For Pride Month this year, while our NAMI California team worked on ways to support our LGBTQ+ community members, we reflected on the growing movement to fight for justice and equity. It’s an incredibly challenging but also hopeful time for our nation.
The LGBTQ+ community continues our fight for recognition and equity in a world that has not always felt we were worthy of that recognition. LGBTQ+ families have existed, of course, since the beginning of time, but in our modern understanding of what our community means in the context of the world, we have seen great triumphs and horrific tragedies. I want to put this in some context for what it means to be someone in this fight, as well as someone fighting to help individuals living with mental illness and their families.
I use fight with good reason. It’s important to remember that pride began as a riot.
The recognition of Pride, and the rights of this community, started in the Stonewall uprising in the late 1960s, when heroes like Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major stood up with many other brave folks to say the laws of this country would not define the rights that we have, nor would we be defined by the broader culture and society. We would define our own lives, our own families, and our own path to equity. They were brave enough to say that they would not be criminalized for being who they were.
This fight is similar, in many ways, to the struggle for acceptance and dignity for individuals living with mental illness and their families. When laws didn’t understand the challenges and treatment didn’t work, we, at NAMI, fought for a better world. We fought for families to live lives of dignity and respect, free from discrimination. We have found together that struggle would be messy, beautiful, and emblematic of the best parts of ourselves and the world.
LGBTQ+ people have also had struggles with the medical profession, specifically psychiatry. Members of this community were labeled as having a mental illness and were sometimes hospitalized; the official diagnosis didn’t leave the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until as recently as 1987. In fact, there are many nations in the world, including our own, that create laws that discriminate actively against LGBTQ+ people. For these reasons, amongst many others, our community has had a very complicated relationship with the mental health field.
Not surprisingly, we see alarming statistics about LGBTQ+ people and mental health. In a study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people, a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) study found them to be more than twice as likely to develop a mental health problem as the general population.
It’s often said that LGBTQ+ people can be born into an “enemy camp,” meaning we may be isolated even within our own families. This can make it even harder to address the fullness of our identities. It can begin with youth feeling like they are not good enough or worthy of getting the help they need.
For me, this meant that I began my journey in mental illness as an early consumer of psychiatric services. My struggle with anxiety began when I as a child. From an early age, I strove to prove myself and achieve.
I remember always finding the kids who were left out in elementary school and trying to make them feel included. As I look back, I realize that I saw clearly how our society doesn’t always take care of everyone, and how it’s up to each of us to do what we can to build the world we want. I also see that in those smaller acts of kindness there was probably an element for me of feeling different and wanting that same kindness shown to me.
Throughout my life, my coping mechanism has always been humor. It has been the way that I’ve survived many personal challenges, as well as how I’ve seen so many of my community heroes overcome theirs. Humor is a hallmark of NAMI that helps us make it through our journey and recharge our batteries in the face of unimaginable odds. In our support groups, “we embrace humor as healthy” is one of our principles of support.
Before I came to NAMI, I worked in the private sector and always felt like something was missing. Although I was building businesses to be more successful, it seemed empty to me, in many ways. I wasn’t working toward something that spoke to my values as a person and I realized that I wanted my hard work to pay off — not for myself, but for the world.
These ideas combined into the job I have working to advocate for individuals, families and communities who may also feel left out. I want to find ways to bring them in. It is true that we are stronger together. This is true in our families, this is true in our communities, this is true in our world. Starting out, I worked with young people who were in residential care facilities. From there, I moved on to an local organization in Sacramento that worked to directly serve individuals living with mental illness, breast cancer and HIV/AIDS; we also held a youth group for LGBTQ+ people thinking about their identities and deciding about their futures.
It was after working at the city level, when I started to think about how I could find ways to help more families, that I found NAMI California. At NAMI California, we fight every day for the rights of families and individuals to live lives of dignity and respect. We take our impact at the local level and build on that to impact the state and build on that to impact the nation. We disrupt the status quo when the status quo doesn’t tell the stories of our families.
NAMI in California has a history of disruption. You can see that from our members sleeping in the Governor’s office in order to fight early on for the rights of our families, all the way to the passage of Prop 63 (the Mental Health Services Act). NAMI California has been a leader in changing the status quo, led by members demanding changes for our families. Our success has come from disruptive actions, our fights for justice are intertwined and inseparable. We will continue to stand together and, in the end, we will all find a better place.
We can all learn from our LGBTQ+ community members at Pride celebrations, where we gather to celebrate our progress. We invite everyone in and march ahead knowing we still have work to do. We remember the classic saying: none of us are free until all of us are free. Our struggles in mental health are really the same struggle. We fight for the ability to live our lives, with all the potential we were endowed with at birth, and to move our communities to a place of greater kindness, acknowledging the pain of the past, and having a vision of the world we want for all of us.
So let’s move forward, in purpose. Let’s keep building on our impact toward the tomorrow we know we will reach.
Photo: Steven and his husband, Paul