Background: Biological sex differences and sociocultural gender diversity influence endocrine stress reactivity. Although numerous studies have shown that men typically activate stronger stress responses than women when exposed to laboratory-based psychosocial stressors, it is unclear whether sexual orientation further modulates stress reactivity. Given that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals frequently report heightened distress secondary to stigma-related stressors, we investigated whether cortisol stress reactivity differs between LGB individuals and heterosexual individuals in response to a well-validated psychosocial stressor.
Methods: The study population comprised 87 healthy adults (mean age, 25 years) who were grouped according to their biological sex and their gendered sexual orientation: lesbian/bisexual women (n = 20), heterosexual women (n = 21), gay/bisexual men (n = 26), and heterosexual men (n = 20). Investigators collected 10 salivary cortisol samples throughout a 2-hour afternoon visit involving exposure to the Trier Social Stress Test modified to maximize between-sex differences.
Results: Relative to heterosexual women, lesbian/bisexual women showed higher cortisol stress reactivity 40 min after exposure to the stressor. In contrast, gay/bisexual men displayed lower overall cortisol concentrations throughout testing compared with heterosexual men. Main findings were significant while adjusting for sex hormones (estradiol-to-progesterone ratio in women and testosterone in men), age, self-esteem, and disclosure status (whether LGB participants had completed their "coming out").
Conclusions: Our results provide novel evidence for gender-based modulation of cortisol stress reactivity based on sexual orientation that goes beyond well-established between-sex differences. This study raises several important avenues for future research related to the physiologic functioning of LGB populations and gender diversity more broadly.
Keywords: Cortisol; Gender diversity; Sex differences; Sexual orientation; Stress reactivity; Trier Social Stress Test.
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