In 1994, a Missouri educator rallied fellow teachers and community members around the idea of establishing a month to commemorate and teach students about LGBT history. Already marked by National Coming Out Day (October 11) and the anniversary of the very first “March on Washington”—and by virtue of being a month when school is in session—the group of educators chose October. A resolution to adopt several commemorative months—including LGBT History Month—was passed by the National Education Association’s General Assembly the next year; nevertheless, not a single school district committed to commemorating LGBT History Month until 2012 and, even then, there were only two.
It is a shame that LGBT History Month isn’t more widely observed: like other marginalized groups, the aspirations and the achievements of LGBTQ+ folks are often erased—or, rather, in the case of the Queer** community, the LGBTQ+ identity of those folks are erased. Like George Orwell wrote, “The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.” That means that those kids who are Queer and/or questioning, are deprived of heroes and role models who are like them. It also means that straight kids aren’t being given an accurate context for the world around them and, instead, are being fed untruths about the diversity of the people who have and continue to make the world what it is. And as we grow up, regardless of our sexual orientation and our gender identities, we carry those untruths with us, replicating that same old heterocentric view of the world because we don’t know any better. Further, those misconceptions, those untruths impact the LGBTQ community in very real, material ways.
No single issue exists in a vacuum. Rather, as we each have intersecting identities, we have intersecting obstacles. Because October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and because the first week of the month commemorates Mental Illness Awareness Week, I feel like it is important to talk about the way those untruths impact members of the Queer community in terms of health. Specifically, I want to talk about health disparity. As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “health disparities are preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.” In a very general sense, there are several things that can be responsible for health disparities: chronic stress, poverty, education inequity, inadequate access to healthcare, environmental factors, and so on. Basically, health disparities result from the IDIC of craptasticness that comes with being a member of a marginalized group.
While there is not as much research that deals with the intersection of cancer and Queer communities as there should be, there is evidence that the health disparities experienced by LGBTQ+ people may very well be leading to both a higher incidence of cancer and later diagnoses. Queer ciswomen, female-bodied genderqueer folks, transmen, and transwomen are far less likely to receive routine cancer screenings, like mammograms, in part because of a fear of discrimination—a fear that is not unfounded. Because it has been shown that teaching kids about LGBTQ+ history can significantly reduce the incidence of heterosexist bullying, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to see how valuable even basic LGBTQ+ cultural competency among healthcare providers could be.
Now, let’s take a look back to that CDC definition of health disparities; specifically, I want to talk about the part where it explicitly mentions violence. During the 1960s and ‘70s, second wave feminists brought broad attention to intimate partner violence. At the time, the image that seemed to burn itself into the cultural imaginary was that of the “battered woman.” While women are socially disadvantaged, the “battered woman” framing has become so monolithic, we often fail, as a society, to see that a) there are other kinds abuse besides hitting, b) sometimes women are perpetrators, c) sometimes men are victims and survivors, and d) relationship violence isn’t an issue exclusive to straight folks. In fact, recent studies have concluded that folks in the LGBTQ+ community experience a higher prevalence of intimate partner violence than do straight folks; the lifetime prevalence is especially high among bisexual women. Despite the prevalence, LGBTQ+ folks are less likely to report having suffered violence for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is the fear of being outed, particularly in an unwelcoming community; fear of police discrimination; the likelihood of not being believed. I can’t help but think that if we lived in a society that recognized the legitimacy of the whole spectrum of sexual and gender identities, as well as different relationship structures, those very real fears might be mitigated.
All those health disparities also impact mental health; of course, since the term “homosexual” was coined, Queer folks’ relationship to the mental health system has been fraught. Continually pathologized by mental health practitioners, physicians, politicians, and preachers, the LGBTQ+ community is still trying to throw off the stigmas clinicians attached to us: deviant, aberrant, perverted. LGBTQ+ people were, apparently, afflicted and in need of a cure. Homosexuality wasn’t struck from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 1973. Though, apparently some folks haven’t gotten that memo. Trans* folks, in particular, have a difficult relationship with the mental health community: until recent adoption of an informed consent model by many healthcare providers, transmen and transwomen had to produce a letter from a mental health provider to “prove” that they could move forward with their transition—which basically means they had to perform a specific idea of trans-ness—a mental disorder, as far as the psychiatric community has been concerned—convincingly enough to convince a cisgender person to give them permission to inhabit their gender identity. Which is bullshit. The most recent version of the DSM, thankfully, took a more person-centered and (hopefully) less stigmatizing approach, listing “gender dysphoria” rather than “gender identity disorder.” All of this is compounded by the fact that LGBTQ+ are already more likely to experience mental illness because of the continual stress of social stigma, abuse, harassment, family rejection, discrimination, etc.
While I know it is no panacea, I really do think that making a point of observing LGBT History Month can help. By acknowledging the struggles and the achievements of LGBTQ+-identified folks, we will be affirming the identities of our Queer friends and family. We will be exposing folks from all walks of life to all kinds of other walks of life, helping them to be better and more empathetic neighbors. It can go a long way toward dispelling some of the stigma and toward mitigating the very real, material effects of being marginalized, like these health disparities. There are literally lives on the line. So, let’s observe LGBT History Month with intention, celebrate triumphs, mourn losses, and push purposefully forward so that – maybe someday soon – we’ll have a much longer list of people and victories to celebrate.
We, here at Sweatpants & Coffee, love you and care deeply for you and your well-being. We also want you to know that you are not alone and that there are resources out there for you. This list is not exhaustive, but it’s a start.
If you are struggling with your mental health:
Trevor Project – (866) 488-7386, or text “Trevor” to (202) 304-1200
Crisis Text Line – text “START” to 741-741
National Suicide Prevention Hotline – (800) 273-8255
If you have experienced sexual violence:
RAINN – (800) 656-4673
If you are surviving intimate partner violence:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline – (800)799-7233; for TTY: (800) 787-3224
If you need some support in your fight against cancer:
Breast Cancer Helpline – (888) 753-5222
**Author’s note: I find enormous value, in terms of both self-affirmation and political identity, in the word “Queer.” This is not the case for some members of the LGBTQ+ community.