Being a member of a minority group – whether that is sexuality, gender, relationship style, neurotype, disability, body size, race or ethnicity – can sometimes feel like living beneath a cloud. Even for those of us proud to live under the rainbow banner, it can feel like a storm is brewing, ready to rain on our parade at any moment.
There is a term for that background noise of daily existence as a person with a marginalised identity: minority stress.
Minority stress theory
Minority stress theory1 brings together the effect of our environment on ourselves and how we respond to it. In short, living in a society that is hostile to your very existence is stressful in a number of ways. These stressors can be on a large scale, such as not being able to get work or secure housing because of discrimination and prejudice, or they can be the drip-drip-drip of comments, sidelong looks and jokes at our expense that gradually wear us down.
The diagram above looks a little complicated, but shows how the theory maps out how a person’s general environment, their minority identity, how they feel about themselves and what support they have can all interact to create better or worse mental health.
What does it mean?
Everyone has stresses and strains related to their life, but people from minority groups experience additional stresses related to their identity. It’s difficult for anyone to deal with the unfolding cost of living crisis or a relationship ending, but when your identity makes you a target for discrimination it adds additional layers of stress.
The stresses of transparent inequalities such as being unable to gain access to necessary healthcare or recognition of your gender identity on documents are clear to all, but the undercurrent of expected stress is less clear. Is the person following you on the street the same person who looked at you funny on the bus? The person who interviewed you for that job said they found someone who was a better fit for the role, but did that mean they don’t want your kind in their workplace? What would happen if your family found out about your identity? Wouldn’t life be easier if you just weren’t like this?
The combination of stresses from the world with the ways queer people anticipate being victimised and rejected can make life pretty overwhelming at times.
The good news
It can feel bleak knowing that who you are can make you likely to experience more stress, but it’s not all bad news. It can be a relief to know that it’s not our fault that we find life difficult at times because of situations beyond our control.
Queer people can tend towards self-blame for the ways we are treated by society in general and sometimes by our own families and peers. Policing our own behaviour can help keep us safe in situations where it feels dangerous to be openly ourselves, but that means internalising queerphobia that can damage our self-esteem. Therapy or self-reflection can help to identify these unhelpful beliefs we have about ourselves and make peace with who we are.
The diagram above illustrates the role that coping strategies and social support can play in supporting people in minority groups towards more positive mental health. Again, therapy can help you with identifying appropriate coping techniques, but having strong social connections can also be protective. Whatever your minority identity, having a community of people who are like you and experience the same day-to-day struggles can help you feel supported and understood. If you live in a small place or are isolated where you are, you might find that watching TV shows, films or YouTubers you relate to can give you some of the same sense of connection.
Stress to growth
Stressful situations can be difficult to deal with by definition, but people who repeatedly deal with stress are also known to be resilient. By resilience, I mean the ability to adapt in order to successfully cope with situations that threaten the ability to function2. You can be resilient and still be stressed. You can find things hard in one area of your life and still thrive in another.
While it can be upsetting and frustrating to be faced with adversity that isn’t your fault, the ability of queer people to survive those setbacks, find community, learn from them and apply those lessons to other parts of their lives is widely acknowledged3 and is something that is a strength of human beings in general and marginalised people in particular. This doesn’t make the stress any less stressful, nor does it make the growth any less real.
1Meyer, I.H., 2003. Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological bulletin, 129(5), p.674.
2Southwick, S.M., Bonanno, G.A., Masten, A.S., Panter-Brick, C., Yehuda, R., 2014. Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology 5, 25338. https://doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v5.25338
3Peel, E., Rivers, I., Tyler, A., Nodin, N., Perez-Acevedo, C., 2022. Exploring LGBT resilience and moving beyond a deficit-model: findings from a qualitative study in England. Psychology & Sexuality 0, 1–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/19419899.2022.2063754
Featured image from Nicolas Raymond from Bethesda, Maryland, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons