How Does Trauma Affect LGBTQIA+ Communities?

The trauma response is how the body reacts to highly stressful experiences or circumstances that are harmful or life-threatening. A trauma response has physical, psychological, mental, and emotional effects.

Trauma can harm a person’s well-being and affect how well they can deal with daily life and stress. Examples of situations or events that can cause trauma include:

  • Natural disaster.
  • Being physically attacked.
  • Sexual assault.
  • Abuse.
  • Loss of someone close to you.
  • Seeing someone’s death.
  • Having a serious illness.
  • Seeing someone else’s serious illness.
  • Car accident.
  • Any near-death experience.
  • Being bullied or harassed.
  • Not having enough to eat.
  • Not having a safe place to live.

According to research, members of the LGBTQIA+ community are more likely than others to experience trauma. LGBTQIA+ trauma occurs because of bias, discrimination, and poor treatment. It can also be due to other negative experiences because of gender or sexual identity.

Because of the higher burden of trauma, LGBTQIA+ people may also have more mental and physical health problems due to trauma.

These are some of the experiences that are stressful and/or traumatic for LGBTQIA+ people:

  • Bullying.
  • Harassment.
  • Loss of friends.
  • Physical violence from classmates or intimate partners.
  • Physical or emotional abuse.
  • Sexual abuse or assault.
  • Social stigma.
  • Loss of opportunities.
  • Bias.
  • Rejection.
  • Discrimination.
  • Medical trauma, including poor treatment by healthcare providers or feeling forced to become “straight.”
  • Community violence against LGBTQIA+ people, such as mass shootings.

The first step to healing trauma is understanding and processing it. LGBTQIA+ trauma often requires the help of a mental health worker trained in trauma-based therapy. It also helps to know the possible sources and effects of LGBTQIA+ trauma.

Growing Up LGBTQIA+

When LGBTQIA+ people are young they start recognizing and knowing their identity. This is often when traumatic experiences start.

Trauma can occur because of other people’s treatment if they learn about or suspect a person’s LGBTQIA+ identity. But trauma also occurs if an LGBTQIA+ person keeps their identity secret out of fear of negative experiences.

The experience of coming out can be traumatic for many people. Even before they come out to family or friends, someone’s fear of how people will react can be traumatic. They might worry that they will lose friends or their family will kick them out of the house.

For many people, these worries come true. They experience bullying, isolation, discrimination, and loneliness after they come out. According to The Trevor Project, 29% of LGBTQIA+ youth have been homeless, ran away from home, or been kicked out of their home.

The Trevor Project reported other findings about the traumatic experiences of LGBTQIA+ youth:

  • One in three LGBTQIA+ youth has been physically threatened or harmed in their lifetime.
  • 61% of trans and nonbinary youth could not use the bathroom that matched their gender identity.
  • 10% of LGBTQIA+ youth have gone through “conversion therapy,” which tries to force them to become straight or cisgender.

Sometimes the trauma comes from within the LGBTQIA+ community. For example, bisexual people may experience bullying or isolation from straight people and gay people. Trans people may undergo harassment or isolation from cis people in the LGBTQIA+ community.

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LGBTQIA+ Trauma in Adults

Traumatic experiences do not stop in adulthood for those in the LGBTQIA+ community. Often, experiences in adulthood add to the trauma that a child or teenager went through. These could include:

  • Losing a job or not being able to keep a job.
  • Abuse from a romantic or sexual partner.
  • Bullying or harassment.
  • Social isolation or stigma.
  • Not having a safe place to live.
  • Having financial problems.
  • Not having enough food to eat.
  • Not getting the medical care you need.
  • Physical assault because of your identity.
  • Living in a place that doesn’t support LGBTQIA+ rights.
  • Seeing or experiencing laws or politics that harm LGBTQIA+ people.
  • Going through “conversion therapy,” where someone tries to make an LGBTQIA+ person cisgender or straight.

LGBTQIA+ adults are more likely to undergo a traumatic event than straight adults. For example, LGBTQIA+ people are almost four times more likely to experience violent assault than straight people. These assaults include rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault.

Trauma in adulthood also results from ongoing discrimination and bias. Almost half (48%) of trans people say they have experienced discrimination, such as verbal harassment or physical assault, in the past year. LGBTQIA+ people are also more likely to lack access to housing, medical care, or businesses.

Youth and adults who try to hide their identity from others can experience additional stress too. The stress of hiding their true identity or the fear of rejection can add stress to their relationships.

Effects of Trauma

A history of trauma increases the risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Trauma and its effects can also lead to feelings of shame in LGBTQIA+ people. The more trauma people undergo, the more shame they may have, which can cause more mental health problems.

People who identify as LGBTQIA+ are twice as likely as cisgender straight people to have a mental health disorder. For example, according to The Trevor Project, 68% of LGBTQIA+ youth had anxiety symptoms in the past two weeks. LGBTQIA+ adults are 2.5 times more likely than straight adults to have depression, anxiety, or a substance misuse problem.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another mental health condition that can occur in people who have experienced trauma. Some symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Thoughts that won’t go away.
  • Upsetting nightmares.
  • Flashbacks to the traumatic events.
  • Avoiding triggers that remind you of the traumatic event.
  • Changes in your mood.
  • Feeling irritable.
  • Angry outbursts.
  • Having problems focusing or sleeping.
  • Ongoing feelings of fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame.

A history of trauma also increases the risk of suicidal thoughts and attempting suicide. Two out of five LGBTQIA+ youths considered suicide in the past year, including more than half of trans and nonbinary youth. Nearly half (48%) of LGBTQIA+ youth harmed themselves on purpose in the past year, including 60% of trans and nonbinary youth.

Resources for People Processing LGBTQIA+ Trauma

It can be hard for many LGBTQIA+ people to get help for trauma and its physical, mental, and emotional effects. 46% of LGBTQIA+ youth wanted emotional counseling but could not get it in the past year. But resources are available for those who need help dealing with a traumatic past.

Healing from past trauma can involve help from:

  • Friends and family, including chosen family.
  • Peers.
  • Mental health professionals.
  • Improve your physical health with good sleep, a healthy diet, and regular physical activity.
  • Practicing self-care and self-love.

Here are some resources for LGBTQIA+ people dealing with trauma or the effects of trauma, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD:

Ariel Zembelich and Alyson Hurt. 3 Hours In Orlando: Piecing Together An Attack And Its Aftermath. June 26, 2016. NPR. Link

Anxiety Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Link

Caroline Sarda. Research roundup: Traumatic events and the LGBTQ community. American Psychological Association. Link

Diversity & Health Equity Education: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning. American Psychiatric Association. Link

Jillian R. Scheer, et al. Self-Reported Mental and Physical Health Symptoms and Potentially Traumatic Events Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Individuals: The Role of Shame. March 2020. Psychology of Violence. Link

LGTBQ Youth. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Link

Mental Health Conditions: Depression and Anxiety. Office on Smoking and Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Link

National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2020. The Trevor Project. Link

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Link

PTSD: National Center for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Link

Self-Care After Trauma. RAINN. Link

Stress & Trauma Toolkit. American Psychiatric Association. Link

What is Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? American Psychiatric Association. Link

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