The third and final article in a three part series in which articles explore the original concepts and uses of the minority stress model in the LGBTQ+ community, its broadening applications for other social minorities, and its future directions.
By Elli Fowler • 4th July 2022
Photo by Alessandro Biascioli
Mental Health Research Analyst
A three part series in which articles explore the original concepts and uses of the minority stress model in the LGBTQ+ community, its broadening applications for other social minorities, and its future directions, including its incorporation of intersectionality theory for the representation of multi minority identities.
Articles 1 and 2 in this series explored the development of the minority stress framework, and the broadening of its applications to encompass other social minorities including EU migrants and the neurodivergent community. I ended the last article with a comment regarding the fact that no minority identity exists in isolation, and this is for two key reasons. Firstly, there will be individuals, and in fact whole communities, who within their own identities will hold multiple minority identities. For example, a person may be non-binary and Asian-American, or autistic and gay, thus meaning they belong to more than one minority group. The second key point with regards this fact is that systems of oppression do not exist in isolation, they all connect. There are intrinsic ties that exist within large networks of oppression, and thus we cannot consider minority identities as if they exist in a vacuum. If all oppression is linked, then all minority identities are too. This article will therefore focus on how, in research, we can best understand and represent the stress of multi-marginalised people
Historically, studies based on the minority stress framework have focused on single marginalised groups (such as sexual minorities or racial minorities) and the systems of oppression that generate their stress. Multi-marginalised identities present extra complexity to this framework, and a number of approaches have been developed to account for the stress that these communities and people experience. The two most common approaches of this type are the additive approach and the multiplicative approach, both of which possess their benefits but remain inherently flawed. The additive approach assumes that as each extra marginalised identity is added, the stress associated with each minority identity adds in a binary manner (Parra & Hastings, 2018). So for a black gay man, the stress he experiences would be the stress of being a racial minority plus the stress of being a sexual minority. What this approach completely fails to acknowledge is by the logic that all oppression is linked, multiple marginalised identities within a single individual will interact, rather than simply stacking. Whilst the multiplicative approach does recognise that there are statistical interactions between multiple minority identities, it continues to perceive the identities themselves as binary and existing within isolation (Parra & Hastings, 2018). Fundamentally these approaches fail to recognise the nuanced, complex interactions that exist between the multiple marginalised identities that can exist within a single individual's lived experiences.
It is therefore crucial that we consider the intersections that exist between the multiple minority identities that can be held by a single individual, and for this we must turn to the theory of intersectionality. To quote its creator, Crenshaw, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.”. Conceptualised to explain the dual plights of black women as both racial minorities and women, intersectionality fundamentally serves to represent the fact that minority identities and the systems of oppression that repress them do not exist in isolation, but rather they interlink and intersect on a wide range of planes beyond the geometric. Already widely utilised within the study of feminism, intersectionality can better allow us to understand how minority stress is influenced by its interaction with other types of minority stress and other life experiences related to being a minority.
In order to demonstrate how intersectionality theory aids our understanding of minority stress, I will first circle back to the previous discussion regarding the mental health of LGBTQ+ refugees living in Germany (Golembe et al, 2021). As established, this particular group experiences high levels of psychological distress that seem to outstrip that of either individual demographic. If considered from an additive perspective, it would be assumed that the pressures of being a refugee, such as finding housing and employment combine with the stresses of being a sexual or gender minority, such as experiencing both personal and institutional homophobia, however there is more to it than that. There are unique stressors associated directly with the fact that these individuals are LGBTQ+ and refugees, something that leaves them vulnerable to interacting stressors. In this case, individuals may feel excluded from migrant ethnic groups due to their sexuality, but also from LGBTQ+ groups within their host country due to their ethnicity. As a result, it is a common occurrence that for many, they attempt to adhere to Westernised stereotypes of being LGBTQ+ in a bid to gain acceptance from at least one of their minority groups. However, this is not necessarily straight forward, as a separate study found that gay migrant men concealed their identity post migration in order to avoid violence comitted by other refugees (Golembe et al, 2021). Being caught at this intersection, feeling as though one must move to one extreme and abandon or conceal their other minority identity in order to protect their safety is a unique and incredibly stressful experience for those who possess a multi minority identity.
What this approach completely fails to acknowledge is by the logic that all oppression is linked, multiple marginalised identities within a single individual will interact, rather than simply stacking.
Such intersections occur across global demographics, and are highly contextual, meaning their impacts on any given individual will vary significantly. It should also not be assumed that, as previously mentioned, minority stressors are universal, and that belonging to a minority group automatically confers negative impacts. One study explored this in the LGBTQ+ Latinx community, a demographic that have generally been found to have lower levels of psychological well being, internalised heterosexism and racism, increased rates of depression and overall experience higher levels of stress (Parra & Hastings, 2018). One proposed explanation for this is that LGBTQ+ Latinx people, like LGBTQ+ refugees, become trapped at a conflicting intersection between their sexuality and the cultural norms of their ethnic group. They may experience invalidation, stigmatisation and rejection of their sexual orientation within the Latinx community, whilst simultaneously experiencing racial microaggressions within the white LGBTQ+ community. This conflict of identity can cause significant harm to wellbeing for some, as strong connection to one identity can increase vulnerability with regard to their other identities. However, on the contrary, strong affiliation with a group can act as a social anchor and act to buffer against discrimination. Therefore, the experience of identity conflict, whilst present, is not universal, but nevertheless it is crucial that the intersection between being an ethnic and sexual minority is considered, as it can be a very powerful force, both negatively and positively for the individual in question.
The examples discussed thus far have explored how two somewhat culturally conflicting identities can generate stress. However, intersectionality theory allows for the encompassing of a) many more than two minority identities and b) the studying of how minority identities interact with other social factors that aren't necessarily minority specific. Though there has been limited research on the former, the latter of these two have been explored. The first example of this explores how socioeconomic status serves as a moderator in the association between being a sexual minority POC and minority stress (Shangani et al, 2019). The preliminary results were much as expected, namely that African American, Asian American and Latinx sexual minority adults experience more minority stress than white sexual minority adults. However, it was also found that this relationship was moderated by socioeconomic status, with high socioeconomic status sexual minority POC experiencing less minority stress than those with low socioeconomic status. Though being of low socioeconomic status does not constitute being a social minority, the incorporation of intersectionality into studies of this nature allows us to conceptualise how being a minority interacts with other social constructs.
Another example of this is how we can incorporate social factors such as misogyny into discussions regarding minority stress. Again, to clarify, this is not to state that being a woman automatically equals being a minority, but under a patriarchal society, women remain oppressed, and thus it is crucial to observe how this oppression interacts with the oppression faced by minority groups. One such study encompasses an exploration of the experiences of street harassment of veiled (wearing the niqab) muslim women living in the UK (Mason-Bish & Zempi, 2018). In a post-Brexit social climate, veiled muslim women are facing increaed attacks. Research generally finds that muslim women are more likely to be attacked than muslim men and the abuse they receive contains both misogynistic and islamaphobic intent. Whilst not all muslims wear the niqab or any form of religious dress, for those who do, it unfortunately makes them incredibly visible for anyone who may want to target them, something that is common due to their portrayal as an inherent threat to the Western lifestyle, which has resulted in the niqab being banned in a number of European countries including Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. Such legislation, and fear of attack, mean that many of the women interviewed in this study stated that they preferred to stay at home and out of sight, which had had a profound impact on their mental wellbeing (Mason-Bish & Zempi, 2018). Veiled muslim women occupy a unique intersectional position as women, visible muslims and in many cases, ethnic or racial minorities. This does not mean that street harassment holds different meaning for them, but rather they will have some shared experiences with women, some shared experiences with other cultural minorities, but crucially, some unique experiences all of their own. Without looking at all of these elements, including the unique stressors that arise directly from the intersection of minority identities, we cannot truly understand minority stress.
It is therefore clear that the incorporation of intersectionality theory into the minority stress framework is not only powerful, but increasingly necessary as the applications of the minority stress model continue to broaden. That said, it is not something that can be automatically incorporated into existing research methods and conceptual frameworks. Fundamentally the methods used within quantitative research, as is common in psychology, fall short of truly representing the complexity of marginalised identities. Quantitative approaches look for fixed variables, whereas identities are far more complex than this approach could ever allow. This occurs alongside systemic problems within psychological research, such as the fact that the gender binary remains deeply ingrained, and individuals remain compartmentalised into categories which simply do not capture the complexity and the nuance of intersectional identity (Williams et al, 2020). There will therefore be a number of challenges of incorporating intersectionality within traditional quantitative research, but I am personally of the belief that it is whole heartedly worth it. When considering the plights of minorities around the world, in some cases it is a matter of life or death, so the ability to understand even a little better in how to aid their wellbeing is priceless.
The core principle of these two theories, a foundation in which they share, is the importance of looking beyond the binary, of seeing in more colours that simply black and white.
As individual theories, both minority stress and intersectionality have revolutionised the way we understand the lived experiences of those who are oppressed. They allow us to understand how much of an impact the social identity of an individual has on their life experiences and wellbeing, whilst recognising the power and positivity that can also come from possessing a strong affiliation with one’s own minority groups. When we combine these two theories, we develop a powerful model for understanding how the intersection between minority identities, both within populations and single individuals, itself generates unique stressors, accompanied by the stressors of the minority identities themselves. Without recognising this, we cannot truly understand the mechanisms of minority stress, nor can we effectively develop interventions for those who want or need them.
The core principle of these two theories, a foundation in which they share, is the importance of looking beyond the binary, of seeing in more colours than simply black and white. Oppression is not a coin: too often we consider it as the oppressors on the one hand and the oppressed on the other, but there are more than two sides. Those who are oppressed can also benefit from other systems of oppression. There are people who will be oppressed by multiple systems, and those who will be oppressed by none. In order to understand and aid those who are most impacted by systemic oppression and the stress that it generates, we must accept the complexity, diversity and nuance of human existence, something that combining the Minority Stress framework and the theory of intersectionality allows us to do to at least an extent.
To find out more about minority stress, and resources to help manage and cope with its impact on mental wellbeing, please visit Helsa’s website.