In the face of oppression, minority groups develop unique strengths and character traits.
It sometimes feels like every day brings with it a new study about minority stress, a think piece on the Trump administration’s neglect of LGBTQ Americans, or a news item about the horrific treatment of transgender people in the workplace. And while it’s hugely important to identify and discuss the microaggressions and overt discrimination that all LGBTQ people face, this continued emphasis on the negative aspects of being an LGBTQ individual is ultimately an incomplete picture of what it means to be queer in 2017 and can lead to self-perpetuating patterns of defeatism.
The persistence that’s been required of the LGBTQ community in the face of continued oppression has actually given way to a a unique set of strengths. While our backgrounds are as distinct and varied as our personalities, LGBTQ individuals are strong, creative, funny, interesting, and above all, resilient. Research shows that for the queer community, what doesn’t kill us really does make us stronger. Here’s how:
1. We’re Socially Intelligent
In their 2014 study “LGBT Strengths: Incorporating Positive Psychology Into Theory, Research, Training, and Practice,” researchers Michelle D. Vaughan and Eric M. Rodriguez define social intelligence as encompassing “a number of skills related to perceiving and using emotional information — both from self and others — to make decisions in social interactions.” In other words, it’s the ability to get along with others, get them to cooperate with you, and successfully navigate complex interpersonal interactions.
The study — and others like it — suggests that the experience of being a sexual or gender minority actually fosters social and emotional intelligence. For example In 2004, researchers Julie Konik and Mary Crawford found that bisexual people were more capable of modifying their behavior to address unique situations and problems compared to both their heterosexual and homosexual counterparts — a trait the study authors describe as “cognitive flexibility.” In 2011, a similar study found that trans men and women had high levels of social intelligence, based on insights into what it means to experience life beyond the gender binary .
Because LGBTQ individuals are statistically more likely to be minorities in group settings, they learn to modify their behaviors and reactions in order to minimize aggression or suspicion from their peers. This generally results in the ability to “read a room” and evaluate the “correct” social responses. And while these motivations are symptoms of an insidious, culturally enforced intolerance, they’ve given way to an adaptive social skill set that cisgendered heterosexual people are less likely to posses.
2. We’re Courageous
Research shows that, because LGBTQ individuals are essentially required to cope with near-constant minority stress, we’re more likely to be brave. In a culture where threats of physical violence, job discrimination, social exclusion, and political inequality are condoned by the federal government, LGBTQ individuals encounter near-constant risks that their heterosexual counterparts rarely face. “The process of coming out and confronting heteronormativity on a daily basis requires bravery on a daily basis,” write researchers Vaughan and Rodriguez, authors of the aforementioned 2014 study.
3. We’re Empathetic
In a 2008 survey of over 550 gay men and lesbians, respondents expressed that the process of coming out involves a tremendous amount of personal insight and reflection — exercises that ultimately improved their ability to empathize with others. “This self-reinforcing chain positively reclaims power for individuals and reinforces good stereotypes while disrupting negative ones,” write the study’s authors. “Many participants in this study transformed reactions to institutionalized oppression and stigmatization into empathy and social activism.”
4. We’re Authentic
The same survey also found that respondents felt less pressure to conform to societally defined roles and narratives like getting married or having children on a certain timeline — or at all. Other themes included freedom from gender-specific roles within relationships or society at large, freedom to explore sexuality and relationships, and freedom to enjoy egalitarian relationships. One lesbian respondent wrote, “Being lesbian allows us to choose to have children and how to raise children in ways not claimed by straight women.” One gay man noted, “There is less pressure on gay men to have children and, as such, the decision for a gay man to have or not to have children may involve a healthier process.”
5. We’re Resilient
In a seminal 2003 examination of resilience theory as a method of determining how LGB people cope with anti-LGBTQ legislation, researchers Glenda Russell and John Richards found that when LGB individuals are actively involved as change agents they are better insulated against the damage wrought by anti-LGBTQ politics. Becoming involved enhances individuals’ ability to cope and builds resilience for the future. The study also found that nearly three quarters of LGB individuals demonstrated at least one of five “resilience factors” that helped them in coping with adversity, including social support, connection with the LGB community, emotional coping, self-acceptance, and positive reframing.
Because LGBTQ individuals are more likely to face identity-related discrimination and accompanying emotional hardships than their straight counterparts, they often have no choice but to develop resilience. This breeds a unique strength of character that is not so ubiquitously present in majority groups.
6. We’re Highly Creative
The experiences of LGBTQ individuals have not only necessitated heightened social awareness and resilience, but creativity in how queer people choose craft their own stories. As early as 1989, Psychologist Laura Brown described the process of lesbian and gay identity development as “something we had to invent for ourselves… [by] actively deconstructing and recreating our visions of human behavior.” Without established narratives against which to chart their experiences, members of the LGBTQ community have been liberated to form tight-knit social circles, families of choice, and safe spaces that celebrate shared identity traits.
Looking At The Whole Picture: Why Studies Should Focus On The Positive
It’s imperative that research into the LGBTQ experience look beyond the negative aspects of belonging to a sexual or gender minority group. Ultimately, only looking at the hardships we face ignores the incredible things we’ve built despite those hardships. And while raising awareness into the realities of both the systemic and social discrimination that we face on a daily basis is necessary, so too is examining the ways in which our community has persevered and grown.
Equipped with empathy, resilience, strength of character, and a tight-knit community support system, there’s no telling what we’ve yet to accomplish.