Monday, November 21, 2016

Heterosexism and the holidays

Thanksgiving marks the start of the trifecta of holidays that spike anxiety in LGBT youth and adults of all ages. In this excerpt from Healing the Brain, we look at the invisible but all-too-real phenomenon of heterosexism, the feeling of gay people that they must give deference to a straight-majority culture.

Despite, or in some cases because of social progress in marriage equality and other matters, pervasiveness of alienation in the lives of the current generation of gay youth is well established. Nevertheless, little is definitively known about the strategies these youth use to cope with stigma and discrimination based on their sexual minority status. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth face an array of daunting challenges in addition to many of the developmental stressors facing straight teens.

One of the most difficult stressors gay youth face is heterosexism. This term describes the acculturated and pervasive (intentional or non-intentional) concept that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any non-heterosexual form of behavior, identity, relationship, or community. The experience of being stigmatized is at the root of a range of health problems faced by sexual minority adolescents including increased depression, suicide risk, and other mental health disorders. Few researchers have examined the emotional consequences of day-to-day encounters with heterosexism, but many have noted the challenge of maintaining a positive sense of self in the face of chronic negative feedback based in heterosexist attitudes. Recent research has revealed elevated levels of social anxiety in sexual minority adolescents, as well as associations between social anxiety and increased risky sexual behavior.

Forms of heterosexist experiences vary widely, ranging from casual anti-gay remarks to severe physical violence or total social exclusion. Youth encounter heterosexism in diverse settings, including home, school, church, parks, and on the street. Sources of heterosexism were equally wide-ranging, including family members, schoolmates, friends, and religious leaders.

Few researchers have examined the emotional consequences of day-to-day encounters with heterosexism.

Heteroterosexist attitudes by family appeared to be especially stressful for gay youth, in part due to these youths’ emotional and financial dependence on their families. The holiday season, the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, accounts for many family disruptions over the issue of a child’s sexulity. Youth see this period and the typical gatherings of their nuclear family as an opportunity to begin talking about their true selves. Not coincidentally, this time of year is when the highest incidents of family disruptions occur. Large cities such as San Francisco and New York see an influx of gay youth fleeing their homes and ultimately seeking social services. Relatedly, when television covers an LGBT matter, be it marriage equality or the trauma of the Orlando, FL mass killing at a gay bar, conflicts ensue in families. In 2011, when New York State passed marriage equality, the Ali Forney Center of New York reported a 40 per cent increase in drop-in rates at its youth shelter in New York.


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