to come out can place unnecessary pressure; suggesting if one decides to not come out they are irresponsible, ashamed or disempowered. These reasons may be true for some who are passing and far from true for others.

Coming out has boundaries. For example, individuals who associate with one minority group (e.g. a racial minority), may choose to stay in the closet with their sexuality in order to save face with their minority community. The choice to remain in the closet is not the most desirable choice, although it is a conscious choice as to not compromise the connection to community (Rasmussen, 2004).

Another scenario includes communities and educational systems lacking in bullying-prevention counseling and resources. The repercussions of disclosure may involve stress management and negative response from others. Having access to a counselor for mental health services during the process provides a responsible outlet.

Depending on the situation, an individual may feel disclosure is inappropriate and unnecessary for the given audience. For example, a relationship that rarely includes emotional or personal discussions may be an unlikely fit for disclosure. In conjunction with the aforementioned example, individuals may not disclose to a person in authority in fear that the information will be held against them (Corrigan & Matthews, 2003).

Lastly, some individuals may choose to remain in the closet if they fear being cut off financially from family, especially for young individuals during the years of heightened monetary dependency. Coming out and being cut off from financial support may involve sacrificing financial support for further education (Telford, 2003a). Being financially cut off by family is one of the reasons a person may stay closeted; others include fear of being disassociated with family due to cultural, religious, or political views. The legitimate reasons for a person to choose to continually pass are unique to the individual.

Coming out

There are options for coming out of the closet. Samuels (2003) explains a semantic difference that establishes to whom the information is being disclosed: self or others. Coming out can be used in reference to accepting self, not necessarily making the invisible visible beyond oneself. This involves coming to terms with one's disability or difference, alleviating the personal denial. Coming out to someone or society is taking the risk or challenge to openly advertise one's difference/disorder; making the invisible now visible to others (Samuels, 2003).

Intentionally coming out may involve coming out with the use of verbal expression in conversation or coming out with the use of gestures, tone, actions. If an individual chooses to come out with the use of verbal expression, discussion arises as to the benefits of disclosure with the use of a declarative sentence (e.g. "I'm gay.") or the use of a conversational tone (e.g. discussing a news headline regarding gay rights) (Khayatt, 1999); both options can involve the topic as part of natural continued conversation, though one possibly with more effort than the other. Either way, using verbal expression is one of the routes taken when coming out. As mentioned above, another form of coming out is the use of gestures, tone and actions. In relation to stuttering, this may involve allowing the stutter to occur with no apologies nor direct any attention to the stutter. This form of disclosure may attract positive or negative attention toward the gestures, tone and actions, as well as decreasing the naturalness in the topic entering into conversation (Rasmussen, 2004).

The process of coming out is neither linear nor binary. The process may include taking some risks in disclosure while remaining closeted in certain situations. In the process of coming out a passer may choose to selectively disclose to a trusted friend or family member. Choosing a trustworthy person, worthy of this highly sensitive information, can be risky. Passers who have left no stone unturned when it comes to concealing their identity may find their chosen confidant questioning the credibility of the passer. Individuals, who found themselves defending their disability due to the doubts of their chosen friend, felt this was a frustrating part of the process. With this being a risk, the passer may choose to disclose and associate with others who can identify with their differences. These types of selective disclosure, to a trusted friend or to others with similarities, involve a level of secrecy which suggests a level of shame or fears, as well as a level of acceptance of self. Disclosure may be indiscriminate, disregarding negative responses and opening discussion, withholding no details. Disclosure may include broadcasting one's differences by educating and advocating for self and others. This level of disclosure is suggested to be the most empowering due to the individual's ability of finding strength in their experience of living with a stigma (Corrigan & Lundin, 2001).

Life out of the closet

Coming to terms with a disability, exceptionality or sexual preference may involve affiliating with a group. Affiliation has the capacity to develop pride and, at times, a rejection of the values of the majority views. By broadcasting differences, an individual may choose to immerse themselves into the culture and community that they have formerly denied association. Corrigan and Matthews (2003) suggested immersion is "relative extremism of identity pride" (p. 239). This immersion into a culture can become an identifying feature of the individual, developing pride in their identity as a person with a difference. No longer is the mentality that of being a victim or a "special case" (Samuels, 2003).

A less extreme path of an individual is that of identity synthesis. In this situation, there is a balance between pride in one's difference and acknowledging this difference is one of the many identifying elements of an individual. A more holistic self-concept is formulated (Corrigan & Matthews, 2003).


Coming out of the closet is a process that is understood by any individual disclosing a part of themselves that is not socially accepted, a part of themselves that they put significant energy into hiding. Coming out is not a linear process, in fact, the process is as complex and diverse as we are as individuals. There are options on how one comes out, why one comes out, who one comes out to, if one will come out and when you will come out. Coming out to society is not necessarily right for everyone; this can depend on life situations including one's culture. Ultimately, coming out to oneself and being true to one's identity does appear to ease psychological pressures.

Passing, coming out and disclosure literature contains a plethora of information. This review is only scratching the surface in regards to the topic. As we continue to appreciate and advocate for those who covertly stutter, we may find our own plethora of information regarding this journey for PWSC.


Corrigan, P. & Lundin, R. (2001). Don't call me nuts! Coping with the stigma of mental illness. Tinley Park, IL: Recovery Press.

Corrigan, P. & Matthews, A. (2003). Stigma and disclosure: Implications for coming out of the closet. Journal of Mental Health, 12(3), 235-248.

Cover, R. (2000). First contact: Queer theory, sexual identity and "mainstream" film. International Journal of Sexuality & Gender Studies, 5, 71-89.

Dartnell, T. (2003). Passing as fluent. International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference. Retrieved from: http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/isad6/papers/dartnall6.html

Douglass, E. & Quarrington, B. (1952). The differentiation of interiorized and exteriorized secondary stuttering. Journal of speech and hearing disorders, 17, p. 377-385.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Handy, B. (1997a). "He called me Ellen DeGenerate?" Time, 86.

Iverach, L., O'Brian, S., Jones, M., Block, S., Lincoln, M., Harrison, E., et al. (2009). Prevalence of anxiety disorders among adults seeking speech therapy for stuttering. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23, 928-934.

Kefalianos, E., Onslow, M., Block, S., Menzies, R., & Reilly, S. (2012). Early stuttering, temperament and anxiety: Two hypotheses. Journal of Fluency Disorders, 37, 151-163.

Khayatt, D. (1999). Sex and pedagogy: Performing sexualities in the classroom. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 5(1), 107-113.

Mertz, P. (2009). Things I learned from therapy. International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference. Retrieved from: http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/isad12/papers/mertz122.html

Murphy, B., Quesal, R., & Gulker, H. (2007). Covert stuttering. Perspectives on Fluency and Fluency Disorders, 17, 4-9.

Olish, C. (2009). Hello my name is Cathy, but you can call me Anne: A story of a covert person who stutters. International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference. Retrieved from: http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/isad12/papers/fear12/olish12.html

Rasmussen, M. (2004). The problem of coming out. Theory into practice, 43 (2), 144-150.

Samuels, E. (2003). My body, my closet: Invisible disability and the limits of coming-out discourse. GLQ: A journal of lesbian and gay studies, 9 (1-2), 233-255.

Schwarzbaum, L. (1997, December 26/January 2). Ellen DeGeneres: Entertainer of the year. Entertainment Weekly, p. 17-18.

Telford, D. (2003a). The university challenge: Transition to university. In D. Epstein, S. O'Flynn, & D. Telford (Eds.), Silenced sexualities in schools and universities (pp. 121-140). Stroke on Trent, Staffordshire, England: Trentham Books.

Wendell, S. (1996). The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York, NY: Routledge.

Wesseling, L. (2011). Riding my bike- from shame to freedom. International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference. Retrieved from: http://www.mnsu.edu/comdis/isad15/papers/wesseling15.html

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2012.

SUBMITTED: August 30, 2012
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