New studies show how discrimination harms people with same-sex orientations

The reason more LGB people experience depression isn’t because they’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Mom Marty McGuire holds a sign at the 2016 Miami Beach Gay Pride March. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Mom Marty McGuire holds a sign at the 2016 Miami Beach Gay Pride March. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Two new studies released last week provide new evidence that the mental health challenges gay, lesbian, and bi people experience is not because of their sexual orientation, but because of the stigma and discrimination they experience as a result.

In one study, researchers at Australian National University followed a cohort of about 5,000 LGB adults over eight years to track their life experiences and their mental health. The results showed that there were many risk factors that contributed to negative mental health outcomes, but they weren’t directly related to individuals’ non-heterosexual orientations.

For example, survivors of sexual trauma and childhood trauma, rejection in social interactions, not having family or social support, and smoking all contributed to the long-term risk for depression and anxiety. When LGB people didn’t experience these factors — when they had positive support and affirmation in their lives — their risk of long-term mental health problems was no higher than for straight people.

In other words, LGB people do experience higher rates of mental health problems, but that’s only because they are more vulnerable to rejection and stigma — and are more likely to turn to coping mechanisms as a result. As lead researcher Richard Burns explained, “When we adjusted for these other mental health risk factors, we found no major risk associated with sexual orientation itself.”

The research did show that bisexual people are more vulnerable to these negative outcomes, as other studies have confirmed. But this could still be due to mitigating factors. “In terms of those who identified as bisexual orientation, they did appear to have an increased risk of poor mental ill health,” Burns said, “but we found that was being driven by other well-known risk factors for poor mental health.”

“We concluded that all things being equal that there is no particular mental health risk for people with a homosexual or bisexual orientation.”

These results jibe with a new report from the Oasis Foundation, an LGBTI Christian organization in the UK. A response to the House of Bishops upholding the Church of England’s opposition to marriage equality, the report draws connections between the mental health challenges LGB people experience and the messages they hear from religious bodies.

According to the report, LGB people are 12 times more likely to experience negative mental health outcomes if they were raised in religious households. It is “beyond reasonable doubt,” the report asserts, “that it is the Church and local churches who are fulling this negativity.”

Noting that all but one of the major denominations in the UK “have positions and policies which actively discriminate against people in same-sex relationships,” the report concludes that religious organizations bear primary responsibility for the consequences LGB people experience. “In the UK, local churches are one of the biggest ‘organised discriminators’ of LGB people. Christians are also the biggest grouping of people who fuel negative attitudes about same-sex relationships in media and society.”

Studies in the U.S. have similarly documented that stigma and discrimination have a significant negative impact on LGB mental health, and likewise the effect is very much the same for transgender people.