By: Trisha Iyer
Anxious about the upcoming school year and sad to end your summer? As part of the universal teenage experience, we all must deal with finals, college applications, social mishaps, and more. However, as stressful as this may be, LGBTQ+ teens face an additional, altogether different and more concentrated pool of stressors, including prejudice, rejection, and loneliness—all triggers for a downward mental health spiral. To find out more about the unique stressors they face, I interviewed a few LGBTQ+ friends who were willing to share their stories. Their insights were eye-opening.
The first stressor I could identify is gender dysphoria, which is the dissonance between a person’s gender identity and the sex assigned at birth; this incongruity leads to both emotional and physical consequences. One teen, who wishes to remain anonymous, feels that facing dysphoria is a lose-lose scenario, even when the sensation subsides: “Either I feel like ---- because dysphoria makes me feel horrible and ugly and like I want to die, or I feel like ---- because I'm not dysphoric and I feel like a ‘trender.’” Trenders, or transtrenders, pretend to be trans because it’s trendy; according to Dean Moncel, a blogger for the Be You Network, they are characterized as expressing chosen gender in nontraditional ways and not experiencing gender dysphoria.
Another teen, who is nonbinary and goes by the name Thelo, says their experiences with gender dysphoria are not quite as personal. “Most of my dysphoria is social rather than physical,” they write. Because they have a feminine appearance, many people, including their friends, often misgender them. On a closer level, Thelo recounts: “my family is working on occasionally calling me by my preferred name, but [they] never use the right pronouns.”
It’s clear from these stories that coming to terms with one’s identity is a tremendous challenge, but, as Thelo’s statement reveals, garnering acceptance from friends and family is just as prevalent a battle. This insight begs the question: is coming out a major stressor? The answer was a resounding yes—80% of the teens I surveyed reported that they viewed coming out with anxiety.
Coming out-related stress appears in many forms. An anonymous teen I interviewed (who is out only to a few friends) says that the thought of “telling people and having [them] view me differently stresses me out.” This fear of prejudice and, possibly, rejection is sadly valid, and it looms large in the hearts of many LGBTQ+ individuals. However, coming out can be stressful even in a supportive household. My first anonymous interviewee, who struggles with gender dysphoria, says that because their dad is gay, acceptance is not a concern for them. What does concern them is “just the thought of saying it out loud . . . because that would make it real, y’know? Like it’s not just in my head, it’s all out there, and that’s scary.”
For 60% of the LGBTQ+ teens I interviewed, the pandemic has added a new layer to these struggles. Thelo writes that sheltering in place with their family presented more opportunities to come out. However, this has only heightened their stress. They remark, “I was second guessing myself every day wondering if it was the right time.” And for some, being stuck in close quarters with family can be downright toxic.
Dr. Tia Dole of the Trevor Project reports that quarantining with unsupportive family members can lead to conflict, anger, and resentment, in addition to the obvious anxiety. Dr. Dole also points out that “[i]n LGBTQ+ communities, ‘chosen family’ often play a more significant role in your life than biological family”. School Pride Clubs and GSAs (Gender-Sexuality, or Gay-Straight, Alliances) are sorely missed right now, since they are the “chosen family” of many LGBTQ+ teens. Thelo recalls that their “high school was full of teachers and friends who would regularly use [their] preferred name”. Small things like a gender-neutral name chosen for yourself or the pronouns you identify with are, when recognized, invaluable gestures of courtesy and acceptance; Thelo notes that “it’s hard being mostly away from that.” My trending-fearing informant (who I’ll call Anonymous Informant #1) puts it even more simply: “I just miss my friends, and it sucks.”
Gender dysphoria, coming out, and quarantine: these are three major stressors for LGBTQ+ teenagers. Woven into them all is a big bad fourth—prejudice. Dr. Michael P. Dentato from the American Psychology Association writes that the LGBTQ+ community faces stress predominantly “induced by a hostile, homophobic culture.”
A teen with the alias Rick Harder Steele is hyper-aware of his unaccepting environment. He shared his wish to run for public office one day, but fears that he won’t be elected because “America is too prejudiced.” Steele doesn’t think he will be able to balance his regular campaigning with “trying to be ‘not too bi’ for the sake of the masses.” His assumption that he must constrain his true self to be accepted by other people is heartbreaking but valid. Although American culture has come a long way since the Stonewall police raids in the 1960s, it still has, as Steele points out, a long way to go. Worse, it can come from anyone, even a friend; an unidentified respondent shared, “I had a friend say to me, ‘I support you, but this is going too far.’” And prejudice can come in any form, from subtle (e.g., conditional support, see above) to trolling via Twitter. Anonymous informant #1 explains it further: “Once I came out, people just started treating me differently; like [I was] walking on eggshells . . . like I was infantile or something. That bothers me more than getting slurs slung at me, because these people know me.”
Dr. Brad Brenner from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that a skill many LGBTQ+ people have is “reading a situation to determine how much you can safely be yourself”. However, he points out, this skill is an adaptation learned from years of shame and pain. Stigma is so ingrained in our culture that its effect even has a name: minority stress. However, Dr. Dentato points out that the LGBTQ+ community is a particular victim. Minority stress seriously degrades the health of many members, and “often results in a lifetime of harassment, maltreatment, discrimination and victimization.”
Still, there are ways to cope, such as seeking out a sympathetic ear. Rick Harder Steele writes that if he met another LGBTQ+ teen in a similar struggle to his previous ones, he would share his experience in an attempt to teach “how he/she could [move forward] as well”. The reassurement that things will get better, coming from someone who relates to your experience, is sometimes all that’s needed for your negative emotions to subside. The Trevor Project’s Dr. Dole writes that enjoying little things can be vital to lifting your mood. My first anonymous interviewee favors music (while Steele points to anime as a coping mechanism) and finds that “anything that distracts you from your stress [however small] is really important.” Whether it is streamed through a screen or face-to-face on a socially distanced park stroll, making an effort to talk to friends can strengthen your connection with your support systems.
I hope that this article—and the voices of the brave teenagers I interviewed—has been illuminating, that their perspectives have brought you solace if you are an LGBTQ+ teen, and that their stories have offered you a glimpse of the incredibly unique and stressful lives your LGBTQ+ peers lead.
Whether you yourself or a loved one is the victim of the stressors I’ve uncovered in this article, identifying them—and getting to the root of the problem—can help you subdue the anxiety it causes. While gender dysphoria is a deeply personal stressor that requires internal, rather than external, acceptance, we can create a culture where LGBTQ+ individuals can transition more easily and more early on in their lives. Quarantine, another source of stress, is unfortunately not going away soon, but we can ensure that separation from friends is less painful and coming out is easier by making an America where every family values and loves its LGBTQ+ members. Let’s shed light on these stressors so that we can understand and eradicate them—so that we may rebuild the world into a more accepting one: a world where LGBTQ+ teens have lives wholly similar to their straight and cis peers. A world where their biggest worry can be their college applications, just like any other student.
Brenner, Brad, et al. “Understanding Anxiety and Depression for LGBTQ People.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/understanding-anxiety-and-depression-lgbtq.
Dentato, Michael P. “The Minority Stress Perspective.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, Apr. 2012, www.apa.org/pi/aids/resources/exchange/2012/04/minority-stress.
“How LGBTQ Youth Can Cope with Anxiety and Stress during COVID-19.” The Trevor Project, 26 Mar. 2020, www.thetrevorproject.org/2020/03/26/how-lgbtq-youth-can-cope-with-anxiety-and-stress-during-covid-19/.
Moncel, Dean. “Transtrending: What It Means and How It Harms.” Be You Network, www.beyounetwork.org/articles/transtrending-what-it-means-and-how-it-harms.