As we celebrate Pride month, I am alarmed, angry, and saddened with the surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation that has emerged across the United States. This is a crucial moment for expressing our pride and advocating for equality. Shockingly, there have been over 491 bills targeting the LGBTQ community (ACLU, 2023) introduced in state legislatures throughout the country. Much of the proposed legislation targets transgender and nonbinary adults, youth, and families. The profound impact of these discriminatory measures on the mental well-being of LGBTQ individuals, including the heightened risk of suicide (Prairie et al., 2023), cannot be emphasized enough.
However, the harm caused from homophobia and transphobia far extends beyond LGBTQ individuals and families. Research has found the best predictor of homophobia and transphobia is related to rigidity in gender roles (Costa & Davies, 2012). Inflexible gender roles often enforce societal expectations and norms regarding how individuals should behave based on their assigned sex at birth. These roles typically adhere to a binary (either woman or man) understanding of gender, with limited options for self-expression and identity. Moreover, this rigidity reinforces some rather toxic ideas, particularly about what it means to be a man or a woman.
The rigid gender binary and its enforcement from both men and women is just as harmful to men. If we know anything about feminism, it is that oppression caused by male patriarchy and misogyny is just as much of a prison for men as it is for women. The adherence to rigid, sexist, or restrictive gender roles, learned during socialization results in personal restriction, devaluation, or violation of others or self (O’Neil, 1990). In fact, researchers have demonstrated that men experience a great deal of conflict related to four domains of the male gender role: success, power, and competition (a disproportionate emphasis on personal achievement and control or being in positions of power); restrictive emotionality (discomfort expressing and experiencing vulnerable emotions); restrictive affectionate behavior between men (discomfort expressing care and affectionate touching of other men); and conflict between work and family relations (O’Neil et al. as cited in APA, 2018).
This has significant implications for men’s ability to foster meaningful connection. We know the building blocks of secure emotional attachment among adults is emotional accessibility, emotional responsiveness, and emotional engagement (Johnson, 2008). Unfortunately, due to toxic masculinity (the devaluing of anything not perceived masculine) and a rigid, binary concept of gender, these foundational soft skills and vulnerable emotions can be perceived not only as weak and undesirable, but even as a threat to one’s identity as a man. This is a factor on why the American Psychological Association issued guidelines for clinical psychologists to directly address toxic masculinity, both in and out the therapy room. Men experience more existential loneliness than women (Helm et al., 2018). Existential loneliness is the “loneliness in a crowd” feeling. The missing of deep, meaningful emotionally intimate relationships; the kind of relationships that require being vulnerable enough to take emotional risks. And we know that loneliness literally kills people, at a higher rate than high blood pressure, smoking, or obesity (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015).
This has also been my experience as a therapist who works predominantly with men, across sexualities. One of the most common themes I see with many of my male-identified clients is a deep yearning for emotional intimacy, with their friends, partners, and particularly with other men. However, these men also struggle trusting others and often view vulnerability as a form of weakness. They are cut off from their own emotions and needs and have suppressed and exiled the vulnerable, needy parts that they also have been socialized to believe may even making them less manly.
So yeah, there’s no overstating the harm being caused to the LGBTQ community due to rigid binary ideas about gender. However, the factors that cause it are a part of a much broader public health issue. As we celebrate Pride month, let us not only stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community but also work towards dismantling the harmful societal constructs that perpetuate discrimination and harm to all members of society. Together, we can foster a world not only where LGBTQ people are free to live authentically and without fear but also men will be liberated from the constraints of a rigid gender binary that prevent from them fostering nurturing emotionally intimate relationships and becoming better partners, friends, and fathers.
American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018). APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/policy/psychological-practice-boys-men-guidelines.pdf
Costa, P. A., & Davies, M. (2012). Portuguese Adolescents' Attitudes Toward Sexual Minorities: Transphobia, Homophobia, and Gender Role Beliefs. Journal of Homosexuality, 59(10), 1424-1442. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2012.724944
Helm, P. J., Rothschild, L. G., Greenberg, J., & Croft, A. (2018). Explaining sex differences in existential isolation research. Personality and Individual Differences, 134, 283–288. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2018.06.032
Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015 Mar;10(2):227-37. doi: 10.1177/1745691614568352. PMID: 25910392
Johnson, S. M. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. New York: Little Brown. Johnson, S. M. (2004).
Mapping attacks on LGBTQ rights in U.S. state legislatures. American Civil Liberties Union. (2023, June 9). https://www.aclu.org/legislative-attacks-on-lgbtq-rights?impact=
O'Neil, J. M. (1990). Assessing men's gender role conflict. In D. Moore & F. Leafgren (Eds.), Problem solving strategies and interventions for men in conflict (pp. 23–38). American Association for Counseling.
Prairie, K., Kivisto, A. J., Gray, S. L., Taylor, N., & Anderson, A. M. (2023). The association between hate crime laws that enumerate sexual orientation and adolescent suicide attempts. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 29(2), 196–209. https://doi.org/10.1037/law0000360