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Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D.

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The Little Things: The Impact of Prejudice in the Everyday Lives of LGBT People

Posted: 10/11/11 11:53 AM ET

Imagine a different world, where homophobia, racism, and sexism do not exist. It's hard to imagine because so much of who we are is defined by these and other prejudices. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, like other minorities, need to learn to adjust to the world as it is; to not do so would make it impossible to function day-to-day. But as we've learned to adjust, we've also learned to ignore important aspects of living in a world where prejudice is a given. We talk a lot about the big issues -- marriage equality and anti-gay political referenda, anti-gay violence, and bullying of LGBT youth in schools -- but the issues that grab headlines are not the only ones that impact the majority of LGBT people.

In our own lives we are, of course, aware of gross injustices and events that have happened to us -- rejection by family or friends, a violent attack, or being fired from a job or not receiving a promotion because of homophobia -- but we take the little injustices for granted. Nevertheless, just like major traumas in life, little incidents and ongoing, chronic conditions can affect us very seriously, even insidiously. I have been studying the effects of homophobia on health for many years; in a recent study my colleagues and I have tried to understand everyday experiences of stigma and prejudice. These little things include something as mundane as filling out a form -- at a doctor's office, school or workplace -- on which you need to describe your relationship with your long-time partner; most often, no box on the form describes this relationship. Other seemingly small occurrences include being treated with disrespect, being called derogatory names, or just -- even when nothing happens -- the need to watch out for potential harm when walking down the street because you are walking with a same-sex partner and expressing affection (or just walking down the street on your own, especially if you transgress traditional gender presentation, whether you are identified as transgender or not). These little things define everyday life, and because they are everyday occurrences, they are difficult to notice because they hardly stand out.

National Coming Out Day presents a good opportunity to reflect on these aspects of LGBT lives. Upon further reflection we'll see that the little things are not so little.

Interestingly, such seemingly little things had a big presence in testimonies in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger trial. For example, Sandra Stier, one of the Perry plaintiffs, talked about filling out forms, at the couple's children's school or at a doctor's office: "Are you single or are you married ... ? But, you know, so I have to find myself, you know, scratching something out, putting a line through it and saying 'domestic partner' and making sure I explain to folks what that is to make sure that our transaction can go smoothly." This is such a familiar occurrence to LGBT people that it barely rises to the level of even mentioning it to anyone. As a psychologist, I was most struck by Sandra Stier's saying "so I have to find myself." Finding one's self -- whether on a form or otherwise -- is big. Now we are talking about who you are, how you define yourself and how others define you. And so the little administrative form becomes something more meaningful. It is meaningful in its silent message to the LGBT person: "You will not find yourself here; you are not part of who we are."

It is often easier to dissociate completely from the experience, dismissing it as "just a form." But if you were to reflect on what it means, you'd have to admit that it is quite offensive and alienating; it is a subtle but blunt reminder that your government and society do not recognize, never mind value, your family and you.

So what would your life be like without homophobia, racism or sexism? In a study whose results were just published in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy, I've asked LGB people just that. It took a second (a first reaction went something like, "Wow!"), but after settling in with the question, people talked about the many ways -- big and small -- that their lives were affected by prejudice. While desiring a life without homophobia, racism and sexism, many people paused, with some surprise, to note that in many ways, being a minority has defined them so thoroughly and positively that it is hard to imagine who one would be without it. They not only saw themselves as different because of their struggle with prejudice, but as better people for that, sometimes because coping with prejudice led to welcomed changes. For example, migration to more welcoming communities opened opportunities that may have not been available at home communities.

As one black lesbian explained, although her experiences of prejudice were "awful and depressing," her political awareness, confidence and other valued aspects of her personal development emerged in opposition to homophobia, racism and sexism. We celebrate these changes on National Coming Out Day.

But what about the more mundane effects of prejudice? People talked about the missed opportunities due to prejudice. Black and Latino LGB people talked about the impact of racism running through generations and affecting the quality of neighborhoods they grew up in and schools they attended. Many LGB people talked about having to leave the places where they were born or raised in search of more accepting communities. And although many felt that their lives had improved by migrating, there was also some nostalgia for the life they would have had, or could have had, without homophobia. Another issue that came up again and again was that a world without homophobia would be a world with less worrying. Personal safety was paramount. Many people talked about being able to express affection in public, such as kissing in public. In addition to safety from violence, many people talked about peace of mind.

What would your life be like without homophobia, racism and sexism?