When Larry King was murdered allegedly due to a classmate's prejudice, some pundits asked if adults were to blame for encouraging him to come out. We can't be sure what adults did or didn't do in this case, but the question remains: Should adults encourage LGBT youth to come out?
No. We shouldn't push a young person in either direction, to be more out or to be more closeted. It's our responsibility to make sure every young person feels valued just as they are and to help them explore the possible costs of both openness and hiding. Neither is without costs.
Certainly there are potential costs for a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender student's honesty … discrimination by teachers, rejection by "friends" and, yes, even assault, rape, or murder. Are these experiences universal consequences of coming out? No. Do they happen? Yes.
But there's a flawed prevailing assumption: that being out necessarily increases a child's risk over some sort of bully-free baseline. Gay and, especially, gender variant children are often harassed long before consciously deciding whether to be out. It starts in primary grades. Gender variant little kids don't "choose" to be defiant about the larger culture's gender straight-jackets; it's how they're born. They may become more overt about it as they become more aware, at puberty, of its meaning and of their rights, but the harassment is hardly something they bring on themselves. In fact, whether you're gender variant or gay/lesbian/bi or both, coming out sometimes reduces the harassment you experience. It's not so much fun to hurl the vicious, "What are you ... gay or something?!" at a person whose response is a simple, non-defensive "yes."
The secrecy of the closet isn't without its own costs. These can include academic decline if you can't pay attention in class for worrying when a word or a gesture might lead to your life's unraveling. The costs can include profound loneliness. You can never be sure if those who love you are loving the mask or the person. You may deny yourself a supportive peer group because even accessing the gay-straight alliance may feel dangerous. You may deny yourself conversations with caring adults, unsure if you'll lose their esteem. You may forgo the typical adolescent social venues and, instead, find yourself in riskier adult environments. The closet can lead to depression and self-harm.
The upside of waiting to come out is giving yourself space to notice who you feel attracted to over time. Because crushes do come and go. Waiting, if you are gender variant, might give you time to figure out whether you're simply not stereotypically masculine or feminine … or if you are, in your spirit and heart, really a different gender altogether from the one doctors assumed you were at birth. That's not to suggest that adults ought to call a young person's very real, lived experience a "phase." That would ensure that they never confided again. Rather, it means that it can take months or years from the first time a person tries on an identity until they're sure it fits. The challenge for a school employee is that, often, a child or teen has already navigated those months or years before confiding in us. If a child is gender non-conforming, their family may have already spent years consulting specialists. They may have already reached a level of certainty the teacher has trouble believing.
But for those who see only downsides to a young person's coming out, let's revisit its potential benefits. There's the gift of genuine communication with your family, the delight of an ordinary dating relationship, and the relief of being able to ask for access to a safe bathroom at school. Coming out can be an act of social and emotional integration and healing.
Hence, like other big decisions people make while they're growing up, this is one people have to make for themselves. Some adults advise teens, "Go for it." More probably push them to rein it in, act "more" straight (Do I hear ghosts of "Straighten your hair" or "Lose the accent"?). Neither approach is healthy.
Instead, we need to ensure, starting in kindergarten, that children know we will support them, regardless. When we talk about names, we can promise we would call people whatever they chose, including a nickname but also a name of a different gender. And just as we "discovered" that every child lost out when women were invisible in school curricula, we must stop being squeamish about explicitly including LGBT people. Not to promote them over heterosexual, gender-normative folks. Just to make sure that the would-be bully, the potential target, and the classmates watching them know that we know that some people are LGBT and we think they belong at school and in society, just like everyone else.
In any case, Larry's coming out was not the cause of his death, with or without adults' urging it. It appears Brandon had too easy access to a gun, and, chances are, he learned nothing about homophobia in elementary or middle school. Let's not take his tragic choices as justification to encourage closets. Closets kill, too.