The Hidden Danger of Stigma

A new report tackles the impact discrimination of all kinds can have on LGB people

Photo by Think Stock

Not surprisingly, a new study – funded, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health – has found that stigma about sexuality and issues of racism have a negative impact on the well-being of gay, lesbian and bisexual people. In fact, ongoing stigma and social inequality can increase stress significantly for LGBs, says Dr. Ilan H. Meyer, a scholar at the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute.

“We’d Be Free: Narratives of Life Without Homophobia, Racism or Sexism” examines the startling effects that exposure to everyday stigma – like consistent, ongoing experiences of inequality – can have on health and well-being. The folks who participate in the research report estrangement from families, failure to graduate and isolation in the workplace when they faced discrimination for being gay or being a minority. The study also tackles hard-hitting experiences related to bullying.

“Imagine living life anticipating exclusion from your friends, family and professional circles simply because of who you are and who you love – that resulting stress takes a toll on one’s life and health,” says Meyer.

Blacks and Latinos, in particular, characterized “homophobia, racism and sexism” as a major source of stress that led to missed life opportunities, including a quality education and higher levels of self-confidence overall.

“For members of minority groups, day-to-day life experiences that may seem minor to others can and do have significant and lasting impact on one’s well-being,” says Meyer. “The idea that simply walking out your door will expose you to societal rejection and stigma creates a climate of stress that can lead to detrimental, long-term consequences.”

The research also found that, paradoxically, sexual minorities sometimes view stigma as having enhanced their lives and as having a defining impact on their identity. For example, LGB individuals who were forced to leave their hometowns found a more accepting community and new professional and personal opportunities in big cities that might not otherwise have been available to them.

“The study’s results show policymakers need to think more broadly than simply reducing extreme forms of abuse through measures like anti-bullying policies,” explains Meyer. “Although reducing abuse and violence should be a primary focus, policy measures that enhance positive aspects of gay identity, like interventions that connect LGB persons to their communities, could help reduce the stress caused by social exclusion.”

Have you faced discrimination at home or at work because of who you are? We’d like to hear your story: