By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
In today’s world belonging to a sexual minority population often means experiencing invisibility, marginalization, and discrimination, making day-to-day life challenging. Imagine taking on twice that burden, as is what happens when people enter into same-sex relationships – your partner’s stresses often become your own, too.
In partnership with the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, San Francisco State University’s Health Equity Institute is spearheading Project SHARe: Stress, Health and Relationships, a National Institutes of Health-funded study to better understand how same-sex couples experience social stress together.
SFSU sociology Professor Allen LeBlanc, 49, the study’s principal investigator, explained that traditionally, scientific research has focused on how individuals are affected by stress. This study is starting at the unit of the couple, specifically same-sex couples, not only to study how they experience stress together, but to determine how being part of a sexual minority group can amplify that stress.
“All couples worry about things like money, sex, kids,” LeBlanc, who is gay, said. “Those are normal stressors. Minority stressors are rooted in the unique experience of being in a disadvantaged population – social stigma, rejection from society, experiencing everyday discrimination and prejudice in the forms of one-on-one interactions and institutional barriers.”
People also experience sexual minority stress in the form of internalized homophobia, he explained, where rejection from society is internalized and leads to hiding sexual orientation and subsequently intimate relationships, too.
Also important, LeBlanc emphasized, is addressing the experiences of various minority populations that exist within the broader sexual minority population.
“This study is designed to have a racially, ethnically, socioeconomically diverse population,” he said. “There’s a growing awareness in the minority stress research field that you have to think about multiple minority stressors simultaneously and that’s why we’re reaching toward diversity.”
While SFSU is the home institution for the project, Atlanta’s Emory University will also be identifying couples in keeping with the guideline of diversity.
“Both Atlanta and San Francisco have large gay and lesbian populations but they’re fairly different in their sociodemographic populations,” LeBlanc said.
During the first year of the five-year study, Project SHARe’s goal is to interview 60 same-sex female couples and 60 same-sex male couples recruited from all over the Bay Area.
Five months into the project, the study’s team is currently looking for more participants. Couples must have spent a minimum of six months together to enroll. The one-time interview consists of up to two hours of self-guided relationship reflection which, LeBlanc said, has been really enjoyable for couples.
“They really determine the focus of the interview,” he said. “We ask them what’s been significant in their relationship and we have exercises to facilitate that conversation.”
Kelly Whitney, 43, and Trisha Pulido, 35, a same-sex couple from Concord that has been together for seven years, enjoyed their interview.
“We were there for three and a half hours,” Whitney said, “because we just kept talking. It was so much fun.”
As a small incentive, each partner is given $30 for participating. After the first year of interviews, Project SHARe’s team hopes to use the social networks of those 120 couples to identify additional couples for the study’s next phase.
The first of its kind, Project SHARe exists as a starting point not only for understanding how stress is shared in same-sex relationships (and other types of relationships, too), but also for developing better social services that take into account the complex experiences that accompany belonging to a sexual minority population.
“It points to the places where we can intervene,” LeBlanc said, “where social services and clinical providers can identify where people are most vulnerable to stress and where they need the most support.
“It’s also a means of educating the general public,” he continued, “about the challenges placed on people’s lives by virtue of being in a minority group. Stressors like blocked access to marriage could actually be something that becomes a public health issue.”
While still relatively new, the study is having a positive impact on the morale of some participants. Feeling excited, recognized, and validated are a few sentiments couples have relayed.
“It’s different for same-sex couples because the only support we get is from each other,” Whitney said. “It’s nice to get acknowledgement beyond our community.”
LeBlanc and his colleagues also hope that this study will lead to future studies that include transgender people.
For more information about Project SHARe, visit http://www.projectshare.sfsu.edu.