“Mom, Dad: I’m gay.” Saying these words can be difficult for anyone but especially for adolescents and young adults. The process of coming out is one filled with anticipation, angst, and hopefully relief. However, this process is not a one-time event but rather something that LGBTQ adolescents and young adults have to face every time they meet someone new or are placed in a new situation. They have to decide if that new person can be trusted with their very personal information.
Coming out is a process that begins months to years before the adolescent or young adult utters the words above. The first step in the coming out process is accepting one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This period of time can be somewhat tumultuous, filled with a mix of emotions ranging from fear to excitement. The adolescent or young adult may need support in coming to terms with who they are as their authentic self. This can take the role of a therapist, a trusted friend, or a trusted family member. There may even be times that the adolescent or young adult’s physician is the only person that they are out to besides their friends. Therefore, you can play a very important role in helping your adolescent and young adult patients as they navigate the journey of coming out.
One of the most important ways that physicians can help adolescents and young adults is to spend time alone with them at as many visits as you can. This gives the patient the time to discuss confidential matters with you, including their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It is possible that the chronic abdominal pain that your adolescent patient is experiencing may not represent an organic abdominal problem but could represent a manifestation of anxiety because that patient is afraid of his/her parent(s) finding out that he/she identifies as LGBTQ. If one of your patients comes out to you, it is important that you validate for your patient that they are normal as who they are. In addition, you can thank your patient for trusting you with that information and let them know that you are there to support them in whatever way they feel appropriate. Just as important is that you work with the adolescent on a plan for their other concerns that respects their right to privacy in regard to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.
The adolescent or young adult should always be in control of who knows about their gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Ideally, they should also always be the one who shares that information with others. Many times, parents may react positively to finding out that their child identifies as LGBTQ and want to share that information with their friends or family members. Alternatively, the parent could use the patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity negatively against them to their family and/or friends. As the physician, you can help counsel the family that it should always be their child who gets to share that information and when it is shared.
So how can you support your LGBTQ patients as they navigate the coming out process? First, when you find out from your patient that they identify as LGBTQ, ensure that you ask them who knows about their identity. This prevents inadvertent disclosures to the parent/guardian when the patient is not ready for them to know. Second, discuss with the patient if he/she needs any resources related to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This includes things such as the names of local LGBTQ youth organizations or the phone number for the Trevor Project suicide hotline, for example. Third, ensure that your office and staff are a welcoming and affirmative environment for your patients. A 2017 survey by the Human Rights Campaign found that only 8% of transgender or gender-diverse adolescents and young adults were out to all of their physicians and only 5% of LGB adolescents and young adults were out to all of their physicians.1 This is likely because of past negative experiences these patients have had with previous physicians. A 2017 study from the Center for American Progress found that 8% of LGB patients and 29% of transgender or gender-diverse patients said that a doctor or health care provider had refused to see them because of their actual or perceived identity.2 Lastly, you could offer to help facilitate a discussion between the patient and his/her parents in relation to his/her sexual orientation and/or gender identity.
In summary, pediatricians can play an important role in the coming out process of their LGBTQ patients. Your office is an important source of support for the physical and mental health of these patients as they navigate this journey. You can also be a strong advocate for these patients to their parents and families. I think that we all can agree that our patients deserve better than only feeling comfortable to be out to 5%-8% of their physicians.
Dr. Cooper is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas, Dallas, and an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Human Rights Campaign.
2. Mirza SA and Rooney C. “.” Center for American Progress. 2018 Jan 18.