“Coming out” is a complex, sometimes never-ending, often unique process. Gen Z LGBTQ individuals are still struggling with fear, self-acceptance, and isolation despite social progress. Friends, online resources, and influencers are their main sources of support, advice, and information.
“Coming out” is a Unique and Often Unexplored Process
- The coming out process of Gen Z individuals is affected by multiple aspects, including identity (sexuality versus gender), location (state of residence), religious background, family values, community, access to school resources, among others. As such, it is difficult to determine the exact lifecycle of this experience, albeit some similarities and patterns can be observed.
- Although there is plenty of information available regarding the mental health and sentiment of young LGBTQ individuals, the coming out process is not extensively covered by studies and researchers. Most data available covers millennials and older generations. Since two large recent surveys reported that they are going online to be themselves and coming out at younger ages than previous generations, we tracked some alternative sources to gather qualitative insights to supplement the quantitative insights. The sources used were moderated forums, such as Reddit (LGTBQ Teens) and Trevor Space, YouTube (multiple channels and videos), and LGBTQ social media profiles. Additionally, since it is not possible to verify the veracity of the information provided on these sources, we only used recurrent insights (multiple users posting/discussing the same thing with similar opinions/experiences). Please note that since these sources are direct testimonials/posts/conversations, they may contain offensive language and sensitive content.
Discovery and Self-Acceptance
- The coming out process of Gen Z LGBTQ individuals usually starts during their high school years (generally between 15-17), as people are “coming out earlier than ever before.” Most are already out by the time they go to college.
- Although Gen Z LGBTQ individuals show higher self-acceptance levels than previous generations, they still report higher rates of suicidal thoughts, depression, and self-harm than non-LGBTQ Gen Zers, especially transgender and non-binary individuals.
- Before coming out, many Gen Zers turn to online communities to seek advice on how to tell people, share their stories and fears, debate whether they should come out due to a particular circumstance, such as living in a conservative town, among other concerns. About half — out and not out — participate in “online communities that address LGBT youth issues.”
- The gap between discovering their sexuality or gender identity and sharing that information with someone varies. Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals report waiting months before coming out to someone, while transgender or genderqueer individuals usually wait for longer periods, sometimes years. Age may also play a part, with individuals under 18 reporting shorter waiting periods than those between 18-25.
The Fear of Coming out
- Although most LGBTQ teenagers believe things are better now than before, many barriers impair today’s coming out process, particularly for transgender and non-binary people. Fear, isolation, discrimination, and verbal abuse are still part of the journey. Ryan Watson, an assistant professor in human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut, states, “Despite the change in social attitudes, they’re still struggling. We still see alarming disparities and experiences, disheartening mental health problems and self-esteem issues.”
- The reasons why they refrain/postpone coming out vary according the person/group they intent to tell the truth:
- Family: 30% say their family is not accepting or is homo/bi/transphobic, 19% say they are scared of the reaction,16% mentioned religious reasons, 10% say they are not ready, and 10% don’t or can’t talk with their family.
- School: 31% say they will be treated differently or judged, 26% say they did not see the need to come out or it is not anyone’s business, 9% say they are afraid of bullying, and 7% say their teachers and/or school are very conservative.
- Forty-six percent of LGBTQ youth respondents stated that they want psychological or emotional counseling from a mental health professional but are unable to receive it. When asked why, inability to afford care was the most common reason (50%), followed by concerns about getting parental permission (44%), transportation difficulties (23%), fears of being outed (21%), and previous negative experience (20%).
- Community also influences their fears and anxieties, as LGBTQ Gen Zers tend to feel much more displaced and isolated than non-LGBTQ youth. They are almost three times more likely to believe “they must leave their communities to make their hopes and dreams for the future come true,” showing a profound disconnection from their local environments.
The First to Know
- Most (91%) young LGBTQ individuals are open about their sexuality/identity with close friends and classmates (64%). Young LGBTQ individuals are more likely to be out at school (61%) than to their immediate family (56%) or extended family (25%).
- A thread on Trevor Space with over 550 replies asked participants, “who was the first person you come out to?” As expected, given the previous results, friends (real-life or online friends) are the most common option. Sisters are also a popular choice (brothers are not often mentioned), followed by cousins, ex-girlfriend/boyfriend/crush, and mothers.
Planning and Execution
- One of the most common questions posted on LGBTQ communities is “How do you do it? How are you supposed to come out?” Usually, they are looking for advice on how to come out to their parents or other family members.
- LGBTQ Gen Zers spend a lot of time planning how to tell people. Forums and communities are packed with pretend and practice posts. However, the actual execution does not always go as planned, and there are multiple reports about accidentally coming out or impulsive confessions.
- When discussing how they came out to their friends, multiple teens state that they did it online, not in person. With parents and extended family, in-person is more common, although some choose to do it online (usually text messages) as well. Others report turning their coming out into an event, and seek ideas and fun ways to do it (usually gays and bisexuals). One interesting pattern are transgender individuals being more likely to come out to their parents through letters, notes, or text messages than other LGBTQ community members.
- Coming out online is a trend among teenagers, especially on TikTok. LGBTQ Gen Zers, interviewed by the Business Insider, explained that using the app to come out makes “an often difficult and nerve-wracking experience a little bit easier.”
- It is not exactly a new trend, as coming out videos on YouTube have been quite popular for a few years now, “ranging from relatively unknown teens whose uploads have gone viral, to those from celebrities and influencers like Ingrid Nielsen, Troye Sivan, and swimmer Tom Daley.” TikTok videos tend to be less educational and serious than those on YouTube.
- One common pain point is having to prove their feelings and convictions, as people are constantly saying it is just a phase, that they are confused, too young to know, or are being influenced by someone else. This is particularly true for transgender individuals. Many noted that their families deny or pretend the conversation never happened, while others report that family and friends still don’t use the proper pronouns.
- While some say that coming out was a relief, others report feeling uncomfortable, exposed, and regretting their decisions. One user explains, “I had the initial relief of coming out, and telling someone, but then I started feeling like ‘I’ve told everyone my secret and I kinda want it back’.”
- When asked to describe the most important problem in their lives at this moment, non-LGBTQ youth answered classes/exams/grades (25%), college/career (14%), and financial pressures (11%). LGBTQ youth, on the other hand, said non-accepting families (26%), school/bullying problems (21%), and fear of being out or open (18%).
- Despite the barriers and challenges, Gen Zers who are out to their immediate family or at school report “higher levels of happiness, optimism, acceptance and support through multiple measures. Not surprisingly, they also report higher levels of in-person participation with LGBT organizations at school and in the Community.” However, they still show lower levels than non-LGBTQ individuals.
- Although those who are out are more likely to be harassed at school frequently than those who are not out (17% versus 12%), they are also more likely to have an adult to talk to when they are struggling, to feel like their colleagues are accepting of the LGBTQ community, and to be part of LGBTQ organizations. As a result, they are more likely to be optimistic about the future.
Sources of Information
- There is limited available information surrounding resources that Gen Z LGBTQ individuals use when looking for information about coming out. Online communities and “coming out” videos are definitely popular resources; however, even after analysis of multiple surveys, impact reports, qualitative insights from forums/online communities, white papers, and articles, it is still a bit unclear at which point of their journeys they are using these resources. Furthermore, information regarding online communities tend to be quite vague, and it was not possible to make a clear distinction between forums/dedicated communities, closed groups, and social media platforms.
Online Communities and Social Media
- As previously reported, nearly half are a part of LGBTQ online communities, whether they are out (53%) or not (49%). However, those who are not out yet are more likely to rely on support online. The internet has “changed what it means to come out as an LGBTQ person. Particularly for young people, online support can make a world of difference to the process of coming out.”
- Online is usually where LGBTQ young individuals feel safe. Roughly “three-quarters (73%) of LGBT youth say they are more honest about themselves online than in the real world, compared to 43% among non-LGBT youth.” Research suggests that “social media have become a safe space for multiply minoritized LGBTQ youth to explore issues of sexuality and gender.”
- For example, a recent study reported that the majority of Gen Z transgender individuals are only out online, as “78 per cent of Gen Z transgender people surveyed said that they have been open about their identity online, but not with people in their real lives. Forty-one per cent of those who identified as gender fluid said the same.” Furthermore, 71% said that online platforms “had helped them connect with others, three quarters said dating apps helped them get to know themselves better.”
- These online communities are not only a place to seek advice, but where they find comfort and support. One interesting qualitative observation relates to the moment when they turn to online communities for advice. There are a lot of posts describing the aftermath or how they feel about coming out to their friends and peers (post-fact). However, when it comes to parents, they are usually seeking advice prior to taking action (before coming out).
- Online spaces like “Tik Tok, Instagram, and YouTube are also popular places for young LGBTQ people to connect and build community. #Trans and #nonbinary Tik Tok is a booming place for teens to connect, talk about serious issues like gender dysphoria and unsupportive parents, and have a laugh.”
- About a third of Gen Z transgender and non-binary individuals said they rely on social media and influencers to learn more about LGBTQ issues. For example, “lgbt.teens uk” is an Instagram profile with over 168,000 followers, and, according to administrators, most of the DMs they receive are about advice on coming out.
- Besides social media, forums such as Trevor Space, are safe havens for LGBTQ Gen Zers. As of 2017, the forum had over 150,000 members.
“Coming out” Videos and YouTube
- YouTube is considered a powerful source of information for LGBTQ individuals, as “the unique and arguably authentic nature of the videos posted to the platform allowed for to the creation of a space to discuss difficult issues around gender and sexuality and to achieve greater understandings around previously superficial ideas. Precisely, the intimacy of conversation that these videos provide gains the viewer’s trust and feelings of authenticity towards the video creators’ work.”
- Coming out videos serve “a different purpose for everyone who watches and creates them.” According to Google’s data, coming out videos receive “3X the engagement compared to other videos on the same channel.”
- YouTube estimates that coming out videos have been viewed over 700 million times. For example, Nikkie de Jager’s coming video has 36 million views, the second most viewed video on her channel (Nikkie Tutorials). However, it has over 330,000 comments, while the most-watched video has only 30,000, despite its 42 million views.
- If in the past, these videos were simply a way for creators to come out to their followers, now they are about their journeys, “fears and hopes for the future, and the reactions from loved ones.” Six of the top 10 coming out videos in 2018 involved family reactions.
- According to Professor Ed Rosenberg, director of sociology at Appalachian State University, these videos are popular because audiences are “looking for information and support that they can’t find elsewhere. People who come out can be role models for those who are agonizing over it. YouTube provides a far safer environment for LGBT discourse than many young people can find at school or in their residential areas.”
- Forbes and Wired claim that the new wave of coming out videos are more real, as they “delve into the struggle of self-acceptance, never mind getting acceptance from friends and family. They discuss how childhood trauma and pressure to conform prevented them from fully expressing themselves.”
- Furthermore, Google notes that “story through video can play a role — giving people the words they don’t have, the inspiration they haven’t experienced, and the support they may not otherwise get.”