“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” That is one of a few cute rhymes I remember from my childhood. It is actually a bit ironic that you hear many kids express this mantra, one almost of resilience against insults and hostility, yet kids say the darnedest things (in a negative sense!). And, whether among youth or adults, there is evidence that prejudice, discrimination, and bullying – even as words – impact their victims’ health and well-being.
Inequality And Health
Many health researchers – including myself – are interested in documenting health disparities in society. For example, we want to know whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals experience worse mental and physical health than heterosexual and cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) people. And, where disparities exist and persist (and many do!), we aim to identify the factors that create and maintain inequality in health and well-being. Particularly in the social sciences, we focus on inequality in resources and opportunities (e.g., income, access to health care), as well as inequality in experiences (e.g., prejudice, discrimination), as factors that potentially lead to health disparities.
Oppression And Health
To speak more critically, many researchers are concerned about how oppression shapes population health, particularly the health and well-being of socially disadvantaged groups. This means taking a view that resources, opportunities, and quality of life are not randomly distributed throughout the population, with equal chance being afforded to each person. Rather, society is structured in a way that these privileges are systematically afforded to some – white Americans, men, heterosexuals, middle- and upper-class people – and systematically denied to others – people of color, women, LGBT people, working-class and poor people. So inequality, and its role in shaping population health, is neither random nor accidental; it is both systematic and intentional, and self-perpetuating.
Homophobia And Health
So, how does prejudice and discrimination affect health? One way is through differential access to capital and resources, namely quality health care, health insurance, health-related knowledge, and factors like income and education that grant access to these resources. Differential access is largely the product of differential treatment (i.e., discrimination), and the legacy of discrimination in the past.
But, discrimination and prejudice also directly affect mental and physical health. Let’s take homophobia as one form of oppression that likely contributes to health disparities, in this case, sexual orientation disparities in mental and physical health. The most obvious way that homophobia might impact one’s health is a physical anti-LGBT assault against an LGBT person, which might also lead to trauma and other mental health problems. But, even homophobic discrimination, insults, and slights can negatively affect the health of an LGBT person. For example, a recent study on 114 LGBT young adults found that individuals who frequently hear the expression, “that’s so gay” (which implies that being gay is undesirable), are more likely to experience headaches, eating problems, and a sense of social isolation.
One’s experiences of differential treatment, hostility, or exclusion because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender are distressing. And, like any stressful event, the health and well-being of victims of homophobic discrimination, prejudice, and bullying are threatened. While one might be able to brush off a minor, infrequent experience with homophobia, the reality for most LGBT people is that they are frequently exposed to such hostility. For example, since July, there have been over 2.5 million “tweets” on Twitter.com that included the pejorative word, “faggot.” (You can literally see that homophobic tweets posted every few seconds, thanks to the data collection of the No Homophobes project.)
Today, to constantly be barraged by homophobic messages, being discriminated against and denied equal treatment, and having your rights regularly debated and voted on is essentially “exhausting,” and literally wears on your mental and physical health. Not surprisingly, the experiencing acceptance, visibility, and equal treatment has a positive effect on the health and well-being of LGBT people. So, besides valuing diversity, equality, and acceptance as positive goals to strive for, it is clear that inequality, discrimination, and prejudice are literally public health problems.