We are living in a moment of increased anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment in the United States. The ACLU is currently tracking 491 anti-LGBTQ bills in the U.S. The 2019 report on the rise of hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there was a 43 percent increase in anti-LGBTQIA+ hate groups from the prior year.
What kind of impact can we expect on LGBTQIA+ people (perhaps on ourselves, our loved ones, or our children) in this climate? Is there anything we can do to counteract the effects of this climate? To better understand this, we can turn to the research on minority stress.
Understanding Minority Stress
Minority stress is an idea that was first articulated in 1981 by a lesbian-identified scholar, Winn Kelley Brooks. She described minority stress as the “state intervening between sequential antecedent stressors of culturally sanctioned, categorically ascribed, inferior status, resultant prejudice and discrimination, and the impact of these forces on the cognitive structure of the individual, and consequent readjustment or adaptational failure.”
In other words, when the culture (the perspectives and practices of your legislators, your colleagues, your teachers) sanctions discrimination, it sends a message. It communicates that you are inferior. In addition to the impact of the discrimination itself (i.e., not being able to read books about people who hold your identity), it also affects how you think (cognitive structure) more broadly about yourself and others. It forces you to adapt and adjust.
And regardless of how “well” you adjust or not, just having to adapt places stress upon you. This stress has an impact on your physical and psychological well-being.
Much of the foundation of the field of LGBTQIA+ health is people describing different sources of minority stress (Meyer, 2003), the different ways people psychologically adjust for better or worse (Hatzenbuehler, 2009; Hatzenbuehler & Pachankis, 2016), and both internal things (i.e., pride) and external things (i.e., social support) that protect people from the effects of minority stress (Perrin et al., 2020).
Now Comes the Most Important Question of Any Theory: So What?
Why is this useful to understand? First, it helps both LGBTQIA+ people and those who know them understand the nature of the distress they are experiencing. A common discriminatory narrative that persists today is that because LGBTQIA+ people experience higher rates of mental health concerns, being LGBTQIA+ must be an expression of sickness or mental illness. Minority stress theory debunks this—it suggests that the environment is pathogenic, not the person.
Breaking down the way minority stress operates can help individuals experiencing or witnessing it to better identify how it is operating, get more skilled at responding to it, and care for themselves and one another. In future posts, I am going to talk about different kinds of minority stressors and factors that protect people from minority stress in more detail. Stay tuned!