Coming Out Queer: Applying a Trauma Informed Lens to National Coming Out Day
(reposted with permission by the author from Psychology Today)
"You have some queer friends Dorothy,” she said.
“The queerness doesn’t matter so long as they’re friends,” was the answer. - The Road to Oz (1909)
Although these words were published 110 years ago and the meaning of queerness is different, many still struggle to accept Dorothy Gale’s worldview today. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) youth, navigating the world can pose more problems than simply finding a friend like Dorothy to embrace their “queerness.”
Today is the 31st annual National Coming Out Day. It is a day intended for LGBTQ+ people to experience the freedom of expressing who they are and be celebrated and embraced by those around them. It is a day where our nation should say “the queerness doesn’t matter, as long as they are friends.” But is this where we are today? Is it safe for everyone, particularly our youth, to bravely come out of the closet of shame about their sexual orientation and gender identity?
According to GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey, among a sample of over 23,000 LGBT youth (13-21), 60% reported feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 45% for their gender expression. Respondents also reported verbal (70%) and physical (29%) harassment for their sexual orientation and their gender expression (59% verbal, 24% physical). Furthermore, 57% reported being sexually harassed at school (Kosciw, et al. 2018).
Unfortunately, these sobering statistics extend beyond the school and into every aspect of the world for LGBTQ+ youth. In the 2018 Human Rights Council LGBTQ Youth Report, 67% of the 12,000 respondents (age 13-17) said they heard their family make anti-LGBTQ remarks and almost half (48%) reported their families made them feel bad for being LGBTQ (Kahn, Johnson, Lee & Miranda, 2018).
Furthermore, family discrimination of LGBTQ+ youth goes well beyond comments and feelings. The Williams Institute estimates that 77,000 youth will receive conversion therapy from either a mental health professional (20,000) or a spiritual/religious advisor before the age of 18 (Mallory, Brown & Conron, 2018). LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to experience some form of homelessness than straight and cisgender youth (Morton, Dworsky & Samuels, 2017).
The long-term impact of the disproportionate amount of trauma our LGBTQ youth face is staggering. Consequences related to queer youth discrimination, harassment, rejection, and assault include increased anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and suicide attempts and death rates far above their straight and cisgender (those who agree with the gender they were assigned at birth) peers (Birkett, Newcomb & Mustanski 2014).
In light of these sobering facts, many who work with youth struggle to find resources and supports for LGBTQ+ youth who want to come out. Helping youth to come out safely in all areas of their life is complex. While allies may feel equipped to establish Safe Zones in their offices, classrooms, or other spheres of influence, they may still feel powerless to help beyond these limits (look here for more information about Safe Zone training).
Trauma Informed Care is one helpful framework for those who want to create safety for LGBTQ+ youth beyond their area of influence. Both the Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Administration (2014) and Fallot and Harris (2001) offer principles to guide the creation of trauma-informed communities and organizations.
A foundational principle from both sources is establishing Safety that extends into every aspect of your school, organization, congregation, neighborhood, and beyond. Once safety is established, other principles such as Trustworthiness, Choice, Collaboration, and Empowerment can then be built upon this foundation.
Applying a trauma-informed lens through these tools can empower LGBTQ+ youth to safely come out in varying degrees. Consider this recent case example from my private practice (details have been changed to protect this client’s identity):
In the fall of 2018, I received an email from a 19-year-old transgender guy (RJ) who had just begun classes at a local university. He had created a separate email account specifically for the purpose of reaching out for help with transitioning and “gender therapy” because he was from an extremely conservative fundamentalist religious home.
RJ was terrified of his family discovering he was transgender, even to the point where he did not feel safe communicating through phone calls or over text messaging. A complicating factor was an older sibling attended the same university. This sibling frequently accessed his phone and computer to report his behavior. His parents monitored his medical insurance statements and other mail. They had even chosen his major and dictated the classes he was to take.
Over the course of the academic year, this determined and resourceful young man would attend sessions he had set up with me through separate email accounts and having friends lie to his sibling about his whereabouts. As his sense of safety and trust in me began to grow, he was able to become more confident.
A first step was a choice to change his major as a test of the consequences his parents would try to enforce. Second was a choice to begin collaborating with others by exploring primary care physicians who would prescribe testosterone. Next was to begin attending a regional GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance formerly known as Gay Straight Alliance) that met at different locations monthly to provide anonymity. Currently, he is exploring places of worship and spiritual connection which embrace LGBTQ+ people.
As RJ continues to network and collaborate with others, he feels more empowered to come out to more people. We are hopeful he will soon be able to celebrate his own coming out, if not today, then perhaps next October 11th.
Baum, L. F. (1979). The Road to Oz. 1909. New York: Del Rey-Ballantine.
Birkett, M., Newcomb, M.E., & Mustanski, B. (2014). Does it Get Better? A Longitudinal Analysis of Psychological Distress and Victimization in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 56 (3), 280-285.
Harris, M., & Fallot, R. (2001). Creating cultures of trauma-informed care (CCTIC): A self-assessment and planning protocol.
Kahn, E., Johnson, A., Lee, M., & Miranda, L. (2018). LGBTQ Youth Report 2018.
Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Zongrone, A. D., Clark, C. M., & Truong, N. L. (2018). The 2017 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York: GLSEN.
Mallory, C., Brown, T. N., & Conron, K. J. (2018). Conversion therapy and LGBT youth. Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law.
Morton, M. H., Dworsky, A., & Samuels, G. M. (2017). Missed opportunities: Youth homelessness in America. National estimates. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. http://voicesofyouthcount. org/wpcontent/uploads/2017/11/VoYC-National-Estimates-Brief-Chapin-Hall-2017. pdf.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) xx-xxxx. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.