By Joe Kort, MSW
As gays and lesbians, we are still recovering from the trauma of the recent political elections, most significantly the passing of bans against marriage for gays and lesbians. With the holidays approaching, my clients talk about how they dread the further trauma of going home to their families and not being able to – or not feeling able to – be out and open with them about being gay. They call it depression, but I say would describe it as trauma because it better expresses the emotionally charged and distressing feelings, which leave you nowhere to release and express these emotions.
Over the past weeks, I’ve listened to clients shout and weep, express their hurt, pain and fear at knowing that they reside in a state that passed a law against them. As they pass people on the street, they wonder who might have voted to ban marriage for gays. They wonder – as I do – who betrayed us?
They long to express their dismay at work, with families, and to their neighbors, but many don’t dare out of fear of rejection, alienation and abandonment. They don’t want to experience the betrayal all over again. This silence leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD), first identified in soldiers returning home from wars, is a psychological disorder that follows having endured life-threatening events. Later, psychologists noted that those who experience other traumas such as natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, rape, and childhood sexual and physical abuse also displayed PTSD. Symptoms include difficulty sleeping and concentrating, becoming easily startled and agitated, irritability, outbursts of anger, depression, intense anxiety, substance abuse, nightmares and flashbacks, and feelings of helplessness. Lesbians and gays are also vulnerable to PTSD, because we often lack social and family support, get blamed for others’ homophobic and heterosexist remarks, and must live with the threats and dangers – perceived and real – of being discriminated against. And I would say the recent election was a natural disaster, in my humble opinion!
In my practice, I see more lesbian and gay individuals and couples struggling on a day-to-day basis with the media’s political views about us. Even if they aren’t planning to marry or currently in a relationship, this issue feels personal – as well it should!
For me, the days following the election felt similar to how I felt after 9/11, and the passing of my mother-in-law, with whom I was very close. Events seemed to be happening in slow motion. There was a silence all around me, and I felt numb. For years I have spoken about the covert trauma we feel each time some anti-gay rant appears in print or on the airwaves. The recent election made that trauma go overt.
It’s high time to start acknowledging the post-traumatic stress and depression we experience from having basic rights and privileges wrested away from us. It is time to claim back our rights, regardless of the passage of ignorant laws or what others do (and don’t) want for us. No longer should we wait for others to give us permission to heal ourselves.
This holiday, download your emotions. Don’t remain silent about being and living gay and lesbian. By doing even one thing differently with one institution, one group, one person, your depressive PTSD symptoms can be relieved and you will feel more empowered. Taking action is the one antidote to keep us from internalizing the hate and oppression directed at us, and treating ourselves and others badly as a result.
Avoidance, as in hiding, avoiding, fleeing, freezing, submitting – or conversely, fighting, shouting or being irrational – will keep you traumatized. Herewith, some tips to keep yourself from feeling depressed during the holiday season, when many people feel guilty about not being joyous and happy.
How to be Homo For the Holidays
1. If you are not completely out, tell at least one family member, colleague, or friend that you are gay.
2. Take your partner home with you for the holidays – don’t go separately to your own families.
3. Refuse to keep silent about how you feel about this past election. Talk about GLBT issues with one group of people; friends, family, colleagues, or fellow students. You don’t have to get personal in terms of telling them you’re gay yourself; you can simply express your feelings on the issue. Whether or not you’ve come out, it’s a step in the right direction.
4. If your religious institution supported the ban, write or talk to someone in that organization about how that impacted you.
5. Volunteer for a GLBT organization or donate to help them fight for our political and social rights.
6. Seek professional mental health help from a GLBT-affirmative therapist.
7. Write an editorial to your local newspaper.
8. Locate – and work for – GLBT friendly candidates.
9. Write to the American Family Association, Concerned Women For America or other anti-gay organizations and inform them you will not be oppressed by their hateful views.
10. Buy books on marriage and other rights for GLBT’s and be informed!