by Julie Carbajal
In January of this year, I began working at a rural community mental health agency. From the time of my interview, I was very vocal about my interest in and experience with working with LGBTQ people. I felt confident that this was a kind of covert way of coming out from the start, putting it out there, saying, hey, this is me, take it or leave it. A few months later, as the only person there with this interest and perhaps the only one with more than incidental experience with LGBTQ culture at all, I was asked to do a training for all the other clinicians this month on mental health and LGBTQ people. Of course I jumped at the chance, because I love to do public speaking and training, and I think this is a real area of need in the mental health field.
As I’m preparing, one thing I keep coming back to is the question of if I should actually come out during this training. A little background here – I first tried to come out in my early twenties, caused a huge panic and uproar in my family, didn’t really like how that went, and recanted. Lame, right? Well, go ahead and call me out on my bi-privilege because I deserve it. I went right back in the closet, openly dated men, and had secret “relationships” with women for years. When I finally decided to come out in my late twenties – permanently – I knew there was no going back. And I’ve never lied to anyone about my sexuality since then. But then there’s the lie of omission. And the privilege of passing as long as I’m single (which I have been for, oh, years now) or dating people who appear to be male gendered. Go ahead, call me out again.
So back to my dilemma. Working in a rural community in West Michigan, I’ll be honest, I don’t know what to expect. I know that technically, my colleagues are bound by agency policy to non-discrimination, and they seem great, and I want to be totally out. And I have indicated in casual conversation to probably three or four colleagues, none of whom I am particularly close to, that I am bi, just because it was pertinent to the conversation. So it’s not like I only want to tell people I trust. Furthermore, I still get choked up in that scene in Milk when Harvey tells everyone that they have to come out because that kind of activism is the only way that everyone else will realize that gay people are everywhere and normal and, well, you know.
But lately, as I drive to this rural town, I’m listening to NPR, and I can’t believe that masses of people in my country are voting for a movement that is beyond my understanding. And even though I’ve always been cynical about how much progress has really been made in regards to racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, etc., I’m now astounded to now find out how deeply the hate still runs. And in a way I haven’t been in years, I’m scared to stand up in that small town and say in front of all those people who I am. I see now that just a few months ago, for all my cynicism I was still blissfully ignorant.
I’ve come to realize that this underlying fear we live with is a significant factor for mental health in the LGBTQ community, and this is why. Our safety, our acceptance into family/ community/ society, our value/worth as communicated to us by those entities, and our consequent ability meet our basic needs are all contingent on whether the people in control, wherever we are, deem us “acceptable” by their (sometimes unspoken) standards. And that is a frightening thought. Being a member of the LGBTQ community means knowing that getting your needs met is always a little bit out of your control. Or, at least, it could be, on someone’s whim. That kind of insecurity is unknown to many other people, who enjoy the protection of well-established laws and supportive family systems that validate their human rights and their existence. The recent debate over transgender people using restrooms that correspond to their gender identity is a perfect example of this concept. By taking away this right, legislators are effectively endangering the safety (the LIVES) of transgender people, and for essentially frivolous political reasons. Not to mention insulting the privacy and dignity of those individuals.
When you are a child, the people in control are those from your family and school systems, and your needs for clothing, food, shelter, security, love, acceptance, and self-worth, depend on those people. The degree to which those needs will be met depends on the answer to this question: Will they find you, the way you are, “acceptable”? It is outrageous that the provision of any child’s needs rest on such a condition. How many more examples do we need to see of homeless LGBTQ youth whose basic needs are being neglected? How many schools will delay or refuse to adopt anti-bullying policies to ensure the security and protection of LGBT (and all) kids as we continue to watch children and teenagers commit suicide? When religious, political, and societal messages continue to tell LGBTQ youth that something is wrong with them, how can they not develop mental health problems?
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As adults, our lives are often in the hands of people from other systems: workplaces, service agencies, communities, law enforcement, government, and for some, religious organizations. Once again, will they find you, the way you are, “acceptable”? And if not, what do you have to do to adapt? What are the costs of making those adaptations? If you refuse, what do you have to give up? What do you suffer in silence? How do you make ends meet? How do you get help when the helpers don’t help people like you? Who protects you from government that legally discriminates against you? As all of this builds on top of the disproportionate amount of substance abuse (“I need to escape all of this”) and trauma suffered by LGBTQ people, mental health needs are almost inevitable.
To top it all off? We’re not always getting the help we need.
Some of that is because there are not enough mental health professionals who have experience working with LGBTQ people, especially in rural areas; but this is changing. True, psychology has a dark history of pathologizing LGBTQ people and being absolutely terrible to women, people of color, and I could go on and on. But as more LGBTQ professionals are entering the field and making some noise, we’re starting to be heard, and training is taking place. The Pride Center has a list of professionals in their directory who are either LGBTQ or experienced in working with LGBTQ people.
Another reason is that economic disparity can make services prohibitive. However, since Medicaid has been expanded, a lot more people are eligible, and many therapists will take Medicaid. Network 180 is a good place to start if you do not have insurance and are a resident of Kent County.
I won’t lie, going to a therapist is not going to change the reality that we face. I’d like to say I’m pretty good at my job, but if I could do that, I’d just sit at home in shorts and let people line up around the block to see me. But if you find the right person, you start to find yourself feeling less stuck in the problem and more in the generation of solutions. And as a community, as any marginalized community, that’s where we need to be, together. If we’re all isolated at home, too anxious to stand with each other, too depressed to take action together, too self-loathing to give our time and talents to each other, how can we keep making it better?
So I guess that’s my answer, right? I don’t want my daughter to live in a world where her mom told her to be proud of being biracial but was ashamed to be bisexual. Out it is. Time to do my part.
Julie Carbajal MA, TLLP, RAC is a therapist with a degree in Counseling Psychology from Western Michigan University. Her internship focus was individual therapy with members of the LGBTQ community and their families. She currently works in community mental health, doing individual therapy with adults who have severe mental illness and substance abuse issues, and leading mindfulness-based groups for adults with personality disorders and adolescents. She is on the Board of Directors for The Love Bus, a non-profit dedicated to making sex education available to young adults throughout the state of Michigan, and volunteers as a group facilitator at The Pride Center. She is also a socialist, a social justice advocate, a vegetarian, a single mom, and a book nerd.
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