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UConn study: Why being outed as LGBTQ is bad for youth mental health

Hour - 4/21/2024

Apr. 21—It's been hard for many to ignore the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ policy and rhetoric nationwide. The American Civil Liberties Union reports it's tracking over 480 anti-LGBTQ+ proposed bills in state legislatures nationwide, including Connecticut's neighbors in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Much of the legislation targets transgender youth participation in sports, accessing medical care and forced outing in schools. According to the nonprofit think tank Movement Advancement Project, five states mandate that schools identify and report transgender youths to their parents and another five "promote" forced outing.

A new study from the University of Connecticut examines the psychological impact of outing, or publicly identifying an LGBTQ+ youth who doesn't want their orientation revealed. The study found that about one-third of youths who were outed without their consent were more likely to experience major symptoms of depression and lower family support than those who were not.

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"Around 65 to 69 percent of youth reported that this kind of event was highly stressful," said Peter McCauley, study author and UConn graduate researcher. "For future research to examine the ways that families can protect or disrupt some of this stress could be really important."

The study used data from the LGBTQ National Teen Survey collected by the Human Rights Campaign in 2017. The survey collected responses from over 17,000 people ages 13 to 17 nationwide. For the purposes of the UConn study roughly 9,200 youths provided enough data in the survey to analyze an association between being outed and the resulting stress.

The study also found that LGBTQ+ people do not all experience the same level of stress when outed to parents. Cisgender gay, lesbian and bisexual youths reported experiencing less stress than transgender, nonbinary or asexual youths. The data also showed that outing stress declined with parent education.

"I think parents and caregivers who are very supportive should make that known," said McCauley. "And I think once they make their support known that kid will pick up on that ... that can really make the disclosure process much easier for a lot of kids."

Outing LGBTQ+ students in schools has a long history. At the turn of the century between the 1990s and the 2000s, gay alliance groups spread through many public schools, providing save havens for teens to support each other, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Part of the takeaway of this study, McCauley said, is that the wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation targeting schools does real harm to kids by creating a noxious climate in the already stressful situation of teenagers growing into a young adult.

"In states where these policies are being introduced heavily, they are continuously proposed," said McCauley. Some "students may look at those policies as a way to rationalize their prejudice or rationalize their harassment."

He stressed that the study showed that the agency of LGBTQ+ youth was extremely important for their mental health, and that they should be able to choose when and how they come out to friends, relatives, classmates or co-workers.

ACLU spokesperson Gillian Branstetter said that the study provided yet more evidence for the need to protect the privacy rights of LGBTQ+ youth.

"Students do in fact have a constitutional right to privacy," said Branstetter. "It's not about subverting the parents' will. It's about protecting the young people who face very real, very great risks," both emotionally and physically.

Ta'LannaMonique Lawson-Dickerson, the youth services coordinator for the New Haven Pride Center said the risks for some kids is real, as many try to hide the fact they're going to the center from unsupportive relatives. Others don't have parents, but guardians and foster parents who may or may not be accepting.

"The fact is that we are asking a group of humans to do something we're not asking another group of humans to do," said Lawson-Dickerson. "We don't ask people who are heterosexual to come out and let us know they're hetero."

Lawson-Dickerson said that while many Connecticut families were fully supportive of their children, not all kids have that. Many of the kids she works with are involved with the state Department of Children and Families, have guardians or aren't living with their parents. She pointed out that all kids, whether they have supportive families or not, are just coming into themselves, learning to navigate adult feelings and the world without the resources of being an adult yet.

"We have so many young people across the spectrum," said Lawson-Dickerson. "We have some whose parents hang out with them at the center and we have some students who have to turn their location off (on their phones) when they're at the center, so their parents don't know ... and as a parent I have mixed feelings about that."

Lawson-Dickerson said ultimately, what was important was taking research like this and translating it into supportive services and supportive legislation for youth.

"There are some real powerful conversations that need to be had at a legislative level," Lawson-Dickerson said. "Because when we talk about investing in our young people that looks like dollars."

McCauley said the study supports the need for young people to have control over whether or not to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity. He hopes that further research on the dynamics between LGBTQ+ kids, families and society can help others understand how to make it easier for young people to thrive.

"I'm really hoping that these findings can bring to light the real health consequences of these experiences," said McCauley. "And really drive home the message that this is a very intimate, important and strategic process for many kids."


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