Stigma as a concept has a very strong background in terms of understanding the ways in which groups of people interact. It is a fundamental concept that people sense, but often cannot describe, and it is important to note that what many of us who are LGBT+ are fighting is not merely the oppression of our lives by the society we are a part of, but more accurately the source of that oppression, which is the stigma that follows us for being LGBT+.
It is Everywhere.
One of the best somewhat recent works on Stigma is Heatherton, Kleck, Hebl & Hull, The Social Psychology of Stigma, The Guilford Press, 2000.
They provide a description of it that is germane to the column:
The stigmatized are ostracized, devalued, rejected, scorned and shunned. They experience discrimination, insults, attacks and are even murdered. Those who perceive themselves to be members of a stigmatized group, whether it is obvious to those around them or not, often experience psychological distress and many view themselves contemptuously.
Stigma is best described as an individual who has a characteristic that the society they are a part of feels is undesirable.
And that's pretty much most LGBT+ folks.
And the important part there is not that they are undesirable, but rather that they are part of the society themselves.
Anyone who is raised in a culture is steeped in it. It affects everything about them. The language they use, the way they talk, the way they think, the choices and decisions they make, the kinds of things they aspire to and the kinds of things they are ashamed of and try to avoid doing.
Stigma is a negative force within a social group. And all social groups have some form of stigma.
Those of you who live, work, breathe, eat, sleep, love, grew up, and were raised in the United States all have a particular culture. A unique commonality that's not a part of blood or choice.
You are, for better or worse, a part of the society. And, more importantly, the society is a part of you, personally. It is part of everything you think, everything you do, all your ideas and methods and structures -- and the same applies to others outside the US -- you are a part of your societies.
You cannot erase that, or get rid of -- no matter how many times you disavow it or even if you leave the country never to return -- it is as much a part of you as anything else.
And when you have a particular culture that deeply ingrained in you, you will use the language of that culture. The idioms of it will be understandable to you without explanation, for example. Idiom is critical to speedy communication and is one of the things people use to mark a boundary as "US" and "THEM."
Language & Labels
And having that language, means you have the labels of that language. Even when those labels aren't what you might consider "good."
Nouns are labels. Without nouns, we have no labels. Without labels we have no way of describing the differences between an apple and an orange, a man and a woman, and we will, generally, seek to find a way to identify that thing in order to communicate it.
There are some people who, in the name of helping to remove stigma, seek to obliterate labels. We have an entire cottage industry of people who go around saying that labels do not apply to them.
And the kicker is they may be correct -- there are somethings that our language has no label for. And without a label, you will run into difficulties describing it.
In current colloquial English, for example, there is no word for an adult cow or bull or steer that does not refer to them as a singular thing without noting their sex.
Cows are female. Bulls and steers are male.
We tend, as a matter of general, very informal discourse, talk about Cows without meaning that there is any sex involved, but the simple fact still remains -- a cow is a female member of that heavily domesticated species.
Within the LGBT+ communities, we have similar issues. And when we encounter those issues, we create words for them -- we create labels to identify them. This is an important part of determining a personal and group sense of belonging and affinity. An example of this sort of word creation are things like top, bottom, versatile, twink, Cis, Genderqueer, and so on.
Stigma is often associated with labels, and when that stigma is institutionalized -- that is, when the stigma becomes widespread within the underlying culture it is found in -- it becomes extremely oppressive and is even used as a tool to further the oppression of those on whom the stigma falls.
Some labels can carry a deep and abiding stigma. The F word is one such label. The N word is another. "Tranny" is a third (and note that due to the abiding stigma associated with it, that it cannot be used as "the T word" since people won't understand what it is. The stigma is stronger against trans people than it is against gay people in this case).
There are some labels that we dislike, because those labels reflect the thing we are seeking to change the most -- which is the stigma associated by the culture we are a part of.
And, being products of that culture, and having great difficulty in escaping that, we tend to take with us things that are still stigmatizing from the culture we live in.
Wuss, Pansy, & Sissy are three words that carry a strong connotation, and the connotation they carry is extremely stigmatized. They are, as a result, perjoratives -- something one does not want to be in the culture. This is how stigma works to establish boundaries, and I use those examples to point out how that stigma is often not able to distinguish between particulars.
Those three epithets are all equally valid against a gay man or a trans woman. They do not make a distinction, and as they are often found in use among children more than adults, they are great for pointing out that Stigma is one of the things we learn very fast and very early.
Learning it at such a young age means that we make decisions and shape our thoughts around that stigma, and then those thoughts and decisions are later built on by other thoughts and decisions that depended on them, until we reach adulthood and these things are deeply and darkly ingrained within us.
We talk about internalized oppression, and what we are referring to when we do that is the way that a stigma affects even how we view ourselves and the other members of the LGBT+ collective community.
And example here is the way I tend to chide other Trans folks about the concepts of things like "disclosure" and "passing," which both further the stigmatization of trans folk, as well as incorporate that very stigma into them -- in both cases they reinforce the idea of deception, because those concepts, those ideas are dependent on the idea that "we aren't really" what we are.
And when those things are used against us -- for example, someone saying "well, I think trans folks should always be upfront about being trans" what they are saying is that the trans person is being deceptive, and there is stigma associated with that deception, since to be able to form that very idea of telling someone, in and of itself, one must start from a mindset of the trans person not being whatever it is one is "passing" as (passing meaning to be taken as a member of the group without really being a member of that group) or having some element in one's past which changes the "way they are" in the present -- you only need to disclose something if you are not what it is that you claim to be.
This is why I take such flack from a large portion of the trans community -- I am speaking about things we take for granted, and I am talking about a set of stigmata that is part of the society in which we live and it has been incorporated into the social discussion and the very labels we use to describe things.
It is, in short, internalized stigma.
And, as was noted earlier, one of the effects of stigma is discrimination. So long as there is some sense within the society that we live in that a trans person is "really" X instead of Y, then the society is perpetrating the stigma, and the individuals, being part of that society, are enacting it.
A much more subtle version of this is the juxtaposition of "innate" versus "medical." Some folks speak of trans people as having a "medical problem" and use as the comparison -- as the drawing line and the point thereby of stigmatization -- the idea that their group is innate.
Intentionally or not, what they are saying tis that trans people are the product of a medical process, not people who are aided in their innate sense of self by such. And, as such, saying it that way is reinforcing the stigma.
It is an epithet -- a pejorative, that demonstrates at the least aversion, and when one notes that Aversion is one of the parts necessary for a phobic classification, one realizes that saying that trans people have a medical problem is, in the end, transphobia.
Not to mention it's readily proven false, since not all trans people have medical attention needs, and the majority are that way.
Stigma is extremely potent, and yet all too often we discuss it too little among ourselves -- the people for whom stigma is a lived experience.
Stigma can be ranked -- it's one of the few things I will talk about in the upcoming few weeks that is possible to be ranked.
Felt and Enacted
Felt stigma is when something happens and you are reminded of the cultural stigma attached to you. A good example of this is when some says that man who wears pastel shirts and talks with a lisp is gay. That is a form of negative reinforcement of a cultural norm (the norm, in this case, being that men do not wear pastel shirts or talk with a lisp).
Enacted stigma is much more direct. Eviction, being fired, being spit on are all much more direct examples of this, but it can take much more subtle forms, such as the F word and so forth.
By now I hope you can see that stigma is at the heart of what we are fighting, and there are lot of other people who fight stigma as well.
Women who have exercised their freedom of privacy and had an abortion are afflicted with a stigma by the opponents of abortion.
There are two issues that today are great examples of serious stigma. One I won't mention because it is used intentionally in order to increase the stigma that LGBT people face, and in particular trans women and gay men.
The other one, however, is mental illness.
People who are mentally ill are affected by stigma both felt and enacted on a regular basis. They cannot, in fact, escape that stigma. Casual conversations are littered with the use of words like "crazy", "insane", "nuts", "looney."
People resist stigma -- look at the fight the trans community is having about getting the diagnosis removed from the DSM. Not wanting to be called crazy is the excuse that is most often used, and yet the very doing of that is an example of stigma that is enacted and felt.
We are allies to a great part because of the social stigma we all face -- it is not a force that is differentiated. There are other things I will write on later that are differentiated, and the ways that they impact how we interrelate and the ways in which they hold us back and slow us down.
Stigma is extremely dangerous.
Stigma does kill -- people commit suicide in all our communities because of stigma, and there are people who take it on themselves (often due to what may or may not be a form of mental illness) to kill people for whom there is a strong sense of stigma.
It is damaging to people with mental illness,and many, many LGBT are afflicted with mental illness that has been developed as a result of things they do in order to live in a world that has stigmatized them, creating a vicious circle that is very hard to break from. There are direct parallels between felt and enacted stigma and depression, bipolar, stress related disorders, and suicidal tendencies.
The APA points this out in their briefs that they submit to courts when large trials are being decided. They also note some of the other effects of stigma are a much, much higher risk of substance abuse (both legal and illegal) and domestic violence -- things which are extremely widespread within our community.
How many smokers do you know? How many people who "drink too much"? How many people who have or are using illegal drugs (even if it's to "improve sex")? How many people abuse prescriptions?
Stigma creates emotional and stress based difficulties which have very real and very active physical costs. Extreme emotions such as anger can shorten a person's life, and Anger is something that many of us feel when we encounter stigma.
Great stress that doesn't stop also can shorten a person's life -- and we cannot escape this particular thing because we carry it with us -- it is burdened on us from our childhoods, and even if we root it out, we can never get rid of the particular habitual and social aspects of it that surround us.
Stigma will come up in the future columns as I go forward. I will expand on it and show how it interrelates and works with the other aspects I'll be discussing.
In closing, let me note that stigma can be found in nearly every single post on this blog -- be it an article or a comment. And if we are going to change the world in which we live -- the society in which we exist -- then we do, in fact, need to start with ourselves.