Coming out – the process by which LGBTQ+ people disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity – is difficult.
It is not a one-and-done event. It is not a single conversation or three-word summary – “I am gay/transgender/etc.” – that, once complete, marks the beginning of a person’s new life.
Coming out is a process. For me, that process lasted many months. I came out to my mom last year on our vacation to Boston, just a few days before my 16th birthday. I came out to my dad a day later. Then, over the next few days, weeks, and months, I came out to most everyone else. Close friends, family, co-workers, teachers. Even writing this now, I know that there will be people in my life who still do not know that I am gay. This piece of writing will serve as a “coming out” itself.
And through all of those dozens of coming-outs, I have realized – and reaffirmed again and again – how lucky I am. Everyone in my life has accepted me for me, understanding that my identity as a gay person is but a small piece of the mosaic that is my life – that is me.
I did not fully understand that gay people existed until third grade during a car ride home from school. My friend yelled to her mom in shock and horror that two men – definitely men, not a man and a woman – were kissing behind a store. This physical manifestation of homosexuality was surprising – jarring, even. But I knew then and even a bit before, in the face of this shocking scene, that the way I felt towards my male classmates was different than it was supposed to be. Girls were not crushes; they were friends. Boys were always something else.
Parents and Their Influence
Looking back, I am sometimes confused and frustrated why it did not “click” sooner. But I realize it was the environment around me that kept me unaware. My parents have always been fully accepting of gay people, but I never bothered talking to them about sexuality, and they, unsuspecting, did not talk back, except with the occasional “We will support you no matter what.” After all, sexuality was not the first thing on their minds in my elementary years, but to my uncomfortable realization, it was on mine. According to the Pew Research Center, the median age at which LBGTQ+ people realized they were not straight is 12 years old, 10 years old for gay men. During a conversation with my grandmother a few weeks ago in which she asked when I realized I was gay, I answered very honestly, “Around 8 or 9.”
Parents and guardians play arguably the most important role in teens’ acceptance of their identity. My parents’ constant affirmations and support made my process undeniably easy. But when parents ridicule the LGBTQ+ movement or pre-empt their child’s coming out with a warning that they would not love them as anything but straight and cisgender, they forcibly repress their child’s identity. So for many teens, especially in more conservative and rural areas, keeping their identity hidden is not a choice so much as a necessary precaution against ridicule, abuse, and bullying by those who they love most.
According to research by LGBT Health published in the National Library of Medicine Journal, “Youth with highly rejecting families are often forced to leave the home, leading to overrepresentation of LGBTQ teens in the homeless youth population and foster care system, thus exposing these youth to myriad risky contexts.” Parenting is the most influential force in teens’ lives. It is from parents that teens learn almost everything about the world around them. The way they perceive the issues and people in their lives is shaped directly by how their parents raise them. The more parents of LGBTQ+ teens accept them, the more the teens will accept themselves and embrace their identity. The less accepting parents are, the higher the chance of internalized homophobia, staying closeted, or being forced out of the home.
For many teens, this second scenario – one of little-to-no acceptance – is reality. They must keep their identities to themselves and seek avenues of self-expression. Media can play a role in easing this stress, the burden of being “different.” From gay-centered movies and TV shows to openly gay artists and creators, LGBTQ+ representation in all areas of American society has made leaps and bounds in recent decades. But this acceptance – felt through online personalities and content or merchandise and advertisements – is no substitute for the real thing.
Schools As a Safe Space
The three-dimensional acceptance of affirming words, an open conversation, or a hug cannot be replaced. This is why, for many unaccepted, still closeted, or simply cautious queer teens, school is relief. Teens can be who they are at school. They can express themselves, talk how they want to talk, and be friends with people who support them, affirm them, and love them for who they are. They can make a “chosen family” and thrive in a way that may be impossible at home.
In my research, I talked to fellow VOXer and queer teen, Brooklyn Mahari. When I asked if her school – a private school in Atlanta – acted as a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth, she replied with a simple, “Yes. I don’t want to speak for other people, but from what I’ve seen from the people I’ve interacted with, I would say yes. Even though I don’t experience homophobia at my house, I believe that [our school] would be a safe space for them if they were experiencing homophobia at home.”
But for some teens, the dream of school being a safe place for expressing identity and sexuality freely is just that. Libby Brown, a student at Westlake High school in Saratoga Springs, Utah, talked to me about her experience being an LGBTQ+ student at her school and in a red state, “On paper, my school seems like they would support me and my sexuality. We have signs on every door that say ‘safe space.’ If you were to ask the teachers, they would say they support the LGBTQ+ community, but that’s not the reality. Since I first came out, I’ve become very confident in who I am. I love being a lesbian but sometimes it can be hard. I do not feel supported at my school or in my community.”
And like myself, my friend, who will go by Xen in this article and who also goes to Walton, said that their experience as an LGBTQ+ student was a mixed bag, “Going to school has always felt like more of a safe space for me personally than my own home was. Being surrounded by supportive friends gave me the environment I needed to explore my identity. But I think the school system itself never directly added any support on its own. In my experience schools have not made any dedicated efforts to provide a safe space for queer teens, and they usually ignore/censor the topic of sexuality.”
What About My School?
Walton, located within a light blue Cobb County, is not openly supportive of LGBTQ+ people. There is no straight-gay-alliance; there are no visible cues of support in the halls or anywhere else – no pride flags, no posters, no affirmations. Although bullying is not rampant, my friends and I have been made fun of. I feel comfortable with my friends, but for the most part feel uncomfortable in the heavily straight, heavily southern atmosphere, especially once school is over. I have found support in some amazing teachers, but it is obvious that the pressures of coming out and staying out are not felt by the overwhelmingly heterosexual and cisgender administration and student population.
Going back to school as myself – as gay – spurred many changes in my social life, including a noticeable shift in the people who I spent my time with. The large majority of friends I have made over this past year are also part of the LGBTQ+ community; those who are not queer are fully accepting of me and my sexuality. And with this gradual inclination towards people who shared my identity, I have had many conversations opening my eyes to the ways parents, family members, and society-at-large have influenced teens’ acceptance of themselves and willingness to come out.
One of the most worrying discussions between me and my friends has centered around the numerous anti-LGBTQ+ bills being proposed around the country and in our own state of Georgia. These bills – focused on limiting education of LGBTQ+ peoples’ issues, existence, and struggles – single out LGBTQ+ teens and threaten the safety and space for education on queer issues schools should provide.
The Frightening New Bills: Explained
One of the most notable pieces of legislation has been Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law in March. The bill bans “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity” from kindergarten to third grade, or – more vaguely – “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” This portion of the bill has been framed by the Republicans who passed it as a way to prevent unnecessary and inappropriate talks of sex and identity for children too young to understand them. Reading between the lines though, the bill leaves space for unaccepting schools to hush mention of LGBTQ+ people and any issues associated with them. Talks of pride month – to even a simple rainbow or pride flag – could be shut down with the excuse of protecting children from dangerous, scandalous talks of identity. On Wednesday, in response to the new law, The Walt Disney Co., one of Florida’s largest employers, announced it was now delaying until 2026, the relocation of 2,000 workers from California to Florida.
It is clear to me and my friends, however, that most Republican legislators have no issue with displays of heterosexuality. Much of the media I consumed in school during my elementary years was centered on crushes, marriage, and love in general, always in an unflinching straight way. Teachers would tease me, asking if I “liked” the girls I talked to. Parents would do the same, theorizing which of my classmates were “dating” or which had crushes on the others. We were all in the second, third, and fourth grades. Forcing heterosexuality on and encouraging pre-adolescent relationships between children was fun to them. I suspect many of these same parents would see a pride flag in a classroom as a grave overstep, an act of indoctrination.
This type of bill is not just limited to Florida. In Louisiana, legislators introduced House Bill 837 which lays out how “No teacher, school employee or other presenter shall cover the topics of sexual orientation or gender identity in any classroom discussion or instruction in kindergarten through grade eight.” In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivy signed into law two anti-trans laws before the end of the state’s legislative session. The first of these bills criminalizes gender-affirming surgery for teens and adolescents. The second “require(s) public K-12 schools to designate the use of rooms where students may be in various stages of undress upon the basis of biological sex.”
Homophobia at Home: Anti-LGBTQ+ Bills in Georgia
And in our own state, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed into law HB 1084, a last-minute bill that – along with limiting discussions of race in the classroom – bans transgender youth from participating in sports according to their gender identity. Although the bill does not say “transgender,” a ploy by Republicans to shield themselves from criticism by insisting the bill does not target trans youth, the intent is clear. According to Kemp, the bill “protect(s) fairness in school sports.” A grave misconception by Republican lawmakers creating bills targeting transgender student-athletes is that students are transitioning “to get an edge” in their respective sport. No, they are transitioning to feel comfortable in their skin, to bring who they are to the surface and leave behind the previous expression of self that did not represent them. Suggesting that teens would undergo such a world-shattering, life-changing process to perform better in a sport is ridiculous and shameful. Trans students want to participate in the sports they enjoy after their transition, to be able to play as themselves.
The malicious fiction that Republicans have concocted around trans athletes demonizes them as “cheaters” and pushes the notion that these teens have gone through the long, uncertain process of coming out with the sole purpose of finishing higher in their school’s cross country race or swim meet. They use the excuse of “protecting girls” to push legislation that furthers their true agenda: to prevent transgender teens – and LGBTQ+ teens in general – from participating normally in our straight society at all stages of our lives, to shame them for being themselves – the person they were born as. But this excuse is flimsy, and Republicans know it. HB 1084’s last-minute passage – fifteen minutes before the end of the legislative session – made sure it faced as little pushback, dissection, and debate as possible. The unequal, undemocratic nature of the bill fits well with the sneaky, rushed manner in which it was passed. Soon after its passage, the Georgia High School Sports Association implemented a trans ban, even as the GHSA conceded it knows of no current trans high schoolers competing in the state or received any complaints.
Along with their obviously discriminatory nature, these bills will make it more difficult for children and teens to accept themselves as LGBTQ+. When the schools and legislators and laws in your life are telling you it is inappropriate to be gay or bisexual or transgender, you begin to believe it.
What Do Teens Think?
When I asked Brooklyn about the trans bill, she said, “I definitely think it’s going to have a negative effect on students – especially in right-leaning areas. For students that don’t have a space at home, it will restrict them. And even if they do have a space at home, they will have to go somewhere every day that does not accept them. The “Don’t Say Gay” aspect creates a division between people who are gay and who are not.”
Libby sees the anti-trans and anti-gay bills as a reflection of the way elected officials leverage religion in order to legislate against powerless minority groups like queer teens, “Anti-gay/trans bills are created to hurt us. We cannot give them what they want which is to see the ‘sinners’ lose. We need to show them that who we are is not a sin. We are proud members/allies of the LGBTQ+ community; and that will never change.
“I felt the tinges of my sexual orientation a long time ago, but due to the distinct lack of LGBTQ+ representation during my education and the unwelcoming, divisive atmosphere of the schools I have attended, I did not come out until last summer – a time in which I had been out of school for a year and encouraged by friends I made online to take the leap of confronting my sexuality. These bills will continue to perpetuate this cycle of waiting, of shame, of regret within teens for missing out on so many years of not living as themselves.”
Over the decades, Atlanta has become a mecca for LGBTQ+ people who have found themselves unaccepted by other southern states. It is Atlanta’s authenticity that makes it so welcoming; the idea that who you are does not matter so much as what you do. With the anti-LGBTQ+ bills, any place with this authenticity is threatened, especially in rural areas, but even here where anti-LGBTQ+ school officials can legally dictate what is allowed in terms of identity. Even here, queer teens are at risk of repression and self-hatred.
The Danger of These Bills
But this issue is much more dangerous than self-discovery. According to Jeff Graham, the Executive Director of Georgia Equality, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization in Georgia, these discriminatory laws threaten teens both in and out of schools, “After years of excruciating public debate targeting the rights of transgender youth that 85 percent of LGBTQ young people say has negatively affected their mental health, making transgender youth especially feel sad, stressed, and hopeless, we hear constantly from youth in crisis who want nothing more than to be recognized for who they are.” This “wave” of laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights and representation stresses teens out, especially those who are seeking life-changing, identity affirming surgeries or treatments.
This stress is compounded on top of the already high rates of suicide and depression within the queer teen community. According to The Trevor Project’s Sam Ames, “The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This [“Don’t Say Gay”] bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face. LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”
Coping with the new realities these bills will create can be difficult. In the face of this oppression, Jeff Graham stresses the importance of self-love and acceptance, “My biggest advice is to make sure you love and accept yourself. That’s sometimes the biggest challenge anyone can face, regardless of what their sexual or gender identity is. You are exactly the person you are meant to be. And while it’s often very scary to feel that you’re alone and no one will understand you, when you accept yourself, you’ll realize that you are not alone. The best way to stop all of these bad bills from becoming laws is to vote for folks who will support the LGBTQ+ community. Younger people have more political power than you may realize.”
What Should We Do?
“For adults, I think they should find ways to contact lawmakers and tell them to vote against these bills,” Brooklyn says. “Support their children who are queer, and even if they do not have queer children, still support them. Go to walkouts, and marches – same with teens too. Doing things that are safe under the permission of adults. Also, don’t let people tell you who you are supposed to be because this bill is actively doing that.”
Xen pushes teens to get involved to an extent that is safe, “If they feel comfortable enough to speak out on the recent laws passed then they totally should, whether that’s through social media, participating in protests, or simply empathizing with each other. But no teen should feel obligated to say or do anything if they don’t feel safe.”
For adults, Xen’s idea of involvement is a bit different, “[Adults] should absolutely use their influence to advocate for queer teens. They should do all they can to protect the teens that feel so vulnerable right now. Adults should make sure queer teens know that they aren’t in this alone, even when it feels like the world is against them.”
“Even something simple like writing supporting and affirming notes and placing them somewhere everyone can see will help,” Libby said when I asked her what we as teens can do. “We need to know that we have each other’s backs. We need to fight and speak up.”
What I Believe
My advice is much the same. Take a stand, in one way or another. Write letters to your legislators, speak at city council and school board meetings, push your teachers and school officials to support their queer students and create a place where kids can feel accepted regardless of their situations outside of school.
Contrary to what Republicans say, through their words, laws, and demonizations targeting LGBTQ+ people, it is OK to be queer. Contrary to the way adults may try through every means possible to push you back in or deeper into the closet, it is OK to be queer. And it is more than OK to fight for the right to express yourself and your identity in schools, to fight for the right to participate in the sports you want to play, and to fight for the right to have teachers and schools not only acknowledge but support your existence.
For Xen, the sentiment of “hang in there” is a personal one. They live in an unaccepting household, one with parents who love them as who they think they are, but who would likely push them away if they were to come out. “If you have a support system you know you can trust, let them be there for you. If you don’t have that and need to keep it to yourself for now, I’m right there with you.”
To Xen and to all queer teens reading this, there is no time limit to coming out. There is no time limit to figuring things out, to exploring who you are. It is OK to stay away from a situation you may not be able to get out of, and it is OK to wait until the time is right. You know you. As long as you can accept and love yourself for who you are, everyone else can wait. Be safe, be kind to yourself, and realize that despite all the voices telling you that you do not belong, you do.
June is Pride month, a celebration of identity and acceptance that has been embraced by people of all backgrounds, orientations, and identities for decades. So celebrate – whether you are out and proud, waiting for the right time, or still working on it. Do not push yourself down, into a place of repression and shame. You are not “wasting” time. You are not unnatural or unwanted. You are exactly who you are meant to be. So say “gay.” Say “lesbian,” “transgender,” “nonbinary,” “asexual.” Say who you are, and say it proudly.