When Alexis Pegues came out to her relatives on her father’s side of the family, at age 16, they were shocked and upset and wouldn’t accept that she had a girlfriend. Her life was in turmoil.
Today, at 25 and living in Chicago with her girlfriend, Pegues still faces the stress of coming out to colleagues at work.
What’s helped her feel better in each of these cases has been the loving support of a girlfriend.
“Whether coming out of work or family issues, it’s nice to have someone to confide in, come home to and provide you with a sense of normality … [and] to know that it was worth it,” Pegues says.
A recent study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology finds that being in a romantic relationship can help gay and lesbian youth like Pegues feel less mental distress — even more so if they are black or Latino. This contrasts with the fact that, in heterosexual teens’ lives, romance is generally found to cause distress rather than alleviate it.
But the study of LGBT youth also showed romance — defined as an ongoing relationship with a lover, boyfriend, girlfriend or someone a person feels very close to — can make bisexual youth feel worse. Too few transgender youth were included in the study to determine the effects of romance on this group.
For gay or lesbian young people, however, being in a relationship can be a huge source of support. “The person they were dating was the first person they would go to when they had news to celebrate but also the first person they would go to commiserate or seek support if something awful happened,” says Brian Mustanski, one of the study’s authors. “They helped navigate issues with coming out or challenges they were having in the family about those relationships.”
Mustanski said that although parents and friends can help sexual minorities feel better, that support doesn’t tend to offset the effects of bullying. “Here, if they were bullied and victimized and had relationships, that bullying had less of an effect on their mental health,” says Mustanski, who directs the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Sarah Whitton, another of the study’s authors, pointed out in an email that young gays and lesbians face societal prejudice. “They live in a society that generally stigmatizes sexual orientations other than heterosexual,” said Whitton, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati. “So they grow up with the media and popular culture commonly depicting same-sex relationships as abnormal or pathological, religious institutions often telling them that their sexual attractions are wrong or immoral, and legal policies that do not protect them against discrimination.”
Whitton said that, since many LGBT youth are bullied, which can include yelling, spitting, threats or destruction of property, it can have a negative effect on young people’s mental health.
For the study, researchers asked 248 sexual minority youth in Chicago about their romantic relationships, level of psychological distress and frequency of stigmatization — starting when they were between 16 and 20 and then following up over five years.
Lesbian and gay youth were 17 percent less distressed when they were in relationships than when they were not in relationships, the study found. But bisexuals were actually 19 percent more distressed in relationships.
Joanne Davila, a professor of clinical psychology and director of clinical training at Stony Brook University in New York who was not involved in the study, said the findings on gays and lesbians were encouraging. “In some ways, what it tells us is gay and lesbian couples are basically getting the same benefits from being in a relationship as heterosexuals do. I think that’s really important, because there are so many potentially negative ideas about gay and lesbian relationships,” Davila said.
But Davila said she worried that bisexual youth weren’t reaping the benefits of romantic relationships. She said researchers needed to find out why. Bisexual individuals feel invisible in the LGBT community, she said, and are stigmatized as being promiscuous, unable to commit and being bad at relationships.
Bradlee Vasquez-Valdez has faced the same stresses as other 23-year-olds who go to graduate school, regardless of their sexuality. Knowing he has a partner who loves him has made the transition easier.
“It’s nice to have the emotional support whenever I feel stressed and overwhelmed from school,” said Valdez. “He reminds me how great I am at overcoming those challenges.”
Valdez said he had learned from supportive friends, boyfriends and his own inner strength how to deal with discrimination, often using humor and witty comebacks (like “Yes, I’m a faggot!”) in response to bigoted remarks.
Valdez said attending an LGBT community center was a lifesaver for him as a teen because his parents were upset when he came out as gay, and he had been bullied by classmates at school. At the community center, he made friends and dated another teen who “validated my identity and normalized my feelings.”
“I think dating is tricky as an adolescent, period, and then when you have that added layer of being a sexual minority, it’s even harder,” Valdez said.