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A new controlled study measures the physiological toll that discrimination takes on a person’s health. MajaMitrovic/Getty Images
  • While homophobia is an obvious source of stress for lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people, its impact on health can be difficult to measure.
  • A new study from the American Psychological Association (APA) captures the physiological effects of homophobia.
  • Study participants experienced elevated heart rate and heart rate variability, increased systolic blood pressure, and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol when exposed to homophobia.

A new controlled study from the APA concludes that exposure to homophobia can damage the health of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) people.

When LGB study participants faced homophobia, they experienced increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone cortisol levels.

Says lead author David M. Huebner, Ph.D., of George Washington University in Washington D.C.:

“This study shows the potentially toxic impact discriminatory attitudes can have on lesbian, gay, and bisexual people’s health. This is just one more, among many, corrosive effects of homophobia.”

While short-term physiological responses to stress can be useful, temporary adaptive reactions, their continued presence can result in cardiovascular problems and greater susceptibility to infection, among other issues.

Homophobic attitudes constitute a significant source of stress for LGB people, and, as the study notes, “It is now well established that LGB individuals suffer disproportionately from a variety of health problems.”

The study appears in the journal Health Psychology.

“In the past,” says Dr. Huebner, “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.”

He explains, “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.”

To capture the stressful effect of homophobia in action, the study authors created an experimental scenario in which a pre-recorded, unseen questioner interviewed 134 LGB volunteers. However, the participants believed the interview was taking place in real time.

The researchers recruited the participants through social media and at a Pride event. The study classified 51% of the participants as male and 49% as female; five participants identified their gender as something other than the sex assigned to them at birth.

Prior to the interviews, researchers had led half of the participants to believe that their interviewer held homophobic attitudes as revealed by forms they had filled out before recording the questions. The other participants believed that their interviewer held positive attitudes toward LGB people and LGB rights.

All interviews used the same recorded questions. The only difference was the participant’s perception of their questioner.

Before the interviews, researchers measured the participants’ baseline heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure. They also took samples of saliva to measure participants’ cortisol levels. The body produces the hormone cortisol in response to stress.

During the interview session, all individuals experienced increased heart rates and systolic and diastolic blood pressure. In addition, they all exhibited increased high heart rate variability.

However, for those who believed their interviewers were favorable toward the LGB community, these increased levels subsided over the course of the interview. However, for those who thought their interviewers had homophobic views, the levels remained inflated.

Individuals who believed their interviewers held homophobic opinions experienced a more significant increase in heart rate, systolic blood pressure, and salivary cortisol levels.

In addition, the increased stress levels experienced by people who thought their interviewer held negative beliefs toward LGBTQI people took longer to subside, as indicated by systolic blood pressure levels that remained elevated after the session.

Says Dr. Huebner, “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.”

He concludes:

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