There was a vote on traditional marriage in the NJ legislature when I was around 11 years old. It is now almost twenty years later, and I am only beginning to comprehend the lasting impacts.
We were a church-going family living in suburban white America, with my father (the cop) and his brother (the pastor) in the patriarchal leadership positions. This indoctrination into white Christian Supremacist culture as a young girl was absorbed into my spirit and the misguided teachings still weigh on me today. Before I understood and could articulate my authentic truth, I saw myself, and other LGBTQ+ peoples, as sick and in need of healing/saving.
At the time, in 2012, I had no idea that the yard sign my father placed in front of our family home would be imprinted on my memory. It was a simple sign, with a simple equation that my young mind believed that I understood: “Marriage = One man + One woman”. Looking back, I now know that I did not have a true understanding of the social and political implications within the statement my father was making. What I did immediately interpret was that any love or connection shared between people of the same sex was unacceptable in his, or God’s, household.
During those influential younger years, I was told time and time again that God knew me and had my life’s journey planned from the very beginning. Before I began to question some of these early teachings, this belief provided me with a form of confidence and clarity regarding my everyday choices. In later years, this popular belief led to moments/days/years of extreme dissonance and distrust of myself as I attempted to balance God’s (heteronormative) plan with my true feelings and emotions towards others.
I am not going to tell you that my family’s harmful rejection of the LGBTQ+ community is the direct cause for my ongoing mental health struggles and my challenges with substance misuse. There are many things still unknown by the scientific community regarding the origins of mental health symptoms and conditions. I am a person that recognizes the influences of genetics, family dynamic, individual experiences, and society all as playing a part in the makeup of an individual’s mental health wellness.
What I will say is that the influences of my family–their promotion of homophobic and transphobic views–are highly correlated with my personal internal struggles. This strict adherence to conservative religious teachings that call for the exclusion of LGBTQ+ peoples continue to challenge my individual relationships with family members as I have grown more outspoken and willing to show up in family spaces as my full, authentic self. Furthermore, this exclusion from the church has led me on a difficult path as I continue to seek the Divine in myself and the world around me.
Unfortunately, these types of harmful experiences are not unique to my story nor family. The reach of white Christian Supremacy, their promotion of heteronormativity, and their rejection of science and societal evolution is vast. For anyone not personally affected, the following statistics can help to depict how deep and far the effects of living in cultures that reject queer love extend:
- Lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals are twice as likely to experience a mental health challenge, when compared to their heterosexual counterparts. Transgender and/or non-binary individuals are nearly 4 times more likely to experience mental health challenges when compared to their cisgender counterparts (National Alliance for Mental Illness- NAMI).
- Substances are generally used by people for two main reasons: to increase joy or to decrease pain. In comparison to the heterosexual population, which experiences a 9% rate, the LGBTQ+ community experiences an estimated 20-30% rate of substance abuse and/or misuse (Addiction Center).
- LGBTQ+ youth are frequently kicked out of their family homes when they reveal their authentic selves. Overall, members of the queer community have a 120% higher risk of experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives (National Alliance for Mental Illness- NAMI).
- 40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide at some point of their life, compared to just 5% of the general population of adults (National Alliance for Mental Illness- NAMI).
The day I came home to see that yard sign was the day that my inner self built barricades around the parts of me that were outside of the white, heteronormative, status quo. Those barricades protected me while I lived in the home of my parents. Then, in my early 20s, I started the tough work of unlearning and dismantling the borders I had built around my inner self in order to reconcile my experiences and to search for my own truths.
The unlearning and relearning process is an ongoing one. It is not an easy journey, but it is one that I am grateful to have walked, and continue to walk. If I had never broken down those barricades of self defense, I may not have made it to my 30th birthday. There is a term in mental health recovery spaces: Firewalkers. To be a firewalker is akin to having the strength of steel: You can be tossed into the fire, survive, and come out stronger and changed for the better.
For any fellow Firewalkers, queers, weirdos, outcasts, and misfits that may resonate with my story, I want to share some of the core elements of my wellness/recovery plan, in hopes that you may one day be inspired to seek recovery and healing for yourself.
- “The opposite of addiction is connection.” Johann Hari, 2015 TedTalk. Find your coven! Find people who share similar experiences with yours. Through shared experiences, the burden of needing to explain the situation is reduced and/or eliminated–while still being fully seen! I have found my people in mental health recovery spaces, within the Soulforce family, and in the forests.
- Question everything! Seek information and guidance regarding the historical and cultural context of the beliefs/expectations placed on you. One of the core offerings of Soulforce are our political and theological resources, all of which help individuals to recognize the strategies used by the Religious Right to perpetuate the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people. Through the broadening of my perspective and understanding, I now recognize that the problems lie with the institutions and systems of power that refuse to acknowledge the worthiness of queer people.
- Seek professional support in ways that feel good to you. Talk therapy can offer the participant a space to come to where they are fully accepted and can unload some of the weight of life’s burdens and stressors. With that said, finding a therapist that feels good and affirming may take a few trials and errors. PsychologyToday.com is the tool I used to help find my current therapist, who I have been working with for 6 years.
- There are no wrong or right ways to heal! Every person is unique and every recovery journey will look different. Abstinence from substances can be the best choice for some individuals. For other individuals, various methods of harm reduction are the best choice. Just like I am sharing my story and perspective with you today, I imagine that there have been some aspects that resonate with you and others that have not. The complexities and nuances of life are what fuel innovation and reimagining–don’t be afraid to acknowledge them.
I am a transgender, non-binary, person that battles chronic symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. I am privileged to be alive and writing this blog post at the age of 30. I am someone who beat the odds and who stubbornly refuses to be silenced by those who believe that they hold power over me. I find comfort and power in the knowledge that I am always everything that I am meant to be, that I am ever evolving and changing, and that my Divine values the authenticity that I have worked to unwrap. I am fueled by the hope and knowledge that I am evidence to younger queers that they too can survive.
This is the image I actually hope to leave you with: Myself and my beautiful, loving, incredible wife on our wedding day jubilantly exiting our ceremony site. Her, dressed as the queen she is, and me feeling fresh AF in my first fade. One of the best moments of my life and favorite walks!
It may have taken me nearly 20 years to overcome the image of that old yard sign, but I am damn grateful to have walked the path I have. This person, the one who has struggled, is who my wife fell in love with. This is the person my future children will know. This person is resilient enough to survive the seemingly impossible to build anew.
My unending gratitude is to all the advocates, social justice warriors, and countless consumer-survivors who have come before me. Specifically, I lift up my grandmothers who were both survivors of the US mental health institution, whose blood flows through me, and whose spirits call out for me to continue my own survival. (Learn more about the history of the Consumer/Survivor/Ex-Patient Movement here or here).