By Kathryn DeWitt
How can we be sure you’ll be safe?
I remember the first time that someone asked me that question. I had been doing my class readings at a table in the dorm when my residential advisor asked me to talk with the house dean. We had walked down the stairs to the dean’s apartment in the dorm, where I was now on the phone while the dean talked in hushed tones with the RA.
A snowstorm raged outside in the Philadelphia streets, shutting down the university. The urgent voice on the other side wasn’t worried about frostbite or violence. No, he was worried about suicide. The psychiatrist on the phone line suggest that I go into the emergency room.
Fast forward a year, after a hospitalization, treatment, and internship at Active Minds, I’m in my freshmen dorm, sitting across from another student. Instead of hearing the words, I am saying them:
Are you safe, right now?
On the Sunday of the massacre in Orlando, I had planned to go to my home church, the church I grew up. The pit of my stomach was churning with dread, but maybe I wanted to go back to the bliss of helping with Sunday school, singing the songs that even today comfort me, and seeing the families who had walked with my family and for the entire 20 years of my life. Maybe I wanted to please my parents, who have grown so much in the past years, by going just one time this summer. It’s not that I have pushed off religion, rather it is worry that someone will say something…again.
Our community is small. In the time that I have been in college, they started sitting in a circle instead of lining up rows because they weren’t filling the rows. I take a seat in the back of the circle after the obligatory hellos and hugs. My pastor, who my parents have had conversations with after I came out, started the morning announcements with the news of America’s largest mass shooting and a moment of silence. After praying for the families and victims, he turned to the youth of our small community challenged us to lead the service next Sunday. He turned to us, the people who had grown up in this community, who had seen our parents cobble together this space, who made up the majority of the service that day. He asked us:
I want to hear your thoughts on the word “Safety”…
This past Sunday, it felt like the perceived, though false, notion of safety, of progress for the LGBT community fell away. One year after marriage equality, during Pride month, just when the fight for equitable access to restrooms was gaining ground. Especially for the Latino community, who was disproportionately affected by the shooting since it was Latin night on Sunday, a safe space was destroyed, stolen. Queer people are asking each other:
Are we safe?
Abraham Maslow, a psychologist, created the hierarchy of needs to express that the different needs build on each other to form a person. In his pyramid, safety comes after the physiological needs. And after safety comes love and belonging. I cannot help but remember the psychological torture I put myself through as I questioned my sexuality in the context of my religion. I saw my queerness as jeopardizing any love and belonging that had come from my church community that meant so much to me.
I couldn’t be… I dared not speak the words as a freshman in college, on the other side of the country. I was having enough difficulty as it was with friendships, feelings of inadequacy, smarter peers and curves, and this strange phenomena called snow, I couldn’t add another issue on top of all this. Not when I was away from home for the first time, not when freshmen year is supposed to be the best year of your life, not when I wanted to prove that everything was great because I was at an ivy league school. All these thoughts collided and coalesced into increasing anxiety and increasing depression that rendered me suicidal and unsafe.
Queer youth are at higher risk for suicide and substance abuse than their straight cis peers. As we reflect on the lives of the victims of Orlando and begin to hear the stories of the survivors, I hope that we also keep in mind that safety is not just physical but can also be psychological and emotional. After achieving the need for physical safety, we need love and belonging. For those of us in the LGBT community with mental health disorders, this can pose a formidable challenge. Through treatment and time for growth, I found my own safety once again in learning to love others and belong to many communities (the LGBT community, mental health advocates, and so many others). As I reconcile the fear that has been struck into my heart by Orlando that I am unsafe, I counter this by knowing that there is support for me, love for me, belonging for me. And those feelings are things that no one can take away.
Tonight, I as I fall asleep in my childhood room, surrounded by a family that loves me, I know I am safe in the ways that I can control. I am fortunate to have this support while being out but not everyone is out or has a supportive family. If you are struggling after the Orlando massacre, there are resources out there that are spaces where you are loved, supported and safe. The Trevor Project offers a suicide prevention line specifically for queer youth at 866-488-7386. Additionally, the Trans Lifeline, staffed by trans people for trans people, is available at (877) 565-8860. The Crisis Text Line is also available at 741-741.
(Photo from New York Times, 2016)