Discrimination is a fact of life for many in the LGBT community. The American Psychological Association’s recently released Stress in America report found that nearly one-quarter of adults who are LGBT say that they have been unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused by the police, and a third say they have been unfairly not hired for a job. Other forms of discrimination reported by LGBT respondents include day-to-day discrimination such as being threatened or harassed, receiving poorer service than others, or being treated with less courtesy or respect.
Regardless of the cause, experiencing discrimination is associated with higher reported stress and poorer reported health. This certainly holds true of the LGBT population. Adults who are LGBT who have experienced discrimination report higher average stress levels than those who say that they have not. And LGBT adults, whether they say they have faced discrimination or not, report higher stress levels than those who are not LGBT.
Adults who are LGBT are more likely to say their stress has increased in the prior year and are also more likely to report extreme stress levels compared to others (39 percent versus 23 percent). The survey found that money and work typically top the list of stressors, but LGBT adults are also stressed about their continued employment, with almost six in 10 saying that job stability is a source of stress for them, compared to just one-third of their non-LGBT counterparts. This is hardly surprising when you consider that 29 states offer no protections against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 32 states offer no protection against discrimination based on gender identity.
Clearly, discrimination can contribute to the negative health outcomes of a community where the youth are more likely to attempt suicide; lesbians are less likely to get preventive screenings for cancer; gay men are at higher risk for HIV and other STDs; and individuals who are transgender have a higher prevalence of mental health issues. Adults who are LGBT are less likely than others to report that they are in very good or excellent health (24 percent vs. 36 percent). And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, LGBT people are two and a half times more likely to experience depression, anxiety and substance misuse.
Research indicates that people who accept and integrate their sexual orientation and gender identity into their personal identities are better psychologically adjusted than those who do not. Self-acceptance is facilitated by creating a society where people can live openly without fear of discrimination. In a society where LGBT people face discrimination in every avenue of their day-to-day lives, it’s much harder for them to accept themselves. The process of self-acceptance is easier to come by in a society where the fear of discrimination does not cast a perpetual shadow on a few of its members.
Emotional support can be a healing resource for those dealing with stressors like discrimination. Research has found that receiving emotional support from friends and family can help counteract stress, whether due to discrimination or other stressors. This is helpful for people who think they’ve been a victim of discrimination in areas such as housing, employment, education, or in their everyday lives. A strong support network can be an invaluable sounding board to help talk through incidents and determine next steps such as reporting discrimination to agencies and supervisors. Psychologists can also help people develop strategies to better manage their stress, deal with discrimination, or tackle health problems like depression and anxiety.
The findings of this survey underscore the importance of passing the Equality Act of 2015, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include bans on discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. This would provide certain pivotal safeguards to reduce the most frequent forms of discrimination reported by the LGBT community, and ultimately improve the community’s stress levels and overall health.
We’ve made some progress, but it’s not enough. The next step is to end sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, education, federal funding and the legal system. And passing the Equality Act of 2015 is a step in the right direction.
CLINTON W. ANDERSON, Ph.D., is the associate executive director, director for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender concerns office, and public interest directorate at the American Psychological Association.