The LGBT Health & Development Program

Research Blog > That’s So Gay: Unintentional Messages Still Hurt

Posted on May 3rd, 2013 by IMPACT in Research Blog. 1 Comment

Microaggressions presentation ad at Northwestern UniversityLanguage is a power tool that can be used to harm or insult others. Imagine a career counselor telling a minority student, “Do you think you’re ready for college?” Whether it was intentional or not, the message the counselor is sending is that students of color don’t usually succeed in college. These hidden, negative messages about a person or group that come up in everyday social interactions are known as microaggressions. They are usually communicated in meaningless ways that neither the student nor counselor, in this case, may entirely understand. The feeling of uncertainty that the student may experience can cause high levels of distress. More importantly, it can have long lasting effects on the individual’s ability to function in life.

Since 1970, research on microaggressions has heavily focused on understanding its impact on ethnic minorities. However, in recent years, attention has been placed on exploring the types of microaggressions that target LGBT individuals. More often these specific messages, called sexual orientation microaggressions, can be communicated through anti-gay language. For example, the phrase “that’s so gay,” is commonly used by today’s youth as a way to express something stupid, weird, and undesirable [1]. This often comes across as an attack on the LGBT community, causing them to feel misunderstood, stereotyped, and put down. Dr. Kevin Nadal is one of several researchers demonstrating the negative impact microaggresions have on the physical and mental health of LGBT individuals. The constant stress experienced from feeling stigmatized leads to a variety of health problems that include lower functioning immune systems, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety [2].

Given the harmful effects that microaggressions can have, mental health professionals are now stressing the importance of including gay-affirmative approaches in counseling services. Although there has been progress in this area, many LGBT clients still report facing discrimination and hostility from therapists. For this reason, Dr. Shelton and Delgado-Romero felt it was necessary to conduct a study exploring what microaggressions look like and the ways they affect LGBT clients throughout therapy. They presented some examples of microaggressions that they discovered during sessions, along with the therapists’ hidden messages:

Microaggression:  A therapist interrupts a client during a discussion about academic issues and says, “What do you think this issue has to do with your sexuality?”

Message: Your sexual orientation needs to be treated.

Microaggression:  A therapist tells a client, “You don’t have to worry about that [sexual orientation] right now. Let’s talk about this other issue.”

Message: You make me uncomfortable.

As a result, when LGBT clients experienced sexual orientation microaggressions, they were more likely to hold back information, avoid talking about sexual orientation or issues related to sexual orientation, and reduce self-help behaviors [3].

An upcoming workshop, co-sponsored by the LGBT Resource Center, will address the types of microagressions LGBT individuals encounter, ways to cope, and how others in the community can prevent them from occurring. The event, presented by Dr. Kevin Nadal, will be held on Wednesday, May 8, and Thursday, May 9, in multiple locations at both the Evanston and Chicago campuses. For registration and more information, visit the Northwestern University Women’s Center.

This article was written by Adriana Guerrero, IMPACT intern.


1. Woodford, M. R., Howell, M. L., Kulick, A., & Silverschanz, P. (2013). “That’s so Gay” Heterosexual Male Undergraduates and the Perpetuation of Sexual Orientation Microagressions on Campus. Journal of interpersonal violence,28(2), 416-435.

2. Nadal, K. L., Rivera, D. P., & Corpus, M. J. H. (2010). Sexual orientation and transgender microaggressions: Implications for mental health and counseling.Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact, 217-240.

3. Shelton, K. L., & Delgado-Romero, E. A. (2009). Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: The Experience of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Queer Clients in Psychotherapy (Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia).

One thought on “Research Blog > That’s So Gay: Unintentional Messages Still Hurt

  1. Pingback: “Are You Gay?” Sexuality and Gender Identity | In Transit: Embodied Differences

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