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Most LGBTQ Americans experience harassment, discrimination, Harvard study finds

More than half of the LGBTQ people surveyed said they have experienced discrimination or harassment due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The majority of LGBTQ Americans say they have experienced some form of harassment or discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a report by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and National Public Radio.

The survey, a nationally representative sample of 489 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer adults, found that more than half of them experienced slurs (57 percent) or offensive comments (53 percent). Most of those surveyed also reported that they or an LGBTQ friend or family member has been threatened or harassed (57 percent), sexually harassed (51 percent) or has experienced violence (51 percent) on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.

"LGBTQ people’s day-to-day experiences are still structured by discrimination, harassment and prejudice."

Logan S. Casey

Harvard researcher Logan S. Casey, who was part of the report's research team, said what sets this survey apart from previous ones is its focus on the day-to-day experience of discrimination for LGBTQ people.

“Lots of work has been done about what people think about discrimination in America. This [survey] goes into great detail about people’s personal experiences of discrimination across many areas of life,” Casey explained.

For Casey, one of the most important findings is “how pervasive people’s experiences of violence and harassment are.” For example, a third of LGBTQ Americans report that they or an LGBTQ friend or family member has experienced verbal harassment while using a bathroom.

“LGBTQ people’s day-to-day experiences are still structured by discrimination, harassment and prejudice,” Casey said.

Institutional Discrimination

In addition to individual slights and aggressions, the report noted large portions of LGBTQ people confront institutional discrimination. At least one in five of those surveyed said they have been discriminated against in the process of applying for a job (20 percent), being paid equally or considered for a promotion (22 percent) or buying or renting a home (22 percent), the survey found.

In terms of education, among those in the LGBTQ community who applied for or attended college, 20 percent said they had experienced discrimination because of their gender identity or sexual orientation while applying or while at college.

The discrimination extends to the political sphere as well. One in 10 LGBTQ people said “they have been personally discriminated against because they are LGBTQ when trying to vote or participate in politics.”

Those surveyed also reported avoiding situations in which they may encounter discrimination.

“Roughly one in six LGBTQ people say they have avoided medical care (18 percent) and calling the police (15 percent), even when in need, due to concern that they would be discriminated against because of their LGBTQ identity," the report states.

The Intersection of Race and LGBTQ Identity

The report also found LGBTQ people do not experience discrimination in a uniform manner. “There are really pronounced racial differences,” Casey explained. While the survey sample was not large enough to tease out specific differences in the experiences of African-American, Latinx and Asian-American respondents, the survey did allow researchers to compare the experiences of LGBTQ people of color and white LGBTQ people.

“LGBTQ people of color are at least twice as likely as white LGBTQ people say they have been personally discriminated against because they are LGBTQ when applying for jobs and when interacting with police, and six times more likely to say they have avoided calling the police (30 percent) due to concern for anti-LGBTQ discrimination, compared to white LGBTQ people (5 percent)," the report states.

Casey said he was not surprised by these findings.

“Knowing what we know about the way multiple marginalized identities intersect ... seeing this racial disparity in the LGBTQ community was not surprising.” But, he added, “seeing them quantified in this way is very powerful.”

Generational Differences

While Casey said the survey did not uncover large age gaps in experiences of discrimination, he did note an important difference in the way younger and older generations think about the sources of discrimination.

Younger LGBTQ people (18-49 years of age) are more likely to say institutions (laws and government policies) are the source of discrimination, whereas older generations (50 and over) are more likely to identify individual prejudice as the problem, Casey explained.

Overall, Casey said the study helps “put some concrete data” to the experiences that LGBTQ people have been reporting for a long time.

“Even as we see advances like gay marriage or polling that says people are supportive of LGBTQ issues or know a gay person, average community members are saying that it doesn’t mean discrimination has gone away.”