“Coming out” can be a complex event in an LGBTQIA+ person’s life. It can be fraught with tension, a source of stress, or, on the flip side, a time of renewed sense of self and identity. Essentially, coming out is incredibly personal and looks different for everyone — something a day of awareness and community like ‘National Coming Out Day’ directs a spotlight toward.
For young people who are part of the greater LGBTQIA+ community, factors like how old they are and the type of environment in which they are coming out can play a big role in shaping their experience.
Nonprofit The Trevor Project released a new research brief that paints a picture of these realities, including the fact that today’s queer youth are coming out at younger ages.
One key finding: Whether or not an LGBTQ+ youth has access to positive, safe support systems can play a direct role in that young person’s positive or negative mental health outcomes, including suicide risk.
This brief uses data from The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. It reached 33,993 LGBTQ youth online from September to December 2021.
Among the findings, LGBTQ youth are coming out about their sexual orientations at younger ages than in the past — those in the sample who were aged 13 to 17 came out on average at age 13, compared to peers who were 18 to 24, whose average age of coming out was 16.
The Trevor Project found that 24% of the overall sample of participants came out before 13. To put this in perspective, 35% of LGBTQ youth 13 to 17 years old came out before they were 13, in contrast to only 8% of those young people between 18 and 24 years old.
When asked why LGBTQ youth might be coming out at younger ages now, Myeshia Price, PhD, the Director of Research Science at The Trevor Project, told Healthline that while the nonprofit can’t directly tie this to one specific reason, “young people increasingly have more access to language, education, and representation around LGBTQ people and identities” now more than ever before.
“While we have miles to go as a society, it is important to note that both understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ people has grown significantly in the last few decades,” Price said. “This reality may help us understand why many LGBTQ youth are coming out at younger ages.”
Greater understanding of and visibility of LGBTQ+ identities and cultural realities enabling these young people to be more comfortable being open about their sexualities and gender identities also come at a time of mental health stress and pressures.
The new research also showed those youth who came out before age 13 had increased odds of suicide risk. The brief revealed that 56% of those who came out before age 13 “seriously considered suicide in the past year.” By comparison 42% of those who came out later reported seriously considering suicide.
Beyond this, 22% of LGBTQ+ youth who came out before 13 attempted suicide in the past year, compared to 12% who came out later on. Those who came out at 13 or younger also showed 37% increased odds of a suicide attempt in the past year.
“When we look at these data, we must do so with an understanding that coming out in and of itself is not harmful to LGBTQ youth mental health — it’s more about the level of support youth have while coming out,” Price emphasized. “While both younger and older LGBTQ youth may face victimization based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, younger LGBTQ youth may have less access to protective factors that buffer the impact, such as LGBTQ-affirming environments and people and the autonomy to seek them out.”
Some troubling statistics from The Trevor Project pull the curtain back on some of the unique external threats and societal stigma LGBTQ+ kids face when coming out at these early adolescent ages.
The research brief shows that those who came out earlier than 13 “reported higher rates of victimization due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
They found 46% of those who came out before 13 reported being physically threatened or harmed as a result of their disclosure of their sexual orientation or gender identity, compared to 34% of their older peers who came out after 13 years old. The Trevor Project’s research brief also reveals 83% of those who came out 13 or younger “reported that they have experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity” compared to 72% who came out at later adolescent and young adult ages.
The data show a link between this heightened experience of victimization and risk of suicide attempts and ideation.
Those young people who came out before 13 and experienced victimization also reported higher rates of attempted suicide compared to their peers who came out in the same young age range but did not experience this kind of victimization.
Those who came out before 13 and were subjected to physical threat or harm due to their gender identity or sexual orientation “reported twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year” (at 31%) compared to those who came out at the same time but did not experience this kind of victimization, which was 15%. Those who came out before 13 and experienced discrimination due to their identities also reported 25% rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to 10% for those who came out before 13 but did not report experiencing discrimination.
The nonprofit also examined the role that family and environmental support played in these young people’s lives.
Those who came out before 13 and “had high family support” reported lower suicide attempt rates in the past year. Similarly who came out at early ages and had “current high social support” from family members reported 11% rate of attempted suicide compared to 24% of those who came out before 13 and had “current low or moderate social support” from their family and loved ones.
This new research also showed that those who came out “two or more years after first thinking they might be LGBTQ” were at 56% increased odds of attempting suicide in the past year.
The Trevor Project showed that delaying one’s coming out process “may have mental health implications.” What did they find? Those individuals who came out within a year of realizing they might have an LGBTQ identity reported a 12% rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to 16% for those who came out “two or more years” after this self-realization.
Price said this research fits in with other work that shows that “when LGBTQ youth feel accepted by family and friends and have access to LGBTQ-affirming spaces, their odds of attempting suicide lower significantly.”
Heather Zayde, LCSW, a Brooklyn-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist, told Healthline that there is a misconception that once you “come out,” it’s something you do once — it’ simple, you’ve made that disclosure and you can move on.
Anyone who has an LGBTQIA+ identity knows that misconception isn’t necessarily the case.
“In fact, it’s really a commitment to a process of living your truth,” said Zayde, who is unaffiliated with The Trevor Project research. “Some people have to come out when they get a new job, start a new school, or even meet a new friend.”
The new data underscores Zayde’s point that coming out can be a monumental moment in a young person’s life, one that has ripple effects outward in all aspects of one’s day-to-day existence.
That can be a lot for a young person, especially at those vulnerable early adolescent ages. It’s something that can be made ever more complicated when you factor in the outside opinions, perspectives, sometimes discriminatory behavior of others in that young person’s life.
“LGBTQ youth who came out about their sexual orientation before age 13 and have high family support report lower rates of attempting suicide in the past year compared to their peers who do not have that family support. It’s really on us – as adults and allies in these young people’s lives – to ensure that young people feel safe and supported from the start,” Price said.
This doesn’t mean a parent or guardian has to become an expert on LGBTQ topics over night to be a supportive ally. Price pointed to recent research from The Trevor Project that found that guardians, caregivers, and parents of LGBTQ young people “can take relatively simple actions to make LGBTQ youth feel supported.” This could involve just talking respectfully about LGBTQ+ identities and taking the time to educate themselves on issues surrounding queer people in general. Knowledge is power, and it can go a long way in supporting an LGBTQ+ kid.
When asked why there might be a difference between the realities of young people who come out before or after 13, Price said a person might feel a need to delay their coming out for a range of reasons. These could include feeling unsafe coming out and fears of rejection from community, friends and family.
“These reasons are also strong risk factors for suicide – and when you couple those with potential added stress around grappling internally with one’s own identity, but not being able to share it – all of these challenges can compound and take a serious toll on a young person’s mental health,” Price added.
Given this research was published right around 2022’s national coming out day, Zayde said that it can be important for an LGBTQ+ young person to see a cultural moment designed specifically to commemorate the act of coming out, to ensure young people they are not alone.
“Coming out day is a nice reminder to the LGBT+ community that we can get support and care around these processes when we need them,” Zayde added. “Some sources of that care can be a local community center or an online LGBT+ group.”
Price reiterated that “coming out is a deeply personal decision” and young people around the United States and elsewhere should know “there is no right or wrong way to come out.”
“For those who want to come out, a great first step is to take stock of who in your life supports and encourages you, and make a plan for what you want to say and how you want to say it ahead of time,” Price said. “Because coming out can be nerve-wracking, taking time to plan and practice can make a big difference. For an in-depth look at what coming out safely can mean for you, view The Trevor Project’s Coming Out Handbook.”
Price pointed back to The Trevor Project’s larger national survey that found 89% of LGBTQ youth reported that just seeing LGBTQ representation in media like TV and movies “made them feel good about being LGBTQ.” As a result, moments like coming out day or simply hearing others share their stories at any other time, “can help guide and inspire LGBTQ youth as they navigate their own journey.”
What the new data does is show the significant role just extending empathy and understanding can play in supporting an LGBTQ+ young person. It can go a long way both through their initial coming out journey and in providing them safety and security in the years to come.