LGBT Students Should Be Encouraged to Come Out at School, Study Finds
Using data from 254 young adults aged 21 to 25 enrolled in San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project, the UA researchers examined a long-standing question concerning the best way to protect the mental health and well-being of LGBT teens as they navigate high school and adolescence.
Benefits of Being Yourself Outweigh Effects of Victimization
Adults, including parents, frequently counsel LGBT teens to keep their sexual identities or gender identities to themselves during high school out of fear that they will suffer from psychological or physical bullying or other discriminatory treatment at the hands of their classmates and teachers.
However, this new study suggests that for many LGBT young adults, the long-term benefits of being open about their identities during high school outweigh the negative impacts of victimization. As young adults, the participants in the UA study who were out in high school had higher levels of overall life satisfaction and higher self-esteem, and were less likely to have symptoms of clinical depression.
Previous research has suggested that forcing LGBT teens to keep their sexual orientations or gender identities secret is associated with higher levels of depression, increased risk of suicide, more illegal drug use and higher rates of HIV infection. In conjunction with the new research from UA, the evidence now suggests that teens may be better off if they are not only permitted but encouraged and assisted to be open about their full identities on their high school campuses.
The new study was led by UA professor of Family Studies and Human Development Stephen Russell. Russell served as an expert witness for a successful lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against a Florida high school that refused to allow students to form a gay-straight alliance. Following this experience, Russell was inspired to gather more concrete evidence about whether coming out at school is healthier for high school students.
Keeping Identity Secret Does Not Protect Against Bullying
This study found that the LGBT respondents reported bullying and other forms of victimization during their high school years whether or not they were open about their gender identities or sexual orientations. This suggests that the strategy of encouraging students not to come out during high school in order to shield them from bullying may be misguided—rather than protecting these students, it may instead leave them feeling isolated from resources and support.
The results of this study probably reflect a more complex reality than a simple cause-and-effect relationship between coming out in high school and having higher self-esteem as a young adult. Teens who choose to be open about their identities at school are more likely to have strong support networks in place—family, friends or both who are aware and supportive of the teens’ LGBT identities—which would also contribute to good mental health as young adults. Nevertheless, these research results support the idea that the school environment plays a strong role in creating an overall situation in which LGBT teens can develop into healthy and happy young adults.