By Kevin L. Nadal, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychology, John Jay
College of Criminal Justice – City University of New York)
When I was a little kid, I used to hear my brothers, cousins, and friends say things like “That’s so gay!” on a pretty regular basis. I would usually laugh along, hoping with all my might that they didn’t know my secret. My parents and other adults in my life would tell me things like “Boys don’t cry” or “Be a man!” which essentially was their way of telling me that being emotional was forbidden or a sign of weakness.
When I was a teenager, there were a few boys at my high school who ridiculed me, almost everyday. When I walked by them in the halls, they called me a “faggot” or screamed my name in a flamboyant tone. I learned to walk by without showing any reaction; I could not let them know that it bothered me, or else I would be proving to them that I was indeed gay. I didn’t tell anyone about the bullying (not my parents, teachers, or anyone) because admitting that I was being teased for being gay would mean that I was admitting to being gay. I had never felt so alone in my life.
In college, it got a little better. While I was no longer harassed about my closeted sexual orientation, I didn’t have any friends that were openly gay and most of my friends didn’t have any either. Some of my friends and family members still made occasional homophobic jokes in front of me. While many loved ones later told me that they suspected that I was gay, no one gave me any reason to believe that they were gay-friendly. So I just remained in the closet a few more years until I couldn’t take it any more.
In retrospect, I had a very difficult time accepting my gay identity, because of the microaggressions that I experienced throughout my life. Microaggressions are the everyday encounters of subtle discrimination that people of various marginalized groups experience throughout their lives (Sue et al., 2007). Some microaggressions are unconscious (i.e., the perpetrator doesn’t even know they did something) while some microaggressions may be unintentional (i.e., the perpetrator may be aware of their actions, but may not realize the negative impact they may have on people).
One of the reasons why it was important for me to study microaggressions against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) people was because I knew that this type of discrimination existed and because I hypothesized that they had a significant impact on the lives of LGBTQ people, particularly on their mental health and identity development. I collaborated with two fellow psychologist colleagues, Dr. David Rivera and Dr. Melissa Corpus, and we theorized the various types of microaggressions that affect LGBTQ people (see Nadal et al., 2010). For the past several years, my research team and I interviewed all kinds of LGBTQ people and they all reported that microaggressions are very common in their lives.
Here are a few examples:
1) Use of heterosexist or transphobic terminology:
These types of microaggressions occur when someone uses disparaging heterosexist or transphobic language towards, or about, LGBTQ persons. For me, it is anytime someone says “That’s so gay” and “No homo” in my presence; for my transgender friends, it could be anytime someone says “tranny”, “she-male”, or other derogatory terms. In hip hop, it is common for rappers to unapologetically use the word “faggot”, which then gives permission for kids to use the term unapologetically in everyday life. Maybe this is why 9 out of 10 LGBTQ high school students report experiencing harassment at school and why 2/3 of them say they feel unsafe (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 2010).
2) Endorsement of heteronormative culture and behaviors:
These kinds of microaggressions take place when an LGBTQ person is assumed to be heterosexual, or when they are encouraged to act in gender-conforming ways. I know that I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be so flamboyant or that I should act “more masculine”. As a child, my family forced me to play sports, yet sighed when I played with Barbie. As a young adult, when someone asked me “if I had a girlfriend” or “a wife or kids”, they were essentially telling me that they expected me to be heterosexual. Heterosexuals don’t realize that it is common for them to assume someone is straight, unless proven otherwise.
3) Assumption of universal LGBTQ experience:
These sorts of microaggressions transpire when heterosexual people assume that all LGBTQ persons are the same. For instance, sometimes, people tell me I’m not “a typical gay guy” because of some stereotype I don’t fulfill; other times, people assume that I would automatically get along with another gay guy simply because we are attracted to the same gender. Lesbian women have reported that people presume that they should all be masculine, while bisexual people have reported that they are often stereotyped as being “confused” (Nadal, Issa, et al., 2011). Many transgender women have reported being arrested and falsely accused of being sex workers (Nadal et al., 2012), demonstrating that these biases and microaggressions could even have legal implications.
4) Discomfort or disapproval of LGBTQ experience:
These types of microaggressions include instances when LGBTQ people are treated with awkwardness, condemnation, or both. This takes place any time a couple looks at my fiancée and me in disgust as we hold hands in public. It also occurs when people proclaim that my sexual orientation is “an abomination” or that a transgender person’s gender identity is “unnatural.” One recent example of this in the media is the story of a transgender scientist who was outed and ridiculed for her gender identity by a journalist. While the article was supposed to focus on one of her inventions, the writer chose to instead focus the article on her gender identity. While instances like this may occur for many LGBTQ people, this story is especially tragic because the transgender woman who was targeted eventually committed suicide.
5) Assumption of sexual pathology or abnormality:
These microaggressions come about when heterosexual people consider LGBTQ people to be sexual deviants or overly sexual. One example of this on a systemic level is the federal ban for any man who has had sex with another man to donate blood. So even if a man is HIV-negative and has been in a monogamous relationship all of his life, he is considered to be at risk and therefore an ineligible donor. In the media, an example includes one time when Paris Hilton said that gay men are “disgusting” and “probably have AIDS” or recently when The Bachelor said that gay people were “more ‘pervert’ in a sense.’” In everyday life, a common occurrence is when people assume that LGBTQ people would be child molesters and are wary about LGBTQ teachers or babysitters. Anytime that any straight man assumes that I would hit on them, not only are they mistakenly flattering themselves, they are communicating that they think that all gay men can’t keep their hands to themselves.
6) Denial of bodily privacy:
These kinds of microaggressions occur toward transgender people primarily and include interactions in which others feel entitled or comfortable to objectify transgender bodies. For instance, when Katie Couric recently asked Carmen Carrera about her genitals, she inappropriately and invasively asked a question that would never been asked toward a cisgender person (i.e., a person whose gender identity matches their birth sex). How would you feel if someone asked you about your genitalia on national television?
Why does this matter?
All of these microaggressions have a significant impact on people’s lives. While some of these experiences may seem brief and harmless, many studies have found that the more that people experience microaggressions, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression, psychological distress, and even physical health issues. For instance, I recently published a study that found that the more racial microaggressions that people of color experience, the more likely they are to also report depressive symptoms and a negative view of the world (Nadal et al., 2014). In another study, LGBTQ participants described that when they experienced microaggressions, they felt depressed, anxious, and even traumatized (Nadal, Wong, et al., 2011). Furthermore, given that LGBTQ youth are known to have a higher prevalence of substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide (see Nadal, 2013 for a review), it is even more important for us to try to minimize microaggressions and make the world a better place for them.
So what can you do?
Well, first of all, let’s get everyone to stop saying things like “That’s so gay!” or “That’s so queer!” If something is weird, say it’s “weird”! Why do you have to bring LGBTQ people into it? Correct others when they use homophobic/ transphobic language or endorse LGBTQ stereotypes. Let’s teach our kids to love people, instead of hating them. We have the power to transform this next generation of young people to be open-minded and awesome. Let’s do this together.
Second, let’s admit when we commit microaggressions, learn from the wrongdoing, and apologize. We all make mistakes, consciously and not, and we need to own up to them when we do. Listen to what they are trying to tell you and try not to be defensive. The worst thing that we can do is to deny that someone is hurt or offended by something we said or did; in fact, invalidating their experience could be considered a microaggression itself.
For example, when Piers Morgan interviewed transgender author Janet Mock on his show this past week, an onscreen description of Ms. Mock read “was a boy until age 18.” Meanwhile, during the show, his Twitter account read: “How would you feel if you found out the woman you are dating was formerly a man?” Ms. Mock, along with many transgender supporters and cisgender allies, replied to Mr. Morgan via Twitter, calling him out on his bias. Instead of recognizing that he may have offended people, Mr. Morgan reacted with tweets like:
Very disappointed in @janetmock ‘s tweets tonight. Deliberately, and falsely, fuelling some sense of me being ‘transphobic’. Unpleasant.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) February 5, 2014
As for all the enraged transgender supporters, look at how STUPID you’re being. I’m on your side, you dimwits. @janetmock
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) February 5, 2014
While I don’t believe that Mr. Morgan was intentionally trying to be hurtful (in fact, he likely views himself as a transgender ally), his focus on Ms. Mock’s birth sex and the sensationalizing of her transition is a common microaggression that transgender people experience. Perhaps if he could fully empathize with transgender people and the dehumanization they experience daily, he would have not gotten so defensive. In fact, he might have been able to apologize and have demonstrated a true teachable moment.
And, finally, for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, I leave you with a couple of things. First, the next time you experience a microaggression, know that you are not alone. Sadly, these are common experiences of our lives, but I hope you find some comfort in knowing there are millions of people who can relate to you. Second, let’s try not to commit microaggressions against each other either. Our community has been through a lot and we really need to work together.
Dr. Kevin Nadal is an Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice – City University of New York, the Vice President of the Asian American Psychological Association, and the author of “That’s So Gay!” Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. He also has a new talk show - ”Out Talk with Kevin Nadal“.
Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in our Nation’s Schools. New York: GLSEN.
Nadal, K. L. (2013). That’s So Gay! Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Nadal, K. L., Griffin, K. E., Wong, Y., Hamit, S., & Rasmus, M. (2014). Racial microaggressions and mental health: Counseling clients of color. Journal of Counseling and Development. 92(1), 57-66.
Nadal, K. L. Issa, M., Leon, J., Meterko, V., Wideman, M., & Wong, Y. (2011). Sexual orientation microaggressions: “Death by a thousand cuts” for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of LGBT Youth, 8(3), 1-26.
Nadal, K. L., Rivera, D. P., & Corpus, M. J. H. (2010) Sexual orientation and transgender microaggressions in everyday life: Experiences of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender individuals. In D. W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact (pp. 217-240). New York: Wiley.
Nadal, K. L., Skolnik, A., & Wong, Y. (2012). Interpersonal and systemic microaggressions: Psychological impacts on transgender individuals and communities. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 6(1), 55-82.
Nadal, K. L., Wong, Y., Issa, M., Meterko, V., Leon, J., & Wideman, M. (2011). Sexual orientation microaggressions: Processes and coping mechanisms for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 5(1), 21-46.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. E. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for counseling. The American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.
You may also be interested in:
Answers to Your Questions for a Better Understanding of Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality
Answers to Your Questions about Transgender People, Gender Identity and Gender Expression
Just the Facts about Sexual Orientation and Youth
APA’s Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns
Dr. Nadal is also featured on Buzzfeed: 19 LGBT Microaggressions You Hear on a Daily Basis