For the last several months, the national presidential election has dominated headlines. For anyone tuning in — or, likely, trying to tune out — it’s been an election wrought with rhetoric, accusations, and blatant lies, some of which have been aimed at minorities and other marginalized groups who make easy targets.
But despite this current and seemingly unproductive political environment, quietly behind the scenes the LGBT community has enjoyed a few small victories that run counter to the national narrative.
Just this month the National Institute on Minority Health Disparities, part of the National Institutes of Health, affirmed that LGBT individuals can now be considered as a minority population and thus prioritized when the institution makes its funding decisions.
While not widely publicized, this decision is significant, given that less than 1 percent (0.1 percent, in fact) of NIH funding since the 1970s has been spent on LGBT research, according to a recent study. Within this small amount of funding, about 79 percent went exclusively to studies related to HIV and AIDS.
Although HIV remains a major public health concern and deserving of attention, it isn’t the only critical health issue facing the LGBT community today. Other significant LGBT health issues include a three times higher-than-average rate of suicide attempt when compared to the general population, significantly higher rates for internalizing disorders like anxiety and depression, and a 190 percent higher chance of reporting a history of substance use or abuse. This NIH decision opens the door for more research opportunities that could greatly improve the health outcomes for LGBT individuals in the future.
In a separate yet equally significant development earlier this year, we also saw the American Dialect Society declare the Word of the Year for 2015 to be “they” — a historically important event. The win for the singular “they” can be seen as an affirmation and validation of gender minority individuals and is a term that shows acceptance of transgender and nonbinary people.
When viewed independently, these two recent developments might be considered only minor victories. But when viewed together, they are momentous and highly related. As with other minority populations, stigma and discrimination run rampant in the LGBT community. The stress from these chronic and ongoing real and expected experiences (a.k.a. minority stress) is due in part to a lack of recognition and acceptance by family, peers, schools, work, and society at large, and is what we believe to be the primary cause of the outcomes described above. Minority stress also allows us to set a culture in which it is normal or abnormal (i.e., the ingredients for victimization).
For example, to illustrate the effect of this stigma on the most basic human level, I would challenge each cisgender (nontransgender) person who reads this to not use a public binary (men’s/women’s) restroom at all, anywhere for the next week. When you plan your day, consider where there may or may not be gender-neutral (i.e., family) restrooms for you to use. If there aren’t any, where will you go? Should you perhaps not have a second cup of coffee? Now, take the next week, and turn it into the rest of your life. One can understand how such a daily task would consume a person to the point of extreme isolation and social avoidance — and later, even suicide.
The reality is that finding solutions for LGBT disparities is not just a matter of sexual and gender-related science — it’s a matter of changing public opinion in such a way that any stigma related to being LGBT becomes unacceptable. If we can no longer say that others are “less than us,” we immediately become responsible for changing all discriminatory circumstances and working toward equity for all. Changing the social norm about how we treat people, and what is “true and right,” is what can ultimately eradicate stigma and end the health disparities faced by the LGBT community.
To not recognize LGBT individuals as a minority population is offensive and restricts equal access to resources — a pillar of stigma. To not respect and allow for diversity in gender language and laugh it off as a “millennial thing” or “locker-room banter” is maintaining the status quo and not embracing true change — another pillar.
So these two recent decisions need to be recognized and celebrated, as they make small steps toward changing the health landscape for LGBT people, and in ways that are both socially and structurally motivated. Eventually, with decisions like these, the pillars of discrimination against our community will fall away — one stone at a time.
JEREMY T. GOLDBACH, Ph.D., LMSW, is assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.