In Partnership with 74

Report: Higher rates of depression, anxiety for LGBTQ teens forcibly outed

Beth Hawkins | June 17, 2024

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

As more states require schools to out transgender students to their families, a new study links involuntary disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity to heightened rates of depression and anxiety.

One-third of LGBTQ youth outed to their families were more likely to report major symptoms of depression than those who weren’t, according to the University of Connecticut research. Transgender and nonbinary youth who were outed to their parents reported both the highest levels of depression symptoms and lowest amount of family support. 

The first research to link teens’ nonconsensual disclosure of sexual orientation or gender identity to poor mental health, the report also found 69% said the experience was extremely stressful. Forcibly outed youth also reported low levels of family support. 

Since 2022, eight states have passed laws requiring schools to out transgender students to their families, potentially affecting more than 17,000 young people: Idaho, North Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama. Proponents say the measures are necessary to uphold parents’ right to information about their kids. LGBTQ and mental health advocates counter that the laws violate students’ privacy rights and can put them in danger of being abused or thrown out of their homes. 

Forced outing “is a relatively common experience, and we need to understand more about it,” says Peter McCauley, a doctoral candidate at UConn. “People should be coming out under their own terms.” 

The data, McCauley says, bolsters research on why queer students who are victimized in school often don’t seek help. According to research cited in the new report, 44% of LGBTQ youth say they have not reported harassment to an adult at school out of fear their parents would learn their identity. A majority of sexual-minority teen boys were threatened with outing by peers.

The new report used data from a survey of some 9,300 queer youth ages 13 to 17 collected in 2017 by the Human Rights Campaign and the university’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. Two-thirds of respondents identified as cisgender, and 70% said their LGBTQ status was not involuntarily disclosed to their families. Of those not outed, 36% said their parents did not know they were not heterosexual. Nearly half of gender-nonconforming students said they were not out to their families. 

The survey found no significant racial differences in the stress of being outed. Youth whose parents had postgraduate degrees reported few depressive symptoms and high family support. 

Previous surveys by The Trevor Project, GLSEN and other advocacy groups consistently find that nearly all LGBTQ youth say they are harassed at school — which many nonetheless say is a more supportive environment than home. Fewer than four in 10 queer youth say their homes are LGBTQ-affirming.

There is evidence that people who disclose their sexual and gender identities in adolescence experience less depression and greater life satisfaction in adulthood. But not all teens who come out do so to their families. Some share with friends or trusted adults other than their parents. Youth are often reluctant to come out because they have heard their caregivers talk negatively about LGBTQ people or issues.

In addition to the eight states that mandate outing, Florida, Arizona, Utah, Montana and Kentucky — which collectively are home to a quarter-million LGBTQ youth — have new laws that critics say encourage involuntary disclosure of students’ sexual orientation or gender identity. These measures mandate discipline for educators who “encourage or coerce” children to withhold information from their families, stop schools from “discouraging or prohibiting” parental notification about pupils’ well-being and grant caregivers broad access to mental health and other records.

Fights over forced outing are also playing out at a local level throughout the country. In at least six states, families who believe student privacy protections violate their parental rights have sued districts. So far, none of the suits has succeeded.  

A Houston Landing investigation found that during the first two months after mandatory parental notification went into effect in August 2023 in Texas’ Katy Independent School District, 19 students were outed. After the story was published, the U.S. Department of Education opened a Title IX investigation into the district’s actions, which local advocates had complained discriminated on the basis of gender. 

At least six California districts require schools to disclose a range of information. In January, California Attorney General Rob Bonta warned districts that parental notification policies violate the state’s constitution and education laws. The admonition came after a judge’s October 2023 order temporarily halting the enforcement of an outing rule in Chino. 

As legislation seeking to restrict LGBTQ students’ rights has swept statehouses in recent years, the number of states fully administering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System — the nation’s chief survey of young people’s welfare — has fallen. Some states, such as Florida, stopped participating altogether, while others refuse to ask questions about sexual orientation, gender identity, mental health and suicidality.

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

Read Next