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Exclusion and the LGBT life course

By Phillip L. Hammack

Few scenes in one’s life evoke vivid imagery. A generation’s historical memory can be reduced to a single significant moment—think Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, 9/11. For gay and lesbian Californians of my generation, the State Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in favor of same-sex marriage seemed initially like it might just be such a moment. As a well-adjusted gay man, happily partnered for over a decade in a relationship legally recognized through the state’s domestic partnership system, I did not anticipate the wave of emotion I felt upon hearing the decision. I had grown accustomed to the “separate but equal”(ish) system the state had constructed for me. I lived happily in a predominantly gay enclave in San Francisco and had grown accustomed to, even embraced, separation from “mainstream” heterosexual culture. Like most gays and lesbians in my generation (born in the 1970s, coming out in the 1990s), I had successfully navigated the psychological challenges of social and political exclusion.

One of the great achievements of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement has been the creation of communities in which a young lesbian can feel a sense of inclusion and commonality. LGBT communities offer her a space in which no explanation, no defense, and no apology for her sexual orientation is needed. These communities represent vital adaptations to a social structure in which the experience of sexual minorities and their ability to participate in cultural institutions—free from stigma and discrimination—is constantly relegated to a question.

What would it mean to reimagine that young lesbian’s life course in the context of a new cultural and political reality—a life course not characterized by the navigation of stigma but of the possibility for unapologetic self-expression? While the US Supreme Court may not be as concerned with the psychology of social exclusion as it is with the technicalities of “standing,” this question ought to be at the forefront of our national conversation, if we care at all about today’s LGBT youth, and if we hope for them a life course of possibility rather than limitation.

Today’s LGBT youth are coming of age in a radically different cultural reality than previous generations. On the one hand, they have access to far greater resources and far greater access to one another. Many of today’s youth experience diversity in sexual orientation as the “new normal,” as psychologist Ritch C. Savin-Williams suggested in The New Gay Teenager (Harvard University Press, 2005). Sociological studies in high schools in both the United States by C.J. Pascoe (Dude, You’re a Fag, University of California Press, 2007) and the United Kingdom by Mark McCormack (The Declining Significance of Homophobia, Oxford University Press, 2012) support this idea.

But the storyline about today’s LGBT youth is not so straightforward. As the justices were quick to suggest this week, social change is not linear and immediate but in an active state of debate. A popular refrain of marriage equality opponents has been that more time is needed for cultural conversation before a ruling that might apply to the entire nation. How might that young lesbian experience this debate about her own life course possibilities?

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine issued a report indicating that LGBT persons continue to experience health and mental health disparities relative to their heterosexual peers. The report coincided with a major review paper in the Journal of Research on Adolescence by Elizabeth Saewyc revealing that the “new normal” for LGBT youth does not necessarily translate into the privilege of an adolescence unburdened by victimization or psychological distress. In short, LGBT youth experience both greater support than ever and continued psychological distress because of continued societal stigma. Narratives of struggle coexist with narratives of liberation from societal stigma in a rapidly changing cultural context for sexuality.

As a culture, we are at a crossroads. Do we maintain the rhetoric of stigma and its policy implications? Do we suggest to today’s LGBT youth that their pursuit of happiness in the love and satisfaction of an intimate relationship is culturally inferior to their heterosexual peers? Do we suggest to them that they are lesser, defective, abnormal? Or do we use this opportunity to apply the anchoring political ideals of our nation—ideals like individual liberty and equality before the law—to a group whose long history of demonization has been accompanied by significant psychological struggle?

Here politics and science converge for the great “experiment” to be concerned with is not the consequences of same-sex marriage for society, but rather the consequences of social exclusion for the health and well-being of sexual minority persons. To summarize the evidence from social science: stigma and subordination psychologically harm LGBT people. Same-sex relationships provide meaning and happiness and are comparable to opposite-sex relationships. Many same-sex relationships actually show more equality in matters such as domestic labor and communication than opposite-sex relationships. The children of same-sex headed households fare just as well as those of opposite-sex ones. When the rights of sexual minority people are subject to a vote by the majority, they experience greater psychological distress as surveys conducted during anti-gay marriage amendment votes have illustrated. That young lesbian listening to the marriage equality debate has a psychological response to what it means for her life.

In short, the evidence to weigh is not whether marriage equality will somehow erode society as we know it but rather how marriage inequality interferes with the fundamental rights enshrined in our national narrative of political liberty and equality, subordinating an entire class of citizens and thwarting the possibilities of a life course free from stigma and psychological distress. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not abstract concepts; they are lived psychological experiences—lived by LGBT people in spite of a social structure that conspires against them.

While I would never wish a different life course upon myself—my struggles define my identity—I would welcome a world in which young LGBT persons do not have to navigate the psychology of social and political exclusion. And I and other social scientists would welcome a world in which our political ideals are embodied in our concern for the psychological welfare of our nation’s LGBT citizens.

Phillip L. Hammack is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is co-editor of The Story of Sexual Identity: Narrative Perspectives on the Gay and Lesbian Life Course (Oxford University Press, 2009) and co-editor of Oxford’s Series on Sexuality, Identity, & Society.

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Recent Comments

  1. Tim Barrus

    This is good, solid writing. Defining identity is paramount. I work with at-risk kids. It takes an enormous effort to support them so they can do this, but they do do this. It might take them longer to understand who they are. But they can arrive at that place where they ironically find themselves helping the kids coming up, coming out, and coming to terms with what the future has in store for all of them.

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