Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people is now on the world stage. Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics has brought a spotlight not only on Russia’s harsh anti-gay laws, but also the treatment of LGBT people everywhere. While substantial gains have been made in the acceptance of LGBT people, bias is still prevalent and has very real mental health consequences.
Discrimination against LGBT people is commonplace. Gay, lesbian or bisexual people are 10 times more likely to experience discrimination based on sexual orientation as compared to heterosexual people. Mistreatment comes in many forms, from seemingly benign jokes, to verbal insults, unequal treatment and in the most extreme cases, physical violence. Further, for many LGBT people, the bias is everywhere and lasts their lifetime: at home, school, work and in the community.
Rejection often starts at home. As many as 50 percent of LGBT teens experience a negative reaction from their parents when they come out; 30 percent experience physical abuse, and 26 percent are kicked out of their homes. In fact, LGBT children comprise 40 percent of all homeless youth, and family rejection is the primary cause. Further, LGBT adults who report family rejection are six times more likely to be depressed, three times more likely to use illegal drugs and eight times more likely to have attempted suicide than non-rejected young adults.
Bullying of LGBT children is common in schools, as well. Eighty-five percent are verbally bullied during the course of a school year. This harassment often turns violent: 40 percent report physical bullying and 19 percent report being physically assaulted at school because of sexual orientation. The bullying can be so intense that 30 percent of LGBT children miss school because they feel unsafe. Further, bullying because of sexual orientation results in increased depression, and an almost six-fold increased risk for suicide attempts.
Discrimination and harassment often pervade the workplace. One experimental study sent 1,769 pairs of fictitious résumés in response to job postings across seven states. One résumé in each pair was randomly assigned experience in a gay campus organization, and the other résumé was assigned a control organization. Applicants affiliated with a gay organization were 40 percent less likely to be called for an interview.
Once in the workplace, 42 percent of LGBT adults experience workplace discrimination; the rate for openly gay adults is four times that of workers whose sexuality was hidden. Further, employees who have experienced employment discrimination have higher levels of psychological distress and health-related problems than employees who have not experienced discrimination. Higher discrimination also translates into less job satisfaction, higher rates of absenteeism and more frequent contemplation of quitting than LGBT employees who have not experienced discrimination.
Bias against LGBT people continues with unequal treatment under the law. While Russian law is particularly severe in its ban even of any discussion of sexuality, denial of equal marital and adoption rights is commonplace. Research shows in a region where marital rights are denied, LGBT people display higher levels of overall psychological distress, depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse than LGBT people in states with marital rights.
Being denied adoption rights has a similar effect. One study found that in states without discriminatory laws, gay men who wanted to raise children had greater self-esteem and fewer symptoms of depression than gay men who did not plan on children. But for those in states where discrimination was written into marriage and adoption laws, gay men who wanted to raise children had lower self-esteem and increased depressive symptoms than gay men who did not want to raise children.
A recent video released by a Russian neo-Nazi group of violence against LGBT people highlights the very real threat of hate crimes. Estimates suggest that 20 to 25 percent of LGBT people experience criminal victimization because of their adult sexual orientation. Further, as compared with other recent crime victims, LGBT hate-crime survivors manifested significantly more symptoms of depression, anger, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
So what can be done? Research suggests that support matters. This type of support has been on display in public reactions to NFL prospect Michael Sam's recent announcement that he is gay. Higher perceived family, workplace and friendship support reduces psychological distress in LGBT people.
Evidence suggests that a supportive school environment with clear anti-LGBT bullying laws and supportive educators reduces bullying. Further, in states in which there are clear LGBT anti-discrimination and anti-hate crime laws, LGBT people display lower levels of psychiatric disorders than do LGBT people in states without such protection.
Finally, laws that provide equal rights for LGBT people would improve mental health. Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to expand recognition of same-sex marriage in federal legal matters such as survivor benefits represents this type of change.
The suffering of LGBT people in Russia is tragic. With the Olympic Games in Sochi bringing that suffering to light, though, we’re faced with a very real challenge. We must continue to raise awareness of discrimination against LGBT people everywhere and seek remedies to correct this injustice.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow EHE on Twitter @EHEintl.