LGBTQ Postelection Research

Postelection Distress and Resiliency in LGBTQ Communities

An overview of real data, not alternative facts.
By Jameson K. Hirsch, Andrea Kaniuka, BA, Byron Brooks, MA, Kittye K. Hirsch, MA, Tracy J. Cohn, PhD, and Stacey L. Williams, PhD

As with every U.S. election cycle, the early 2016 election season was a roller-coaster experience, with positive and negative campaign messages emerging from both parties, and with high hopes and dashed hopes for both Democratic and Republican candidates. However, as Donald J. Trump emerged as the Republican candidate to challenge Democrat Hillary R. Clinton for the Office of President, the United States appeared to be equally bemused, horrified and confident in a Democratic victory — after all, how could someone so unorthodox as Donald Trump become the next president? His divisive campaign had become predictive, for many voters, of a clear victory for Clinton. However, those within vulnerable groups, including women, immigrants and the LGBTQ communities, along with many allies, noted the growing normalization of his micro- and macro-aggressions by the mainstream media, and the societal legitimization of his campaign.

As voting day neared, the concern for jeopardy to civil rights was trumped (yes, intended) by media coverage of Russian interference and illegal use of email servers. Trump ultimately won, giving him the ability to select a Supreme Court justice and attorney general, to choose a vice president with a historic anti-LGBTQ stance and, with his inheritance of a Republican-controlled Congress, to make good on his threats of revocation of immigration, healthcare and abortion rights, all of which contributed to an acute feeling of unease in marginalized communities.

Upon confirmation of Trump's victory, much of our nation and, indeed, the world, expressed both condemnation over his win and fear for the rights, livelihoods, and even lives of marginalized groups in the United States. For LGBTQ communities, who already experience significant health disparities (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al., 2014; Operario et al., 2015) , the risk of losing specific health gains (e.g., funding for sexual and minority health research; HIV and hormonal treatments) made over the past decade are troubling. Sociopolitical gains, such as marriage equality, military rights for LGBTQ persons, and status as a protected class, are also at potential risk for dismantling (Byne, 2017) ; indeed, federal guidelines regarding student access to gender-appropriate restrooms have already been removed. Such threats, whether enacted or not, are anecdotally contributing to feelings of distress among LGBTQ communities, with consequent potential effects on health (Frost & Fingerhut, 2016; Hatzenbuehler et al., 2014).

Our research group, the Laboratory for Resilience in Psychological and Physical Health, collected election-related data and qualitative responses from a national LGBTQ sample, as part of a larger study focused on the role of protective factors in mental and physical health. Launching soon after Donald Trump was elected president, our survey queried concerns about changes to legal rights, fear of discrimination, identification with the LGBTQ community, and plans for advocacy. We also collected qualitative data focused on current concerns and on what a Trump presidency might mean for the future. Our national sample ( n =496) was mostly white, with a mean age of 35.18 ( SD= 16.31), ranging from 18 to 76 years of age, and was recruited nationally via support organizations and social media. Broadly, our respondents were able to self-identify as male ( n =135; 30.1 percent), female ( n =201; 44.8 percent), transgender male ( n =21; 4.7 percent), transgender female ( n =14; 3.1 percent), genderqueer ( n= 21; 4.7 percent), genderfluid ( n =8; 1.8 percent), non-binary ( n =17; 3.8 percent), agender ( n =6; 1.3 percent), two-spirit ( n =5; 1.1 percent), intersex ( n =2, .4 percent), and other ( n =18; 4.0 percent). Respondents were also able to self-identify sexual orientation: lesbian/gay ( n =209; 47 percent), heterosexual/straight ( n =28; 6 percent), bisexual ( n =82; 18 percent), pansexual ( n =37; 8 percent), asexual ( n =11; 3 percent), and queer ( n =62; 14 percent).

Of the 314 respondents who answered our question, “After the election, I am more concerned or worried about my rights based upon my sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” 92 percent reported that “yes,” they were more concerned or worried. In a similar Likert-scale question, 247 (72 percent) respondents noted that they were “very” or “extremely” worried or concerned that their rights would be “infringed upon, restricted or taken away.” With regard to specific rights, 69 percent ( n= 237) of our LGBTQ sample reported concerns about their right to marry a same-sex partner, and 84 percent ( n =290) expressed concern about ability to adopt a child. Of note, 88 percent ( n =302) of respondents reported fear of discrimination from businesses providing services, and 89 percent reported fear of work-related policy-level discrimination ( n =301). Such anticipation of discrimination can be just as detrimental to physical and mental health outcomes as the actual experience of discrimination (Sawyer, Major, Casad, Townsend, & Mendes, 2012).

Fear of harassment and discrimination was also evident in questions about specific social situations and relationships. For instance, on a scale of 1 (“not likely”) to 6 (“very likely”), 57 percent ( n =194) of LGBTQ respondents reported moderate to strong fear of discrimination from strangers (a score of 4, 5 or 6); 56 percent ( n =189) feared being verbally insulted; and 39 percent ( n =131) feared physical violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and as a result of the election. We also solicited open-ended responses about potential rights violations with “Donald Trump as president,” including “thoughts and feelings at this time, and for the future.” In a simple word-count text analysis, the most common words were “concerned” (33 percent of responses), “community” (22 percent), “worried” (17 percent), “Pence” (14 percent) and “Trump” (11 percent) and “fear” (12 percent).

However, given that our larger study was an investigation of strengths and coping, we can also offer some resiliency-based results to balance these minority-stress results. Importantly, 72 percent ( n =243) reported low anticipated likelihood of being rejected by friends and family, 76 percent ( n =251) reported low anticipation of rejection from their actual employers, supervisors and instructors, and 71 percent ( n =239) reported low anticipation of being rejected by coworkers or fellow students (63 percent; n =60), as a result of the election and because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. On a scale from 1 (weakened) to 5 (strengthened), 34 percent ( n =117) reported that their identification with their LGBTQ community had strengthened (a score of 4 or 5), and 49 percent ( n =168) noted strengthened connectedness to their LGBTQ community, as a result of the election.

We also examined differences in these responses, with t-tests, across concealment groups (low concealment = score of 3 or less on single-item concealment question [n=234], and high concealment = 4 or greater [n=87]), with no significant differences found, suggesting this is not simply a benefit for persons who are more “out” as opposed to “in the closet.” Of note, in past research, low levels of rejection and strong connectedness to the LGBTQ community are associated with positive health outcomes (Fredriksen-Goldsen et al., 2013; Fredriksen-Goldsen, Kim, Shiu, Goldsen, & Emlet, 2015) . Regarding advocacy, 96 percent ( n =323) of respondents reported that it was important to work toward equality for all persons (a score of 4, 5 or 6 on a scale ranging from 1 [“not true”] to 6 [“very true”]), 89 percent ( n =304) reported that their sexual orientation and/or gender identity prompt them to speak out against prejudice and discrimination, and 82 percent ( n =275) reported that their sexual orientation and/or gender identity inspire them to reach their full potential in life.

Overall, our findings suggest that there is a high degree of concern, and a loss of optimism, among our LGBTQ respondents regarding the future of their rights, as well as fear of the potential for discrimination from businesses and in the workplace, and discrimination from the general public, including verbal and physical violence. Yet, on the other hand, most respondents reported feeling a strengthened sense of closeness and identity with their LGBTQ communities, and seemed to be comfortable in their relationships with friends and family, and even with employers and coworkers. These may represent somewhat safe havens, where people know and respect them as persons, rather than as a homogenous minority group.

Finally, our respondents overwhelmingly noted a sense of pride in their LGBTQ identity, indicating that this identity will help to generate and sustain efforts toward social justice for all persons, including by speaking out against prejudice and discrimination. What will be critical for minority-stress and structural-stigma researchers going forward, is to better understand this potential interpersonal and intrapersonal protective effect; can psychosocial resiliency factors exert a protective effect despite increases in minority stress and deleterious changes in structural stigma?

As the old saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and our results suggest that, despite concerns and fears, LGBTQ communities, supported by friends, family and advocates, are determined and motivated to strongly stand against affronts to social justice, and to weather this and future storms, by continuing to advocate for equality – all of which are known contributors to resilience (Vaughan & Rodriguez, 2014). As our data emerges, it will indicate strong associations between election-based concerns and current and projected future health, and we encourage researchers and clinicians to be cognizant of such sociopolitical stressors as powerful influences on well-being (Bogart, Revenson, Whitfield, & France, 2014).

We invite potential collaborators to contact us as we examine risk and protective factors for LGBTQ health outcomes, and we hope to share future news with the division about characteristics of strength and resiliency that can help ameliorate the impact of these election-based concerns and other sources of distress for LGBTQ communities.


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