A study suggests that the stress of being rejected or victimised because of sexual orientation may well have real physical effects on lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people.
The study examined the link between living in a homophobic environment and ‘internalised homophobia,’ e.g., feeling negatively about oneself because of one’s sexual identity as LGB.
“Compared to their heterosexual peers, suicide rates are up to 14 times higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual high school and college students,” says Michael Benibgui, who led this investigation as part of his PhD thesis at Concordia’s Department of Psychology and Centre for Research in Human Development.
“Depression and anxiety are widespread,” he continues. “To learn why this occurs, we studied the physiological impact of homophobic social environments on a group of healthy young LGB adults.”
Individuals who experienced more LGB-related stress – arguments about sexual identity, bullying or discrimination – had higher internalised homophobia and showed increased production of the stress hormone cortisol compared to peers in more positive environments.
What’s more, LGB youth who showed more internalised homophobia and abnormal cortisol activity also experienced increased symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. “This study is among the first to clearly link the experience of homophobia with abnormal cortisol activity,” says Benibgui.
Benibgui also identified protective factors that can help safeguard mental health in young gays, lesbians and bisexuals. His research confirms that social support from parents and peers have protective effects.
“LGB young adults who experienced more homophobic discrimination, yet felt accepted and supported by their peers, showed very few symptoms of depression,” he says.
These findings underline the impact – both physical and mental – that homophobia may have on LGB young adults. “The effect on mental health of bullying in schools has received much attention,” says Benibgui. “Our study supports the notion that homophobic bullying can lead to physical and mental health problems.”
Preventative interventions are needed to protect vulnerable lesbian, gay or bisexual youth, Benibgui stresses, to discourage homophobic and heterosexist behaviours from peers and communities.