There is a new study in town that shows the odd connections between sexual orientation and stress responses.
According to McGill researcher Robert-Paul Juster, there is something funny is going on with lesbians, gay men and heterosexual people when it comes to stress.
The researcher was curious to see how gay men and women would react to stress. He already discovered that men produce more cortisol than women when stressed, and that gay people are more stressed when they are closeted. However, nobody had ever compared the stress responses of gay men and lesbian to straight people.
For the study, he brought in 87 gay, lesbian, straight and bisexual participants into his lab, made them do stress-inducing math problems and a mock job interview, and watched what happened to the cortisol levels in their saliva.
Since gay men are exposed to stressors such as discrimination and homophobia on a daily basis (what psychologists call minority stress), it was thought that gay men would get more stressed than straight men. Wrong.
It turned out while straight men’s cortisol spiked 20 minutes after the stressor; gay men remained almost entirely unperturbed.
That’s a good thing, right? Not necessarily.
It could mean that gay men have suffered so much stress they no longer react. For example, one previous study found gay men living in American states with more discrimination had blunted cortisol reactions.
It is also possible that gay men have simply developed better coping mechanisms for stress than straight men, and that their hormones have been pummelled into non-reactivity.
Which would mean lesbians should have lower stress reactivity too, right? Nope.
It turns out lesbians and bisexual women were more stressed than their straight peers.
In fact, gay women reacted much more like straight men, and straight women reacted like gay men.
The only difference was that the queer women took twice as long to get stressed. Why? Juster thinks it might be because the gaywomen spent more time turning the stress over in their heads after the event, but for now that’s just a guess.
So what should we make of the mysterious difference between how gay men and women react to stress?
That’s a really good question, and to be honest with you I have no clue. I really don’t know how to explain it.”
What we have learned, Juster says, is that we shouldn’t lump gay men and lesbians together when it comes to stress.
Also, because Juster controlled for sex hormones such as testosterone and progesterone in his study, we now know stress reactivity is related to social factors and not just biology.
Fortunately, Juster still has his postdoctoral research to work it all out.
There’s a lot of follow up studies that I need to do to figure out what’s going on. This is something I hope will stretch out through my entire career.”