The term homophobia was first described in 1972 by George Weinberg, and defined as an irrational fear, hatred, and intolerance of being in close quarters with homosexual men and women. Homophobia in society now plays out in many different forms, both subtle and explicit. Less visible forms include lack of inclusion of same-sex couples and particularly ethnically diverse couples in the entertainment industry, marketing materials, and advertisements. More obvious forms of homophobia include laws and regulations geared towards discrimination and undermining the basic human rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. A recent example is the case currently being tried in the Supreme Court involving a baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.
The pervasiveness of hate crimes and physical violence is also a constant source of stress for many who live in communities where these are not isolated incidents. And though not as physically threatening, anti-gay slurs and lack of acceptance of sexual minorities into communities and families can also have devastating psychological consequences on gay and bisexual people.
For individuals who belong to other minority groups—such as racial or ethnic minorities—the effect of homophobia is significantly amplified. Some theories indicate this is because some ethnic minority groups themselves might not be accepting of homosexuality which could, in turn, lead to internalized homophobia. Further, individuals who are associated with intersecting lines of stigmatized identity must deal with multiple forms and sources of discrimination and stigma. For instance, a black lesbian woman can face discrimination in many forms: sexism, homophobia, and racism.
Although there was a time in which homosexuality was considered a mental illness, it is now clear through decades of research that being a sexual minority in and of itself is not a mental illness. Rather, the experiences of homophobia, discrimination, and stigma that LGB people are exposed to put these individuals at a higher risk of developing mental health issues due to chronic stress associated with these experiences.
Perhaps one of the first research studies to shed light on this topic was Ilan Meyer’s landmark 1995 paper on the impact of “minority stress” on gay men living in New York City. The results of the study demonstrated that individuals who belong to a sexual minority group within a heteronormative society are prone to high rates of internalized homophobia (lack of acceptance of ones’ own sexuality), stigma, and experiences of discrimination and violence. Meyer found that through these experiences, the men in his study were, in turn, two to three times as likely to suffer from high levels of distress and had high negative mental health outcomes. Since that study came out over 20 years ago, hundreds of other research articles have contributed to our understanding of the particular ways in which minority stress leads to worse mental health outcomes for LGB individuals than their heterosexual counterparts. Research also shows that sexual minorities face higher rates of substance abuse and cigarette smoking.
Indeed, when individuals are exposed to chronic stress, they are both physically and psychologically less resilient to normal life stressors. For instance, a gay man who lives in a state with no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace is likely to be very worried about losing his job if his identity is revealed. This is not only a source of very real concern, but psychologically can lead to persistent feelings of tension, anxiety, and distress. Constant stress and weakened resilience can lead to development of poor coping skills including substance abuse and negative thought patterns which are typically associated with anxiety and depression. People who are genetically prone to anxiety and depression are also more likely to suffer from these disorders under chronic stress conditions.
As laws around the country change and build toward more acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, it is possible that the effect of minority stress may lessen. However, despite changing laws and cultural norms, people still hold on to homophobic beliefs and act in ways that promote willful ignorance and discrimination that serve to put the community at risk both physically and psychologically. Finding sources of acceptance and safe spaces is critical in boosting resilience for those who face the many forms of homophobia. One thing that LGB people can do to prevent the harmful effects of these experiences is to seek support both in their community, through friends and family, and mental health resources to help promote healthy coping tools.
Meyer, I. H. (1995). Minority stress and mental health in gay men. Journal of health and social behavior, 38-56.
Weinberg, G. (1972). Society and the healthy homosexual. New York: St. Martins Press.