Neurobiological Markers of Stress in LGB Young Adults during a Time of Progressive Political and Societal Change

HiResResearch has shown that despite progressive institutional laws that promote equal rights for all citizens, including the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples, the current cultural and political context for the development of sexual minority emerging adults remains variable and influenced by heterosexist popular opinion. Indeed, we recently published a study that tested the effects of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB)-related stress on depression symptomatology through cognitive and physiological processes.

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Our data showed that LGB young adults’ reports of LGB-related stress were linked to internalized homonegativity (i.e., devaluation of the self for being LGB), diurnal cortisol (an index of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functioning), and depression symptomatology. We also documented a novel finding: LGB-related stress predicted higher and less variable diurnal cortisol secretion (a cortisol secretion pattern previously linked to depression across various populations), which in turn, predicted greater levels of depression symptoms in a sample of Canadian LGB young adults.

This is the first empirical publication from a study that was conducted by Drs. Michael Benibgui and Paul D. Hastings (UC Davis) when Canada had just passed the Civil Marriage Act in 2005.

The earlier extension of marriage equality to same-sex couples is, of course, just one of many legal, political, and social differences between Canada and the other countries that also have extended marriage equality to all their citizens, which recently includes the U.S. Whether the same links between LGB-related stress, cortisol levels, internalized homonegativity, and depression symptomatology would be evident in LGB young adults living in the U.S. and other countries today is an open question. Nonetheless, we conclude that even in a time of progressive societal change, LGB young adults who experience the unique stressors of prejudice against their sexuality pay a high toll, evident in their neurobiology, self-regard, and mental health.

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Considering future directions for this line of work, these findings may offer an opportunity to expand current models of minority stress – which have been focused on heterosexual people of color – by including the unique aspects of discrimination experienced by sexual minority people of color. What are the implications of these legal and societal changes for the psychological well-being of the current cohort of multiple minority young adults? We hope that our future studies will address this question!

Read the study here.

Parra photoLuis Armando Parra is a third-year Human Development doctoral student in the Department of Human Ecology at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on the intersection of ethnic/racial and sexual minority identities. Specifically, he studies the effects of compounded ethnic/racial and sexual minority prejudice (i.e., stress) on physiological self-regulatory mechanisms , and in turn, their effects on psychosocial adjustment (e.g., depression). Mr. Parra seeks to identify resilience factors such as parent and peer social support and coping strategies to help ameliorate the adverse effects of prejudice in sexual minority people of color.