Why does research around risk and resilience factors for lesbians matter? Where can we go from here?
Despite Brazil’s major legal progress for LGBT rights, heterosexism is still a strong force in Brazilian culture, and lesbians, along with other members of the LGBT community, still face prejudiced attitudes and behaviors at multiple levels of their environment, which can threaten their mental health and wellbeing. While the nation has made strides in targeting discrimination, which is a behavior, it is much harder to reduce levels of prejudice, which is a mindset, among Brazilian citizens.
Heterosexism that is embedded in Brazilian culture and emboldened by Christianity penetrates lesbians’ microsystem, damaging familial relations, and manifests as informal sanctioning in public and private spaces in the exosystem.
On the other hand, Afro-Brazilian religious communities, the Internet, and progressive laws empower lesbians to be educated, accept their sexual orientation, and claim their citizen’s rights. With socio-emotional support from these resources and less prejudiced friends, lesbians have been able to exhibit resistant self-direction, shaping the relationships and spaces around them so that they are more supportive of them as lesbians.
Certain needs were of greater importance to the interviewees, but they were not all met in the same way. Individuals met similar needs by tapping different resources. At first, as they were questioning or discovering their sexual orientation, it was most important that participants could access knowledge, especially information that dispelled negative stereotypes surrounding lesbians and gays. They accessed this information in different ways, with the Internet being a key source, and a gay or lesbian friend or role model being another. Later on, some sought more information in activist groups.
Another of the most important resilience factors was social connection in general, and this too was met by different figures for the participants. While Juliane continued being close to her birth family, Neide and Vilma created fictive kin groups, and Jersica leaned on her best friends. Camila and Angélica, the couple I interviewed, also leaned on friends, but especially thrived because of one another’s support.
Spirituality was very important to four of the six subjects, and each of them found a different religious community to meet this need. Only the two in Candomblé houses have found their community to be affirming of their identities as Black lesbians, and stayed in their congregations, showing that identity affirmation is an important component of religious fulfillment.
Participants also discussed locations and groups, which I label “safe spaces,” with enthusiasm, illustrating the positive impact of spaces in which lesbians may be comfortable and honest without fear of any form of homophobic violence. While home was a safe space for Juliane and women living independently, others sought comfort outside of the home, sometimes at venues that are for LGBT people or accepting of them, as well as public spaces and events at certain times.
The last important factor that arose in a more abstract way was a sense of one’s rights as a citizen, which both came from within and was affirmed by progressive laws, even if they are not fully enforced.
Thus certain resilience factors themselves, as they were identified in my discussion, cannot be pin pointed as the most important for the lesbian women in this study. Instead, certain needs surfaced as most important, and each woman exerted agency over her unique environmental context to find factors that would meet those needs. If all Salvadorans, from those making and enforcing formal sanctions of discrimination to those informally sanctioning lesbians in their micro and exosystems, examine and combat their heterosexist prejudice and instead support all members of society, the city can reduce lesbians’ risk of mental health problems and improve public health.
Because every actor in a young lesbian woman’s environment is a potential contributor to their risk or resilience, the findings of this research are relevant to a very wide audience. The research presented in this series of articles has the potential to inform decisions made on a number of levels, in the end contributing to improved support in legal, social, religious, and spatial realms, all of which is would contribute to improved public health in Salvador and in Brazil. The following will briefly present the ways in which my findings can have an impact the role that actors in governmental, social, religious, and physically spatial realms play in lesbian Brazilian citizens’ lives.
Not only have Brazil’s laws placed the nation on the map as one of the world’s most progressive countries in terms of LGBT rights, but they have also clearly impacted the way that lesbians such as Neide, Vilma, and Jersica, behave, conceptualize their citizenship, and interpret discrimination. Therefore, it is important that legislators continue passing measures that recognize and protect lesbians’ rights as citizens. Action in one governmental branch is not enough, however, especially given the evidence that laws have not yet had the desired impact on Brazilian societal behaviors. The executive and judicial branches must also respect and enforce anti-discriminatory laws.
In addition, activist groups are clearly a worthwhile investment for the government, as they communicate both their community’s needs to the government through advocacy and the government’s actions to their communities through educational outreach. They support the positive identity development of their members and teach them how to best advocate for themselves and others so that the prejudice that legal change has yet to eradicate does not have such a negative effect on their mental health and well being. My findings on the impact of governmental legislation support the notion that all three branches must continue to push for the respect of lesbians’ rights by passing and enforcing laws and continuing collaboration with activist organizations.
As a plethora of research has found, and the relational-cultural theory argues, social support is a major resilience factor for lesbians. My subjects reported a struggle to get support from their parents, and overcome initial rejection. Studies have found that exposure to homosexual people and information about homosexuality can correct the harmful stereotypes and misconceptions that lead parents to reject their daughters (Hom, 1994; Savin-Williams & Dubé, 1998). Extended family members can also significantly influence parents and encourage acceptance (Savin-Williams & Dubé, 1998). Thus my research indicates that families need exposure to and information about sexual non-conformity so that they can have more supportive relationships with non-heterosexual family members.
The US has a number of organizations that educate and support parents of LGBT people, the largest of which is PFLAG, a support group for parents, families, and friends of LGBTQ people that uses support, education, and advocacy to foster LGBTQ-inclusive families, schools, and communities (https://community.pflag.org/). Unfortunately, I did not find any similar organizations in Salvador. Thus, there is clearly a need for organizations with missions that are similar to those of the North American PFLAG. I can only speculate as to why this is the case. Potentially, given the trend among Brazilian families wherein secrecy and general calm is preferred to honesty and conflict, and the hierarchical nature of family structures, wherein parents are not expected to adjust in reaction to their children, Brazilian culture does not consider parents to be in need of support so that they can address the truth and conflict and change to best support their daughters. In other words, families are not conceptualized as places of conflict and change as much as they are in the United States, thus LGBT people and activists do not focus their energy on creating organizations like PFLAG.
Brazilian lesbians’ relationships with religion are exemplar of the paradoxical nature of Brazil’s environmental contributions to risk and resilience among lesbians. As Reich et al. wrote, religion has the potential to be an integral source of resilience for lesbians, but it can also exacerbate the negative effects of the stress caused by heterosexism (2012). The Christian values and beliefs that pervade Brazilian society, as well as Catholic and Evangelical groups themselves, can seriously damage lesbian’s relationships and, in turn, their mental health. Thus it is important for Christian congregational leaders and politicians, as well as religious individuals, to reexamine the consequences of their prejudice, and consider ways in which their faith has the power to support the well being of any person who wishes to benefit from the resources they can provide, rather than using their religion for homophobic violence. Afro-Brazilian religious groups, such as Candomblé and Umbanda, are examples of the ability of religious congregations to support not only individual queer people, but also the relationships between them and their families. For those who practiced, Candomblé and Umbanda houses were considered places in which lesbians could feel safe from the sanctioning of their sexual identities.
Climates that are intentionally protective, and locations where lesbians can feel comfortable being out of the closet are serious resilience factors as they predict better mental health among lesbians (Lewis, 2009; Hatzenbuehler et al., 2014; Eiven et al., 2007). Because spaces in which any type of violence against lesbians occurs contribute to mental health problems among this population, all those who own or manage physical spaces, including schools, universities, public spaces, and private venues, should have the responsibility of making their spaces ones in which those attracted to the same sex do not face discrimination. This can be done through proactive policies, not only from the government, but also from companies or owners, that hold authorities and individuals accountable for their actions.
All of factors of resilience or risk for lesbians are part of a public health issue, because we know that discrimination is linked to mental health (Lewis, 2009). We must understand the environmental factors for risk and resilience, so that we may hold governments, health authorities, business owners, and individuals accountable for the factors that impact their constituents’ health (Lewis, 2009). By understanding how cultural, legal, social, religious, and spatial factors impact lesbians’ mental health, and recognizing that disproportionately high rates of mental health problems among lesbians represents a public health problem, we can convey the importance of changing this environment and identify the many actors who can play a role in doing just that.
Hom, A. Y. (1994). Stories from the home front: Perspectives of Asian American parents with lesbian daughters and gay sons. Amerasia Journal, 20, 19–32.
Lewis, N. M. (2009). Mental Health in Sexual Minorities: Recent Indicators, Trends, and their Relationships to Place in North America and Europe. Elsevier. 1029–1045.
PFLAG. Parents, Families, Friends, and Allies United with LGBTQ People to Move Equality Forward! Retrieved at https://community.pflag.org/
Reich, J. W., Zautra, A., & Hall, J. S. (2012). Handbook of Adult Resilience. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Savin-Williams, R. C. & Dubé, E. M. (1998). Parental Reactions to Their Child’s Disclosure of a Gay/Lesbian Identity. Family Relations 47(1), 7–13