Addressing Stigmatizing Environments to Reduce Sexual Minorities’ Health Disparities

In the last two decades, the United States has been a stage for significant increase in equality for the LGBTQ community as seen by the legalization of same-sex marriage, progress in HIV prevention and treatment, medical support for eradicating conversion therapy, among other advances. However, according to research by Jes L. Matsick, Britney M. Wardecker, and Flora Oswald in “Treat Sexual Stigma to Heal Health Disparities: Improving Sexual Minorities’ Health Outcomes,” they continue to experience a high amount of sexual stigma which is related to a number of psychological and physical health problems. 

These problems can be explained by the health disparities sexual minorities face in contrast with heterosexual people. Social psychologists have suggested that what causes these disparities are stigmatizing environments rather than sexual orientation itself, as explained by the authors in the Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences article. 

Sexual stigma devalues and excludes sexual minorities in many different ways, be it verbally, physically, in public sectors, in medical care, in professional contexts, or in education. The sexual prejudice and heterosexism that emerge as a result of the internalization of this stigma by those who enact it serve to reinforce the discrimination that sexual minorities face on a daily basis. Additionally, recent political progress has given way to alternative forms of stigma that are subtler but just as intolerant, if not more.

The way that minorities experience stigma can also vary within historical context, race, social class, geographic location, stressors, and even sexual minority subgroups. More disadvantaged groups are generally at greater risk for poorer health.

Evidence shows that changing stigmatizing environments is key to reducing health disparities. The authors present several recommendations to reduce sexual stigma at the intraindividual, interpersonal, and institutional levels.

At the intraindividual level, heterosexual individuals are encouraged to minimize prejudice and increase allyship. The former can be achieved through intergroup contact, perspective taking, and empathy. The latter can be achieved when these individuals shift their expressions of support from passive and neutral to supportive and accepting. Sexual minorities feel a greater sense of belonging and experience better psychological health when allies actively educate themselves and publicly advocate for LGBTQ rights.

At the interpersonal level, organizations and communities can promote initiatives in school and university settings like Gay-Straight Alliances and workshops. These can educate heterosexual people as well as help LGBTQ students feel safer and perform better academically. Additionally, fostering more connected communities and spaces can promote inclusion and improve sexual minorities’ mental health.

Finally, at the institutional level, researchers can be more mindful of diversifying the representation in their studies, take newer forms of prejudice into consideration, and give more recognition to sexual minorities’ strengths and positive experiences rather than only the negative ones. Lawmakers can promote inclusive policies that protect sexual minorities and contribute to better health.

The evidence-based suggestions provided by the authors can be a key to target all members of society into changing stigmatizing environments rather than expecting minorities to always take matters into their own hands. In other words, “minorities should not have to fix social problems that they had little hand in creating.” In this way, more positive health outcomes can become possible for these groups.