Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

'Shiny Happy Same-Sex Attracted Woman Seeking Same': How Communities Contribute to Bisexual and Lesbian Women's Well-Being

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

'Shiny Happy Same-Sex Attracted Woman Seeking Same': How Communities Contribute to Bisexual and Lesbian Women's Well-Being

Article excerpt


Quantitative research suggests that lesbian and bisexual women face significant challenges to well-being. Yet, researchers have begun to acknowledge that thriving is possible and '... diverse sexualities and life experiences may promote the development of particular strengths in individuals' (Lee and Crawford 2007:124). There is little evidence about the strategies non-heterosexual women use to achieve well-being. This paper examines community engagement as one such potential strategy. It forms part of a larger study in which we explored how a sample of bisexual and lesbian women who identify themselves as leading thriving lives achieve their subjective experiences of well-being.1

Lack of social support has been identified as a risk factor in the lower mental health status of bisexual and lesbian women (McNair et al 2005). In contrast, community participation has been found to be protective of health in the wider population (Berkman 2000). Community participation has been identified as a key factor in sustaining well-being for members of stigmatised groups (Bailey et al 2000; Meyer 2003). One Canadian study found that community was so central to the health of lesbians and bisexual women that they were unable to talk about health '... without also mentioning the role of community' (Bailey et al 2000:1).

The participants in this study provided many accounts of community as an important resource in achieving well-being. However, their accounts suggest that community is not an unqualified good. Rather, finding and negotiating community engagement which contributes to, rather than threatening, well-being is an active process. Women sought out and chose between communities as well as altering their own behaviour to meet community norms and working to re-negotiate or challenge those norms. Where women did not want (or were unable) to comply with norms, some described finding or building new communities.

This study also suggests that lesbian communities may be made up of more extensive networks than some of the communities with which bisexual women described being affiliated with. We argue that the differences in these communities may have distinct implications for the roles that community can play in supporting 'thriving lives' for bisexual and lesbian women.

Research context

Existing research into the health status and barriers to well-being experienced by lesbians and bisexual women suggests that they experience specific '... patterns of illness and reduced access to and standards of care' (Ministerial Advisory Committee on Gay and Lesbian Health 2002:7). This research has distinct limitations, including the persistent under-representation of bisexual women (Diamond 2008; Heath 2005; Lee and Crawford 2007).

However, most research documents significant differences between the physical health (de Visser et al 2003; Ministerial Advisory Committee on Gay and Lesbian Health 2003) and mental health (Jorm et al 2002; King et al 2003; D'Augelli and Grossman 2001; McNair et al 2005) of gay, lesbian and bisexual people compared with that of the broader community. It indicates higher rates of adverse health outcomes amongst gay men and lesbians and much higher rates of adverse outcomes among bisexuals (Smith et al 2003a:253).

Current research is unable to conclusively explain the relationships between poorer health and non-heterosexual sexualities. However, studies link lower levels of mental health to stress, abuse and lack of social support, especially in the case of bisexual people. Two Australian studies (Jorm et al 2002; McNair et al 2005) found an association between bisexual identity (and in McNair's study, 'mainly heterosexual' identity), poorer mental health outcomes and lower levels of social support.

In other studies, the poorer health of nonheterosexuals has been linked to discrimination, marginalisation and violence (Meyer 2003). Research suggests that bisexual and lesbian women face higher rates of discrimination (Eliason 1997:324; Herek 2002; Banwell et al 2003), sexual coercion (de Visser et al 2003; Robohm et al 2003), lifetime abuse (McNair et al 2005) and homophobic abuse/bullying (Schwartzkoff et al 2003; Dyson et al 2003) than heterosexual women. …

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