Why are LGBTQ people more likely to be lonelier than heterosexuals peers?  This blog by Eddy Elmer, MA; PhD Student, Dept. of Sociology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam outlines the findings of a new large-scale study which he co-authored with Theo Van Tilburg and Tineke Fokkema. Read the full paper:  Minority Stress and Loneliness in a Global Sample of Sexual Minority Adults: The Roles of Social Anxiety, Social Inhibition, and Community Involvement

Marginalization and loneliness among sexual minorities: How are they linked?

LGBTQ people are more likely to experience loneliness compared to their heterosexual peers, as shown in studies from Canada, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, and Australia. Some of the reasons for this disparity are demographic: sexual minorities are more likely to be single, childless, living alone, in less frequent contact with families of origin, and generally at greater risk for social isolation.

Another reason for the disparity is minority stress: the negative impact of living with a stigmatized identity. Despite advances in human rights for LGBTQ people, societal disapproval and stigma remain prevalent. This contributes to various forms of marginalization, including harassment, bullying, discrimination, microaggressions, and family rejection. These negative experiences can subsequently contribute to proximal minority stress, which are psychological reactions like self-stigma, rejection sensitivity, and concealment of sexual orientation, all of which can interfere with the formation and maintenance of stable, satisfying relationships.

Links between marginalization and loneliness had been explored in some earlier studies, but it wasn’t until a 2017 article in The Huffington Post that the topic received widespread public attention. Recently, in a large-scale study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, we tested a comprehensive model linking marginalization to loneliness, with special attention to psychological factors that underlie this relationship.

Results of our global study on LGBTQ loneliness

With the help of social media, we surveyed nearly 8,000 LGBTQ people aged 18-88 from 85 countries. We found that marginalization is, indeed, associated with loneliness. We also found that part of this association appears to be explained by proximal minority stress (especially worry about negative judgment of one’s sexual orientation) and, in turn, social anxiety and inhibition. Social anxiety is particularly prevalent among sexual minorities and is a known risk factor for loneliness.

While this may sound depressing, we found a silver lining. Social involvement with the LGBTQ community was associated with lower levels of self-stigma, concealment, worries about negative judgment, and loneliness. Moreover, for those higher in community involvement, several of the associations in our model were somewhat weaker, suggesting that community involvement can help to mitigate some of the negative impact of marginalization.

Significance of findings

Our results are important for a few reasons. We have evidence that marginalization continues to have a negative impact on the well-being of sexual minorities, years after the birth of the gay rights movement around the world. In addition, while most research on LGBTQ mental health has focused on depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide, we have now extended it to loneliness, which is a well-known risk factor for mental and physical health problems and early mortality. We also found that our model of loneliness appears to be universal: minority stress uniquely contributes to loneliness, independent of one’s location in the world. This is important because many studies on minority stress have been based on samples from specific countries.

From a practical perspective, these results underscore the continuing need to reduce stigma and marginalization. They also suggest possible avenues for reducing loneliness at the individual level, such as psychological interventions for minority stress (e.g., self-stigma and worries about negative judgment) as well as social anxiety and inhibition more generally.

At the same time, the associations in our study are likely bidirectional. Indeed, a great deal of research suggests that loneliness itself may contribute to negative perceptions of oneself and other people, aversive social behaviour, social anxiety, and isolation. All of these factors might exacerbate self-stigma, fear of judgment and rejection based on sexual orientation, concealment, and perceptions of marginalization in vague and ambiguous social situations. The result is a self-perpetuating cycle of loneliness that can be difficult to escape. Fortunately, various psychological interventions—specific to both loneliness and minority stress—can be used to interrupt different parts of this cycle.

Being involved in the LGBTQ community may also be helpful, although we recognize the existence of minority stress within the community, which might contribute to social anxiety and loneliness. The challenge is finding supportive, satisfying relationships within the community while also working to reduce stigma, which might be one of the causes of these “intraminority” stress factors.

Future directions

Now that we have established baseline evidence for our loneliness model, we hope to dig deeper and see how the results look for different age groups. Given their long history of stigmatization, perhaps older LGBTQ adults are more negatively impacted by marginalization and thus at greater risk for loneliness. Or perhaps these negative experiences have enhanced their coping skills, helping to reduce the impact of marginalization on feelings of social connection. The rich global dataset we’ve amassed will help us answer these and other questions.

Eddy Elmer is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Find him on Twitter @Eddy_Elmer. Theo van Tilburg is Professor of Sociology and Social Gerontology at Vrije Universieit Amsterdam. Tineke Fokkema is a Senior Researcher at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI-KNAW), in the Families & Generations group, and endowed Professor of Ageing, Families and Migration at Erasmus University Rotterdam.