Sexual Minority Women face unique mental health challenges that we strive to respect and address
13 september 2023
By Hannah Uguru
The Maya Centre offers a supportive presence for queer women in the Islington community and surrounding boroughs who may be experiencing or have experienced trauma relating to their sexual identity — whether this be from cultural and social stigmas, personal isolation, violent discrimination, or another barrier. A 2014 UK Household Longitudinal Study, for example, found that sexual minority women (SMW) are more likely to live at or below the poverty line as Sexual Majority Women, particularly ‘bisexual’ and ‘other’ women, who consistently reported worse financial, social, and mental health outcomes. Furthermore, SMW are more likely to face violence and harassment from peers during adolescence than their heterosexual counterparts, according to the LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center.
Building on this, SMW who are multiply marginalised, such as those from the Global Majority or with a disability, report feeling stigmas and biases from multiple directions. For instance, SMW of colour typically feel rejected from the gender LGBTQ+ community due to their non-white cultural background but also feel the need to de-emphasise their sexual orientation within the racial or ethnic community. With this layered context in mind, it’s essential that we support SMW in a way that fully embraces the nuances of their identities and outlooks.
In September last year, The Maya Centre and the Women’s Hub collaborated with King’s College London for their Not My Shame project. Led by Black lesbian rights activist and poet Adreena Leeane, this creative writing workshop provided an imaginative and accessible environment for queer Black and Global Majority women who’ve gone through gender-based violence to explore writing as a storytelling method and means of therapeutic practice. SMW women can be particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence because of misogynistic and queerphobic ideas surrounding hetero-divergent displays of female sexuality, VAWG researcher Dr Nicole Johnson explains. “The media, and pornography in particular, have long depicted women’s bisexuality as less about sexual agency and more about the pleasure of straight men, which may result in the dehumanisation and objectification of bisexual women, resulting in increased acceptance of violence [against them],” she says. “One stereotype of bisexuals consistent with biphobia is that we are not to be trusted, which has been linked to intimate partner violence, including sexual violence.”
Representing the Maya Centre, Black women’s project co-lead Fiona Reynolds provided psychological insight into themes such as self-perception and healing explored in the workshop, closing the knowledge gap between clients and practitioners. On the importance of highlighting Black queer women’s unique relationship with mental health, Reynolds finds, “Deep fears of not being accepted, facing judgement from others, and embracing self-discovery have been trends I’ve identified through my work with LGBTQ+-identifying women. Members of this group seem to face a heightened sense of social instability. Many of the women in this group are living with anxiety.”
As touched on, SMW repeatedly bear worse mental health outcomes than their heterosexual counterparts, namely depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. The LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center attributes this disparity to challenges such as sexual orientation stigma, identity concealment, and heightened discrimination, leading to stress, isolation and internalised homophobia and biphobia. “External stigma, whether enacted as violent attacks, verbal harassment, or institutional biases can lead to disruption of a sexual or gender minority person’s general psychological processes, such as coping, emotional regulation, and interpersonal functioning. Internal stigma-related stressors, like internali[s]ed homophobia and expectations of rejection, can have similar effects,” they write.
“A lot of these mental health issues I’ve supported LGBTQ+ women through have been exacerbated by their personal situations, such as gender-based violence.” Reynolds details, “But from someone outside of this community looking in, there is an expectation that when a queer person comes out, there is an element of relief, freedom, and acceptance. To my surprise, this is not necessarily the case.”
With SMW also being more likely to avoid healthcare visits and even register with a GP, we must continue recognising and integrating the diversity of women’s sexual experiences and identities in our work. Hundreds of studies have found that ‘emotional writing’, i.e., using writing to express one’s feelings, can improve people’s physical and psychological health, with a 2019 review on complementary therapies in clinical practice evidencing increased resilience and decreased depressive symptoms, perceived stress, and rumination among those reporting trauma following a six-week writing intervention. “I never saw poetry as therapy, then I was given seven minutes in a workshop to write something and from those seven minutes, I haven’t stopped writing,” shares a participant from the Not My Shame project. Always speaking through the lens of intersectionality, Reynolds adds, “There aren’t enough spaces for queer Black women to come together, nor is there enough work going to supporting victims of domestic abuse. Black queer women survivors, therefore, represent a double minority that we’re keen to address, and creative writing offers an innovative avenue for us to do so.”
During Pride month this year, we vocalised our commitment to tackling the distinctive challenges that SMW face and stood in support of expressions of pride and confidence. Last year, we spoke out against the Rwanda Deportation Plan’s potentially harmful impact on queer women, platforming insights from lesbian refugees and activities. It’s crucial that we remain outspoken to stay true to our ethos of diversity and inclusivity among the women in our community.
But while using our platform to discuss SMW’s narratives and concerns is a great achievement, we understand that more can be done. Gona Saed, CEO of The Maya Centre, talks about our plans for the future, “The Maya Centre is committed to establishing a sanctuary that embraces acceptance, fosters opportunities, and empowers women from diverse backgrounds, celebrating their unique identities. Building upon the achievements of the Not My Shame Project and Women Hub’s community spaces, our vision includes expanding our capacity to provide targeted one-on-one counselling for LGBTQ+ women, establishing a queer women’s peer support group, and nurturing their active participation in our Women’s forum to amplify their voices.”
The Maya Centre wants to generate open discussion and participation between our organisation and stakeholders. We kindly invite you to let us know what other resources and activities you’d like to see that specifically support LGBTQ+ women in Islington and surrounding boroughs. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with us via Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook to share your thoughts!