Come as you are: The social experiences of sexual identity and mental health
On August 4, Federal Judge Vaughn R. Walker struck down California’s ban on same sex marriage ruling that the prohibition violated the right to equal protection as afforded by the United States Constitution. Judge Walker went to great lengths to lodge his ruling in an extensive review of the facts presented. Ultimately, he determined,
“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.”
Walker also noted, “Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.”
Proposition 8 as well as the military policy of “Don’t ask don’t tell,” has kept the debate over the equal rights and protections of individuals who are gay or lesbian a contentious topic for political debate. The dialog generally centers around the acceptance or rejection of gays and lesbians within the U.S. legal system and society as a whole. However, very rarely during these debates is serious public attention given to the implications of these conversations the adolescence and young adults who are beginning to become sensitive to their own sexuality.
This spring, the fast food chain, McDonald’s aired an advertisement in France depicting a young gay man having lunch with his father in one of the chain’s franchises. As the boy contemplates his own self awareness with his father’s lack thereof, the tag line “venez comme vous êtes” or “come as you are” appears across the screen.
Ignoring for a moment the sentiment this message is intended to conjure toward chicken nuggets, it speaks directly toward the desires of adolescence and young adults. It says to them that in a society that can often be hostile, here is a place where you need not be anything but yourself. In creating this ad, McDonald’s clearly feels it can set itself apart in projecting this message. Should one conclude that acceptance in modern society is such a commodity that it can be used to sell french fries?
Existing literature has shown that sexual minorities are exposed to minority stressors such as physical violence and verbal harassment, anticipation of the negative responses of others, internalized homophobia, and concealment of sexuality resulting in fear, guilty and inauthenticy.
In the study, “Same-Sex Experience and Mental Health during the Transition between Adolescence and Young Adulthood,” published in The Sociological Quarterly, Koji Ueno examines how same-sex experience is associated with changes in mental health between adolescence and young adulthood. Ueno seeks to focus the dynamic aspects of mental health and human sexuality rather than viewing each as a static experience.
The author concludes that during the period between adolescence and young adulthood the overall level of depressive symptoms (internalized mental health indicators) declines while the frequencies of binge drinking and drug use (externalized mental health indicators) increases with some variation across demographics.
Additionally, the study showed that emerging same sex experience in young adulthood is associated with the worst mental health changes, which is consistent with the argument that major life events which threaten self-identity and signal entry into a stigmatized status undermine mental health. Ueno explains that, previous cross-sectional studies attributed the disparity to ongoing stressors symptomatic of daily life in a hostile environment were however, this study demonstrates that the period of self-discovery and the anxieties associated with it play an important role.
While the debate rages on in the United States and small steps are made toward a more inclusive environment it seems important to remember that while discourse is imperative, the way it is conducted can be just as important as its conclusion. Every sentiment that is entered into the public sphere can have a lasting affect on the mental and emotional development of the adolescent members of our larger community.