Exposure to Homophobic Attitudes Linked to Higher Stress Levels Among Sexual Minorities

WASHINGTON — Lesbian, gay and bisexual people who encounter homophobic attitudes experience increases in heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones, potentially putting them at risk for multiple health problems, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“This study shows the potentially toxic impact discriminatory attitudes can have on lesbian, gay and bisexual people’s health,” said lead author David M. Huebner, PhD, associate professor of prevention and community health at The George Washington University. “This is just one more, among many, corrosive effects of homophobia.” 

In the study, published in the journal Health Psychology, researchers looked at 134 lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans ages 18 to 58 recruited on social media and at an LGBTQ pride festival. The study was almost equally divided between males and females. 

Participants were told they would be partnered with someone who would interview them to assess their intelligence, competence and likeability. In one group, participants were led to believe their partners had expressed political opposition to lesbian, gay and bisexual rights in forms that had been completed prior to the experiment, and in the other group, members were led to believe their partners had made positive comments about lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Although participants believed that they were talking to real people, the researchers used recordings of questions that were designed to sound like they were coming from the assigned partners. The participants were told that they couldn’t see their partners because the researchers did not want appearance to bias the study.  

The researchers measured participants’ blood pressure throughout the experiment. They also took saliva samples to measure the level of the stress hormone cortisol.

Participants in both groups experienced significant increases in heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure during the interviews. (Systolic blood pressure is the pressure the heart exerts while it’s beating. Diastolic blood pressure is the pressure it exerts between beats). But participants in the group that believed they were speaking with homophobic interviewers experienced greater increases in heart rate and systolic blood pressure during the interviews and smaller decreases in systolic blood pressure during recovery. The stress hormone cortisol only increased among participants who believed their interviewers were homophobic. More research is needed to determine why perceived homophobia had such an impact on systolic blood pressure, the researchers said. 

“In the past, when researchers have found links between discrimination and LGBT people’s health, it has been difficult for them to definitively say that the discrimination truly causes health problems,” said Huebner. “That’s largely because there are hundreds of things that can affect someone’s overall health, and because it’s sometimes hard for people to accurately report exactly how much discrimination they’re experiencing. But by exposing study participants to minority stress and then observing objective physiological changes in real time, our study draws a direct line connecting homophobia with physiological stress among sexual minorities.” 

Elevations in blood pressure, heart rate or cortisol can be adaptive short-term responses to stress, allowing individuals to meet the acute demands of challenging situations, the research notes. However, long-term exposure to stress, and the physiological changes that result, can lead to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, infectious disease or even death.

“The old adage that words can never hurt you is simply not true,” said Huebner. “The fact is that experiencing discrimination, or even the threat of discrimination, is harmful for people’s health. So, as a society it’s critical that we enact policies and laws that protect people from that kind of discrimination.”

 

Article: “Cardiovascular and Cortisol Responses to Minority Stress” by David M. Huebner, PhD, The George Washington University, Larissa A. McGarrity, PhD, University of Utah, Nicholas S. Perry, PhD, Brown University, Leigh A. Spivey, PhD, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Timothy W. Smith, PhD, University of Utah. Health Psychology, published online June 21, 2021.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes nearly 122,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.