Jun 262017
 

All lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB)* people are not the same. I’ve long been an advocate that it’s not “the LGB community”, it’s “the LGB communities“. Even within just the lesbian “community”, there are subgroups. Everyone has different experiences, needs, and expectations. There is no one universal experience, and no monolithic community.

The easiest example is gender nonconformity. Within lesbian and female bisexual communities, for example, there are women who dress and act more masculine (“butch”) and women who dress and act more feminine (“femme”). The same is true for gay and male bisexual communities. Another example is “coming out”. While it’s a common experience, it’s not universal. I myself never had to “come out” to my family because my family was very accepting.. Bisexual people who date/marry opposite sex partners may also not choose to come out.

Despite differences, we know that there are some generalities about LGB communities. We know that LGB people, as a whole, have higher rates of depression than their straight peers. But we also know that not all LGB people have depression. Could gender nonconformity be the key?

Portrait of a boy, c. 1800. A boy who looked like this might well end up with depression after being teased and bullied.

Portrait of a boy, c. 1800. A boy who looked like this might well end up with depression after being teased and bullied.

Today’s study looked at depression, gender nonconformity, and LGB status among young adults in the United States. They used data from the Add Health study. Add Health was a study that started in schools and continued through until the participants were up to 32. The participants in today’s study were age 18-32. 86.7-93.1% of the sample (women-men range) were heterosexual. The rest were mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly lesbian/gay, or lesbian/gay. Depression was measured with a validated scale. Sexual orientation was rated on a Kinsey-type scale. And gender non-conformity was measured with a scale of activities, including team sports, religious activities, video game use, housework, and social activities.

What were the results?

At first, it looked like all the non-heterosexual participants were at higher risk for depression. Bisexuals had more depressive symptoms than lesbian and gay participants. However once they controlled for gender nonconformity, lesbians and gay men did not have more depression symptoms than heterosexuals. Bisexual participants continued to have higher rates of depression and controlling for gender nonconformity.

Who tended to be gender nonconforming? Young men were more nonconforming than young women. Lesbians and gay men were more nonconforming than all the bisexuals (including mostly straight and mostly gay), who were about as nonconforming as straight participants.

And the depression? Young women were more depressed than men. Black, Latino, and Asian participants were also more likely to have it. The same was true for those with low parental education levels and families with financial problems. Participants who were gender nonconforming reported more symptoms of depression than those who were conforming.

Lastly, the researchers looked at whether that depression held over time. Gender nonconformity did not predict depression in the future. Bisexuals, lesbian, and gay young adults were also not at risk for future depression; only depression in the moment. However individuals who identified as mostly heterosexual continued to have higher rates of symptoms. Individuals who are Black, Asian, female, had low parental education levels, or severe family financial problems, continued to have depression symptoms.

What does this really mean?

LGB young adults as a whole continue to be at higher risk for depression. However, that risk appears to mostly be an effect of gender nonconformity as a young adult. Those who are gender nonconforming as young adults are at higher risk for depression as young adults, but six years later that risk goes away. Why? Gender nonconformity is visible, and likely to result in the individual being a target for discrimination, which can result in depression. But then why doesn’t it continue six years later? Either the discrimination reduces (teenagers can be notoriously mean to each other), or the individuals develop coping skills or move into a more accepting community.

Additionally, bisexuals and mostly heterosexuals are at higher risk for depression than lesbians and gay men. Why? Well, it might be because they can “hide” and look heterosexual. That means they don’t need to “come out”. But it also means there’s less acceptance and acknowledgement of their orientation. That could have big effects.

What do we do with this information?

First, we can keep an eye out for the gender nonconforming young adults in our communities, whether they’re straight, bisexual, gay, or somewhere in between. We can support them when they need it. And second, we can create a more accepting environment. The less discrimination and the more acceptance of gender nonconformity, the less depression we are likely to see. We can make the world a positive place to be for everyone.

Want to read the abstract for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

*: Please note that although today’s article does not use the word “cis” throughout despite the implication. The study in question examined cis individuals. However in my language, I use “men/male” and “women/female” to refer to gender identity, not biologic sex. So the general statements I make are intended to be inclusive of both cis and trans individuals, who can be lesbian/gay, bisexual, or straight.