Why We Need to Stop Outing LGBTQIA+ Students

Revealing the identities of queer students has a major impact on their mental health, safety, and potential for self-harm. Here's how to protect queer youth.

Purple door with safe space LGBTQIA+ Stickers and rainbow flag hanging nearby
Photo: Getty

When Dahlia Bekong was a senior in high school, a teacher outed them during a phone call to their home when the teacher referred to them as "Dahlia," their chosen name. Bekong had previously shared with teachers and administrators that they were transgender and it was not safe to use their chosen name and pronouns around their family.

"After that call, my parents were really angry and confrontational. They accused me of destroying our family. I didn't feel safe in my own home." Bekong adds that "I don't think the teacher meant to cause harm—she made a mistake. But one inadvertent mistake can have catastrophic consequences."

Outing a Student Increases The Risk That They'll Be Abused

"After that phone call, my home went from unsupportive to a war zone," says Bekong, now an 18-year-old college freshman.

Bekong is not alone. Queer youth across the country have reported the stigma and harassment from being outed at school or by members of the community. In fact, in a survey of 12,000 LGBTQ+ youth conducted by the Human Rights Campaign and the University of Connecticut, many described being outed as "extremely stressful." A 2019 survey of over 16,000 students found that 43 percent of queer youth did not report bullying for fear of being publicly outed.

And the stories of trans teens reported throughout the country show they have good reason to be concerned. In 2018, Aiden Pogue-Krabacher, a transgender high school wrestler in Ohio, was outed by his wrestling coach in front of the whole team. Poque-Krabacher reports he was then bullied and threatened by teammates and subsequently left the team.

According to the Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ students are already at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation—and if a trusted professional outs them it can further compromise their safety and have a detrimental impact on their mental and physical health.

Outing a Student Increases Their Risk of Becoming Homeless

Homelessness is also a significant risk. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law reports LGBTQ+ youth comprise up to 45 percent of homeless youth. Family rejection is a significant factor—43 percent of LGBTQ+ youth were kicked out of the home by unsupportive parents.

"There is a big difference between coming out and being outed," says Laura Guy, a clinical social worker in New York City, who works with at-risk youth ages 8 to 17. "Just because someone is out with their friends or at school doesn't mean they're out at home. Outing LGBTQ+ youth can lead to them being abused, harassed, severely isolated, and forced to leave their home."

Guy says that while there are some exceptions to student/provider confidentiality (if suicidal or homicidal ideation is expressed or if abuse or neglect is suspected, for example), LGBTQIA+ students have the right to talk with a trusted provider about their identity without having to fear being outed.

Queer Livelihood Is Being Controlled By Politicians

The Biden Administration recently released updated guidance strongly outlining Title IX protections for LGBTQIA+ students against gender discrimination, which includes "outing," within federally-funded schools. The American Civil Liberties Union also reports that students have a constitutionally protected right to privacy—including the right to not be outed by their school.

In August 2020, the ACLU issued a letter to superintendents and principals in public schools across the country reporting that it is illegal to disclose a student's sexual orientation or gender identity, even to a student's parents, without their permission.

But the level of support LGBTQIA+ students receive varies significantly by state and school district. Some states—including New York, Oregon, Minnesota, California, Maine, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts—have nondiscrimination laws that explicitly outline protection for LGBTQIA+ students, but others have failed to establish clear policies—and in many states, they have actively tried to limit the rights of queer youth.

Anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation, led by Republican legislatures, skyrocketed in recent years—25 bills were passed in 2021, making it the most catastrophic year in recent history for queer rights.

Joe Harding, a Republican state representative in Florida, introduced legislation—dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill—that restricts discussion on gender identity and sexual orientation in schools and permits parents to sue teachers. The Parental Rights in Education bill is now on the Florida state Senate floor for a final vote.

Transgender Youth Are Under Attack

North Carolina, Alabama, Ohio and Texas, introduced legislation forcing teachers and school-based mental health providers to out gender nonconforming students to their parents and penalize providers who refused to comply.

Texas Governor Greg Abbot has also stated that offering transgender children gender-affirming medical care is an act of child abuse and caregivers should be reported. Investigations have already started.

While some bills ultimately didn't pass, some are currently being debated (and some that did pass are being challenged in court). But even when they don't become law, they still cause harm. "Queer youth hear these conversations and it is very damaging to have their humanity being debated," states Aloe Johnson, Family and Community Services Director at Resource Center.

Johnson adds, "If they can't safely disclose their identity, then they can't fully access resources at school."

Some lawmakers claim these bills protect "parental rights"—but experts report parents' rights are not being infringed upon when LGBTQIA+ students speak to providers. "It doesn't violate any parent's rights to allow young people the safety to have those conversations," says Rose Saxe, Deputy Director of the LGBTQ & HIV Project at The American Civil Liberties Union.

Allies Are Fighting Back, But Queer Youth Need More Protection

There are many supportive allies in schools that have also been targeted, suspended, or fired. In Texas, two teachers were reportedly removed from their classroom for speaking out after administrators forced them to remove stickers from their classroom door that showed support for LGBTQIA+ students.

Whitney S*—a teacher in Kansas—reports that she received an unsettling email at the beginning of the year instructing teachers not to use the chosen name of transgender students unless a parent consented.

"I feel like I'm in an uncomfortable position with this administrative decision," Whitney says. "As teachers, we are taught to make our classrooms safe spaces for students to express themselves. Knowing a student identifies as a different gender with a different name, but because of decisions made by the administration, they may not be able to share that identity in my classroom feels like it goes against that philosophy."

School Boards Are Dangerous Political Playgrounds for Queer Students

Schools have many stakeholders and often involve multiple parts of the community—school boards, taxpayers, PTA, elected officials—and that can sometimes increase the risk to LGBTQIA+ students.

Kelsey Waits—a mother in Minnesota—knows this first hand. Waits was elected to her local school board in 2018, but when she ran for re-election in 2021, some members of a local conservative parents' Facebook group, Concerned Parents of Hastings, publicly outed her transgender child.

"They invaded the privacy of my 8-year-old. There were no boundaries and they were trying to be hurtful," Waits says. "This spread through the community and began to show up everywhere—the park, the hairdresser, my husband's job."

Waits notes that "many of these negative posts were liked and commented on by the same adults who talked about their concerns over bullying at school board meetings—and yet they were the ones bullying my child."

Waits and her family decided to speak out about the hate they were receiving. "We stood up and took our story back," Waits says. Waits also started the TransParent Alliance, an organization committed to helping caregivers be allies for their children.

Queer Student Safety Needs to Come First

Although unsupportive districts are putting some school staff in a difficult position, social worker Guy reports that safety still comes first. "Providers have a responsibility to protect children. Outing them violates that responsibility and our professional code of conduct. Safety should always be the highest priority."

Guy adds that even when students are in supportive homes, they still have the right to come out on their own terms.

Rose Saxe, Deputy Director LGBT & HIV Project ACLU, recommends that school staff targeted for supporting LGBTQIA+ students contact a GLSEN chapter or their local ACLU affiliate.

Providers can also seek support from their professional organizations. The National Association of Social Workers and The American Counseling Association have condemned legislation forcing providers to out students. Educators can contact The American Federation of teachers and the National Education Association, who have pledged support to LGBTQIA+ students and allies.

Bekong—who is no longer in contact with their parents—says that it's important that people don't discount the trauma that outing can cause and it's crucial to ask a student what they need to be safe.

"Never underestimate the impact of a trusted provider's support," Bekong says.

LGBTQ+ students & allies who need support can contact The ACLU, TheTrevorProject, The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender National Hotline, Trans Lifeline, PLFAG, TextCrisesline.org & Please Stay. To file a Title IX complaint, please contact The U.S. Department of Education.

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