A little after midnight on October 7, 1998 a college freshman at the University of Wyoming was taken to a remote area outside his university's town, robbed, tied to a fence, pistol-whipped so severely that his brain stem was crushed, and left for dead. The murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly homosexual male, sparked national and international outrage and eventually led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
Hate crimes like the Matthew Shepard atrocity, combined with the contempt many people feel towards the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* (LGBT) community, cause more than physical scars. They also often leave behind mental health issues. On average, the LGBT community experiences higher levels of anxiety and depression than the rest of the population. However, external factors are not always the reason for this heightened anxiety. Internalized homophobia and self-hatred also contribute to higher levels of mental disorders.
Threats Trigger Anxiety in LGBT Community Members…
There's no denying that external threats, from Shepard's murderers to family rejection to day-to-day microaggressions, mentally harm the LGBT community. It has been proven by multiple scientific publications over a range of years. Most recently, a study found that discrimination was heavily associated with mental health disorders in lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Research has proven that individuals under constant stress can develop anxiety disorders, especially for those who are more vulnerable to these conditions. Discrimination, therefore, can be a powerful trigger for mental health problems.
…But Internal Insecurities Act as Triggers
Outside threats aren't the only stimuli causing anxiety in members of the LGBT community. Self-hatred and insecurities also cause mental health issues. In fact, internalized homophobia is quite common. A 1998 study found that 66% of gay and bisexual male participants experienced some level of internalized homophobia. Similarly, in 2003, a study of gays and lesbians found that internalized homophobia accounted for 13% of the variance in anxiety scores.
Social anxiety is another common trait exhibited by LGBT individuals. A 2006 study revealed that gay men reported a greater fear of negative evaluation, social interaction, and lower self-esteem than their straight counterparts. Greater fears of judgment in society could lead to less socializing and acceptance of an LGBT individual, which worsens the current situation.
Bisexual and Transsexual Anxiety can be Worse
In 2012 alone, trans* people were the victims of over 13 homicides in the US, a 13% increase from 2011. The majority of these hate crimes were committed by people who did not identify themselves as LGBT. However, trans* individuals tend to be the red-headed stepchildren of the LGBT community, and are often victims of discrimination from their own peers. Because of their disassociation with the gender they were assigned at birth, many people—including those in the LGBT community—discriminate against this group, causing heightened anxiety levels in trans* people. In a study published in 2013, researchers found that 33.2% of transgender participants had anxiety and 44.1% had depression. Social stigma was associated with these results.
But trans* people are not the only group that experiences anxiety from lack of acceptance; bisexuals also experience this anxiety. Bisexually-identified people are attracted to members of both genders and are often considered to be “going through a phase" or transitioning to homosexuality. The denial of bisexuality as a legitimate identity causes many bisexuals to lead a heterosexual lifestyle. A study performed in Columbia University found that almost 38% of bisexual male participants had never told anyone about their sexual identity and 80% said that they kept their relationships with men to themselves. This inability to speak out as a member of the LGBT spectrum causes increased anxiety in these people.
“Anxiety is a phenomenon that occurs over a very short time domain," said Doctor John O'Dea, an endocrinologist specializing in the treatment of trans* patients and women, “I compare it to your watch. Depression is like the date on your watch. Anxiety is like the second hand." Because anxiety is different from other mental health issues, like depression, it takes a unique approach to solve it. Methods used to help anxiety in heterosexual patients can help LGBT patients. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help, as it does with heterosexual and cisgender1 people, says Doctor Tanya Vapnik, an individual and couples' counselor with experience treating trans* patients. “More acceptance and less stigma […] will decrease certain levels of anxiety," she added. However, therapy for anxiety will help you find long-term solutions for a happier life.
Trans* = An umbrella term referring to all individuals who do not wholly identify with the gender or sex they were assigned at birth.
1Cisgender = A term referring to people who identify with the gender and sex they were assigned at birth. For example, your birth certificate states you are female and you identify yourself as a female woman.
Date of original publication: June 05, 2014.
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