Supporting LGBTQ+: Studies find that embracing sexuality can improve wellbeing

Illustration of girl riding bike with a rainbow shooting behind her

Auckland journalist Maia Hall writes about how being honest about her sexuality was a liberating experience. Although we still have a long way to go, Maia shares why she has hope for the future.

A 10-year-old once asked me why gay people always hang out together and throw themselves parties. I suggested that straight people do just the same thing, but they don’t put a label on it or even realise they’re doing it. And it’s something that definitely works for me. Embracing my queerness by immersing myself within queer spaces changes everything, and it continues to help me thrive.

My journey to being open about my bisexuality wasn’t unusual or particularly traumatic. I didn’t even know it was happening until slowly I realised I’d been attracted to girls and guys my whole life, and things started making a little more sense. It’s like being nervous and clenching your jaw. You might not even know you’re clenching – but when you become aware of it and release that pent-up energy, suddenly you can breathe. Loving my queer identity means unlocking new parts of myself.

Maia Hall wearing a black top and leaning against a red fence
Maia Hall is a 21-year-old queer journalist. She has recently finished studying journalism and communications at AUT University, and loves to write about equality and sustainability. She hopes that talking about embracing your sexuality in a positive light will help normalise being proud of who we are. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Maia Hall wearing a black top and leaning against a red fenceImageComing out to my parents was a whole new way of improving my wellbeing. One weekend at home I suddenly had this huge, overwhelming feeling of guilt that I hadn’t been honest, and a conviction that now was the time. So, I awkwardly mentioned I was seeing someone new at the moment – a girl. Of course, Mum and Dad asked questions for the rest of the weekend, mostly ones I didn’t know how to answer. But that weekend made me feel empowered and incredible and strong. Something inside me had switched. I was more certain of myself.

Our identity markers make up who we are – I’m a 21-year-old woman, I’m Pākehā, I’m queer. Sometimes these things provide me with great privileges, and other times not so much. Sometimes they’re something I feel like shouting from the rooftops, other times they’re kept closer to my chest. But they all affect how I behave and feel about myself.

Sexuality isn’t necessarily an identity feature for straight people, but it’s significant for the LGBTQ+ community, as it sets us apart. And for better or for worse, being singled out can drastically affect our mental health and wellbeing.

Akula Sharma, 23, has a different story to mine. Born in India, she faced serious homophobia from the age of 16 when she came out as lesbian. In India, homosexuality was still criminalised until 2018, and Akula says the New Zealand Indian community is often still unsupportive of LGBTQ+ rights.

Despite her parents struggling to accept her sexuality, Akula stands strong in her values and is fighting hard to legalise same-sex marriage in her home country. She is proud to be gay and says being confident in her sexuality is liberating, no matter how her beloved community may react. “Once you aren’t afraid of loving your partner it becomes your strength,” she said.

Akula is very aware that being Indian and a lesbian makes her different. She wants more than anything to be taken seriously, but people don’t believe her relationship is “the real thing”.

As a passionate human rights advocate, she’s not afraid to speak her truth on the matter, incorporating the personal with the political.

The lack of diverse representation makes things hard, but Akula and her partner, Sanura, often share their love via social media to encourage couples of all kinds to do the same.

“I love her and she loves me. I feel like once [my relatives and cousins] saw how much we loved each other and were open, it made us feel accepted.”

Illustration of rainbow coloured kite flying in clouds

Like finding a friend

For many people, exploring your sexuality might be confusing and stressful. But the process of connecting with this part of my identity has always given me an overwhelming sense of calmness and security in myself. My queerness makes me whole. It didn’t come as a surprise to me, it just occasionally popped into my teenage thoughts more and more often, interrupting my relationships with boys, until I figured I was ready to talk about it. And as I engaged with other queer people, I got to know myself on a deeper level. It was like welcoming a new friend, and while I’d known that girl my whole life, I was only now brave enough to introduce myself and see what she had to say.

According to science, coming out as queer was the best thing I could have done for my physical wellbeing. Montreal University researcher Robert-Paul Juster has found being open about our sexuality lowers stress levels, promoting better physical health. He has studied a stress hormone called cortisol, comparing the levels before and after a gay, lesbian or bisexual person comes out. Cortisol levels are a good indicator of the body’s general wellbeing.

They studied 87 men and woman of diverse sexual orientations from Montreal, all about 25 years old, and found queer people who are out to their family and friends are generally healthier. “Coming out is no longer a matter of popular debate, but a matter of public health,” says Robert-Paul.

The science shows lesbian, gay and bisexual people who are out to others have fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression and burnout, because higher stress levels from keeping a personal secret results in more “wear and tear” on our biological systems.

Robert-Paul says the stigma-related stress that comes with being queer may force people to become better at handling stress, and developing techniques to cope after years or possibly decades of living in the closet.

Environmental factors have a huge effect on individuals coming out, he says. If the individual feels they’re not accepted by their family and peers, this will impair their self-acceptance, heightening stress levels and causing mental and physical health problems.

illustration of two rainbow umbrellas

Crucial support

Angela Rennie, an Auckland-based intimacy counsellor, says statistics show same-gender couples face more mental health issues, and New Zealand has a long way to go before they are treated equally. With that in mind, it’s important never to underestimate the potential implications for a person coming out. Having an accepting support system around them is invaluable for self-acceptance.

I was lucky to have grown up in a liberal household and an accepting community. While I didn’t recognise it at the time, I can now pinpoint hazy and confusing queer thoughts as a teenager, but never ones that made me feel unworthy of love. Even then, when it caused me stress, it felt identity-affirming.

Angela says, in her experience, “when people live their truth, as hard as that can be, it does result in higher levels of happiness, eventually.”

Coming to know myself through figuring out my sexuality is more than who I want to date, it’s how I present myself and how I see myself. A huge part of this was meeting and connecting with other queer people. There’s automatically some level of understanding and emotional safety. Maybe it stems from similar experiences, but queer friendships go far beyond exchanging coming-out stories. There’s mutual respect and an intrinsic recognition of character that doesn’t appear in straight spaces. I’ve found a sense of fulfilment and belonging I had no idea existed.

Being bisexual is interesting and confusing. There is plenty of unhelpful stigma that works to invalidate and erase bisexual existence, from inside and outside the rainbow community. Rory Gory, from The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ suicide prevention organisation, says bisexual people make up 75 percent of lesbian, gay and bi young people, but face some of the harshest prejudices.

“For myself, navigating these confusing stereotypes made it difficult to accept my own sexuality growing up. I often felt my identity was defined by whom I was currently in a relationship with, rather than who I inherently was,” Rory said, in an opinion piece.

He says it’s easy to think the LGBTQ+ community is very separate from the “straight world”. But because such a large proportion of queer people are attracted to the “opposite” gender, many feel they don’t belong in the rainbow community or in straight spaces.

“The more we educate ourselves on the diversity of sexuality, the more we can help everyone feel welcome, supported and safe – no matter what labels they use.

“As a young person, I would have benefited greatly from resources specifically for bi youth, to help me combat the harmful stereotypes that made it difficult for me to accept myself,” Rory says.

I’m not done yet

This resonates with my story. For most of my teenage years, my attraction to women was hidden behind my attraction to men. Now I can see how exploring my sexuality has helped me flourish as a person.

For me, a healthy sex life is integral to good mental health and wellbeing. It’s a way to connect my mind and body. It puts a spring in my step and boosts my self-confidence. And what better way to appreciate my own femininity than to feel attraction for a person anatomically similar? My attraction to women fulfils me by not only connecting me to people of multiple genders; but to myself and my own body. I find myself sexy, just as I find her sexy. For me, that’s all that wellbeing is – a genuine mind and body connection.

Of course, I’m about as privileged as an LGBTQ+ person can get. I’m white, cisgender, able-bodied, young and live in Aotearoa. I can get away with expressing my sexuality in ways others can’t. I can walk down the street holding hands with a girl and experience cliché moments; like every other human who wants to kiss their crush on busy Mission Bay beach.

Opening up about my bisexuality wasn’t a one-and-done event. It’s a process, and I’m not finished yet. No queer person really is. Every time I meet someone I have to think: “Do they know I’m not straight?” Do I correct someone who gets it wrong, or brush over it? It can be tiring. But it’s also liberating. Each time I let someone in, I feel a little freer, a little more me. And even though I’ll be doing that in some capacity for the rest of my life, I’m grateful I know who I am.

Our heteronormative world means we must either visibly out ourselves to every person we meet, or choose to be subtle, or even secretive. I feel self-conscious of being too overbearing. I don’t want people to constantly assume I’m only into boys, but I also don’t want them to think I bring up my sexuality “all the time”. But truthfully, that struggle isn’t my fault.

Heterosexuality is everywhere. Unless you “look gay” (whatever that means) you’re straight by default. Even now I catch myself making assumptions about others. I still have some serious internal bias to address.

Lucky for me, the colourful, bold, larger-than-life Pride celebrations push back against years of discrimination and silencing. Being strong and confident and a feminist has always been important to me. I’ve grown up knowing that to be my best self, I must be brave, speak up, and live my truth. As much as anti-LGBTQ+ biases are still everywhere, it delighted me to see 15,000 fellow queer people celebrating love at the Big Gay Out on Valentine’s Day. Now is our time to be loud.

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