A new study finds that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids who come out during high school suffer lower rates of depression and anxiety and higher rates of self-esteem, long-term, than those who hide their identity from their peers — even if they’re bullied as a result of coming out.
The study, published in the current issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, surveyed 245 LGBT adults ages 21 to 25 about their experiences disclosing their sexuality and gender identity in high school and how the timing of coming out affected their future life satisfaction.
“After accounting for the association between school victimization and later adjustment, being out at high school was associated with positive psychosocial adjustment in young adulthood,” concludes the report, authored by University of Arizona (UA) researcher Dr. Stephen Russell.
Dr. Russell, a UA distinguished professor of Family Studies and Human Development and past president of the Society for Research on Adolescence, said he was inspired to launch the study after serving as an expert witness in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against Okeechobee High School in Florida.
The contested issue in the suit was the high school’s refusal to allow students to start a gay-straight alliance on campus, which officials claimed would be potentially harmful to students. ACLU attorneys asked Russell whether it could be said with “absolute certainty” that it is better for LGBT teens to come out at school than not, and he realized there was a worrying lack of research on the subject.
“Until now, a key question about balancing the need to protect LGBT youth from harm while promoting their well-being has not been addressed: do the benefits of coming out at school outweigh the increased risk of victimization? Our study points to the positive role of coming out for youth and young adult well-being,” says Dr. Russell.
LGBT students were bullied in high school, whether they were out or not
For the study, Dr. Russell’s team analyzed data from the Family Acceptance Project, a “research, intervention, education and policy initiative” established by San Francisco State University to promote the well-being of LGBT children and adolescents.
The survey of 245 LGBT young adults revealed that respondents were generally bullied in high school because of their LGBT identity, whether they came out or not. On it’s own, that finding might suggest that coming out during high school would be a mostly negative experience.
However, the study also found that participants who were open about their sexual orientation or gender identity in high school reported higher self-esteem and life satisfaction as young adults, compared with those who did not disclose their LGBT identity during high school. Participants who came out in high school also reported lower levels of depression, a finding that was consistent across gender- and ethnic- identities.
Addressing LGBT health disparities
The findings are significant as youth are coming out at younger ages, the researchers said. LGBT adolescents often are counseled by adults not to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity in an attempt to protect them from harm, he said. But the new research suggests that advice could actually backfire.
“We know from our other studies that requiring LGBT adolescents to keep their LGBT identities secret or not to talk about them is associated with depression, suicidal behavior, illegal drug use and risk for HIV,” said study co-author Dr. Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project. “And helping them learn about and disclose their LGBT identity to others helps protect against risk and helps promote self-esteem and overall health.”
Research has shown that LGBT youth face striking health disparities, including increased risks of mental illness, substance abuse, and chronic physical illness, as well as significantly higher rates of suicide, compared with non-LGBT youth. Like most disparities, these health problems are the product of societal biases and inequities, not individual choices. For example, LGBT youth are far more likely to experience bullying, discrimination, homelessness and violence — all of which are independently associated with adverse health effects.
Dr. Russell believes that the results of the study will be important for educating parents and school officials on how to provide the best support for LGBT students. “The thing that’s encouraging is that we’ve found being out is good for you,” he says. “This is clearly aligned with everything we know about identity. Being able to be who we are is crucial to mental health.”
These results are in line with another recent study, which found that transgender children as young as five years-old demonstrate consistent gender identity across a variety of psychological measures, disputing the notion that such children are simply ‘confused’ or ‘going through a phase.’ The findings suggest that allowing children to freely identify with who they truly are at a young age may foster the development of a stronger sense of self and higher self-esteem, ultimately leading to better psychological health outcomes. On the other hand, attempts to change or reject the gender identity of a transgender child could result in significant psychosocial harm, the study said.