LGBT Servicemembers at Greater Health Risk
A recent study by Hunter College’s Center for HIV Educational Studies & Training’s found that harassment, victimization, mental health, substance abuse and sexual risk behaviors face LGBT service members in the U.S. military.
"Our findings show that LGBT service members report experiencing harassment and victimization both within and outside the military," said Dr. Jeffrey T. Parsons, Department of Psychology Director, Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training (CHEST) Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "This may very well be responsible for some of the mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, as well as problems with alcohol abuse, that some of these service members report."
Parsons and members of his research team, including Dr. Ana Ventuneac, Dr. Sitaji Gurung and Jonathon Rendina, surveyed hundreds of LGBT military service members online about experiences of harassment and victimization in the military as well as their sexual behavior, substance use, and mental health. The results of this study titled, "Serving Proud: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Service Members in the U.S." were presented at the APHA 141st Annual of the American Public Health Association Meeting and Exposition held on Nov. 2-6, 2013 in Boston, MA.
Here are some of the key findings from the study:
Mental Health & Alcohol Use:
Increases in PTSD, anxiety, and depression were associated with increased odds of alcohol dependence, with PTSD and depression being most strongly associated with alcohol dependence.
Feeling personal growth from coming to terms with one’s sexual identity was associated with decreased odds of alcohol dependence, perhaps indicating that this factor promotes coping in the face of difficult life experiences.
Experiences of Harassment:
Women and men reported similar levels of sexual orientation-based harassment in the military.
A greater number of lesbian and bisexual women reported being denied career opportunities and more incidents of sexual harassment inside the military than gay and bisexual men, though gay and bisexual men also reported experiencing sexual harassment.
HIV risks & testing:
Overall, a majority of gay and bisexual men in the military were engaging in safer sexual practices (i.e., condom use during anal sex).
Experiencing harassment within the military because of perceived sexual orientation was associated with a greater frequency of unprotected anal intercourse, particularly among those who were actively serving in the military in the past year.
Almost all service members reported having been tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime, with most having received a test within the previous 12 months.
These challenges notwithstanding, a majority of surveyed individuals reported no difficulties with mental health, substance use, or sexual risk behavior, suggesting that a variety of resilient factors may be protecting them from the adverse effects of gender and sexual orientation-based stigma and discrimination.
"The best news is that a substantial proportion of LGBT persons in the military overcame these problems and demonstrated overall well-being. Features such as experiencing a sense of growth related to coming to terms with one’s sexual identity were found to be protective against negative outcomes," said Parsons.
CHEST’s findings highlight that, despite Department of Defense policy changes such as the dismissal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), many LGBT military members still face harassment and victimization in the military. More work is needed to achieve adequate levels of safety and equity for LGBT individuals serving in the military. New programmatic initiatives spearheaded by the Military Partners and Families Coalition, the Center for American Progress, and the Palm Center are underway that may be tremendously helpful in reaching these objectives.
"Future research and prevention efforts should focus on reducing structural stigma as well as understanding resilient factors in an attempt to promote effective coping," said Parsons.
CHEST’s mission is to conduct research to identify and promote strategies that prevent the spread of HIV and improve the lives of people living with HIV. We have been advocating for and working with the LGBT community since 1996.