Lean on Me

Lean on Me: Bisexual and Gay Men Depend More on Peers Than Family for Major Support

Elliot M. Cohen

Mental health distress is more prevalent for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people than for their heterosexual peers. Among a list of the mental health distress rates that are higher for the LGB community, the American Psychological Association website states “studies find: higher rates of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder and substance use or dependence in lesbian and gay youth”. This is due to increased levels of stress caused by stigma and discrimination.  However, social support, or the feeling of being cared for by one’s social network, can protect against the negative health consequences that this additional stress can cause for sexual minorities.  

A recent study examined how social support for LGB individuals is influenced by their gender, race, and sexual orientation. Researchers focused particularly on social support from family and peers. These social scientists were interested in studying whether LGB people are more likely to rely on peer support than family support, relative to their heterosexual counterparts. Researchers also wanted to know if the race of the participants was related to the race of the people they relied on.  In particular, they wanted to know if LGB people of color relied more or less on people of other races/sexual orientations, compared to white LGB people.

Participants were given a questionnaire about social support, which included questions about who they relied on for important decisions or emergency support.  Support was classified as either everyday (such as providing company, discussions of troubling events, and help with decisions) or major (such as lending large sums of money and seeking help when sick). The sources and levels of support varied based on race and sexual orientation.  Racial minority LGB people reported fewer dimensions of everyday support than white LGB people. This is troubling due to the higher levels of minority stress these groups encounter.  

Sources of support also varied based on gender and sexual orientation. LGB people relied more on peers than family for everyday support.  Men and women who were straight reported their families as the main source of major support. This was found to be true for lesbian and bisexual women as well. However, gay and bisexual men who participated indicated higher levels of major support from fellow LGB persons than family members, particularly LGB people of the same race/ethnicity.  This supports past research showing that chosen families, or self-selected support networks, are more important for LGB youth than for their straight peers. Interestingly, black and latino gay and bisexual men relied more on LGB people of other races compared to white gay and bisexual men. This new research indicates that an LBG person’s gender may affects the relative importance of childhood families versus chosen families in that person’s support network. It also suggests that and an LGB person’s race can affect the dimensions of support they receive and the diversity in the racial makeup of their support system.

The researchers suggest future studies investigate the relative effectiveness of different social support networks in helping LGB people cope with social stress. Do some support networks protect wellbeing better than others? Are support networks more effective depending on whether the people most relied upon in the network are family compared with peers? What about if they are similar, or different, along lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation?  Also, why do latino and black LGB people have more racially diverse support systems? Finally, what is it about being a gay or bisexual man that makes somebody rely more on peers for major support?

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