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The dangers of assuming someone's sexual orientation

Having to constantly reveal their sexuality can place extra mental-health pressures on the rainbow community.

YouTube tells me almost 200,000 people have watched TV One’s upload of Maurice Williamson’s 2013 “big gay rainbow” speech. I remember the speech vividly, in part because of a conversation I had the day after the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013 was passed into law.

I was meeting a postgraduate student who had been at Parliament to witness the third-reading vote. I mentioned that it must have been nice to be part of something that will go down in history. They replied that it was more than just historic, it was personally significant because they were in a same-sex relationship. I didn’t see that coming.

I don’t feel so bad about that, though. Research by Stanford University social psychologist Nalini Ambady suggests that people are 10-15% better than chance at accurately determining sexuality based on facial photos, video clips and other cues. Women are better at judging male sexuality at different times in their fertility cycle and when “primed with romantic thoughts” – possibly after reading stories about the kind of romantic dates that only appear in movies, and books with Fabio on the cover.

The situation of the person I was talking to is one that they had very likely experienced many times before – coming out. Movies with gay characters may show them coming out once, usually to family or friends, but coming out is not a one-and-done situation.

As a straight, cisgender male, I assume that people are like me. Well, I don’t assume they’re male, but I tend to assume heterosexuality unless told otherwise. Because non-straight people are a societal minority, they find themselves repeatedly disclosing their sexuality to people like me.

One thing that the movies do get right is that this is often quite stressful because of the uncertainty about how it will be received.

The stress of repeatedly having to “come out” is something that was reinforced to Victoria University of Wellington’s Gloria Fraser in her research on rainbow people’s experiences of mental-health services, for which I was a supervisor.

Because of this “minority stress” – pressure that comes from living in an invalidating world on top of all the other everyday stresses that people experience –  rainbow New Zealanders are often at the higher end of mental-distress statistics. But seeking mental-health support can also add to that stress because it may necessitate disclosure, yet again, to multiple services and therapists.

Fraser interviewed and surveyed more than 1600 rainbow people around the country. Although a slight majority reported their experiences of mental-health services were mostly helpful, there were also a lot of negative stories.

Of course, rainbow people aren’t alone in this, if the recent Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction is anything to go by.

But they experience particular challenges that include the stress of coming out, the therapist’s surprise or discomfort at the disclosure, being told that their sexuality was the product of past trauma, and having to educate their therapist about sexuality and gender.

To assist mental-health professionals in treating members of the rainbow community, Fraser has developed a free, evidence-based guide, which can be found at rainbowmentalhealth.nz.

This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.