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Understanding Lesbian Health

By Christine Grillo

Defamation. Gay-bashing. Hate crimes. Sadly, our lexicon contains no shortage of terms denoting the mistreatment of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

Over a lifetime, exposure to homophobia can cause gay men and lesbians to form negative perceptions of themselves, and those negative self-images can come with their own adverse health effects, says Stacy Weibley, MPA, a doctoral student in Population, Family and Reproductive Health.

Although the effects of internalized homophobia—eating disorders, low self-esteem, drug use, depression and risky sex—have been well studied in men, says Weibley, there's been little solid research into how it manifests itself in women.

As part of her dissertation, Weibley aims to get a better handle on this issue. Her first step: to develop a valid scale for measuring internalized homophobia in lesbians. She'll use existing scales for men as a starting point (there are several such measurement tools, she notes), but will rely on input from the lesbian community and focus groups to establish a set of interview and survey questions unique to gay women.

The scale will probe the range of feelings that a self-identified lesbian holds about her sexuality, including questions such as: Would you feel comfortable in gay bars? Do you have friends who are lesbians? What would you change about yourself if you could? Would you feel comfortable coming out at work? Does your sexuality defy the tenets of your religious beliefs?

After the scale is completed, Weibley hopes to administer it in a survey. "We know that there are higher levels of obesity, anxiety, substance abuse and depression in lesbians," compared to their heterosexual counterparts, says Weibley, "and lesbians may be at increased risk for breast cancer." She hypothesizes that some of these conditions, such as obesity, are associated with negative perceptions of self. "There is such limited data on lesbians," she says. "We still have a lot to learn."