Tackling Loneliness In The LGBTQ+ Community

Feelings of isolation in the LGBTQ+ community have existed arguably as long as heteronormative society. And though not all individuals in the community feel isolated or alone at this moment or every given moment, feeling lonely or like an outsider in society-at-large based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is likely. The question of loneliness and isolation has become an increasingly present one in the LGBTQ+ community, as statistics increasingly bring light to effects of loneliness on mental and physical health.

The rapid legislative and social changes in the Gay Rights Movement have helped to alter perspectives and move the community away from isolation, but not so quickly and smoothly that problems do not exist. Senior LGBTQ+ individuals in our community disproportionately face social isolation and are often left in a situation with limited access to health care, social networks and programs. A combination of compounding issues like reduced earnings, the potential for financial stability that comes with being at retirement age, racial and ethnic discrimination and less earnings over a lifetime as an LGBTQ+ community-member leave individuals at a specific disadvantage that we as a community must push to correct. Statistics show that queer persons frequently do not have spouses, children and religious associations as seniors, and as such are significantly more likely to be alone later in life. With marriage equality’s legal acceptance in 2015, opportunities in more conservative parts of the country inhibited the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, in many cases leaving them with few social and mental health support systems.


What are the Factors?

But why are isolation and loneliness such a commonly shared issue within the community? Dr. Michael Johnson writes, for the Lavender Health LGBTQ Resource Center, that youth (though his list certainly reaches beyond that demographic) face these types of isolation simultaneously:

  1. Social Isolation: This refers to LGBT youth who are not able to talk to anyone about his or her sexuality. Moreover, this concept is made up of four sub-dimensions, including lack of social support, no contact with LGBT community, social withdrawal, and victimization.

  2. Emotional Isolation: This refers to LGBT youth who feel separated (emotionally) from social networks, including the family. They are often guarded about their sexuality, which may heighten the feelings of emotional isolation.

  3. Cognitive Isolation: LGBT youth often do not have access to LGBT-specific information or LGBT role models. Much of the information they are exposed to is negative and harmful, and thus only reinforces the feeling of isolation.

  4. Concealment of Identity: Because of the pressures to be “normal”, LGBT youth will often try to conform to heteronormative expectations. Some LGBT youth are described as isolating themselves from other people who may outwardly appear LGBT to avoid being discovered.

  5. Recognition that Self is Different From Heteronormative Society: LGBT youth probably recognize that they are different than societal expectations as soon as they acknowledge their own sexual and/or gender identity. Knowing that oneself is “different” can be an extremely isolating feeling.


The Painful Consequences of Loneliness

Loneliness in the LGBTQ+ community is directly tied to a variety of interconnecting problems in health, homelessness and suicide risk. In his article “How To Tackle Loneliness If You’re LGBTQIA+” Tom Rasmussen notes that “Studies using adult samples indicate elevated rates of depression and mood disorders, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcohol use and abuse, and suicide ideation and attempts, as well as psychiatric co-morbidity.” With upwards of 40% of homeless youth being LGBTQ+ our community is still being disproportionately hurt by a lack of support and acceptance.

Discussion of suicide is increasingly present with the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. The LGBTQ+ community knows better than most the importance of working to combat suicide attempts, as gender minorities face some of the highest rates of suicide of any group. Studies on Adult Trans and Gender-Nonconforming individuals have shown not only that “Analysis of other demographic variables found prevalence of suicide attempts was highest among those who are:

  • younger 18 to 24 (45%)
  • multiracial (54%) 
  • American Indian or Alaska Native (56%)
  • Have lower levels of educational attainment (high school or less: 48-49%)
  • Have lower annual household income (less than $10,000: 54%)

"While suicide attempts among trans men (46%) and trans women (42%) were slightly higher than the full sample (41%).” These numbers are incredibly high, as the CDC notes from national statistics that attempted suicide rates include only “10.6% of females and 5.4% of males.” The loneliness, and violence against gender minorities is high, especially if familial systems of support are not available.


Tales of Isolation

The stories of individuals who faced different challenges from a variety of circumstances reiterate the importance of both understanding negative feelings and the loneliness that exists in our community in order to best combat it. Here are several highlighted stories from Out magazine, GQ and the Seattle Journal for Social Justice:

“Being a young queer minority is exhausting, especially in such a fraught political climate.  If you consider the cuts to healthcare, education, the arts, welfare and policies around immigration and Brexit, it’s easy to understand how young people, who’ve grown up under a Conservative government, can feel isolated.  Running parallel to that, I was thinking about how white gay men have advocated for very particular and selective rights on the behalf of the whole queer community. We’re now at a point where achieving basic rights has not equated to universal happiness. I feel as though we live in world where we feel connected to each other and that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. Then you realise that outside of your microcosm of society people have very different beliefs, this has of course been reflected in recent political changes.”

“The school where I teach has a partnership with an LGBT charity, so I've done work with kids and sexuality and equality. Some of the kids are like, ‘Why do we still need to do this?’ I suppose there's less stigma attached to being queer now, and more visibility. Those kids still have to work through the same issues, but there's more of a support network now, and more technology. When I was a teenager, the Internet was still in its very early stages. I'd go on gay chat rooms but that was just a faceless conversation with someone who could have been anyone. It didn't make me feel any better. I just didn't think there was anyone else out there who was like me. I think if I'd had friends who were gay when I was growing up, my life would have been so different. I wouldn't have wasted so many years living the way I did. I now know there were other kids at my school who were gay, but they didn't come out till much later. They must have felt incredibly alone, too.”

“Janelle left the comfort of her home to attend college. During her freshman year, Janelle experienced a lot of stress and anxiety and voluntarily checked herself into a mental health unit at a local hospital for assessment and counseling. Janelle’s parents came in from out of state to find out how she was doing and spoke to the hospital staff. During this discussion the hospital staff told them that during counseling, Janelle had come out as a lesbian. The parents asked the hospital to commit Janelle in order to confront her homosexuality. The hospital refused, noting that her anxiety could be treated in the community and that her identity as a lesbian was not a basis for psychological treatment. When Janelle was released from the hospital, she found out that her parents had removed all of her belongings from her dorm room, taken her car, and withdrawn her from college. Janelle spent her first night after discharge at a youth shelter.”


What We Can Do?

Knowing what to do, support and lobby as a community, can be difficult but organizations and professionals who specifically address community needs play essential roles in deconstructing systems of oppression formed by western culture. The aforementioned article published in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice,  "Homeless Queer Youth: National Perspectives on Research, Best Practices, and Evidence Based Interventions," notes the need for appropriately addressing the needs of vulnerable and isolated LGBTQ+ youth in need of support by some of these means:

  1. Street- and community-based outreach services to build trusting relationships and help youth navigate systems to receive resources and services
  2. Prevention services dedicated to stopping child abuse, preventing homelessness, and enhancing family preservation
  3. Crisis intervention and shelter geared toward family/kin counseling and reunification
  4. Housing models oriented toward positive youth development and mastery of life skills when family reunification is not possible

Similarly, in community situations it’s important that we advocate for inclusion, whether that be cooperative programming that brings together community members of different backgrounds and age groups, like SAGE UK’s buddy program which partners young and older members of the LGBTQ+ community with youth as a opportunity to bridge the generations and inspire a more social understanding of our community. Also, the enforcement of inclusive policies at retirement homes and the use or creation of community centers for LGBTQ+ individuals prevents individuals from be re-closeted and creates a friendly meeting place to encourage interactions, build confidence and to help move our community away from the pains of loneliness and isolation.

Written by Matthew Farrar

Sources (In Order of Appearance):

Adams, Michael (2017). “Disrupting Loneliness: It’s Not Just for the Holidays.” Advocate. https://www.advocate.com/commentary/2017/11/22/disrupting-loneliness-its-not-just-holidays

Durso, Laura E. et. al (2016). “Expanding Support Systems for Socially Isolated LGBT and American Indian Seniors.” Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/news/2016/09/01/143366/expanding-support-systems-for-socially-isolated-lgbt-and-american-indian-seniors/

Johnson, Michael (2014). “Isolation of LGBT Youth.” Lavender Health LGBTQ Resource Center. https://lavenderhealth.org/2014/02/04/isolation-of-lgbt-youth/

Rasmussen, Tom (2018). “How To Tackle Loneliness If You’re LGBTQIA+.” Refinery29. https://www.refinery29.uk/2018/02/190556/lgbt-loneliness-support

“Task force: Homelessness is a ‘critical issue for the LGBT community.’” National LGBTQ Task Force. http://www.thetaskforce.org/task-force-homelessness-is-a-critical-issue-for-the-lgbt-community/

Haas, A. P. et. al (2014). “Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/AFSP-Williams-Suicide-Report-Final.pdf

“Suicide: Facts at a Glance.” CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.pdf

Moran, Justin (2017). “Queer isolation: The draining disconnect between nightlife & everyday life.” Out. https://www.out.com/entertainment/2017/8/08/exploring-isolation-connectivity-queer-nightlife

Levine, Nick (2018). “How to cope when you're gay and lonely.” GQ. https://www.gq.com/story/how-to-cope-when-youre-gay-and-lonely

Hooks Wayman, Richard A. (2008) "Homeless queer youth: National perspectives on research, best practices, and evidence based interventions." Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 7: Iss. 2, pp. 587-634. Available at: http://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/sjsj/vol7/iss2/13

“Combating loneliness amongst older LGBT people: a case study of the Sage project in Leeds.” Age UK. https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/policy-research/loneliness-research-and-resources/combating-loneliness-amongst-older-lgbt-people-a-case-study-of-the-sage-project-in-leeds/