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Sociologist Tey Meadow‘s recent op-ed at Huffington Post makes an important point. It is critically important that we acknowledge and address the bullying, harassment, and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and gender non-conforming youth that, in turn, results in their elevated risk for suicidality, mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, among other threats to their health and well-being. However, it is also of critical importance to acknowledge and celebrate the many ways in which LGBTQ youth are surviving and thriving, embracing their individual and community resiliency.
In the face of tremendous overt hostility and covert neglect, still, most LGBTQ teenagers do not wish to end their lives. The Trevor Project, a national crisis and suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth, has fielded over 200,000 calls since its inception in 2008, calls from youth reaching out for affirmation and support. They survived. Some of them even thrived. Where are their stories?
This call for broadening our focus on the lives and experiences of LGBTQ youth comes after yet another tragic suicide of a queer teenager. Eric James Borges took his own life last week. What makes this tragedy more unsettling is that he interned for the Trevor Project, which works to prevent LGBTQ suicides, and created his own “It Gets Better” video. As Meadows makes clear, we must continue to change the current social and political climate that demonizes LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities — this means society at large, as well as in schools, the military, families, places of worship, the medical system, etc. But, we must not allow bullying, harassment, suicides, isolation, and the other negative aspects of LGBTQ youths’ experiences in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic society; we must not allow LGBTQ youth to be equated with suicide and victimization.
Advocates and researchers have made great strides in highlighting the hostility LGBTQ youth and adults face in the United States and world wide. This includes theoretical and empirical developments that help us to understand how prejudice and discrimination create and maintain health disparities, for example, the minority stress paradigm.
Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.
Indeed, as health researcher Ron Stall points out in his calls for better understanding resiliency among LGBTQ people, those who live today in our homo/bi/transphobic country maintain some level of resilience. In his words, given the effect of prejudice, discrimination, and harassment on LGBTQ individuals health and well-being, we could envision a world with the majority of LGBTQ people suffering, abusing drugs, harming themselves and their bodies, and engaging in unsafe behaviors. Yet, despite elevated risks for mental, physical, and sexual health problems among LGBTQ people compared to heterosexuals and cisgendered people, most LGBTQ people are in good health. As he explains, there must be, at both the individual and community levels, a great deal of resilience that prevents these homo/bi/transphobic forces from becoming every LGBTQ person’s inevitable reality.
It Does Get Better — We Can And Have To Make It Better
In addition to identifying factors that promote resilience among LGBTQ individuals and for LGBTQ communities, it is necessary to continue to understand and address the social forces that impede on the lives of LGBTQ people. I, like many others, have supported giving young LGBTQ people a message of hope, for, in the words of Harvey Milk, hope is necessary to carry on through the day when all seems difficult or impossible. But, we must continue to fight against transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia — we cannot simply hope for the day when it gets better. We already know that it has gotten better because we have fought to make it better. Fighting for our rights and our lives is, arguably, one of the strongest forms of resilience because we take an active role in challenging inequality.
Thinking More Critically, Thinking Globally
Another point that I like about Meadow’s op-ed is the emphasis on recognizing the institutional and societal manifestations of oppression faced by LGBTQ people. Like good sociologists, we must push attention to the bullying and harassment faced by LGBTQ youth to who is doing the bullying and harassment and how society and various institutions condone or promote such behavior. This includes highlighting the failure of schools to promote acceptance, inclusion, and safety of all of its students, yet also, attending to the actions and attitudes that disparage and demonize LGBTQ people at home, in the government, in religion, and so forth.
A second shift in our attention is to better understand how homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia intersect with other systems of oppression. Too often, the priorities of LGBTQ communities misses the unique needs and experiences of LGBTQ people who are multiply disadvantaged: women, transpeople, people of color, people experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, people with disabilities, religious minorities, immigrants. Arguably, the well-being of LGBTQ people is only as strong as its worst-off members — those who are often invisible in society and even in LGBTQ communities.
Third, and finally, I echo calls to reconceptualize LGBTQ rights as human rights. Such a move forces us to think globally about the lives and experiences of LGBTQ people. While some places, especially Western nations, are relatively tolerant of LGBTQ people (I use the term “relatively” strongly, here), other countries keep homosexuality on the books as a crime punishable by death and, even if not, such punishments are carried out daily by everyday citizens. We cannot become complacent with mere “tolerance” in places like the US, Canada, and some counties in Europe while LGBTQ people face severe violence and repression elsewhere.
It gets better… and already has… because we’ve made it better, and will continue to do so.
On The Root, Cord Jefferson raised the commonly asked question: if lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people want to gain the acceptance of the heterosexual majority, why do they dress and behave in ways considered unacceptable, far-fetched, and hypersexual? http://theroot.com/views/where-s-pride-pride-parades
This question holds considerable weight, whereas LGBT and queer people continue to fight the stereotypes of being consumed by sex, as well as more damaging stereotypes (e.g., pedophilia). Jefferson makes allusions to the images of Black Civil Rights activists wearing suits and skirts, making clear their message that Blacks, just like any other race of people, are good, moral, upstanding people who deserve the same shot at success and happiness.
What Jefferson probably doesn’t know is that gay activists have taken on that approach before – Homophile activists in the 1950s. Recall the activists in front of the White House, dressing conservatively and “appropriately” for one’s biological sex. Their successors challenged this assimilationist strategy, just as Black Panthers challenged what they saw as assimilationist strategies of Civil Rights activists. What Gay Liberation and Queer Nation activists have in common with the Black Panthers is the realization that the system within which assimilationist activists work will never grant them full equality. Although the contemporary LGBT movement is one that is largely assimilationist, seeking space and equality within the existing oppressive system, LGBT and queer culture as we know it finds strength in challenging heteronormative standards of sex, gender, sexuality, relationships, style, and entertainment. One of the most notable challenges to heteronormativity is drag culture. By challenging repressive expectations of gender and style, LGBT and queer people are challenging repressive expectations for relationships, sex, and sexuality.
Marriage equality is likely the biggest issue for LGBT and queer rights today. I know a number of LGBT and queer people who have not taken part in the movement for marriage equality whereas they see it as misguided – such emphasis on obtaining access to an already oppressive and exclusive institution which will not yield greater equality for LGBT and queer people, nor affect other issues (e.g., sexism, racism, classism) that plague LGBT communities. If it’s not obvious, I’m of this perspective as well. While I’m closely following the marriage equality movement and a strong advocate for granting access to same-gender couples, I don’t see marriage as our top priority right now. But, there is something to be said for the pride culture among LGBT and queer people with respect to marriage. By playing with gender, in a sense, subverting traditional and conservative understandings of it, LGBT and queer people are loosening the restrictions on marriage.
For example, a different-gender couple in New York married: http://www.365gay.com/video/male-couple-snookers-nyc-into-officially-marrying-them/ However, because Kimbah Nelson is not officially considered female by the state, though she identifies as a transwoman, and Jason Stenson is male, the state revoked their marriage license, as it does not currently issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples. If Nelson were to satisfactorily transition to be recognized as female by the state, the two could legally wed – though, they would still be challenging the traditional understanding of marriage as “one man and one woman.”
On the way to dropping me off at this summer’s DC Pride, my mother asked me the very question that Jefferson raises. At first, I brushed her off, accusing her of being jealous that she didn’t feel comfortable enough with her gender and sexuality to participate in a gay pride parade. But, when she pressed again, asking how LGBT and queer people expected to gain respect and acceptance while enjoying colorful, sexual celebrations, I told her that this is our “fuck you” to heteronormativity. In order to gain full sexual liberation, LGBT and queer people must challenge the repressive heteronormative standards of sexuality. What good does acceptance do us if we still have to play by the heterosexual majorities’ rules? Is that true equality? I don’t think so. So, I say we need to continue to celebrate ourselves with as much color and as little clothing as possible. Pride should be as gay and gender-bending as possible. We can save the suit-and-tie and skirts drag for the courts and congress.