Spotlight on LGBTQ+ women’s health this International Women’s Day

New research from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) and our partners is highlighting important aspects of LGBTQ+ women’s health.

For a long time, research into LGBTQ+ women’s health has been limited. Even today, there are still large gaps in our understanding of the distinct needs and experiences of women (cis and trans) in our rainbow communities. This is a problem because women make up a substantial portion of the LGBTQ+ population in Australia, constituting 47.7% of LGBTQ+ adults (aged 18 and over) and 51.8% of LGBTQ+ young people (aged 14-21).

New research from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) and our partners is highlighting important aspects of LGBTQ+ women’s health.

Mental Health

Being part of LGBTQ+ communities is a big source of pride, validation, and support for many women. Our research shows that LGBTQ+ women who see themselves as belonging to LGBTQ+ communities report lower levels of psychological distress than those who do not. We also found that women who have a regular doctor who knows they are part of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to have access to LGBTQ-inclusive mental health services. Other research has shown that LGBTQ+ women face higher rates of depression, suicidality, and self-harm than cisgender heterosexual women. Having a strong sense of community and seeing this as a positive part of one’s life may help to address the challenges that some women face. But barriers still exist to accessing inclusive and affirming services and communities for many LGBTQ+ women. For example, bisexual, pansexual, and queer women, trans women, women in rural and regional areas, culturally and linguistically diverse women, and women with disabilities all face additional barriers to wellbeing and inclusion that we need to address.

Sexual health

Although LGBTQ+ women are often highly health-literate and play a role in health promotion for other groups within LGBTQ+ communities, they have reported reduced rates of routine sexual and reproductive health testing in the past. For example, some of our work found that lesbians with a cervix are still less likely to access cervical cancer screening than bisexual, pansexual, and queer people who have a cervix. Our research and community engagement also shows that LGBTQ+ women are increasingly aware of HIV as an issue facing their communities, with representation of bisexual and queer women participating in our HIV Futures survey growing since the study began in the 1990s. Continued sexual health and HIV messaging among LGBTQ+ women is necessary to encourage active participation in sexual health screening.

Alcohol and tobacco use

LGBTQ+ women have rich shared cultures and solidarity within their communities. Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs have long featured in many of these community spaces and can facilitate shared celebration, relaxation, friendship, and intimacy. However, substance use can lead to or be associated with negative experiences for some LGBTQ+ women. Among LGBTQ+ women in Australia, 16% are current smokers and 60.5% report potentially risky drinking. Our new QSOX study aims to understand the factors contributing to LGBTQ+ women’s high rates of alcohol and nicotine use. We interviewed 60 LGBTQ+ women from Victoria and New South Wales twice in 2023. We found that drinking, smoking, and vaping all played important roles in LGBTQ+ women’s lives, from helping to cope with stress, to catching up with friends, to expressing their gender and sexuality. Some women struggled with addiction, but most didn’t know where to go or were resistant to seek support. We will be conducting more interviews with these participants later in 2024 to learn more about their experiences and how services can best help them to reduce alcohol and tobacco-related harms in their communities.

Women are integral to LGBTQ+ communities and ARCSHS is working with a range of community partners to ensure our research helps drive services and initiatives that support LGBTQ+ women.

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