Disclaimer: for the purposes of this article, I will be using the terms “LGBTQ” and “LGBTQ+” interchangeably to refer to members of society who have non-heteronormative gender and sexual identities and expressions.

LGBTQ+ youth within many spaces of western society face many unique challenges, a result of growing up in heteronormative (see definition in the glossary of terms at the end of the article) systems which may leave them feeling ostracized, victimized, othered, and alone.

Statistics on Systemic Anti-LGBTQ Stigma and Discriminatory Messages

  • Approximately 92% of LGBT youth report awareness of negative messages regarding the LGBT communities.
  • 68% of LGBT youth report hearing biased and negative messages about the LGBT communities from elected government officials
  • 4 out of 10 youth report living in communities that are not accepting of LGBT identified people.
  • LGBTQ discriminatory messages appear all over, but are most common in school settings, the internet, and around other peers.

Source: Human Rights Campaign (HRC)

The above data is important for understanding how LGBTQ youth internalize these negative messages, which they receive both within the community and the school settings. All around them, LGBTQ+ youth are fed messages that they are inherently wrong. In addition to implicit and explicit societal systematic messages involving the stigma and discrimination of LGBTQ individuals, the enactment of such stigma can prove all the more harmful. Institutional, cultural and interpersonal discrimination are the root causes of violence toward LGBTQ individuals. A wealth of data has been conducted within recent years in the United States examining the health disparities of LGBTQ youth. Across the board, LGBTQ youth face elevated risks for physical and emotional victimization, including violence, physical assault, bullying, and homelessness.

Statistics on Stigma Discrimination, Victimization, Violence, Physical Assault, and Bullying, within and outside the School Setting

  • 31% of LGBTQ youth, 43% of transgender youth and 40% of questioning youth have been bullied at school, compared to 16% of their non-LGBTQ peers.
  • 17% of LGBTQ youth, 29% of transgender youth and 30% of questioning youth have been threatened or injured with a weapon at school, compared to 6% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • Anti-LGBTQ stigma and discrimination results in more missed school, lower GPAs, and lower self-esteem.
  • 24% of LGBTQ youth, 35% of transgender youth and 41% of questioning youth have skipped school because they felt unsafe at school or on their way to school, compared to 8% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • 15% of transgender students leave school in K-12 settings or higher education due to extremity of harassment.
  • Half of those who leave school report experiencing homelessness.
  • LGB youth are 2.5X more likely to experience sexual dating violence than heterosexual youth.
  • LGB youth are more than 3X more likely to be forced to have sexual intercourse than heterosexual youth.
  • 78% of transgender students in grades K-12 report harsh harassment with 35% reporting physical assault and 12% reporting sexual violence.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HRC The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

Risk of Homelessness

  • 16% of LGBTQ youth, 22% of transgender youth and 17% of LGBTQ youth of color are usually sleeping somewhere that is not the home of a parent or guardian, compared to 3% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • More than 1 in 4 gay teens are thrown out of their homes.
  • LGBT homeless youth are 7X more likely that their heterosexual peers to be victims of a crime.
  • 54% of homeless LGBT youth say abuse in their family is a contributing factor to homelessness.
  • About 62% of LGBT homeless youth have attempted suicide.
  • 1/2 of Transgender Youth who leave school out of fear of emotional abuse and physical violence experience homelessness.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HRC, National Gay and Lesbian Task ForceWilliams InstituteCenter for American Progress, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

Given all the data, it’s unsurprising that only half of LGBTQ youth report being out to their immediate family, and only a quarter of LGBTQ youth report being out to their extended family (HRC). Fear of rejection, and in some cases violence and housing insecurity can lead youth to hide and repress their non-heteronormative identities. For those who feel it necessary to withhold aspects of their identity from loved ones for fear of negative ramifications and/or potential hostility, the mental health outcomes can be and frequently are significant. This lack of disclosure can be especially detrimental given the elevated negative mental health outcomes that LGBTQ youth experience.

Statistics on Depression, Suicide and Substance Abuse

  • More than half of LGBTQ youth (54%), 61% of transgender youth and 61% of questioning youth are battling symptoms of depression, compared to 29% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • 35% of LGBTQ youth, 45% of transgender youth and 40% of questioning youth have seriously considered attempting suicide, compared to 13% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • 31% of LGBTQ youth, 43% of transgender youth and 42% of questioning youth have made plans about how they would attempt suicide, compared to 10% of their non-LGBTQ peers
  • 22% of LGBTQ youth, 29% of transgender youth, 32% of questioning youth and 27% of LGBTQ youth of color have attempted suicide, compared to 5% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • Transgender youths who are rejected by their families are more than 8X more likely to attempt suicide.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HRC, Center for American ProgressNational Gay and Lesbian Task Force, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

Substance Use among LGBTQ+ Youth

The use of cigarettes, electronic vapor products, alcohol and illicit drugs is a pressing and ongoing issue for LGBTQ+ youth and has been linked with reported experiences with bullying and violence in schools and in their communities. HRC Foundation’s analysis illustrates that LGBTQ youth, especially LGBTQ youth of color and transgender youth, are at a higher risk of substance use compared to their non-LGBTQ peers:

  • 30% of LGBTQ youth, 32% of transgender youth, and 31% of LGBTQ youth of color have tried smoking cigarettes, compared to 16% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • 12% of LGBTQ youth, 18% of transgender youth, and 13% of LGBTQ youth of color are actively using cigarettes, compared to 4% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • 53% of LGBTQ youth, 55% of transgender youth, and 55% of LGBTQ youth of color have tried smoking electronic vapor products, compared to 46% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • 30% of LGBTQ youth, 35% of transgender youth, and 30% of LGBTQ youth of color are currently using electronic vapor products, compared to 23% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • 33% of LGBTQ youth, 39% of transgender youth, and 35% of LGBTQ youth of color are currently using alcohol, compared to 26% of non-LGBTQ youth.
  • 33% of LGBTQ youth said they have used cocaine, inhalants, heroin, meth, ecstasy or steroids at least once in their life, compared to 6% of non-LGBTQ youth

Now The Good News: Effectively addressing systemic problems related to LGBTQ youth requires buy-in from lawmakers at the local, state and federal levels. Many lawmakers throughout the country are fighting to pass legislation that would protect and serve the LGBTQ communities. Thanks to the dedication and drive of advocates, lawmakers, social service providers, the fight for LGBTQ+ social equality in the United States has seen significant advances within the past decade. These advances in LGBTQ+ equality have had significant impact across systems in which LGBTQ+ youth exist and co-exist.

So, what can we do?

There are many strategies that can help facilitate supportive inclusive school environments for LGBTQ+ youth.  Within the school system, establishing a GSA (Gay-Straight-Alliance) or LGBTQ+ inclusive club has been shown to be an effective method for launching a foundation for acceptance within the school system. Inclusive curricula are incredibly valuable in presenting positive representations of LGBTQ+ people.  Supportive educators within the school system can work to provide additional layers of acceptance and inclusivity. Establishing supportive educators within the school system has been shown to improve grade point averages and attendance ratings for LGBTQ identifying students. Comprehensive harassment policies are also important in providing structural support and establishing rules that work to stop and prevent stigma, discrimination, and peer victimization.

As caregivers, providing a secure home environment where an LGBTQ+ child can grow into themselves and feel accepted on their journey toward self-discovery can be the best remedy for reducing severe negative physical and mental health outcomes. Parents, family and friends can and should use the data provided to increase their own level of support and affirmation for the LGBTQ+ youth in their lives. One major way to show support for LGBTQ+ youth is through understanding important concepts and terminology relating to how LGBTQ+ individuals identify themselves. By understanding key concepts for approaching gender diversity and sexual orientation, we create more welcoming and empathic spaces for our youth to thrive within.

Some LGBTQ+ Terminology

This set of definitions does not comprise of the entirety of comprehensive LGBTQ+ identity terminology. Many of these terms were taken from HRC’s Glossary of Terms, which provides a more comprehensive list of terminology. Labels for non-heteronormative identity shift and change over time.

Gender refers to a set of cultural identities, expressions and roles – codified as feminine or masculine – that are assigned to people, based upon the interpretation of their bodies, and more specifically, their sexual and reproductive anatomy. Since gender is a social construction, it is possible to reject or modify the assignment made and develop something that feels truer and just to oneself.

Gender Binary refers to a socially constructed system of viewing gender as consisting solely of two categories, “male” and “female”, in which no other possibilities for gender are believed to exist. The gender binary is inaccurate because it fails to account for the diversity of gender identities and gender expressions among all people. The gender binary can feel oppressive to people that do not conform to dominant societal gender norms.

Gender dysphoria refers to the clinically significant distress caused when a person’s assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify.

Gender Identity refers to how one identifies in terms of their gender. One’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth.

Gender Expression refers to the external appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, body characteristics or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.

Gender non-conforming is a broad term referring to people who do not behave in a way that conforms to the traditional expectations of their gender, or whose gender expression does not fit neatly into a category. While many also identify as transgender, not all gender non-conforming people do.

Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc.

Non-binary is an adjective describing a person who does not identify exclusively as a man or a woman. Non-binary people may identify as being both a man and a woman, somewhere in between, or as falling completely outside these categories. While many also identify as transgender, not all non-binary people do. Non-binary can also be used as an umbrella term encompassing identities such as agender, bigender, genderqueer or gender-fluid.

Preferred Gender Pronouns refer to the pronoun or set of pronouns that a person would like others to call them by, when their proper name is not being used. Traditional examples include “she/her/hers” or “he/him/his”. Some people prefer gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they/them/theirs”. Using gender-neutral pronouns help to normalize the youth’s gender identity, and aid in making the environments they inhabit feel safe.

Cisgender is a term used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns with those typically associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.

Sexual Orientation refers to the inner feelings of who a person is attracted to emotionally and/or physically, in relation to their own gender identity. Some examples of sexual orientations are “asexual,” “bisexual,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “pansexual,” “queer,” “straight”.

Coming Out refers to the process in which a person openly acknowledges, accepts and appreciates their sexual orientation or gender identity and begins to share that with others. It can also refer to the ongoing process that an LGBTQ+ identified person goes through, to recognize their own identities pertaining to sexual orientation and/or gender identity and gender expression, and to be open about them with others.

Outing refers to exposing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity to others without their permission. Outing someone can have serious repercussions on employment, economic stability, personal safety, religious or family situations, as well as severe mental health consequences for the outed individual.

Homophobia is the fear and hatred of or discomfort with people who are attracted to members of the same sex.

Transphobia is the fear and hatred of or discomfort with people who do not align with traditional gender norms.

Identity is how we understand ourselves, what we call ourselves and often who we connect to and associate with. Each of us has a unique diversity of social identities based on our sexual orientation, gender identity, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion and other important parts of who we are. Those identities develop over time, intersect with each other and help give meaning to our lives.

LGBT, LGBTQ, and LGBTQ+ are umbrella terms/acronyms referring to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender. Sometimes the acronym is written as LGBTQ, with the “Q” referring to those who identify as queer and/or questioning. The acronym can also include additional letters, in reference to other identities that do not conform to dominant societal norms around sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The “+” in “LGBTQ+” refers to additional letters representing other gender and sexual identities not represented in the original acronym.

Gay refers to a person who is emotionally, romantically or sexually attracted to members of the same gender. Men, women and non-binary people may use this term to describe themselves. “Gay” should not be used as an umbrella term to refer to all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people; the terms “LGBT”, “LGBTQ”, and “LGBTQ+” are more accurate and inclusive.

Lesbian refers to a woman who is emotionally, romantically or sexually attracted to other women. Women and non-binary people may use this term to describe themselves.

Bisexual refers to a person who is emotionally, romantically or sexually attracted to more than one sex, gender or gender identity though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree. Sometimes used interchangeably with pansexual.

Pansexual describes someone who has the potential for emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to people of any gender though not necessarily simultaneously, in the same way or to the same degree. Sometimes used interchangeably with bisexual.

Asexual, often called “ace” for short, asexual refers to a complete or partial lack of sexual attraction or lack of interest in sexual activity with others. Asexuality exists on a spectrum, and asexual people may experience no, little or conditional sexual attraction.

Queer is an umbrella term used to describe a sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression that does not conform to dominant societal norms. While it is used as a neutral, or even a positive term among many LGBT people today, historically “queer” was used as a derogatory slur.

Questioning is a term used to describe people who are in the process of exploring their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Straight or Heterosexual refers to a person who is emotionally, romantically or sexually attracted to members of another gender (specifically, a man who is attracted to some women or a woman who is attracted to some men).

Heteronormativity refers to beliefs, behaviors, and/or attitudes consistent with traditional male or female gender roles and the assumption of heterosexuality as the norm.

Ally is a term describing someone who is actively supportive of LGBTQ+ people. It encompasses straight and cisgender allies, as well as those within the LGBTQ+ communities who support each other (e.g., a lesbian who is an ally to the bisexual community). In many ways, the term “Ally” is a verb: being an ally means showing up and participating in producing a safe space.

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If you are experiencing any of the aforementioned short-term or long-term mental health consequences resulting from experienced stigma and discrimination for being a member of the LGBTQ+ communities, please know that therapy can be a great space to process your experiences, learn how to cope, and move forward. There are a number of therapists who are willing to help. If you are interested in starting therapy, please feel free to contact us.