Microaggressions can seem small and inconsequential; a silly joke, an offhand remark, an intrusive question, a look and so on, but together and over time they can chip away at our sense of worth.
By Dr Mohamed Zaki • 14th April 2020
Photo by Honey Fangs
Dr Mohamed Zaki
Head of Research
Have you ever been told an inappropriate joke with a punchline about sexuality, gender identity or gender expression? Chances are you have and that the punchline was offensive to some segment or all of our community.
Or overheard someone describe something they don’t like as ‘gay’?
Or were told that you can’t be sure you’re not straight if you haven’t ‘tried’?
Or been told you look or seem ‘straight’ as a compliment?
These are all examples of subtle, and sometimes even ‘well-meaning’, interjections that ultimately amount to forms of everyday discrimination. That’s the type of chronic discrimination that we’re subjected to on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis. While we’ve come a long way as a society towards recognizing and challenging subtle forms of repression and subjugation, heteronormativity is alive and well!
These and many other minutiae of our social and cultural lives as members of the LGBT+ community are examples of microagressions that can, over time, impact our mental health and wellbeing.
Microagressions are defined as commonplace, and sometimes subtle, intentional or unintentional behaviors or practices that are either derogatory or communicate a hostility towards or inferiority of specific communities, usually sexual, racial or ethnic. That definition sounds like a mouthful but it encapsulates the chronic discrimination that minorities contend with on a daily basis.
They can seem small and inconsequential; a silly joke, an offhand remark, an intrusive question, a giggle, a laugh, a look and so on, but together and over time they can chip away at our sense of worth, our very experience of society and reality. That’s why they are a major contributor to minority stress.
The minority stress perspective sees mental health disparities between sexual minorities and their heterosexual or cisgender counterparts as the result of cumulative social stressors rather than some aspect inherent to their sexual or gender identities. This model has been crucial to recognizing the tremendous and very real effect of normalized stigmatization and discrimination on the health and wellbeing of sexual minorities. Not only does this history of systematic and chronic discrimination erode the health of sexual minorities but scholars and practitioners have also highlighted how social exclusion and stigmatization may limit LGBTQ+ people’s access to individual and social coping resources.
Being bombarded with comments that communicate a perceived ‘inferiority’ of sexual and gender identities or denigrate them strikes at the core of LGBTQ+ people’s self-worth, it also dashes and damages our ability to feel included and respected by society.
Microaggressions are indicative of a wider system of prejudice and ignorance and that we need to begin with an awareness of the issues at stake.
Microaggressions are different from homophobia and hate speech in the sense that they are not intended to be overtly hostile or malicious, but that is also what makes them so insidiously ubiquitous. The minority stress framework distinguishes chronic and everyday discrimination, including microaggressions, aversive homophobia and insults from other social stressors, such as prejudice events, because while they may appear to be less severe in comparison to such events, they nevertheless accumulate and build up over and become an additional burden on sexual minorities.
The important thing for members of our community to remember is that microaggressions are indicative of a wider system of prejudice and ignorance and that we need to begin with an awareness of the issues at stake. It is only with greater awareness that we, as individuals and a community, can combat and resist, not only the cumulative effects of chronic discrimination but their roots as well.
So, the next time you hear an inappropriate ‘gay joke’, are perhaps asked something intrusive, or are made to feel uncomfortable or awkward because of a ‘well-meaning’, ‘innocent’ comment, don’t feel like you need to be polite and accept it. Address it head on and explain to the person or people involved why it’s unacceptable. It’s likely that the person or people involved are unaware of the effects of chronic discrimination and how they may be contributing to it, however inadvertently.