According to life course theory and research, exposure to country-level structural stigma (i.e., prejudiced population attitudes and discriminatory legislation and policies) toward sexual minorities (e.g., those who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual) during childhood may not only compromise sexual minority youth’s wellbeing through school-based experiences, but it may also yield negative consequences throughout the life course. Together with the negative sequelae of adulthood exposure to structural stigma, such as victimization, persisting effects of historical exposure may hypothetically accumulate throughout sexual minorities’ lives. Despite the fact that some studies have examined correlates of structural stigma exposure during both childhood and adulthood, they have done so separately and none has yet investigated this association and its potential mediators using a life course approach. The present study addresses this gap by examining how experiences during childhood, such as school bullying and sexual identity openness at school, and a subsequent risk for adulthood victimization may explain how country-level structural stigma jeopardizes sexual minorities’ life satisfaction in adulthood.
Structural stigma has been identified as an important risk factor for poor mental health among sexual minorities (Hatzenbuehler 2016
). Structural stigma has been previously defined and is typically measured as negative population attitudes, cultural norms, discriminatory legislation and policies, and unequal rights that hamper the wellbeing and opportunities of stigmatized groups (Hatzenbuehler 2016
). Across nations worldwide, the structural climate surrounding sexual minorities varies widely (Flores 2019
). In Europe, societal attitudes toward sexaul minorities, measured as the percentage of the population agreeing that gays and lesbians should be free to live their lives as they wish, ranged from about 30% in Ukraine and Russia to around 90% in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark in 2010, which also correlate with a legal index on human rights protections or violations in those countries (Bränström and Van der Star 2013
Adulthood exposure to structural forms of stigma has been consistently associated with poorer mental health outcomes among sexual minority adults, including lower life satisfaction (Pachankis and Bränström 2018
) and higher psychological distress (Hatzenbuehler et al. 2018
). Beside these bivariate associations between structural stigma and poor mental health, structural stigma may also indirectly compromise mental health. A growing number of studies has started to identify possible psychosocial mechanisms through which structural stigma might reduce adulthood mental health, such as through victimization, as a form of stigma at the interpersonal level, and sexual identity concealment, as a stigma-related factor at the individual level (e.g., Pachankis and Bränström 2018
). However, these studies describe associations with contemporaneous exposure to structural stigma and, so far, potential correlates of historical exposure to structural forms of stigma and sexual minorities’ wellbeing remain relatively unknown.
Structural stigma exposure during childhood may have an immediate effect on sexual minorities’ mental health by inducing adverse childhood experiences, but historical exposure to structural stigma may also lead to detrimental consequences for sexual minorities’ adulthood wellbeing and an increased vulnerability to adulthood victimization. During childhood, structural stigma might promote adverse experiences among sexual minorities, including school bullying (Saewyc et al. 2014
), yet few studies have examined this possibility. Although homophobic school environments have been linked to higher rates of stigma-based bullying among sexual minority youth (e.g., Kull et al. 2016
), less is known about how structurally stigmatizing national climates surrounding sexual minority youth may be associated with stigma-based school bullying.
During adulthood, historical exposure to structural stigma may lead to detrimental consequences for sexual minorities’ wellbeing through an increased vulnerability to adulthood victimization. According to theory and research on life course stressors, increased vulnerability to adulthood victimization might stem from cascading effects throughout the lifespan. Indeed, stigma-based victimization in childhood may cause proliferation of secondary stressors, including stigma-based victimization in adulthood (Gee et al. 2012
). For instance, childhood bullying may cause proliferation of secondary stressors (Gee et al. 2012
), through lower self-confidence, feelings of identity-related shame, and unassertiveness in social interactions later in life (Slavich et al. 2010
), which in turn could predispose individuals to future harassment and victimization (Robinson et al. 2013
Although few moderators of the above associations between structural stigma and childhood and adulthood stigma-based victimization have been examined, concealment of sexual identity might represent an important means for sexual minority youth to navigate hostile environments and potentially avoid victimization, particularly in structurally unsupportive climates (Pachankis and Bränström 2018
). Specifically, the association between structural stigma and school bullying may vary as a function of sexual identity openness, as concealment of sexual identity may dampen this association (Pachankis and Bränström 2018
). With sexual minority boys reportedly being at a higher risk for school bullying than sexual minority girls at least in lower-stigma countries, such as the Netherlands (Collier et al. 2013a
), but not necessarily in higher-stigma settings, such as the US (Kosciw et al. 2014
), sexual minority boys and girls may differ in their ability to mitigate the risk of school bullying across structural environments. For instance, concealment of sexual orientation might be a less viable tool for sexual minority boys, compared to sexual minority girls, in navigating the risk of school bullying across structural contexts. In fact, sexual identity-based school bullying is not only targeted at those who publicly self-identify and disclose sexual minority identities, but also at those perceived as such (D’Augelli et al. 2002
), particularly among sexual minority boys (Van Beusekom et al. 2020
). In sum, while country-level structural stigma may be associated with increased risk of school bullying among sexual minorities, the association between country-level structural stigma and school bullying may vary as a function of sexual identity openness at school and may do so more strongly among sexual minority girls, who might be less targeted than sexual minority boys and have more options for concealing their current or nascent identities.
While structurally stigmatizing climates have been suggested to hamper sexual minorities’ wellbeing throughout their lives, most studies to date have only estimated associations between structural stigma, victimization experiences, and wellbeing in either childhood or adulthood in isolation (Hatzenbuehler 2017
). Based on a large sample of sexual minorities living across widely varying structural climates, this study reports a gender-stratified life course exploration of whether exposure to structural stigma is associated with sexual minority adults’ life satisfaction through stigma-based experiences in both childhood (i.e., school bullying and identity openness at school) and adulthood (i.e., adulthood victimization). In this study, data from sexual minorities across 28 European countries permitted investigation of the life course correlates of structural stigma. The current study represents a comprehensive examination of the association between structural stigma toward sexual minorities and school bullying, with implications for adulthood life satisfaction.
This study found that many sexual minority adults across EU member states have been exposed to sexual identity-targeted school bullying. The association between country-level structural stigma toward sexual minorities (i.e., negative population attitudes and cultural norms, discriminatory legislation and policies, and unequal rights) and school bullying was dependent on whether or not sexual minorities were open about their lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity at school. Although sexual minority men reported an overall higher likelihood of exposure to school bullying, a similar pattern was found across genders regarding the association between country-level structural stigma and school bullying: higher rates of school bullying were found among those sexual minorities living in higher-stigma countries when they were open about their identity at school compared with those not open about their identity. More specifically, the negative association between higher levels of country-level structural stigma and a lower risk of school bullying was restricted to those sexual minority women who were not open about their lesbian or bisexual identity at school. Furthermore, only sexual minority men who were open about their gay or bisexual identity at school reported higher levels of school bullying when living in countries with higher levels of structural stigma.
Exposure to school bullying during childhood was associated with lower adulthood life satisfaction. In terms of life course hypotheses, this study found some indication that the negative association between country-level structural stigma and sexual minorities’ adulthood life satisfaction seemed to be indirectly linked through childhood school-based experiences and subsequent experiences of victimization in adulthood. However, these indirect effects only accounted for small proportions of the association between country-level structural stigma and life satisfaction. Nonetheless, the results indicate that some sexual minorities in higher-stigma countries may use visibility management strategies regarding their emerging identities during school years to mitigate the risk of school bullying, which might hold benefits for wellbeing in adult life. However, these results should be interpreted with caution as they do not suggest that identity concealment would be beneficial to sexual minorities in other settings beyond the school environment, during other developmental periods, or in other domains of sexual minorities’ lives. In fact, a large body of research demonstrates the psychological toll of identity concealment (Pachankis 2007
). While concealment may be culturally desired (Schrimshaw et al. 2018
) or even privileged in some cultures (Massad 2002
), sexual identity concealment has also been linked to increased levels of distress through several mentally taxing processes (Pachankis 2007
). These processes include continuous visibility management efforts, the anxious anticipation of rejection by others, and the threat of discovery (Pachankis 2007
). Sexual identity concealment may also hamper the development of a positive sexual identity and authentic self and any access to a global sexual and gender minority movement. At the same time, alignment with a singular sexual and gender minority movement is not necessarily associated with positive outcomes for all sexual and gender minority individuals, even if it has the ability to advance sexual and gender minority rights. These multilevel considerations no doubt shape the positive and negative consequences of the closet.
The study findings shed new light on the mechanisms underlying the link between country-level structural stigma and sexual minorities’ adulthood wellbeing by taking into account childhood and subsequent adulthood experiences of victimization. Previous studies have focused either on structural stigma, childhood experiences, and childhood wellbeing (e.g., Saewyc et al. 2014
) or on structural stigma, adulthood experiences, and adulthood wellbeing in isolation (e.g., Pachankis and Bränström 2018
). However, this study suggests that country-level structural stigma might shape childhood experiences with implications for adulthood experiences and life satisfaction. Specifically, the results indicate that structural stigma is not only associated with wellbeing of sexual minority adults through contemporaneous
adulthood victimization, but also through historical
experiences that might increase the likelihood of stressful experiences during childhood and adulthood. This is of particular importance given the results from earlier studies suggesting that peer victimization at a young age may lead to subsequent anticipated rejection in adulthood through lower self-confidence and less assertiveness in social interactions, which in turn could make one vulnerable to accumulated social stress and compromise wellbeing (Earnshaw et al. 2016
Whereas these results seem to suggest that the mechanisms related to historical correlates of country-level structural stigma may explain more of its adulthood sequelae among sexual minority men than among sexual minority women, it remains unknown whether this may be due to, for instance, a higher risk of school bullying, an increased frequency of school bullying over time, or a higher likelihood of being targeted due to gender non-conforming behavior among sexual minority boys. In line with the study results, previous research has shown that sexual minority boys experience more frequent stigma-based school bullying than sexual minority girls (Chesir-Teran and Hughes 2009
). The frequency of stigma-based school bullying among sexual minority boys may increase over time, while among sexual minority girls the frequency has been shown to progressively decrease (Poteat et al. 2012
). Several studies have also reported a higher risk of bullying based on gender non-conforming behaviors among sexual minority boys (D’Augelli et al. 2006
), although less is known about how sexual minority girls may experience stigma-based school bullying distinctively (Poteat and Russell 2013
), particularly in relation to gender differences in bullying severity, in its form, and in psychosocial adjustment to stigma-based bullying experiences. Research on gender differences in body weight-based bullying has found that boys and girls may be exposed to different forms of bullying, e.g., physical vs. emotional, respectively (Wang et al. 2010
). Whether psychosocial adjustment in later life to stigma-based bullying is similar for sexual minority boys and girls, as one study on gender non-conformity suggests (Toomey et al. 2010
), remains to be further investigated. Regarding the study’s hypothesis that sexual minority boys would have fewer opportunities to use identity non-disclosure at school in order to avoid sexual identity-based bullying in higher-stigma countries, no clear indications were found; identity non-disclosure at school was associated with lower risk for school bullying among sexual minority women in higher-stigma countries, while identity openness was associated with increased risk among sexual minority men in such countries. The overall pattern was similar across genders with a higher risk for school bullying among those sexual minorities open about their identity at school in higher-stigma countries. More research is needed to further unravel the potentially distinct ways in which historic and contemporaneous consequences of country-level structural stigma may comprise sexual minority wellbeing across genders, for instance, by looking at exposure to structural stigma before, during, and after the formation of a sexual identity.
The results should be interpreted in light of several limitations. First, this non-probability sample of participants cannot be regarded as representative of the sexual minority populations in each country. For instance, recruitment using local LGBT organizations and social networking web sites might lead to an overrepresentation of sexual minority individuals who are open about their sexual identities (Meyer and Wilson 2009
). Second, in order to ensure accurate classification of respondents’ childhood structural stigma exposure and given the lack of information on migration routes, respondents who did not attend school in their country of residence were excluded from the study. This may have affected the results, as structural environments and past victimization may also be motivations for sexual minorities to migrate from and escape homophobic climates, which in turn might shape their life trajectories (Pachankis et al. 2016
). Third, no information was available on sexual identity during childhood and adolescence. Country-level structural stigma may affect the formation and stability of a sexual identity (Ott et al. 2011
), as the prevalence of minority sexual identities has been shown to vary as a function of country-level structural stigma among sexual minority men (Pachankis et al. 2017
), with sexual identity stability potentially influencing the association between structural stigma and sexual identity-based school bullying. Fourth, the data showed a high degree of non-random missingness on our key study variables, but extensive imputation of data was deemed inappropriate. Because most of the variables were treated as mediating or outcome dependent variables, maximum likelihood estimations were only partially helpful and respondents with missing data on these variables were excluded from analyses. As the included sample generally reported more negative outcomes than the excluded group, this may have led to selection bias. Fifth, although some of the survey questions were of retrospective nature, the cross-sectional design did not allow for drawing causal inferences. Although common in bullying research (Collier et al. 2013b
), retrospective reports of childhood experiences may be subject to recall bias. Sixth, the subjective measures of identity-targeted school bullying experiences relied on a self-interpretation that being lesbian, gay, or bisexual was the primary reason for the peer victimization. Such a subjective interpretation or recall is potentially influenced by structural stigma or induced by adverse adulthood experiences but would, hence, also lie along the suggested causal pathway between structural stigma and school bullying or adulthood life satisfaction, and not confound the results. Lastly, limited information was available on several other potential mediators of the association between structural stigma and sexual minority wellbeing. While well-established risk factors, such as internalized homophobia and lack of social support (e.g., Berg et al. 2013
), were not assessed in the EU-LGBT survey, these risk factors have also been linked to childhood victimization (Bergeron et al. 2015
). Therefore, these unobserved factors would not bias the estimates as they would lie along the hypothesized causal pathways from structural stigma to low life satisfaction.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.