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LGBTQ+ Isolation Is a Public Health Problem

Loneliness may be contributing to mental and physically illness.

Key points

  • Isolation can contribute to negative mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression.
  • LGBTQ+ individuals are more likely to be isolated and lonely.
  • Creating community and connection should be a priority for the treatment of mental illness within the LGBTQ+ community.

Isolation may be the next major crisis the LGBTQ+ community faces. As LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance have expanded over the past several decades, many LGBTQ+ Americans have counterintuitively become increasingly lonely. Amongst LGBTQ+ seniors, for example, it is more common than not to feel isolated (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al., 2011).

Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels
Isolated person.
Source: Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels

Causes of LGBTQ+ Isolation

LGBTQ+ neighborhoods are dispersing, and gay bars and clubs are closing at a record pace. Between 2007 and 2019, gay bar listings have decreased by 36.6% and lesbian bar listings have decreased by 51.6% (Mattson, 2019). In fact, as of this writing, there are only 15 lesbian bars left in America. Other factors contributing to LGBTQ+ isolation include:

  • Lower rates of marriage, largely due to the previous lack of marriage equality

  • Loss of community during the AIDS epidemic
  • Rejection from family and friends
  • Discrimination, harassment, and violence that keep people “in the closet”
  • Unemployment and low income

Negative Impact of Isolation

This is cause for serious concern because isolation is harmful. Studies have found that isolation can cause both mental illness and physical illness. Prolonged isolation is associated with premature death from a variety of causes and the CDC has identified isolation as a serious public health risk (Tulane University, 2020).

Social isolation is associated with:

History of LGBTQ+ Community Formation

To understand why the LGBTQ+ community is becoming so isolated, we must look back at LGBTQ+ spaces and communities over time.

Prior to World War II, many LGBTQ+ individuals lived in complete isolation, some thinking they were the only people like themselves out there. But the war saw the emergence of some of the first LGBTQ+ communities. The military’s attempt to screen out gay men and women inadvertently increased LGBTQ+ awareness as new servicemembers became aware that there must be more people like them. Furthermore, the draft disproportionately selected gay men because they were often single and without children. It was at this time that port cities around bases began to form gay scenes. Organizations such as the YMCA and bars became hot spots for finding LGBTQ+ community.

Fast forward several decades later and the AIDS epidemic required the community to come together like never before. In the absence of support from the medical community and the federal government, the LGBTQ+ community needed to band together to self-advocate. As a result, a surge in activism strengthened the community.

Decades of progress in the face of adversity left LGBTQ+ Americans feeling more connected and supported. It seemed that with each new challenge, the community grew stronger, louder, and more connected. LGBTQ+ friendly neighborhoods began to arise in many cities across the country, affectionately known as gayborhoods.

But with progress, an unintended consequence has arisen.

Erosion of LGBTQ+ Communities

As the internet has grown and more communities have become accepting and supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, LGBTQ+ folks have found new ways to connect, no longer needing to be in a large city or be visibly out to find community and partners.

In 2021, LGBTQ+ people don’t need to flock to the gayborhood like they used to. The necessity of gay bars and gayborhoods for safety, community, and dating has been quickly replaced by apps and websites. Combine that with astronomical increases in the cost of living in urban gayborhoods, and many LGBTQ+ individuals have left the gayborhoods to find homes elsewhere. Slowly and steadily the gayborhoods have begun to disperse.

While online spaces have been helpful in creating connection, there are many aspects of physical community spaces that can’t be effectively recreated online. One example is the presence of LGBTQ+ specific services and organizations.

I began my clinical career at Seattle Counseling Service, the nation’s first and longest-running LGBTQ+ community mental health center. For the majority of its over 50-year history, its client base was located in Seattle’s gayborhood, Capitol Hill. And so, like most other LGBTQ+ organizations in the city, Seattle Counseling Service was also located on Capitol Hill.

But like many gayborhoods across the country, things have been changing.

In 2019, as Seattle Counseling Service began looking for a new, larger home, they noticed an important change in their client data. Most of their clients, for the first time in their history, no longer lived in the gayborhood. As a result, they picked a central location downtown, outside of the gayborhood.

LGBTQ+ Americans are leaving the gayborhood and so are the LGBTQ+ organizations. Consequently, gay businesses such as gay bars, clubs, and bathhouses are going out of business as well. This results in fewer LGBTQ+ spaces and more LGBTQ+ isolation. Add a global pandemic to the mix and this public health crisis becomes a true emergency.

The time is now to preserve LGBTQ+ spaces and create new ones. Like the LGBTQ+ community has done in the past when facing a crisis, we need to come together. As rates of depression and anxiety increase, we must not underestimate the role that social isolation plays in our mental and physical health. Creating connection should be a primary goal in therapy, in our individual lives, and within our communities.

References

K.I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, H.J.E. Kim, C.A. Emlet, A. Muraco, E.A. Erosheva, C.P. Hoy-Ellis et H. Petry (2011) The aging and health report: disparities and resilience among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender older adults Seattle Institute for Multigenerational Health. incited by Harley, D.A., Gassaway, L. and Dunkley, L. (2016). Isolation, socialization, recreation, and inclusion of LGBT elders. In Debra A. Harley and Pamela B. Teaster (dir.). Handbook of LGBT Elders. (pp. 563-581). New York, United States: Springer Science + Business Media.

Mattson, G. (2019). Are Gay Bars Closing? Using Business Listings to Infer Rates of Gay Bar Closure in the United States, 1977–2019. Socius. https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023119894832

Tulane University . (2020, December 8). Understanding the effects of social isolation on Mental Health. Online Public Health & Healthcare Administration Degrees. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://publichealth.tulane.edu/blog/effects-of-social-isolation-on-men….

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