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How do discriminatory laws and policies affect the developmental milestones of lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents and adults across 28 European countries?

In a new, first-of-its-kind study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, University of Delaware Assistant Professor Eric K. Layland and co-authors Richard Bränström of the Karolinska Institutet and Gabriel Murchison and John Pachankis of Yale University investigated the timing of developmental milestones for more than 100,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) adolescents and adults across 28 European countries. They found that discriminatory laws and policies at the country levels were associated with the timing of LGB self-awareness (when a person recognizes that they are lesbian, gay or bisexual), the disclosure of sexual identity (“coming out”) and the amount of time between LGB self-awareness and disclosure (time spent “in the closet” or “closet duration”). Greater structural stigma, defined by the absence of LGB protective laws (such as the absence of same-sex marriage and conversion therapy bans, for example), was associated with later age of coming out, longer closet duration and higher odds of never coming out at all. In addition, the researchers found that the associations between structural stigma and these developmental milestones differed by gender, transgender and sexual identities. Although many researchers, educators and advocates hypothesize that LGB developmental milestones are shaped by broader structural contexts, including laws and policies, this study is among the first to empirically test these associations and the very first to empirically link structural stigma to one’s likelihood of remaining closeted.

For this study, Layland and his coauthors used data gathered by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights on LGB participants’ age, gender identity, sexual identity and the relevant developmental milestones. These data were from the European Union Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (EU-LGBTI) Survey II, which was administered online between May and July 2019. The overall purpose of the survey was to monitor the fundamental rights affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people across European Union member states. The survey was developed by a cross-European team of LGBTI topic experts and translated into 31 languages. In total, 137,508 participants across the 28 EU countries responded, including participants from adolescence to older adults.

In order to gather data on structural stigma, Layland and his coauthors created an index of LGB equal rights laws and policies that reflected country-level structural stigma toward sexual minority people and communities. They created their index using the 2019 Rainbow Index from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association in Europe, which summarizes the state of LGBTI-related laws and policies across 51 European countries. The researchers’ index summarized laws and policies across four domains, including equality and non-discrimination; family; hate crime and speech; and asylum. For example, the researchers indexed discrimination protections for sexual minority people in employment, education and healthcare; bans on conversion therapy; and marriage equality policies, among many others. For each of the 28 countries with participants in the survey, the researchers used the index to assign a structural stigma score with higher scores representing more structural stigma against LGB people (ranging from 0 to 21 points). Layland and his co-authors then used multilevel logistic regression and multilevel linear regression to determine the associations between structural stigma and the timing of developmental milestones, and to identify differences in these associations among subgroups of the LGB sample. 

In relation to their overall research question, Layland and his coauthors found that greater country-level structural stigma was associated with later age of coming out and longer closet duration. On average, the researchers found that LGB participants became self-aware at age 14.8 years old, came out at 18.5 years old and stayed in the closet for 3.9 years. Overall, the survey data indicated that these important milestones occurred during adolescence, though the timing varies to some extent by identity (gender, transgender and sexual). These results highlighted adolescence and young adulthood as key periods for major LGB developmental events for participants across many generations.

Significantly, the researchers found that the odds of never coming out were greatest in countries with the greatest levels of structural stigma. For example, in Romania, characterized by a high structural stigma rating of 14, they found that 11% did not come out. By contrast, in Malta, characterized by a low structural stigma rating of 2, they found that 4% did not come out. In fact, the odds of never coming out was an estimated 1.3 times higher for every standard deviation increase in structural stigma.

In their examination of subgroups within the LGB samples, Layland and his coauthors also found that gender identity (i.e., man, woman or non-binary), transgender identity (i.e., transgender or cisgender) and sexual identity (i.e., gay, lesbian or bisexual) moderated the associations between structural stigma and the timing of these developmental milestones. Overall, the results of this moderation analysis demonstrated that cisgender participants, men and gay participants exhibited the strongest associations between country-level structural stigma and later timing of developmental milestones. For example, men in the highest stigma countries (Poland and Italy, with a structural stigma score of 18) were estimated to spend an extra 11.2 months in the closet compared to men in the lowest stigma country (United Kingdom, with a structural stigma score of 1).

“This study provides evidence that supports the belief of researchers and advocates that national policies protecting the human rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people have an impact on individual development,” Layland said. “For LGB people, many of these identity and social milestones occur during the critical developmental period of adolescence. Results of this study add to other research showing protective policy can benefit LGB health by showing more protective policy can contribute to an environment where young LGB people can openly share their identity with others and spend less time in isolation.”

“We hope policy makers in Europe, here in the U.S. and globally, will take note that this research shows that more protective policies may support LGB people to disclose their identity and escape the isolation of ‘the closet,’ where pressure to hide one’s identity can create extra stress and limit access to supportive resources,” Layland added. “Reducing structural stigma at its source in unjust laws and policies has the potential to ensure the future visibility and developmental flourishing of the LGB population across countries.”


About Eric K. Layland

Eric K. Layland is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s (CEHD) Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. He bridges LGBTQ+ developmental research and community impact through developmentally-informed, affirmative interventions. His research areas include LGBTQ+ within-group differences in mental health and unhealthy substance use, the impact of stigma on LGBTQ+ development, strengths-based approaches to LGBTQ+ health and LGBTQ+ affirmative interventions. Across all areas of research, Dr. Layland uses advanced and innovative analytical methods to reflect intersecting systems of oppression that shape LGBTQ development across the life course.


Equity & Diversity Faculty in CEHD

Layland’s research complements the work of faculty studying equity and diversity within families and communities, including Ann Aviles (mental health and homelessness among youth), Tia Barnes (socioemotional well-being among underrepresented youth), Roderick L. Carey (Black boy mattering), Valerie Earnshaw (health stigma), Heather Farmer (health disparities between white and non-white groups), Mellissa Gordon (youth development in at-risk communities) Rosalie Rolon-Dow (Black and Latinx educational experiences) and Bahira Sherif Trask (globalization and family change), among others.