Why LGBT Teens are Identifying Earlier
By Cameron Beach and Thomas Atseff
This article was written by Cameron Beach and Thomas Atseff and was originally published at TheMash.com on Sept. 29, 2015.
The Mash is the Chicago Tribune’s newspaper and website written for teens, by teens. The paper is distributed for free every other Thursday at Chicago-area high schools and is written largely by high school students.
“No union is more profound than marriage.”
These words from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, which legalized gay marriage June 26, have become a rallying cry in the LGBT community. With the momentous victory came a spike in gay pride, along with a surge of societal LGBT acceptance. Minds are changing nationwide, and as more Americans become comfortable with homosexuality, more individuals have felt safe and even empowered to come out as gay.
But does this same trend extend to teens? The Huffington Post reported that a Pew Research Study revealed the average age of LGBT coming out has dropped drastically – from 21 in the 1980s to 16 today. New-found support from the entire nation, as well as from individual schools and family members, may be at the heart of the trend.
Gallup Polls show that just less than 4 percent of the American population identifies as LGBT. That means in a school of 1,000 students, roughly 40 are likely to be LGBT.
The average age of coming out has been dropping significantly in recent decades–a 2010 study by Stonewall shows that it has decreased by over 20 years since 1960.
Pam Locke, a veteran social worker at Lyons Township, correlates this drop in age with an attitude change. “Kids are more comfortable with themselves at a much earlier age and are therefore identifying at an earlier age,” Locke said. The increasing comfort levels of LGBT teens may be credited to a greater acceptance of homosexuality than ever before. The University of Chicago found that while only a slim 11 percent of people approved of same-sex marriage in 1988, 46 percent did in 2010. In 2012, President Obama publicly voiced his support for gay marriage, and since then, the gay pride movement has only grown stronger.
SUPPORT AT HOME
Acceptance and love from families play a huge role in a teen’s decision to come out, according to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The study shows that LGBT teens who sense or experience negative feedback from their parents are eight times more likely to attempt suicide and six times more likely to experience high levels of depression.
“I was nervous about telling my parents,” said Nonie Andersen, who graduated from [high school] last spring. “You always want to please your parents. You want them to love you, and you want them to be proud of you. If there’s even a thought in your mind that being gay could hinder that for them, then why would you want to hurt that relationship?”
Lyons Township senior Luke Lopez identifies as straight but said he appreciates the difficulty of coming out to one’s parents. “The gay friends that I know have struggled the most are the ones with tension from their family,” Lopez said. “I think coming out and having your family constantly look down upon you would be unbearable.”
But parents nationwide are starting to understand that love is integral to their child’s success. “Amelia” is the mother of an openly gay 10-year-old boy and blogs about her parenting experience for Huffington Post under the pseudonym to protect her children’s privacy. In an interview with The Mash, she said supporting a child’s identity has more priority than it did decades ago. “Kids today in celebrating households … don’t have necessarily the same trepidation as the generation before,” Amelia said. “So a lot of coming out depends on the actions of the parents to make sure that their kids know that who they are, whoever that is, is amazing.”
With increasing numbers of youth coming out, high schools have begun to integrate LGBT education and support into their curricula. Student-run Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) clubs across the nation fight homophobia within schools–of the 760 IHSA-listed high schools in Illinois, almost 200 currently have an organization registered with the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
GSAs and other educational constructs have made life easier for LGBT youth in many communities. “Suddenly there’s been a shift in thinking–now I can go to school as openly gay and be sure that nobody really cares, including people that aren’t my friends,” Andersen said. But GSAs aren’t the only support systems for LGBT teens–Locke said a greater number of students than ever before are utilizing schools’ counseling services. “When I started (as a social worker), kids didn’t come out or even talk about it until they were much older,” she explained. “Now, I’ve had students coming in as freshmen who are already identifying.”
An atmosphere of acceptance is also an important part of schools’ support systems for LGBT teens. “I feel safe because teachers have safe places in their classrooms, and they understand if you are being bullied,” Lyons Township junior Derek Baker said. But there are still many obstacles for openly gay students, especially in the social scene. “In my school, I believe there is a culture of tolerance,” Lopez said. “But I don’t think we are at the point yet where gays can be outgoing and popular … They aren’t directly shunned or bullied, but people talk about them behind their backs.” After going through his coming out process at Lyons Township, Baker said he agrees with Lopez’s opinion but believes it’s important to remain the bigger person in the face of homophobia. “The hardest part (of coming out) was getting past my peers,” Baker said. “Now I just try to ignore things.”
POP CULTURE EFFECT
With TV shows like “Orange is the New Black” and figures like Caitlyn Jenner, pop culture has put a spotlight on the LGBT community in the past few months. But is this a factor in teens coming out? “I think the most effective are straight celebrities that publicly support LGBT rights,” Andersen said. “Of course Ellen DeGeneres supports gay rights–she is gay. But there was a picture of Zac Efron walking around with a shirt that said, ‘Some dudes kiss dudes, who cares?’ That’s when gay people realize that straight people are behind them.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of LGBT adults believe that the entertainment industry is friendly toward the LGBT community. Eighty-three percent believe that news media has generally looked upon LGBT issues neutrally or favorably. “I think news media has definitely made the public more aware of various laws in the works and challenges gays face in our society,” Lopez said. “That’s helped make more students aware that it’s just a part of our culture.”
Whether influenced by the media, politicians or school support, society is certainly starting to change its tune on homosexuality. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013 over 70 percent of Americans aged 18-29 reported that society should accept homosexuality–this is reflected in increasingly supportive households and schools nationwide. “When I was going through my process, I knew there were people who were going to be rude,” Andersen said. “But then I thought, how many of them can there be? And how badly can they hurt me if more people are nice about it?”
LGBT teens today are aware of anti-gay sentiment but know that there are plenty of people in their communities who will support and love them no matter what. “I do think the country is getting used to it,” Baker said. “It’s safer to walk around holding your partner’s hand than it was a few years ago.”