Maggie Bertram is a member of the Active Minds Speakers Bureau. Bring her to your campus or organization to speak about mental health.
Note: I originally wrote this blog post before I heard the tragic news out of Orlando early Sunday morning (6/12/2016). There is still a lot of speculation about motivation and circumstances that we’ll continue to hear about in the weeks ahead. However, it’s hard not to look at this tragedy for what it is: a hate crime.
I don’t think any of us in the LGBTQIA+ community are feeling the same sense of security we felt before–no matter where we live.
I originally wrote about shame, homophobia, and the recent state laws that are curbing the rights of LGBTQIA+ Americans. It is still very important that we change these laws, but I have to acknowledge that doing so will not immediately prevent tragedies like these. Even in my home state, where my rights as a lesbian are protected, there is very little that might stop a single person from expressing their rage.
We are going to hear a lot of speculation about the shooter in this case. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty about mental health, faith, heritage, political affiliation, etc. But when I think about this man, I think of someone who was rejected. Someone who felt ashamed or powerless, and in the absence of a good community, reassurance, and support, he turned to rage. Rage against a specific community that so many have been taught to hate.
It makes me wonder whether all of this could have been avoided if he had just felt like he had a peaceful, loving, inclusive place to belong.
We operate in a constant state of fear these days, and we all react differently to the toll that fear takes. Community can be a buffer for that fear.
At its very best, Pride Month is about community. It’s about progress. It”s about support. It’s about resilience. This month we will do our best to heal our own community. For the next 11, let’s seek to expand that healing to as many people as we can reach.
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” – Nelson Mandela
It’s LGBT Pride Month. Back when I was first figuring out what the queer community was all about, I didn’t quite understand or appreciate pride. I’d never really thought of pride as a good thing. It cometh before the fall; it was the opposite of the teaching of modesty that was a hallmark of this girl’s Midwest upbringing.
The parades were loud. The costuming was even louder. And the crowds! It was all so overwhelming.
It all made me want to run and hide.
For a long time I walked around with buckets of internalized homophobia swirling around in my chest and gut. It’s this special kind of shame that ate me alive. Come June, I would be confronted with it. Huge rainbow flags, news stories, cheering in the streets, public displays of affection, and all manner of raw, naked authenticity.
Here were all of these people doing all of the things I wanted to be able to do, and see, and say, but I couldn’t find my voice. My voice was muffled by too many layers of fear and shame. Fear and shame became a fertile soil that enabled the seeds of anxiety and depression that were already inside me to grow and develop into a life-threatening eating disorder.
If you ever listen to the stories of people like Tim Gunn, Laverne Cox, George Takei, or Portia de Rossi, you’ll hear them recount similar trials. The act of running and hiding—from others, and especially, from themselves. You’ll hear about the ways they shamed themselves, denied themselves, punished themselves, hated themselves, and in some cases, sought to end their lives altogether.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare experience for LGBTQIA+ college students. A survey by the Healthy Minds Network showed that LGB students were twice as likely to have a lifetime diagnosis of depression or anxiety, and 32.7% of transgender students had thought about attempting suicide in the past year. LGBT students were also twice as likely to struggle with an eating disorder.
Let me be clear here. Being gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual or anything else on that spectrum is not a mental illness. I’m also of the opinion that being transgender, genderqueer, or genderfluid is not a mental illness. (That said, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria does open up much-needed access to compassionate mental and physical healthcare for trans and genderqueer folks, and for that healthcare I’m grateful.)
However, the stress of being marginalized and the pain of being “othered,” whether in one’s own home or in public, creates that fertile soil for the emergence of mental illnesses.
There’s been much public outcry about North Carolina’s HB2 (the so-called “bathroom bill”), and the Tennessee law that lets mental health professionals deny treatment to LGBT folks on the basis of their religious beliefs.
When I was growing up, my individual rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, etc. were explained to me thusly: “Your right to punch me ends at my nose.” In other words, I was allowed to speak my mind, practice religion, assemble, and print whatever I liked so long as it did not result in injury to anyone else.
Yet, here we are today. Making laws that are curbing the rights of and causing serious injury to the health and wellbeing of LGBT young people in these states and across the country. All this in the name of others’ rights. Separate. Unequal.
If shame, fear, and discrimination are a fertile soil in which the seeds of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are encouraged to take root, then these state laws may as well be Miracle-Gro.
No one should be made to feel less entitled to their humanity and citizenship, comfortable in their own skin, confident in their identity, or worthy of access to healthcare because they identify as lesbian, gay, bixesual, asexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, intersex, or any sexuality or gender label (or non-label) with which they identify.
It’s not just sad that any one should be made to feel this way. It’s dangerous. LGBT young people are made to feel like failures. Like sinners. Like burdens. Like pariahs. And as Thomas Joiner would readily tell you, these are all the makings of suicidality.
I recognize that there are people in this world who don’t understand that I, a cis woman, am attracted to and in love with my partner, another cis woman. They see us kissing as we say goodbye at the airport, and they look away. Maybe they make a face to their friends to punctuate their disgust.
I see their looks when I walk into the ladies’ room, too. The double-take as they look me up and down to find the distinctly female features in my face, my hands, my chest. My first-glance androgyny doesn’t sit well with them.
Today, at 33, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, now surrounded in my life by fully out LGBT friends and allies, I just don’t give a damn about those people.
I live in a state that legalized same-sex marriage back in 2004. A state that, for all its quirks and eccentricities, will likely never legislate against my identity or those of my LGBTQIA+ friends. But I do give a damn for the community in North Carolina and Tennessee. Spread across all of those highly esteemed campuses in those states, are LGBTQIA+ young people who are just trying to be the most authentic, loving versions of themselves. And each day they wake up under laws that tell them: “You’re wrong.” “You’re not good enough.” “You’re disgusting.” “You’re dangerous.” “You’re probably a rapist.” “You’re not worthy.”
I’m done with all that. It’s time to react, and a month of PRIDE is only the beginning. It’s time to show the impact of these laws and to reach out farther and wider to those who need support. It’s time to send letters, emails, and tweets. It’s time to peacefully mobilize in defense of all those who believe that being LGBTQIA+ doesn’t make someone “less than.”
If you, or someone you know, is struggling—you’re not alone. The Trevor Project has a 24/7 hotline at 1-866-488-7396. You can also reach Crisis Text Line by texting “BRAVE” to 741-741. And no matter what, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
LGBT Pride cometh before the healing. It is an ingredient in the salve that will save the lives of LGBTQIA+ young adults. Make a pledge this month to make every day a new opportunity to affirm the humanity and identity of LGBT folks, and together we’ll make our communities safer and healthier for all.