Every morning felt like a new survival test, secondary school could be harsh and unforgiving. The hallways were the worst part. I wouldn’t know if I was going to be pushed into the lockers or hear a chorus of classmate’s mutter a homophobic slur under their breath as they passed. I felt afraid and ashamed. I desperately wanted to be liked for who I was, but lacked the safety to reveal what I was beginning to know with greater certainty. I was gay.
Worried thoughts preoccupied my mind: I would wonder, as I ordered coffee at a café, was the cashier abrupt with me because they suspected my sexuality? What if my family found out I was gay? What would I do if they decided to kick me out? Then I would go home and watch sitcoms on television and see characters ridiculed for the slightest indication they might be attracted to someone of the same gender. It felt as though everywhere I went; I received the message that who I was as a gay person was inherently unacceptable. By the time I was in senior year, my grades were slipping, I had difficulty falling asleep, and I was barely eating.
There’s a name for what I was experiencing. It’s called Minority Stress. Minority Stress, when applied to sexual and gender minorities (SGMs), is a theory that describes the excess stress these individuals experience due to discrimination and heteronormativity.
As humans, when we experience psychological stress, our brains send a signal to our adrenal glands to produce stress hormones such as cortisol, that increase our blood pressure and heart rate giving us a surge of energy. From an evolutionary survival standpoint this has proven to be quite useful for our species to escape or fend off predators, aptly referred to as the “fight or flight” response. However, if the threat is chronic and cannot be easily escaped, the body keeps producing excess stress hormones. This is correlated with a host of negative health outcomes: sleep disturbances, lower immune functioning, poorer overall mental health, and higher rates of depression and anxiety.
A notable study from 2021 measured participants cortisol for a week and compared the data with the number of incidents of LGBT discrimination those same participants experienced during that period. Humans’ cortisol levels are generally higher closer to when they wake. What was found in this study was that cortisol levels were even higher upon waking amongst those that had experienced LGBT discrimination. Just starting out the day, these individuals were already experiencing greater stress levels than their heterosexual and cisgendered counterparts.
Bearing in mind that, my story began with growing up gay in North America in the 1990’s. As of 2019, homosexual acts were illegal in 65 countries and punishable by death in 10. Relative to many places in the world, I faced less minority stress and structural stigma.
Also, even at the time of writing this article in 2023, there is an infuriatingly large amount of anti-LGBTQ legislation being proposed or already passed, restricting the rights of transgender individuals. I must acknowledge within the queer community, as a white able-bodied middle class cisgendered male, I hold many privileged identities. I have endured some of the least minority stress that members of the queer community face and it still deeply impacted my well-being.
Recent evidence demonstrates that self-compassion can be an effective tool for countering the psychological consequences of minority stress for SGM individuals and is strongly associated with well-being. Dr. Kristen Neff, a prominent researcher specializing in this area, breaks down the concept into three main components:
- Self-kindness instead of judgement: The ability to be kind to yourself in the face of perceived setbacks or mistakes.
- Common humanity instead of isolation: The notion that all humans suffer and are connected by our fallibility.
- Mindfulness: The ability to perceive your emotions without being absorbed or overpowered by them.
Put simply, our mistakes don’t make us “bad” people. If anything, they unify us with everyone because it’s in human nature to be imperfect and when thoughts pop up to try to tell us that we should feel terrible because of how imperfect we are, we can step back and see those thoughts for the unhelpful noise that they are. I have found these principles to be personally helpful in my own journey towards developing greater self-compassion (in addition to receiving clinical counselling to expand on these ideas).
That journey is ongoing. It is a clearer path some days than others but the hurdles I wish to surmount look far different than they once did. The stressors are still there, in some form or other, but my relationship to them has shifted. I no longer see my sexuality as some kind of personal shortcoming or moral failure. It is an aspect of my identity that has helped me be more empathetic to the struggles others face, a character trait in which I take pride and assists me greatly in my work.
There may still be bullies lurking in hallways, or in state legislatures, but I don’t need to carry them with me internally and I don’t hide who I am anymore. In myself, I’ve found the acceptance I was looking for all along.
Kevin (He/Him) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor operating in Vancouver, BC, with Skylark Counselling Clinic on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. He holds a master’s in counselling psychology and his areas of focus are clients with anxiety and depression, substance use challenges, developmental trauma, stress management, and life transitions.
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