Creating a Positive View

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Creating a Positive View

This is an expanded version of a story written and published on the Rowman & Littlefield author blog on March 26, 2012:

By Ellen D.B. Riggle, PhD

As an academic researcher, I have typically taught and wrote about things that would depress and scare ordinary people (actually, these things depress and scare me too): depression and anxiety, psychological abuse, suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol abuse, violent attacks, discrimination and everyday prejudice. I discuss these topics in the context of the stresses that people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) face and have to cope with (sometimes in healthy, adaptive ways, but other times in unhealthy or risky ways). It seems that in my academic training, I was taught to focus on negative issues. Implicitly I was taught that if nothing is “wrong” then everything must be okay, and we don’t need to talk about that.

Focusing on “what’s wrong” is important. For example, the current focus on the violence and psychological abuse associated with bullying is essential to providing all children and adults with a safe environment for living their lives. We are all responsible for solving this problem so we all need to be talking about it. But in focusing on what’s wrong, sometimes we forget to also focus on “what’s right.”

“What’s right” are stories that often get ignored or that just aren’t seen as interesting enough to make the news. A case in point: my friends, two women who have been partners for decades and are devoted parents and now grandparents, spend their time and energy acting as mentors and positive role models for young LGBT people and their allies in the pursuit of social justice — they don’t make the news. The Rhode Island Catholic Bishop who opposes marriage equality by stating that “homosexual activity is immoral, an offense to God, a serious sin” – he makes the news. This creates an imbalance in the messages that we are exposed to that impacts the stories that come to mind when we think about LGBT lives.

In a study of the messages that LGBT people (and their family members) hear in the media and their immediate environments, we found that people hear on average at least one negative message every week about LGBT people. These negative messages mostly come from stories in the mass media but they also come from overhearing others talk. Both of these situations are hard to avoid. People also hear positive messages; these messages tend to come from sources that people actively seek out, like friends or LGBT friendly media. It’s bad enough that the environment that we are exposed to in daily life delivers so many negative messages about LGBT people and their lives, but it’s especially bad when we think about young adults and children hearing these negative messages on a regular basis.

If we are to successfully address issues such as stigmatization, bullying and other public health risks for LGBT people, we must create a culture that, on a regular basis, celebrates instead of denigrates LGBT lives. How do we change this imbalance of messages and create a celebratory culture? One way to address this challenge is to share the positive stories of LGBT lives. In our research with over a thousand LGBT people, we have heard stories of personal growth and life lessons that can benefit us all. For example, we have heard stories about the benefits of living an authentic life and how that brings people closer to their family and friends. We have heard stories from many people about the importance of being flexible and creative in relationships with their partners so that both partners flourish. We have heard about how people develop compassion for others and engage in work or volunteer activities to support and benefit people in need. All of these actions come from positive qualities that people associate with their LGBT identities. These are the stories we need to be exposed to on a regular basis.

Our personal stories have power. They have power over how we define our own lives. They also have power when we share them with others. Talking with others about the positive aspects of LGBT identities, recognizing the benefits of these identities in individual lives and the life of our communities, is an important part of creating a celebratory culture. Sharing stories of LGBT lives with one person, or dozens, or thousands (even millions) will help to re-balance and re-focus the conversations that people have. In the future, when I talk about my research, hopefully I will leave people smiling more.

Ellen D.B. Riggle is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Kentucky. She is co-author of A Positive View of LGBTQ: Embracing Identity and Cultivating Well-Being. For more information about her research, go to