Coming Out At School and Well-being in Young Adulthood

Author: Staff
February 9, 2015

Worth the Risk? Coming Out as a Teen at School Contributes to Well-Being for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) Youth in Young Adulthood

 – A timely new study has found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth who come out at school report more positive adjustment as young adults and have significantly lower levels of depression with higher levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction, compared with LGBT youth who did not disclose or who concealed their sexual orientation or gender identity from others at school. Results did not differ based on gender or ethnicity. This is the first known study to document the benefits of being out during adolescence, despite the victimization that youth may experience because they openly identify as LGBT. The study is published in the current issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Analyzing data from the Family Acceptance Project®’s young adult survey, researchers examined experiences related to disclosing LGBT status to others at school, school victimization and young adult psychosocial adjustment among 245 non-Latino white and Latino LGBT young adults, ages 21 to 25. Using structural equation modeling, researchers examined the extent to which LGBT victimization mediates the relationship between being out at school vs. hiding one’s LGBT identity and young adult adjustment. Researchers also found that the negative effects of school victimization on psychosocial adjustment were due to victimization specifically related to LGBT identity, rather than bullying for other reasons.

As LGBT youth increasingly come out at younger ages and many continue to experience victimization, especially at school, adults have often counseled LGBT adolescents not to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity in an attempt to protect them from harm. Although coming out – or disclosing one’s identity – has been linked with positive adjustment in adults, for adolescents, “coming out” has been linked to school victimization, which is associated with health risks.

“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 wellbeing” said lead author, Stephen T. Russell, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor, University of Arizona.

Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., Director of the Family Acceptance Project® at San Francisco State University and study co-author noted, “This study has important implications for how adults and caregivers support LGBT youth. 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. And helping them learn about and disclose their LGBT identity to others helps protect against risk and helps promote self-esteem and overall health. This study underscores the critical role of school environment in influencing LGBT student’s risk and well-being into young adulthood.”

In addition to policies to prevent victimization and promote school safety for LGBT students, educators and school practitioners need training to provide interpersonal support and guidance to help students and parents support positive development for LGBT students.

Key Research Findings:

  • LGBT students experienced school victimization regardless of whether they attempted to conceal their identity or openly disclosed their LGBT identity. Thus hiding was not successful, on average, in protecting LGBT students from school victimization and bullying.
  • LGBT young adults who tried to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity at school reported more victimization and ultimately, higher levels of depression than LGBT students who came out or were open about their LGBT identity at school. Feeling that they had to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity was associated with depression among LGBT young adults.
  • Being out about one’s LGBT identity at school has strong associations with self-esteem and life satisfaction and with low levels of depression in young adulthood.

About the Family Acceptance Project®

The Family Acceptance Project® is a research, intervention, education and policy initiative, affiliated with San Francisco State University, that is designed to: 1) prevent risk, including suicide and homelessness, and promote well-being for LGBT children and adolescents in the context of their families, cultures and faith communities; and 2) has developed a new research-based, family model of wellness, prevention, and care to build healthy futures for LGBT children and youth.

Media Contact:
Cathy Renna
(917) 757-6123