Mental Health & The LGBTQ Community
By, Michele Zehr
In the 90s, I spent four years as an active duty U.S. Marine pretending I was straight. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect, but for four years I did not feel safe. I changed my natural body language and switched pronouns when people asked about my personal life, and I always had a believable reason handy to explain why I showed up to social events without a date. I became an expert shape-shifter in all types of professional and social contexts. But even with these “modifications,” I still experienced painful harassment. By the time I was honorably discharged in 2000, I promised myself I would never hide who I was again, even if it felt risky. I didn’t want to continue living in a state of constant anxiety, but more compellingly, I’d had enough of betraying my most authentic self.
Perfecting such survival skills comes at a very high price. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) concludes, “LGBTQ individuals are almost three times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder.” I doubt this information comes as a huge surprise to anyone reading this, but it’s not exactly encouraging news in 2016, is it?
Nowadays, as an empowerment educator and personal coach, I’m committed to dancing creatively with life’s most challenging situations. While I am not a mental health professional in the clinical sense, my work helps people heal by encouraging them to see that they do have the power to shift their perception around any given situation. Acknowledging this possibility allows us to make different choices for ourselves. In fact, we always have a choice, although that doesn’t mean choosing differently is easy. Intentionally taking a new direction away from an old pattern or habit often feels scary and takes courage, but in the long run, it helps us get out of the quicksand that makes us feel stuck. As author Mandy Hale once said, “Growth is painful, change is painful, but nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”
When I read statistics about depression, anxiety and the LGBTQ community, I immediately think about the root of all of this suffering. Once boiled down to the essence of the problem, many of us experience internal conflicts fueled by fear. Do I come out at the workplace? Do I bring my partner to my family reunion? Do I tell my therapist, or my boss or my friends that I identify as transgender? The core question driving all of these is this: Will I be safe if I choose to honor my authentic self?
The suppression of our authentic selves, however, is a form of soul-violence. You bet it’s going to take its toll. In time, we can actually lose our sense of who we are, spending all our energy pretending to be something we’re not. As NAMI’s website explains, “fear of coming out and being discriminated against for sexual orientation and gender identities can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, thoughts of suicide and substance abuse.”
We experience tremendous internal conflict because we know who we are, but are afraid to let our true selves be seen. Granted, our country’s oppressive track record with its treatment of members of the LGBTQ community leaves much to be desired, even though progress is slowly being made. So what is this new choice to be made? How do we find a balance between our sense of safety and honoring our authentic selves?
Even after the Marine Corps, I struggled with this issue. My ‘new’ choice involved proving to myself that the Earth was not going to stop rotating on its axis if I chose to be me. I started with less risky choices. For instance, I started using the proper pronoun to refer to my partner. Eventually, this empowered me to take bigger steps. While everyone didn’t necessarily respond supportively, I left such conversations feeling a deep and renewed sense of self-respect. My soul said, “Thank you for honoring yourself.” In time, my anxiety levels dropped and I relaxed. I can recommend a book that actually outlines the process I had intuitively followed: Immunity to Change, by Kegan and Lahey. They advocate a gentle, methodical approach to disproving and releasing our fear-based beliefs.
Standing strongly on our own two feet and fully embodying our most authentic selves is not the easiest alternative, but it surely is the healthier alternative. I’d like to suggest that we make 2016 the year of honoring our authenticity because in the end, any other choice that moves us further away from ourselves racks up more of those disheartening statistics.
Michele Zehr, M.A., M.Ed., is the founder of We2 LLC: Women’s Experiential Empowerment. She custom designs and facilitates empowerment workshops for a wide-range of professionals, offers one-on-one Soul Weaving sessions, and gives Transformational Talks by invitation. To learn more about Michele’s other services, please visit her website at: www.we2empower.com or contact her via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 434-218-2462.