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Minority Stress: The Hidden Killer


As part of the build-up to June’s Safer To Be Me Symposium, we are proud to be sharing our Safer To Be Me: Global Voices blog series, showcasing LGBTQ+ themes from around the globe, written by ReportOUT volunteers.


Kicking off the series is Rhulani from Zimbabwe, who charts her own journey through Minority Stress in a society without LGBTQ+ role models and discusses the harm this phenomenon causes to LGBTQ+ youth across Africa.


I was born around midnight on a cold winter night in a Catholic hospital and I’m still not sure the date recorded on my birth certificate is accurate. I was 10 when I realised I was attracted to girls and, even at that young an age, I knew this was wrong or considered both inappropriate and unacceptable. I tried to ward off these feelings and every time I developed a new crush, I hoped the feelings would go away.


I was raised Christian in a society where same-sex attraction was never spoken of and there were no visible examples of LGBTQ+ people.


Being Christian, the only reference made to such LGBTQ+ people was Sodom & Gomora and that being gay was clearly a sin. My unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction soon led to high levels of self-consciousness and, in turn, anxiety.

My peers started to notice I was different; I was mocked for being a tomboy and sometimes bullied. I retreated into a shell and became very quiet, I suffered from stage fright and, as a result, I shied away from any possible extra-curricular activities I might have taken up in school and possibly excelled. For most of my teen years I battled anxiety combined with feelings of low self-worth. My grades were affected,


I spent a lot of time in my thoughts, premeditating interactions and other things that might never have happened - a lot of wasted time! I couldn’t reconcile what Sunday sermons had taught me and what I was feeling. I was never diagnosed with anxiety or depression but, looking back, my life did mimic a person suffering from depression and/or anxiety – or, to be more accurate, minority stress.


Minority stress refers to the stress processes, including the experience of prejudice acts, expectations of rejection, suppressing feelings, concealing identities, and internalized homophobia 1. Meyer’s minority stress theory further expands that sexual and gender minorities - because of their sexual orientation and gender identity - experience stigma and discrimination in the form of victimization and prejudice (Meyer 1995 & 2003). Society’s failure to integrate and accept sexual minorities can result in poor mental health outcomes, which can result in all of the items that contribute towards minority stress.

Real-World Risk Factors For LGBTQ+ Youth Youth identifying as LGBTQ+ are at increased risk of poor mental health than LGBTQ+ adults (Clements-Nolle 2006). This can be attributed to their going through identity development, a process which typically begins during adolescence (Subhi et al. 2011). Young LGBTQ+ individuals experience higher levels of depression and anxiety than their heterosexual counterparts (McDonald 2018). This could be as a result of LGBTQ+ specific stressors which youth who are heterosexual do not experience (Meyer 1995, Scannapieco et al. 2018) . LGBTQ+ African youth are also at greater risk of stressors which are peculiar to the African context. These stressors are centred around cultural and religious beliefs concerning sexuality as well as the law and political context in most African countries (Ibrahim 2015). The causes of sexual minority stress among LGBTQ+ youth can be summarised as:

  • Internalized homophobia

  • Poor social support

  • Bullying victimization

  • Rejection and lack of acceptance

  • Abuse which can take the form of emotional, physical, sexual or neglect

  • Anti-gay school policies and an unsupportive school environment

  • Religious beliefs and practices

The above stressors, combined with risk factors, can lead to mental health issues and changes in behaviour. High levels of depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug misuse, risky sexual behaviours, which in turn increase likelihood of HIV infection, shame, and low self-esteem are associated with poor social support among LGBTQ+ youth (McDonald 2018).


Without timely intervention of the right nature, a tragic number of LGBTQ+ youth succumb to suicide - a far worse predicament than minority stress.

High rates of self-harm and suicide risk have been found among young individuals who are LGBTQ+ (Gnan et al. 2018). It’s not just an African problem - A Trevor Project survey conducted in 2021 indicated that nearly half of US LGBTQ+ youth had considered suicide.

How Can Allies Help? There are some ways that communities, families, schools and friends can collectively employ as ways to be more supportive towards sexual minorities and help prevent minority stress.

  • Creating conducive and inclusive environments where youth can fully express themselves, feel free, accepted and like they belong.

  • Sexual Orientation Gender Identity and Expression and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) awareness and education campaigns or trainings for schools, families, and communities.

  • Accessible psychosocial support or therapy for LGBTQ+ youth. Criminalization of same sex relationships and discrimination by health care providers often makes it difficult to access health care services.

  • Though major strides still need to be made, there is need for continued country-specific efforts to advocate for legislation in support rights for LGBTQ+ individuals and for decriminalization of same-sex relationships.

  • Reporting and bringing to light human rights injustices against LGBTQ+ youth where possible.

Rhulani’s blog is part of ReportOUT’s Safer To Be Me: Global Voices series, in support of the Safer To Be Me Symposium, a joint ReportOUT-University of Sunderland project, which will take place on 22nd June 2023 at Sunderland University in the North East of England.


The symposium will create a safe space where some of the most important issues facing international LGBTQI+ human rights can be explored and discussed in great detail, as well as encouraging a call to action where all involved can identify meaningful ways to be proactive and make a powerful impact.


To find out more, visit our website


Bibliography


  • Meyer IH. Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychol Bull. 2003;129(5):674.

  • Meyer IH. Minority stress and mental health in gay men. J Health Soc Behav. 1995:38-56.

  • Clements-Nolle K, Marx R, Katz M. Attempted suicide among transgender persons: The influence of gender-based discrimination and victimization. J Homosex. 2006;51(3):53-69.

  • Subhi N, Geelan D, Nen S, et al. Sexual Identity and Sexual Fluidity among Gay Men and Lesbians. Pertanika J Soc Sci Humanit. 2011;19.

  • McDonald K. Social support and mental health in LGBTQ adolescents: a review of the literature. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2018;39(1):16-29.

  • Scannapieco M, Painter KR, Blau G. A comparison of LGBTQ youth and heterosexual youth in the child welfare system: Mental health and substance abuse occurrence and outcomes. Child Youth Serv Rev. 2018;91:39-46.

  • Ibrahim AM. LGBT rights in Africa and the discursive role of international human rights law. African Hum rights law J. 2015;15(2):263-281.

  • Gnan GH, Rahman Q, Ussher G, Baker D, West E, Rimes KA. General and LGBTQ-specific factors associated with mental health and suicide risk among LGBTQ students. J Youth Stud. 2019;22(10):1393-1408.

  • The Trevor Project. 2022 National survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. Trevor Proj. 2022:1-28. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2020/?section=Supporting-Transgender-Nonbinary-Youth.

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