Wednesday, November 16, 2016

LGBT community and holidays: Stress on steroids, post-Trump

The holiday season brings stresses for everyone and for gay youth, in particular. This year in particular, gay youth and adults face a daunting task at the family dinner table. Here is an excerpt from our new book, Healing the Brain.

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.

Coping Strategies for Gay Youth
Obtaining information and support through the Internet
For many youth, the Internet served as a means of locating gay-affirmative support that might otherwise have been difficult to obtain. One individual posted poetry about his experiences on a website and received feedback that helped him to increase his sense of self-esteem and reduce feelings of isolation. For this youth, the process of writing poetry had other benefits as well, including cognitively reframing his predicament and venting.

Setting boundaries

A common example of such a strategy involved avoiding individuals who expressed heterosexist attitudes. Youth might stop talking to such a person, or take other active measures to avoid having to encounter them, even if they had formerly been friends.

Some youth express the importance of avoiding heterosexist people, though such strategies could leave them vulnerable to additional psychological, physical and material challenges. For example, leaving home without obtaining alternative sources of support appeared to be a particularly risky means of coping.

Adam left his small-town home for Los Angeles due to pervasive heterosexism and anti-gay violence he encountered there. He left with only enough money for train fare and a few essential items, a situation that might have been precarious had he not been able to rely on an aunt living in Los Angeles. He moved in with her and greatly appreciated her support, saying “At least I have one family member that was behind me. But that was the only one.” Another youth, who left home for similar reasons had no money whatsoever, but was able to earn income as a dancer in bars. A third respondent, whose brother regularly beat him and called him a “fag,” coped by living at friends’ homes most of the time.

Passing by telling half-truths

When youth could not avoid the topics that might lead to exposure of their sexual orientation, they often hid their sexual orientation by a careful use of half-truths. For these youth, passing often involved steering a middle course between overt lying and social or familial rejection.

Passing by keeping a low profile in heterosexist environments

Gay people often encounter heterosexist messages in religious settings. Rather than avoid such settings entirely, many respondents continue to attend church, while remaining closeted in that particular environment. In this way, respondents felt they were able to derive benefits from such experiences in spite of hearing heterosexist messages. This was explained by one respondent, who said that he continued to attend church in spite of his discomfort because he valued his relationship with God. Another respondent utilized passing to minimize the embarrassment he and a gay friend would otherwise experience in church when straight men stared at their stereotypically gay attire.

Covering sexual orientation

Some youth who had fully disclosed their sexual orientation nevertheless adopted strategies to minimize its obviousness. Respondents whose families discouraged them from disclosing their sexual orientation to others sometimes used covering as a compromise between their families’ wishes and their own. The following respondent recounts an argument in which his parents insisted that he keep his sexual orientation a secret at school.

Listening selectively in stigmatizing environments

Youth often use attentional deployment strategies in religious settings, sometimes by simply ignoring anti-gay messages when they were expressed in church. In order to ignore such heterosexist messages, youth first had to listen to and critically evaluate the ideas they were hearing.

Ignoring provocations

LGBT youth who encounter prejudicial statements directed at them often opted to ignore them. The following respondent reported that when he was younger his mother and sister often said things to him that made him “not feel good about myself”. He described that he “used to go so crazy, I yelled at them... like knocked over the TV and stereo, knocked over the whole house.” As he got older, he learned to ignore provocations and this helped him to avoid yelling and acting out violently at home. He also stated that he usually uses a similar strategy when encountering prejudice in public settings.

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