A UConn survey last year of 17,000 LGBTQ+ teens from around the country found that while nearly 83% of respondents had come out to at least one immediate family member, an overwhelming majority hadn’t disclosed their sexual orientation to their religious community, athletic coaches, or doctors.
It’s a finding that researcher Ryan J. Watson, an associate professor in human development and family sciences, says is alarming because teens expressed fear that such a disclosure could affect their opportunities in spiritual, athletic, and health care situations.
“What does give me hope, though, is there were many LGBTQ+ teens who reported they are optimistic about their futures. Given current legislation, it’s particularly tough for these teens right now, but they’re hopeful that adulthood will bring better things,” Watson says. “While LGBTQ+ teens are still reporting unacceptably high levels of bullying and poor mental health experiences, many also reported that they foresee themselves having a happy future as an LGBTQ+ person.”
The 2022 survey is a follow up to one done in 2017 in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign, which also helped to analyze last year’s data and published the results in its 2023 LGBTQ+ Youth Report.
Watson says that while more than 45 peer-reviewed academic papers came of the data from five years ago, he expects the most recent survey to produce as many as 50 on many facets of the LGBTQ+ teen experience, from how the internet can facilitate healthy development to the importance of using proper pronouns in schools and at home.
Also, HRC is planning to publish a handful of reports on specific topics such as the school-to-prison pipeline among LGBTQ+ youth in schools.
What’s also important about the 2022 survey, Watson says, is that about 3,000 of the teens provided their contact information to allow UConn researchers to contact them again to follow their development through the years. It won’t be the first such study of LGBTQ+ teens, but it will be one of the few.
The 2017 survey was conducted during the Trump administration, while the 2022 survey was done during the Biden administration, Watson notes. Even though different political parties headed government at each time, there are many more legislative attacks now against transgender individuals, in particular.
“Some people might think things are ‘getting better’ for LGBTQ+ youth right now because of a more liberal government, however in some ways it’s not. We’re seeing some negative experiences that are heightened or even worse than they were before,” he says.
Results from the two surveys can’t be directly compared, in part because they included many different questions – in 2022 some new questions included those about chest binding and internet safety, for instance. Also, researchers in 2022 had to navigate the proliferation of scammers attempting to fraudulently submit responses to collect incentives.
Watson says advertising for the 2017 survey was done on social media platforms like X, formerly known as Twitter, and in 2022, teens had gravitated toward other platforms such as Discord and Tiktok, so researchers needed to adjust their means of recruitment.
The goal was to collect 17,000 survey responses from LGBTQ+ teens between 13 and 18 years old and that happened, Watson notes, making the sampling a success. In compiling the data, researchers excluded about 5,000 responses from full data analyses for numerous reasons, including being incomplete, leaving about 12,000 as part of the survey results.
Among some of the study’s findings are:
• The average age LGBQ+ youth realized they were something other than heterosexual was about 11 years old; the average age transgender and gender-expansive youth realized they were something other than cisgender was 12 1/2 years old.
• Only 13.8% of LGBTQ+ youth have been taught about LGBTQ+ history and only 19.6% have access to LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education. 72.8% attend schools that have a gay-straight alliance or similar club.
• 22.5% of LGBTQ+ youth play sports, including 17.6% in schools. However, 64.8% are involved in at least one extracurricular activity.
• About 46% of transgender and gender-expansive youth can use a school bathroom that matches their gender identity. And, at school, about 46% feel unsafe in at least one educational setting, most often locker rooms and bathrooms.
• Almost 57% report being harassed at least once in the last 30 days.
• About 55% were screened positive for depression; 63.5% were positive for anxiety.
• 90.3% are proud to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, but 23% wish they were not LGBTQ+.
“All teens experience general stress, such as asking someone out to prom or studying for a hard exam, and many teens might say they are struggling in any current moment,” Watson says. “But for the teens in our survey, there are specific stressors reported that are unique to their sexual and gender identities. Some of them are victimized and harassed or excluded for being LGBTQ+, and then there’s internalized homophobia or concealment out of fear for being rejected. It’s those unique stressors specific to sexual and gender identity that scientists posit are responsible for some of the negative outcomes.”
However, today’s LGBTQ+ teens are more aware than in previous generations about their rights, whether given to them or taken away, Watson says. They pay attention to the news and know, for example, that in some states their parents can be jailed just for getting them identity-affirming health care.
Those regional or state-to-state differences are things that will be looked at using the data from 2022, which collected teens’ ZIP codes. Researchers will be able to map state laws and local ordinances alongside teen responses to see how anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives affect young people in that area.
Much like in 2017, the recent survey found that teens who live in states that are more conservative around LGBTQ+ issues report worse outcomes, Watson says, but those in places like the Northeast and West report better experiences.
“Despite the past two decades of unparalleled acceptance of gay marriage, the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and advances in protecting LGBTQ+ rights, over the last couple of years that has been eroded,” Watson says. “We’re still seeing extreme health disparities among LGBTQ+ young people. Data show LGBTQ+ youth are at much higher odds for suicide, depression, and anxiety. We know kids are really struggling despite having resources and parents who are accepting. Structural issues remain.”
He continues, “This data allows us to better understand which groups – LGBTQ+ teens of color, of different socioeconomic statuses, in different regions of the United States – are most at risk and what interventions or supports can help. These are questions we’re able to answer when we have big data of diverse types. It’s important to use this data to make some kind of policy or community change.”
Funding for the 2022 survey came from a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The first paper detailing its methodologies, “Examining Mental Health and Bullying Concerns at the Intersection of Sexuality, Gender, Race, and Ethnicity Among a National Sample of Sexual and Gender Diverse Youth,” was published this month in LGBT Health. Find the HRC’s 2023 LGBTQ+ Youth Report here.