Today across American college campuses, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students will be celebrating National Coming Out Day, an internationally observed civil awareness day for coming out and other issues impacting the LGBT community. Since its inception, NCOD has been a day of celebration, giving those who participate a sense of solidarity and pride.
While the LGBT community has much to celebrate this year with the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state and the repeal of DADT, today's festivities will be tempered as we mourn those young men and women who take their lives each year because their sexual orientation causes them to be the target of peer bullying. This country has seen a wave of gay teen suicides recently, many of which allegedly occurred in response to bullying. Sadly, these suicides highlight the challenges that many (far too many) LGBT youth face. While some students are fortunate enough to be raised in affirming communities, far too many still face challenges when coming out to family and friends. Although alarming, it is not entirely surprising, that nearly one-third of LGBT-identified students report attempting suicide (not contemplating but attempting!). This is a truly alarming statistic. It is important to keep in mind that it is not a person's sexual orientation that necessarily increases the risk of suicidal behavior, but rather external factors such as discrimination, intolerance, and, yes, in extreme cases psychological and physical terror.
A change in the culture of our college campuses is needed. While there is of course limitations to what any university can do, administrators need to take more active steps, not only to protect LGBT students from bullying but also to promote communities of tolerance and acceptance on campus. According to Dr. Sue Rankin, an associate professor at Penn State University, homophobia and violence against LGBT students on campus is more rampant than many would suspect. In a co-authored research study entitled 2010: The State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People, Rankin and her colleagues showed that campuses have not become significantly safer for students and faculty that identify as LGBT. The authors noted that only 7 percent of U.S. universities have resources for lesbian and gay students on campus. Establishing and promoting such resources would go a long way to eliminating the barriers that many GLBT students have when coming out to family and friends.
Like heterosexuals, LGBT-identified youth benefit to the extent that they are able to share their lives with and receive support from their family, friends, and other people who are important to them. Several studies have shown that individuals exhibit better mental health when they are able to hold positive feelings about their own sexual orientation and are able to integrate it into their lives by disclosing it to others. Events like NCOD are certainly a step in the right direction but it is my hope there will come a time when we won't need artificially created events like NCOD to let young people know that it is okay to be out.