July 14, 2017

Scholars have long argued that sexual minorities are at higher risk for lower mental health and well-being as a result of the social stigma they feel—and the lack of support they receive—from their communities and families. It’s called the social acceptance hypothesis: people need social and community support to help them feel accepted which in turn should help promote positive well-being. Researchers have argued that “minority stress” is behind health disparities, variations in mental health, and relational quality differences among sexual minorities. Battling discrimination and stigma, it is believed, compels higher rates of substance use as a way of coping. But such stress is often a “black box” in social science research—easy to suggest as an explanation but not so simple to document as a real direct effect. Associated with minority stress theory, the social acceptance hypothesis is often employed to justify policies and public awareness campaigns aimed at encouraging the acceptance of LGBQ individuals and families. On the flip side, the hypothesis advocates the labeling of those who remain cool toward sexual minorities and their relationships as homophobic or heterosexist. 

Much research on minority stress, however, concerns specific personal experiences with discrimination or internalized homophobia. In other words, the existing evidence supporting the social acceptance hypothesis is not really about acceptance at all but on discriminatory encounters or internal perceptions of non-acceptance. Moreover, a new study in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues by a research team from the University of Illinois and Harvard University not only casts some doubts on this hypothesis, the authors claim their findings “call into question the buffering effects of gay-identified support against normative, rather than minority, stress.” How so?    

The key research question in the new study was a simple one. When looking at the link between general life stressors and well-being—in this case economic well-being and life satisfaction—did community or family support and acceptance of LGBQ persons matter? The study confirmed some conventional wisdom and yielded some surprises. The authors confirmed that perceived economic stress (“do I think I have enough money?”) was a consistent predictor of diminished life satisfaction in the study’s sample of 458 LGBQ individuals from southern Illinois. But the researchers also found that perceived family support, general attachment to one’s community, and the supportiveness of the community toward LGBQ individuals were not associated with life satisfaction in any model. Social acceptance measures simply did not matter. Hence the simple acceptance of LGBQ persons is no guarantee of reducing strain and promoting well-being among them.

The findings verify what many observers, if not scholars, already discern about acceptance of personal beliefs and behaviors. Many Americans feel unsupported by some segment of the larger population due to their personal views and behaviors. For example, many religious individuals live their lives knowing that many, if not most, people do not accept their particular doctrines and ideologies. Our most recent presidential election season reinforced the reality of very polarized political perspectives, complete with no shortage of labeling. (Calling millions “deplorable” is hardly playing nice.) But does awareness of others’ disapproval diminish Americans’ life satisfaction, harm their mental health, and undermine their overall well-being? It seems more likely the case that most persons simply accept this lack of universal acceptance as a social fact. If this is the case, why should scholars expect a lack of acceptance to have such a profoundly unique and special effect on sexual minorities? This is not to diminish the very real persecution and intolerance that no shortage of sexual minorities experience. But this study’s findings suggest that scholars may be overestimating the detrimental influence of a general lack of acceptance, preferring to treat unease with LGBT culture as somehow more damaging than other forms of social disagreement.

To be sure, the authors don’t go so far as this. Despite locating no evidence that social support or acceptance were related to outcomes, the authors nevertheless note that one of their findings ironically linking higher income to lower life satisfaction may in fact be due to “participants…experiencing job instability related to workplace prejudice against LGBQ employees.” They cite the sample’s uniqueness and wonder how generalizable it is. (That is understandable.) And yet it’s hard to imagine that social acceptance of LGBT persons in downstate Illinois could be as high as in the nation’s metropolitan areas. In many ways it poses an ideal sample for studying social acceptance.

In the end, no one is asserting that a lack of social acceptance is a fine thing—just that it may not be a unique thing. And if it’s a normal social experience, the likelihood of its having uniquely detrimental outcomes among LGBT Americans seems less plausible.

About the Author

Brian J. Willoughby, Ph.D. is currently an associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Dr. Willoughby is considered an international expert in the field of couple and marital relationships, sexuality, and emerging adult development. His research generally focuses on how adolescents, young adults, and adults move toward and form long-term committed relationships.

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