Rotterdam Pride: Arjan van der Star
Imagine talking to a therapist and instead of listening, they will tell you that there’s something innately wrong with you. This kind of ‘conversion therapy’ is still happening in the US and even in the Netherlands, mostly with LGBTQ+ youth. EUR alumnus Dr. Arjan van der Star (31) works as a postdoctoral researcher at San Diego State University and studies how harmful factors like these may help explain why LGBTQ+ individuals continue to report lower mental and physical health than the general population. His research also indicates that a supportive environment may undo the negative effects of stigma and prejudice, so health might be improved again.
“Even in countries that made great strides toward equality for queer people over the last few decades, inequalities and micro-aggressions against LGBTQ+ individuals persist,” Arjan states. Apart from the malpractice of conversion therapy, which is aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity through forceful dialogue, LGBTQ+ individuals often experience other forms of discrimination and stigma in their daily lives. This ranges from exposure to discriminatory legislation and policies, to overt acts of violence and more subtle day-to-day so-called micro-aggressions.
Gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults in Sweden were over five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers
In his research, Arjan focuses on the health and wellbeing of sexual and gender minorities, or in other terms, the LGBTQ+ population. From his office in San Diego, where a rainbow painting hangs on the wall, Arjan explicates his research findings thus far and uncovers some shocking facts. “Previous research has well established that this group is at a much greater risk for poor mental and physical health than the general population. My research for my PhD thesis at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm demonstrated, for instance, that gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults in Sweden were over five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Moreover, research has shown that the likelihood that gender minorities, like transgender and non-binary folks, attempt suicide is seven times higher.”
Stigma and oppression
According to Arjan, ‘chronic stress’ related to prejudice-based events and factors has long been argued to be the main cause of such disparities in mental and physical health. “Most research to date has focused on linking a variety of different factors related to stigma and prejudice to poor physical and mental health, but limited evidence exists on their interplay.” That is where his research comes in.
Arjan: “My research mainly focuses on understanding how such factors function together across various levels within in larger system of stigma and oppression. For example, negative societal attitudes, together with a lack of legal protections or with policies that would treat people differently based on their sexual or gender identity in a country, may inspire and promote violence in public places like city parks or bullying in classrooms. In turn, violence and victimization can lead to the need for someone to keep their sexual or gender identity a secret for a much longer time than otherwise wanted. This can be very stressful as the person would have to stay on their toes at all times trying to navigate this so-called closet.”
In such an environment, sexual and gender minorities might start making the negative attitudes that exist in society their own: “Something we refer to as internalizing,” Arjan explains. “Because of pressure from society, sexual and gender minorities may start believing that they cannot be their authentic selves or that they are not deserving of good things in life, that somehow adversity is their own fault because of who they are deep inside.”
Improved mental health
But it is not all doom and gloom. Arjan’s research is meant to show ways in which some of these effects can be reversed or intervened on, for instance with the help of a therapist or by making environments and societies safer.
“The opposite may actually also be true,” he says. “In a recent study I led, my colleagues and I found evidence that levels of this internalized stigma and a constant fear to get rejected by others were much higher the longer sexual minority men lived in high-stigma countries, but that these effects waned with time once these men moved to the low-stigma context of Sweden, explaining improved mental health over time. This truly shows the potential of how powerful improvements to societal climates can be to prevent and undo harm to this group’s mental health.”
"This truly shows the potential of how powerful improvements to societal climates can be to prevent and undo harm to this group’s mental health.”
Maybe that’s where the importance of communal and affirmative events like Pride Week - which happens in Rotterdam from 17 till 27 September – comes in, even in countries like the Netherlands. “Although it may come with its own set of challenges and discrimination may also be present within the LGBTQ+ community, engagement with the community is generally a protective factor. Community can function as a social safety net, as a place to truly be oneself, and as chosen family, particularly when rejected by one’s biological family,” Arjan claims. He further emphasizes that in the Netherlands we have been slowing down when it comes to LGBT acceptance and its translation into policy and legislation.
"Some religious spheres, for example, still promote conversion therapy. And looking at the news today, you see how much violence LGBT people have to endure. There is still a lot to gain when it comes to advancing LGBT wellbeing.”
“In the Netherlands, we might think: ‘LGBT acceptance is fully achieved here’, or 'Look at us, we have always been progressive'. And in a general sense that is true, the Netherlands still has a relatively open and accepting culture. But there are smaller pockets of subcultures where that is not yet the case at all, or even opposite. Some religious spheres, for example, still promote conversion therapy. And looking at the news today, you see how much violence LGBT people have to endure. There is still a lot to gain when it comes to advancing LGBT wellbeing.”
He concludes: “Erasmus wrote that ‘One who allows oppression, shares the crime’. And I believe that everyone has a task to create a better world for others. When we see different kinds of discrimination and racism around us, we all should take an active role in starting conversations and in protecting one another. Pride Week helps to keep this front and center by being an important place for activism and community.”