Research shows that people in LGBTQIA+ communities experience trauma at higher rates than straight, cisgender people.
Though acceptance for LGBTQIA+ folks is growing, there’s still a long way to go. Many people of these communities have experienced traumatic events related to their identity or gender presentation.
These experiences can have wide-reaching effects on all aspects of life, including relationships, family, work-life, school, and even your physical health. For example, children with a history of trauma are twice as likely to have chronic health conditions.
That’s why having a safe, welcoming community is so important for LGBTQIA+ folks. It’s within these safe spaces that you can acknowledge your trauma, connect with others who understand your experiences, and find support and acceptance so that you can be your authentic self.
“When we look at the research, we do see that the individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community experience higher levels of traumatic events,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, PhD, clinical psychologist and media adviser for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
Much of the trauma that specifically affects LGBTQIA+ folks comes from a lack of acceptance and hostility toward these identities in society and politics.
According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, trauma in LGBTQIA+ youth can include:
- traumatic loss
- intimate partner violence
- physical and sexual abuse
- traumatic forms of societal stigma, bias, and rejection
The Trevor Project’s 2020 National Survey reports that 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth have been physically threatened or harmed due to their identity.
Further, many people experience rejection from their families or loved ones when they come out. An estimated 29% of LGBTQ youth have been kicked out of their homes, run away, or become homeless.
The Human Rights Campaign reports that LGBTQ people have a higher risk of sexual assault, with some groups being more affected than others. They state that “around half of transgender people and bisexual women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes.”
Bullying and harassment can affect anyone, from children to adults, with major impacts on their daily lives. People can also experience discrimination in the workplace or other settings that do not offer equal protections based on gender and sexuality.
Lira de Rosi says, “These traumatic events can impact the well-being of individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community and have long-lasting negative effects on their physical and emotional wellness.”
In addition, negative portrayals of LGBTQIA+ people in the media, on the internet, and in politics can significantly affect a person’s mindset, especially youth who are still exploring their identities.
In the Trevor Project’s 2020 survey, 86% of LGBTQ youth reported that recent politics negatively impacted their well-being.
Lira de Rosa says, “LGBTQIA+ individuals grow up in a society where heterosexuality and cisgender identities are the norm. We tend to see many negative and inaccurate portrayals of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the media.
“These negative portrayals can contribute to individuals feeling ‘different’ and can lead to higher levels of low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, depression, etc.,” he says.
These experiences accumulate and lead to higher levels of psychological distress and can lead to people feeling unsafe in their home, town or city, or relationships.
“As a result, many individuals have to navigate their physical and emotional safety. They may always be scanning for threats in the environment and may have to conceal their identities out of fear.”
Trauma can sometimes, but not always, lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a syndrome that can involve intense emotions, flashbacks or nightmares, and avoidance of situations that remind you of the trauma.
Trauma and conversion therapy
The rates of “conversion therapy” — methods to try and change a person’s gender or sexual identity to become cisgender or straight — remain alarmingly high, and these practices remain legal in 30 states despite their damaging mental health effects.
According to the Trever Project’s 2020 survey, around 10% of LGBTQ youth reported having experienced some conversion therapy, often under age 18.
The Williams Institute’s 2019 report found that suicidal thoughts and attempts were nearly twice as high in LGB youth who had experienced conversion therapy than those who had not.
“Trauma can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s mental health well-being. It can disrupt our sense of safety in the world. If we do not feel safe, our bodies and minds are always scanning for threats in our environment,” Lira de la Rosa says.
“While this is protective, it can also be exhaustive and can lead to individuals developing higher levels of anxiety, depression, stress, etc.,” he adds.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), LGB adults are more than twice as likely as heterosexual adults to experience a mental health condition.
Also, according to a report in Transgender Health, those who identify as transgender are nearly four times as likely to live with a mental health condition than people whose gender identity relates to their birth sex. Major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder were the most common.
Although LGBTQIA+ is an umbrella term, Lira de la Rosa says it is important to recognize that there are many group differences within the communities. This is especially the case when it comes to traumatic events.
“[It] is imperative that we also examine how each group may experience traumatic events differently,” Lira de la Rosa says.
“… we need to acknowledge the diverse identities and the intersectionality of identities within the LGBTQIA+ community, especially when considering the higher rates of traumatic events for some groups within the community,” he adds.
People of Color in the LGBTQIA+ communities face greater exposure to interpersonal potentially traumatic events and shame than white people in their community, according to research.
The same study also found that transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) respondents reported greater exposure to both interpersonal and impersonal potentially traumatic events and greater somatic and depressive symptoms than cisgender participants.
Suicide rates in LGBTQIA+ communities
According to the National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2021 by the Trevor Project, 42% of LGBTQ youth considered attempting suicide in the past year. This stat included more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
“The effects of trauma can be seen in higher rates of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and self-injurious behavior. LGB youth, for example, are three times more likely to contemplate suicide than their heterosexual peers. They are also 5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers,” says Lira de la Rosa.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 40% of transgender respondents reported attempting suicide in their lifetimes. This is almost nine times the rate in the United States (4.6%). This figure was higher in transgender folks with disabilities (56%).
In addition, the past-year rates of suicide attempts were higher in People of Color, including American Indian, multiracial, Black, and Latinx individuals.
“These statistics are alarming because they give us a snapshot of the health and well-being of members in the LGBTQIA+ community,” Lira de la Rosa says.
Are you in a crisis or considering suicide?
If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can access free support right away with these resources:
- The Trans Lifeline. This hotline is run by trans people, for trans people. Call the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.
- The Trevor Project. The Trevor Project is especially intended for LGBTQIA+ folks under 25 years. Call 866-488-7386, text START to 678678, or chat online 24-7.
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- The Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
Working through trauma and healing might take a combination of strategies, including the following:
Support from peers and family
Despite negative societal messages about the LGBTQIA+ communities, Lira de la Rosa says those within the communities find ways to support and strengthen each other.
“[One] of the most important forms is through social support. Many LGBTQIA+ individuals seek out support in family or friends that are affirming their identities. Others create new social supports that are affirming of their gender identity and sexual orientation,” he says.
Help from a mental health professional
Therapists who focus on helping LGBTQIA+ communities can provide support and strategies for healing from trauma. It can help to look for an LGBTQIA+ affirming therapist.
“Sometimes having the space to unpack and process these experiences can be quite healing. Therapy can also be a space where we can help LGBTQIA+ individuals create and develop a healthy identity and help them grow toward their authentic and genuine selves,” says Lira de la Rosa.
He adds that growing up hearing negative messages about your gender identity can force you to internalize those messages.
“That is why having an affirmative space can be so healing so we can begin to unlearn these negative messages about ourselves,” he says.
Self-care and self-love
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) recommends taking care of your physical and emotional health to cope with past trauma.
Physical health care might include getting adequate sleep, eating nutritional foods, engaging in regular exercise, and establishing set routines to start and end your days.
Emotional health care might involve finding ways that make you feel grounded and balanced, such as journaling, meditating, spending time in places that bring you peace, seeing friends and family that make you feel supported, or partaking in activities that bring you joy.
If you want to protect the LGBTQIA+ youth in your life, here are some ways you can help:
Lira de la Rosa says that research and the lived experiences of LGBTQIA+ youth prove that much work is needed to prevent trauma at the individual and systemic levels. He refers to oppressive bills being introduced in state legislatures.
“These laws can have detrimental effects for individuals and their families. They can contribute to ongoing trauma and create new challenges for individuals that are simply looking to live their genuine and authentic lives,” he says.
Create support programming
Establishing ways LGBTQIA+ folks can support each other, especially when they are experiencing discrimination in many forms, is crucial, says Lira de la Rosa.
“We can also help them feel supported and safe, especially as many spaces are not affirming,” he says.
Getting others outside the community to advocate and spread awareness about acceptance can help.
“Allies can use their power, privilege, and voice to advocate for the community and to help engage others who may have limited exposure to the LGBTQIA+ community,” Lira de la Rosa says.
Despite negative societal messages about the LGBTQIA+ communities and the trauma caused by those messages, understanding why trauma occurs and knowing there are ways to heal bring hope.
To find support and help, you can visit these official sites: