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Photo courtesy of Sam Hamilton

Chicago's 2011 Pride Festival attracted members and supporters of the LGBT community this June. 

Network of social support means teens ‘come out’ at a younger age

by Natalie Brunell
Oct 18, 2011

Adolescents are not only growing up faster than ever before, they are also exploring their sexual identity at a younger age due to social and cultural progress in acceptance, reports a new study.

Tel Aviv researchers found that the average age at which people identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender has decreased to 16 years old in large part thanks to greater support and acceptance from families and society. 

Young adults "coming out" in the 1990s tended to be older - 22 to 25 years old, according to previous studies, noted Guy Shilo, a Ph.D. social worker and researcher at the School of Social Work at Tel Aviv University.

The current study, led by Shilo, surveyed 461 self-identified LGB participants between the ages of 16 and 23, who filled out questionnaires about their coming out process (who they disclosed their sexual orientation to and at what age), their friends’ and families’ level of acceptance of their orientation, and finally their overall mental health.

Shilo said the new findings reflect an important shift in societal acceptance of sexual orientation.

“Where there are public rules, laws and regulations that promote equality for LGBTs, it sends a social message for people that it is OK to come out," said Shilo. 

Some examples of these shifts include recent changes in U.S. public policy, such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the U.S. military and New York joining other states in legalizing gay marriage.

Shilo also notes the importance of media icons in promoting a feeling of acceptance in younger adults that may encourage them to come out.

“We all know how a boy and a girl date, have sex, marry and have children,” said Shilo.  “The fact that, today, young people can see gay characters in movies, or celebrities talking about their sexual orientation, gives them a chance to explore how it is to be LGBT, and [learn] that one can grow up and turn out ‘just fine.’” 

David Slocumb, a 26-year-old history student from Bakersfield, Calif. said he came out at the age of 15. Slocumb said that greater media recognition of the LGBT community has had an impact on his own acceptance of his sexual orientation: “Had I had a role model like [TV star] Neil Patrick Harris, I think I would’ve felt more comfortable.”

But while the general consensus is that media are incorporating more storylines that include LGBT characters, the statistics actually indicate that the number of characters slightly decreased in the 2011-2012 television season. 

According the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which has been tracking the presence of LGBT characters in scripted primetime programs since 1995, 2.9 percent of series regular characters this season are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.  This number is down from 3.9 percent in 2010.

“While the number of role models isn’t as plentiful as I’d like to see, the dedication and variety of adult, successful, happy LGBTs is,” said Eric Todd Woodsides, a 47-year-old Chicagoan studying urban archaeology who said he has been out since he was nine years old.

“I guess it’s cyclical. The more people who DO come out, the more people will feel secure in coming out,” said Woodsides. 

James Klise, faculty advisor for CICS Northtown Academy’s Gay-Straight Alliance, said he thinks that the change in the ‘coming out’ age may be tied to the significant increase in public figures either identifying with or supporting the LGBT community. The academy is a public charter school on Chicago's Northwest Side. 

“In 1991, there were very few role models that were out and proud, so it took longer for young people to understand who they were,” said Klise. “Today they have Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John and outspoken advocates like Lady Gaga.”

Shilo’s study particularly highlighted the importance of family members and friends in fostering an environment of acceptance toward issues of sexual orientation.

“Our findings show that family reaction is very important to the lives of LGBT youth and young adults, and that it affects their mental health and well-being,” he said.  “LGBTs who come out and their family rejects them, leave home and create their ‘family of choice.’”

“One of the things we are seeing is young people who are in crisis because they’re aware that they’re different and they don’t know what to do with that information,” said Klise. “This creates a sense of fear and confusion.” 

He said, in order to prevent this, there must be resources – both familial and within a community – in place to help adolescents handle issues regarding their sexuality.

“The process really impacts the parents as well,” said Klise, who has attended many meetings of the PFLAG organization – Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.  “If the trend continues, we will need even more resources.  Every child of any sexual orientation should feel accepted, loved and supported at any age.”