LGBTQ+ Kids Are Coming Out Earlier. Here’s What That Means For Their Mental Health
Staying closeted isn’t the answer.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen the passage of marriage equality, increased representation of LGBTQ+ characters in film and TV — from Mr. Ratburn in Arthur having a gay wedding to non-binary bison Fred in Ridley Jones using they/them pronouns — and an ever-lengthening list of politicians, athletes, and performing artists who are out and proud. Not coincidentally, queer kids and teens, now more likely to see themselves depicted in popular culture, are coming out earlier in childhood, according to a recent report published by the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention and mental-health non-profit serving LGBTQ+ youth.
The authors of the report surveyed nearly 34,000 LGBTQ+ youth and found that the average teenage respondent (age 13 to 17) had come out at 13-years-old, compared to young adult respondents (age 18 to 24), who had come out at 16 years of age, on average. Essentially, that means the kids of today are coming out earlier on average.
However, coming out earlier comes with risks, the study authors found. Among respondents who had come out before age 13, a group that makes up roughly one-third of today’s teens, 56% had seriously considered suicide in the past year — more than four times the rate of youth who came out later in life.
Fatherly spoke to Myeshia Price, Ph.D., Director of Research Science at the Trevor Project and lead author of the study, about what these results mean and how parents can support LGBTQ+ kids — whether their own or those in their community.
Why do we see this trend of kids coming out at earlier ages?
One of the reasons we think this is happening is because it's around us more. Kids are able to see the options that people weren't able to see in the past. In the past, if you were growing up and you thought something about you was different, you’d think ‘I've never seen anyone like me, I've never heard of anyone like me. I don't know what this is; I can't name it; I can't speak it.’
Now, there’s more representation out there. We still have a long way to go, but there are places in which young people can see themselves and find support.
And why do we see a correlation between age of coming out and youth suicide rates?
We know that being LGBTQ+ in and of itself is not the risk factor for suicide. The risk factor is how youth are being treated by others; the stigma attached to their sexuality and gender identity. In addition to these two statistics — age of coming out and youth suicide rates — we also looked at rates of victimization — how many students were physically threatened, assaulted, or discriminated against. If you’re aware of your identity and are out, then you can be targeted for it. And younger youth are reporting higher rates of victimization, specifically due to their sexual orientation or gender.
We found that kids who came out at younger ages and had experienced these kinds of victimization had more than twice the rate of suicide attempts compared to those who weren’t victimized due to their sexual orientation.
That’s a scary statistic for parents of LGBTQ+ youth — especially those who have younger out kids. How should parents react to these results?
I think a lot of parents come from that standpoint of, ‘this could be harmful, and I'm afraid for you.’ It's important to recognize that allowing and creating those safe spaces for young people is the best thing we can do. We can't control other people. But we can control our own behaviors.
Kids bully each other for a variety of reasons, and that shouldn’t mean that you have to force your child to not be who they are in an effort to protect them from the mean people. Then we're doing more harm to our child and other LGBTQ+ kids who are out.
One of the things in this study that I want to point out: We also found that LGBTQ youth who had been closeted for two or more years had a 56% higher risk of attempting suicide in the past year compared to kids who came out shortly after realizing they were LGBTQ. So while there may be some risk with coming out, this suggests that there's absolutely a risk for not being able to live as your full self.
How can parents support their kids when they come out, to help prevent some of these worst outcomes?
Caregiver support is one of the strongest protective factors for LGBTQ youth. In our findings, youth who have more support from their parents, even if they did come out at a younger age, had half the rate of suicide attempts — 11% versus 24% — compared to kids with low-to-moderate support from their families.
Supportive actions include being welcoming and kind to your kid’s LGBTQ friends or partners; talking to your child respectfully about their identity; educating yourself about LGBT people and issues; supporting their gender expression by buying them the clothes that they want to wear; and helping them get a haircut, especially if they’re younger and don’t have their own source of income.
With trans and non-binary kids, it’s particularly important to use their name and pronouns correctly and enforce that with family and friends. That’s something we’ve seen in some of our other work — transgender or non-binary youth whose names and pronouns were respected and used correctly reported higher well-being and lower rates of suicide.
And how can parents be supportive to their kids’ queer friends, whether or not their own kid identifies as LGBTQ?
I think starting off by recognizing the vulnerability in coming out by saying ‘thank you for sharing this with me. In what way can I be supportive?’ A lot of time, I think, people want to jump into action to make kids feel like they are supported. Ask them what they want. Maybe they just wanted to tell someone, or maybe they do want more action.
In our sample, not all of the people who responded had a supportive, LGBTQ-affirming home. Based on our previous research, we do know that if LGBTQ youth have at least one supportive adult in their life — doesn’t have to be a parent — they report a 40% lower odds of attempting suicide. That’s significant. You can be that one supportive adult.