Discrimination, mental health and values
By Steven R. Lawyer
The discussion of Pocatello’s consideration of a city ordinance that would add sexual minority status to the list of groups (such as ethnicity and religion) that cannot be discriminated against in the context of housing and employment has generated two fundamental positions. On the one hand, there are those who argue that such an ordinance adds a needed layer of protection to those in our community who are vulnerable to discrimination. On the other hand, there are those who argue that city ordinances that ban discrimination against sexual minorities are wasteful and unnecessary.
Folks in the latter camp make various points, such as the paradoxical perspective that promoting such anti-discrimination ordinances actually show how INTOLERANT a city is. (By extension, then, I suppose we should remove stop signs and speed limit signs, since all they do is highlight how bad Pocatellans drive!) One writer argues that work-related discrimination against sexual minorities probably doesn’t happen very often because employers “will hire just about anyone who will work hard…” but when it does, those few individuals who discriminate will just “get to live with their sorry selves.” What a slap in the face to those who have experienced discrimination in their lives! In a similar vein, some argue that an ordinance protecting sexual minorities is as silly as one protecting “redheads,” making it clear that many believe that there is no problem and such an ordinance is completely unnecessary. These positions can be summarized as follows: “As a heterosexual, I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced discrimination due to my sexuality, therefore discrimination due to one’s sexuality must not be a problem.”
However, discrimination against sexual minorities in our country, state, and city is very real and very prevalent and it has significant consequences. Since 1974, the American Psychological Association has opposed discrimination of any kind against sexual minorities, noting that homosexuality is not in any way a disorder. Since then, numerous research studies have made it clear that one’s sexuality is no more a choice than is one’s sex or race. Regardless, in 2011, the FBI listed hate crimes due to sexual orientation bias as the second most common form of hate crime (behind racial bias). But being a victim of a hate crime is not the only source of stress among sexual minorities. Pervasive social stigmatization across nearly every aspect of their lives creates an enormous amount of stress that most of us can scarcely appreciate. As a clinical psychologist, I have seen the mental health consequences of the very real discrimination that sexual minorities face and living day-to-day with the worry that their lives may be torn asunder if their sexuality is revealed to a hostile world, if they will lose their jobs, if they will be targeted publicly, or if their housing situation is threatened.
These anecdotes are supported by research as well. Compared with heterosexuals, sexual minorities suffer from higher rates of mental health disorders, such as substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, and suicide. These issues are not due to sexuality, but to the social stigma that leads to alienation and a lack of integration with the community. Such stress stems not only from chronic or acute discrimination events, but also to heightened expectations and worry about when the next instance of discrimination (or worse) will occur. Living in a culture where you are treated as a second-class citizen can also lead one to come to believe that one IS a second-class citizen. Other research makes it clear that the mere necessity of having to hide one’s sexual orientation from the world around you generates stress that leads to negative psychological (such as elevated stress and anxiety) and physical (such as medical illness) outcomes. Discrimination due to sexual orientation is real and it is common. In fact, this discrimination and resulting stress is very similar to that experienced by other minority groups, such as racial minorities. It has also caused harm to our fellow Pocatellans, Idahoans, and Americans that should not be tolerated in our society.
Most objections to anti-discrimination policies have little to do with philosophical concerns about governmental overreach. These positions are guided by a profound personal discomfort with sexual minorities and a desire to maintain a social and legal system that stigmatizes and marginalizes them. We have seen this before—recall how women and racial minorities were legally marginalized in the not-so-distant past. They fear that such an ordinance might provide a level of social and legal legitimacy to a group of people that they prefer stay in the shadows of social relevancy.
But the legitimacy of a minority group has nothing to do with our personal discomfort with them. It is tied to our society’s values—conservative and progressive—that support an individual’s right to pursue happiness and the American dream without artificial constraints. A city ordinance banning discrimination doesn’t show how intolerant we are as a community; it is a public display of our values of equality and aspirations in the face our very human tendency to treat those who are not like us differently. We create laws and ordinances in an effort to nudge our behaviors to be in line with the values that we hold dear as a society, in spite of individual personal discomforts. No anti-discrimination ordinance will completely eliminate discrimination, nor impair an employer’s ability to effectively manage a workforce. What it does do is allow our small community to stand together and take a stand against hurtful and un-American discrimination against fellow Pocatellans that brings harm to them and reflects poorly on the rest of us.
Like it or not, the world is changing. As our society continues toward greater acceptance of sexual minorities, we will look back on these debates and discussions with the same perspective we do now regarding civil rights fights of women and racial minorities. Regardless of one’s personal feelings, how can we allow unnecessary harm to befall our fellow citizens while just looking away and pretending nothing is wrong? That might be part of our humanity, but it certainly is not part of our community values. I hope that Pocatellans will urge our City Council to join Boise, Sandpoint, and Ketchum by passing the ordinance banning housing and workplace discrimination against sexual minorities.
Steven R. Lawyer, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and an associate professor in the Idaho State University Department of Psychology.