The benefits of being openly gay
by Jennifer Nault
“As a straight man, I am extremely stressed out,” Stephen Colbert confessed on the January 30th episode of the Colbert Report. Colbert, or rather, the ultraconservative TV host he portrays on his show, was feeling frazzled in the wake of new research findings published by a McGill doctoral candidate.
The researcher and his team may have been a little frazzled, too, when they began to unpack the unexpected implications of their findings.
Scientific research can produce surprising findings, but it isn’t every day that findings are in direct opposition to the expected results. That’s just what happened for McGill doctoral candidate in neuroscience Robert-Paul Juster, MSc’10, the lead author of a recently released study on the health benefits of coming out, conducted for the Centre for Studies on Human Stress.
Juster and his team piloted the study in fall 2010, evaluating whether lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals had higher levels of stress than heterosexuals, by measuring cortisol, a hormone in the body indicating stress, as well as other stress-associated biological markers and psychiatric symptoms.
The difference between previous studies on the subject and Juster’s is that his is the first to measure biological indicators, extending the research methodology beyond questionnaires and surveys.
At the onset, the researchers hypothesized that people within sexual minority groups would be more likely to suffer from stress and stress-related symptoms. Their expectations were based on existing research and previous surveys, which suggested that real and perceived social stigmatization was linked to increased stress levels among marginalized populations, as well as an increase in psychiatric symptoms, cortisol, and an overall surge in allostatic load (which measures “fight or flight” type responses, and several other markers, such as adrenaline levels and BMI score).
In their findings, Juster and his colleagues noted something important – sexual minorities who disclose their sexual orientation to friends and family enjoy better mental and physical health than counterparts who have yet to reveal their sexual orientation.
A more surprising finding: Gay and bisexual men who were open about their sexuality showed less evidence of depressive symptoms than their heterosexual counterparts.
When asked about whether these findings also apply to women, Juster says there was no significant difference among females, but is quick to elaborate, “this [lack of variation for the female population] may also illustrate that even within minorities you have disparities, and there may be other contributing factors going on here, such as being a minority within a minority.”
While the findings are intriguing, Juster is cautious. “We cannot draw global conclusions with this study, as the sample population was small – 87 subjects – and focused in on Montreal exclusively.” The location of the study might be an important factor. “Using Montreal changes the context; the city is incredibly liberal and progressive for gay equality – being one of the first to decriminalize homosexuality.” Juster speculates that findings would differ in more conservative areas.
The findings, published in late January in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine – shortly after U.S. president Barack Obama’s second inaugural address, in which he highlighted gay rights – have drawn much media attention, including the segment on the Colbert Report, which upends and satirizes the implications of the findings. Colbert jests, “Of course gays are less stressed; they don’t have to deal with women.” He also ridicules a much larger population segment– all Canadians – taunting, “the research took place in Canada, so we’re still waiting on a study involving human subjects.”
Immediately, the media buzz was deafening. Media outlets covering the story the day the finding were released, or just shortly after, include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Smithsonian magazine.
Juster hopes the takeaway message is one of, “hope for sexual minorities; the health benefits for coming out of the closet … and for people to see the significant connection between a more tolerant society, coming out, and improved mental health. It benefits everyone in society.”
Still adjusting to the huge uptake of his team’s findings, Juster hopes that people, “see the message of compassion. It’s not a matter of debate – the process of coming out is an individual decision, and it is sensitive and private for each and every person. There are human beings among us who are suffering because they are still not able to come out in our society; they are not able to self-actualize.”