How Coming Out Can Make Gay Teens Happier at School

Rachel Bertsche

Photo by Lisa-Blue/E+/Getty Images

A new study finds that gay teens who come out in high school have higher well-being than those who keep their sexual orientation secret.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender teens who are out have lower levels of depression, better self-esteem, and increased life satisfaction, according to the study from University of Arizona researcher Stephen Russell, which was published in the current issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

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In the past, LGBT teens have often been counseled to conceal their sexual orientation for fear of increased victimization and bullying, Russell says, but this new research, which looked at 245 LGBT young adults, shows that the benefits of being out outweigh the risks. Unfortunately, students who identify as LGBT experience bullying in high school whether or not they are out, according to the research. But the students who disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity report higher self-esteem and less depression.  

"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?” Russell said in a press release. “Our study points to the positive role of coming out for youth and young adult well-being.”

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Encouraging teens to remain closeted can have severely negative effects, says study co-author Caitlyn Ryan. “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,” Ryan says. “This study underscores the critical role of school environment in influencing LGBT students’ risk and well-being into young adulthood.”

Jenny Betz, director of education and youth programs at the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), says the reason for this improved life satisfaction for out teens may be twofold. “With students that I’ve worked with, that increase in well-being — students are happier, they feel more connected to the school community, and they do better academically — is both about the understanding of who you are, and also the ability to connect with external resources,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “Everyone wants to be seen and appreciated for who they are, and that’s definitely true about LGBT students. But also, once a teen does come out, it allows them to connect with people who will support them. Someone in the closet may feel like they have no one to turn to or there’s no one else like them in the whole world. Coming out allows them to find people will help and support them if they need it.”

This latest research should encourage educators to make sure their schools are positive spaces for teens to come out, Betz says. She points to four key factors that contribute to creating a safe environment for LGBT teens: hiring supportive educators, having a Gay-Straight Alliance or similar student club, establishing inclusive and enumerated policies that make clear that all students deserve to be safe and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and including LGBT lessons in the curriculum so students can see themselves reflected in the teachings of the school. “That means making sure, when we teach about human rights or social justice movements, we include LGBT history — but also that when we’re talking about a particular artist or writer or mathematician that we share if they were gay,” she says. “When we wipe those things out, LGBT students don’t see that there are amazing people in history that identified as LGBT. It also reduces victimization among all students. When kids see that LGBT people have done great things in the world and might even be their heroes, they are less likely to victimize.”

Betz says teachers should especially keep this research in mind if a student comes out to them directly. “I hope this will make educators less likely to tell kids who come out to keep it quiet and not tell anyone, which is advice they often get from even the most well-meaning teachers,” she says. “Hearing an adult say ‘Shhh, don’t be yourself,’ can be really damaging.”

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