Earlier this month the Oregon Health Plan (Oregon's Medicaid program)announced that, starting in October 2014, they would cover the health care needs of transgender youth, including puberty-suppressing hormones and counseling services. This is great news for transgender youth in Oregon whose families would otherwise never be able to afford such care, but it's notable for another reason: This is the first, or one of the first, times that a government agency has addressed the needs of the youngest LGBTQ citizens.
While we, both the LGBTQ community and society in general, don't often talk about queer youth who come out during grade-school years, there's a couple of reasons why it's important to think about this out-of-the-spotlight population. First, many LGBTQ people are aware of parts of their sexual orientation or gender identity from a young age. One well-regarded study found that the average age that gay and bisexual boys had their first same-sex attractions was just before 8, while for girls it was 9, and in many cases the same-sex attractions started several years earlier. Transgender individuals, meanwhile, may be especially likely to sense a disconnect between their gender identity and their body when they are young, because, among other reasons, gender is salient for children.
Second, LGB people are coming out earlier than before. Likely thanks to societal changes that make LGB people more visible and less stigmatized, the average coming-out age has declined from 20-something in the 1980s to somewhere around 16 today. But, because "average" means some people will be below that age, there are many who come out younger -- in some cases far younger. Search on YouTube and it's not hard to find clips of people who came out at 9 or 10 years old. Even here on The Huffington Post, Amelia blogs about her experience as the mother of a 7-year-old openly gay son.
This trajectory toward coming out at younger ages means that we, both the LGBTQ community and society at large, need to be thinking about how to meet these kids' needs. As more lesbian and gay kids come out during their childhood or early adolescent years, it will be important for schools to educate students about sexual orientation and gender identity in an age-appropriate way as part of diversity awareness, and to squelch any schoolyard myths about what it means to be gay. As more transgender kids come out before puberty, states and insurance companies ought to ensure that these kids have access to appropriate medical care that can prevent them from undergoing the painful process of maturing into a body that is incongruent with who they are. For instance, appropriate care can ensure that a biologically female kid who identifies as a boy won't have to grow breasts.
On a more somber note, more awareness of what it means to be gay and increasing pressure to come out earlier may lead some teenagers to come out to hostile families and face painful consequences such as conversion therapy, emotional abuse and being kicked out of the house, whereas in a different era those same teenagers might have waiting until their 20s to come out, when doing so would be much safer. We can already see that happening today.
The fact that more people are able to be their genuine selves at younger ages is one of the greatest achievements of the LGBTQ rights movement. Having kids come out younger also brings a new set of challenges, such as navigating skepticism from others ("Are you sure? You're so young!") to the fact that lBilly may no longer be welcome for playdates at his friend's house after announcing that he is gay. Of course, coming out as a preteen is still the exception, not the norm. While I figure that we'll see more queer individuals come out at young ages, given the growing acceptance of LGBTQ people and the fact that more kids know what it means to be gay, many other queer youth may still come to understand their identity during adolescence. I also don't want to sound out of touch with today's reality: There are still many queer youth who struggle in the closet and are exposed to anti-gay prejudice at school and elsewhere. Nonetheless, I hope we are moving toward a time when queer youth spend little if any time in the closet. As we move ahead, I look forward to a discussion about how to best meet these kids' unique needs.