An Interview with Perry Expert Witness Dr. Ilan Meyer

I’ve been fascinated by the reports coming from the Perry v Schwarzenegger trial today. For most of the afternoon Ilan Meyer, PhD has been on the stand giving expert testimony about the tremendous psychological effect of discrimination against LGBT people.

So you know me, I went searching. Usually it takes me a while to find something worth sharing, but I got lucky this time and found an interview Dr. Meyer did with Dr. David Van Nuys of the podcasts Shrink Rap Radio and Wise Counsel at MentalHealth.net.

Note: This is a relatively long, relatively technical interview in which Dr. Meyer goes into some depth on his research. Further information about his methodology and research can be found at his Columbia.edu site. I’ll pull an important nugget from Dr. Van Nuys’ interview below.

[wpaudio url=”http://blog.mattalgren.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/20090815_wisecounsel_ilan_meyer_effects_of_stressors_on_minorities.mp3″ text=”David Van Nuys Interviews Dr. Ilan Meyer”]

Now, “stressors” is also a big term that has many definitions, but one easiest way to think about it is life events, events that happen to people. And, of course, everybody has events; all people have stress in their lives. The idea of minority stress or social stress is that people who are socially disadvantaged experience more bad things and, in large part, those bad things that they experience are caused by prejudice and discrimination against the group. So, for example, if a black person is not hired or not promoted as much as his counterpart that would be an event – like not being hired, or being fired, or not being promoted – that is caused by social stress.

So what happens at that point where you recognize that, or you name this, or you identify that? And the question is: how do the social norms about homosexuality or about heterosexuality, about expectations, about the religious norms and values, how does that affect you when you begin to think of yourself as a gay or lesbian person? And internalized homophobia is when you internalize negative attitudes or negative values, and assign them to yourself. And we see a lot of examples of that, for example, from people who were raised in a very strictly religious environment, although it’s not only a religious environment. But often they might be people who have gone to church and were told by their priest or preacher negative things about what it is to be gay, and then they think that they themselves might be gay, and then they think they’re all those bad things and they’re going to go to Hell. Or in a non-religious setting it is, again, very similar; it doesn’t have to be a religious setting.

So internalized homophobia is just feeling negative things about who you are, about what your prospects for the future might be. I mentioned before, stereotypes about having family, the notion that, at least in the past – and it definitely has been changing, I hope that it’s very different now and we do have some evidence that it is different – that you thought, well, if I’m gay, I’m never going to have a family, I’m never going to have children. And what does that do to a young person growing up? So that’s the internalized homophobia part.

There are other elements of social stressors that can affect a person without anything actually happening directly or immediately to them. Another one of them is what I call “expectations of rejection,” which is not about internalizing on your own self the homophobia, but expecting it from other people. And this is something that Gordon Allport, who talked about prejudice, talked about a lot – as did Erving Goffman, who talked about stigma. Allport actually called it “vigilance.” It’s the expectation that somebody else might harm you in some ways, and it’s kind of like being on edge or being watchful all the time, which is a very stressful experience to be.

So one example of that might be when you’re at work and you cannot tell anybody that you’re gay, if you’re gay. And you have to make up all kinds of stories about what you did this last weekend, and about your partner, and you have to change the gender of the partner. And there are a lot of studies in social psychology and cognitive psychology, actually, that show that this is a very stressful experience for people to kind of lead this double life. They’ve done studies, for example, with women with breast cancer who were, basically, trying not to tell anybody at work for fear that it might damage their prospect for other reasons. And it’s just very, very stressful; actually the office there was referred to like a “living hell” kind of experience where you always have to think about how to disguise who you really are. So that’s another experience of stress that I’ve talked about and that we measure, that vigilance thing. So these are the more, I would say, subjective or internalization aspects of the stressful environment.

Dr. Meyer also talks at length about different reactions to stressors by race and ethnicity and how Latino and black lesbians and gays seem to be better equipped than white lesbians and gays to cope with homophobia. It’s a fascinating interview. If you skipped ahead, skip right back and listen to it.

Thanks to Dr. Meyer both for his testimony today and his years of research on this important subject. Thanks also to Dr. David Van Nuys for the interview. I’ve added his podcasts to my list of must-listens; I hope you’ll do the same.

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