Joanne N. Smith, founder and executive director of Girls for Gender Equity [GGE], a 10-year-old Brooklyn, New York-based group that fights sexism by promoting the physical, psychological, social, and economic well-being of young people, is presently focusing most of her efforts on the devastating impact of sexual harassment. Whatever form the hectoring takes—GGE defines sexual harassment to include leering, touching, taunting, and gossiping as well as rape and physical battering—the adverse impact of sustained victimization on mental health, Smith says, is always the same.
Studies bear this out. One survey conducted by Indiana University found that people who are regularly subjected to harassment-–most, but not all of them female—report increased stress, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Many also confide that they are tormented by feelings of shame. In the worst cases, respondents say that their ability to concentrate is diminished and admit that they have contemplated suicide.
“Feeling powerless contributes to young people making unhealthy choices about their bodies, GGE’s Joanne Smith continues. “The more disempowered you feel, the more likely you are to keep quiet about abuse. If you later drop out of school, you’re more likely to get pregnant if you’re a girl or go to prison if you’re a boy. Learning to speak up, to say ‘STOP,’ lends itself to getting out of bad relationships and teaches you to follow your gut. It gives you the confidence not to go to that party or get into that car.”
In other words, children and teens who are subjected to emotional or physical abuse are adversely affected socially, intellectually, and emotionally. This, of course, would be horrific even if it affected only a small number of youth, but reality is far harsher. A 2006 report issued by the American Association of University Women found that 83 percent of students who were queried—yes, more than four out of five–reported having been sexually harassed. For some, it was a stranger screaming “Yo, Mami“ at her as she walked down the street; for others, the behavior was more menacing and ranged from being called a bitch, slut, or whore, to being badgered to go out on a date, to being violently assaulted.
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What makes this especially maddening is that the law already categorizes most of these behaviors as illegal. As for sexual harassment in public schools, take note: It’s been unlawful for 39 years, since Title IX [of the Education Amendments of 1972] was initially promulgated. The rule is straightforward: “No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefit of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
If only Title IX were heeded. While every public elementary, junior, and senior high school is mandated to have a Title IX coordinator to train staff and students in the rule’s requirements; serve as a liaison between staff, students, and parents; and handle harassment complaints when someone comes forward, GGE knows that this rarely, if ever, happens. Their response was the creation of HEY SHORTY! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and On the Streets. [co-authored by Smith, Mandy Van Deven, and Meghan Huppuch and released in April by The Feminist Press.] The book is an easy-to-read handbook, a how-to for assessing the problem and organizing to stop it.
It’s also a renewed effort to get people talking about something that is so common it’s seen as normal. This message—and the subsequent conclusion that “boys-will-be boys,” unable to rein in their impulses—should be of interest to everyone who associates with young people. And it has been—to a point. In fact, many feminist and youth organizations have leapt at the chance to learn more about enforcing Title IX and empowering young women to fight name-calling, pestering, and violence.
But the right wing? Perhaps predictably, abstinence and right-leaning groups have been Missing-in-Action in discussions on the subject. If you take a gander at the Abstinence Clearinghouse website, for example, and initiate a search on sexual harassment, you’ll be led to articles on “traditional” marriage and ending sexual addictions or an addiction to porn. As for sexual harassment itself, there’s nada.
Other right-wing sites including Wendy Shalit’s blog, modestlyyours.net, turn the tables and instead of blaming the harasser, blame the victim. “Low self-esteem and disrespect from men are natural consequence of promotion of sexual promiscuity,” she drones. ”Sexual promiscuity ruins lives. Modesty is the answer.”
Were that it were so simple. Lower hemlines and covered collarbones and elbows notwithstanding, sexual harassment has little to do with modesty and if Shalit and her colleagues truly want to reduce teen pregnancy they’ll follow GGE’s lead and work to empower girls to stand up to bullies. They’ll also help them stay in school since female dropouts tend to get pregnant earlier than those who graduate.
“Promoting abstinence gives adults an excuse to ignore their responsibility in creating a world that is safe for a variety of sexualities and sexual expressions,” says Hey Shorty! co-author Mandy Van Deven. “Most school staff don’t know how to talk about these things.” To rectify this, she calls on teachers and school administrators to learn about “the breadth of what harassment is, from gender-based to LGBTQ harassment, to how technology has become a harassment tool.” Lastly, she calls on the federal government to reinvigorate Title IX and sexual assault prevention.
Advocates say that U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy's "Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act," purported to help address gaps in care, is regressive and strips rights away from those diagnosed with mental illness. This leaves those in the LGBTQ community—who already often have an adversarial relationship with the mental health sector—at particular risk.
The need for reform of the mental health-care system is well documented; those of us who have spent time trying to access often costly, out-of-reach treatment will attest to how time-consuming and expensive care can be—if you can get the necessary time off work to pursue that care. Advocates say, however, that U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-PA) “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” (HR 2646), purported to help address gaps in care, is not the answer. Instead, they say, it is regressive and strips rights away from those diagnosed with mental illness. This leaves those in the LGBTQ community—who already often have an adversarial relationship with the mental health sector—at particular risk.
“We believe that this legislation will result in outdated, biased, and inappropriate treatment of people with a mental health diagnosis,” wrote the political action committee Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a March letter to House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) and ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) on behalf of more than 100 social justice organizations. “The current formulation of H.R. 2646 will function to eliminate basic civil and human rights protections for those with mental illness.”
Murphy and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) reintroduced HR 2646 earlier this month, continuing to call it “groundbreaking” legislation that “breaks down federal barriers to care, clarifies privacy standards for families and caregivers; reforms outdated programs; expands parity accountability; and invests in services for the most difficult to treat cases while driving evidence-based care.”
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Some of the stated goals of HR 2646 are important: Yes, more inpatient care beds are needed; yes, smoother transitions from inpatient to outpatient care would help many; yes, prisons house too many people with mental illness. However, many of its objectives, such as “alternatives to institutionalization” potentially allow outpatient care to be mandated by judges with no medical training and pushed for by “concerned” family members. Even the “focus on suicide prevention” can lead to forced hospitalization and disempowerment of the person the system or family member is supposedly trying to help.
All in all, advocates say, HR 2646—which passed out of committee earlier this month—marks a danger to the autonomy of those with mental illness.
Victoria M. Rodríguez-Roldán, JD, director of the Trans/GNC Justice Project at the National LGBTQ Task Force, explained that the bill would usurp the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), “making it easier for a mental health provider to give information about diagnosis and treatment … to any ‘caregiver’-family members, partners or spouses, children that may be caring for the person, and so forth.”
For the communities she serves, this is more than just a privacy violation: It could put clients at risk if family members use their diagnosis or treatment against them.
“When we consider the stigma around mental illness from an LGBT perspective, an intersectional perspective, 57 percent of trans people have experienced significant family rejection [and] 19 percent have experienced domestic violence as a result of their being trans,” said Rodríguez-Roldán, citing the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. “We can see here how the idea of ‘Let’s give access to the poor loved ones who want to help!’ is not that great an idea.”
“It’s really about taking away voice and choice and agency from people, which is a trend that’s very disturbing to me,” said Leah Harris, an organizer with the Campaign For Real Change in Mental Health Policy, also known as Real MH Change. “Mostly [H.R. 2646] is driven by families of these people, not the people themselves. It’s pitting families against people who are living this. There are a fair number of these family members that are well-meaning, but they’re pushing this very authoritarian [policy].”
Rodríguez-Roldán also pointed out that if a patient’s gender identity or sexual orientation is a contributing factor to their depression or suicide risk—because of discrimination, direct targeting, or fear of bigoted family, friends, or coworkers—then that identity or orientation would be pertinent to their diagnosis and possible need for treatment. Though Murphy’s office claims that psychotherapy notes are excluded from the increased access caregivers would be given under HR 2646, Rodríguez-Roldán isn’t buying it; she fears individuals could be inadvertently outed to their caregivers.
Rodríguez-Roldán echoed concern that while disability advocacy organizations largely oppose the bill, groups that represent either medical institutions or families of those with mental illnesses, or medical institutions—such as NAMI, Mental Health America, and the APA—seem to be driving this legislation.
“In disability rights, if the doc starts about talking about the plight and families of the people of the disabilities, it’s not going to go over well,” she said. “That’s basically what [HR 2646] does.”
Rodríguez-Roldán’s concerns extend beyond the potential harm of allowing families and caregivers easier access to individuals’ sensitive medical information; she also points out that the act itself is rooted in stigma. Rep. Murphy created the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. Despite being a clinical psychologist for 30 years before joining Congress and being co-chair of the Mental Health Caucus, he continues to perpetuate the well-debunked myth that people with mental illness are violent. In fact, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, “only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness” and “people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.”
The act “is trying to prevent gun violence by ignoring gun control and going after the the rights of mentally ill people,” Rodríguez-Roldán noted.
In addition, advocates note, HR 2646 would make it easier to access assisted outpatient treatment, but would also give courts around the country the authority to mandate specific medications and treatments. In states where the courts already have that authority, Rodríguez-Roldán says, people of color are disproportionately mandated into treatment. When she has tried to point out these statistics to Murphy and his staff, she says, she has been shut down, being told that the disparity is due to a disproportionate number of people of color living in poverty.
Harris also expressed frustration at the hostility she and others have received attempting to take the lived experiences of those who would be affected by the bill to Murphy and his staff.
“I’ve talked to thousands of families … he’s actively opposed to talking to us,” she said. “Everyone has tried to engage with [Murphy and his staff]. I had one of the staffers in the room say, ‘You must have been misdiagnosed.’ I couldn’t have been that way,” meaning mentally ill. “It’s an ongoing struggle to maintain our mental and physical health, but they think we can’t get well.”
Multiple attempts to reach Murphy’s office by Rewire were unsuccessful.
LGBTQ people—transgender, nonbinary, and genderqueer people especially—are particularly susceptible to mistreatment in an institutional setting, where even the thoughts and experiences of patients with significant privilege are typically viewed with skepticism and disbelief. They’re also more likely to experience circumstances that already come with required hospitalization. This, as Rodríguez-Roldán explained, makes it even more vital that individuals not be made more susceptible to unnecessary treatment programs at the hands of judges or relatives with limited or no medical backgrounds.
“Forty-one percent of all trans people have attempted suicide at some point in their lives,” said Rodríguez-Roldán. “Once you have attempted suicide—assuming you’re caught—standard procedure is you’ll end up in the hospital for five days [or] a week [on] average.”
In turn, that leaves people open to potential abuse. Rodríguez-Roldán said there isn’t much data yet on exactly how mistreated transgender people are specific to psychiatry, but considering the discrimination and mistreatment in health care in general, it’s safe to assume mental health care would be additionally hostile. A full 50 percent of transgender people report having to teach their physicians about transgender care and 19 percent were refused care—a statistic that spikes even higher for transgender people of color.
“What happens to the people who are already being mistreated, who are already being misgendered, harassed, retraumatized? After you’ve had a suicide attempt, let’s treat you like garbage even more than we treat most people,” said Rodríguez-Roldán, pointing out that with HR 2646, “there would be even less legal recourse” for those who wanted to shape their own treatment. “Those who face abusive families, who don’t have support and so on—more likely when you’re queer—are going to face a heightened risk of losing their privacy.”
Or, for example, individuals may face the conflation of transgender or gender-nonconforming status with mental illness. Rodríguez-Roldán has experienced the conflation herself.
“I had one psychiatrist in Arlington insist, ‘You’re not bipolar; it’s just that you have unresolved issues from your transition,'” she said.
While her abusive household and other life factors certainly added to her depression—the first symptom people with Bipolar II typically suffer from—Rodríguez-Roldán knew she was transgender at age 15 and began the process of transitioning at age 17. Bipolar disorder, meanwhile, is most often diagnosed in a person’s early 20s, making the conflation rather obvious. She acknowledges the privilege of having good insurance and not being low-income, which meant she could choose a different doctor.
“It was also in an outpatient setting, so I was able to nod along, pay the copay, get out of there and never come back,” she said. “It was not inside a hospital where they can use that as an excuse to keep me.”
The fear of having freedom and other rights stripped away came up repeatedly in a Twitter chat last month led by the Task Force to spread the word about HR 2646. More than 350 people participated, sharing their experiences and asking people to oppose Murphy’s bill.
Alexander’s bill has more real reform embedded in its language, shifting the focus from empowering families and medical personnel to funding prevention and community-based support services and programs. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services would be tasked with evaluating existing programs for their effectiveness in handling co-current disorders (e.g., substance abuse and mental illness); reducing homelessness and incarceration of people with substance abuse and/or mental disorders; and providing recommendations on improving current community-based care.
Harris, with Real MH Change, considers Alexander’s bill an imperfect improvement over the Murphy legislation.
“Both of [the bills] have far too much emphasis on rolling back the clock, promoting institutionalization, and not enough of a preventive approach or a trauma-informed approach,” Harris said. “What they share in common is this trope of ‘comprehensive mental health reform.’ Of course the system is completely messed up. Comprehensive reform is needed, but for those of us who have lived through it, it’s not just ‘any change is good.'”
Harris and Rodríguez-Roldán both acknowledged that many of the HR 2646 co-sponsors and supporters in Congress have good intentions; those legislators are trusting Murphy’s professional background and are eager to make some kind of change. In doing so, the voices of those who are affected by the laws—those asking for more funding toward community-based and patient-centric care—are being sidelined.
“What is driving the change is going to influence what the change looks like. Right now, change is driven by fear and paternalism,” said Harris. “It’s not change at any cost.”
“We need to have a national conversation about racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” said Alan Pelaez Lopez, a member of the organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. “If these things do not happen, the nation, by definition, will have done nothing to support our communities.”
The same day of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting that would take the lives of 49 mostly Latino and LGBTQ-identified people, thousands of miles away in Santa Monica, California, a man was found with weapons, ammunition, and explosive-making materials in his car with plans to attend the annual Pride festival taking place in West Hollywood later that day.
But queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) say these responses are missing the mark, because what their communities really need are deeper conversations and more resources that address their specific experiences, including fewer police at Pride events.
House Democrats held a sit-in on gun control this week as a direct response to the Orlando shooting. Though Alan Pelaez Lopez—an Afro-Latinx, gender-nonconforming immigrant, poet, and member of the organization Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement—agrees that gun control is important and should be considered by Congress, they said it can also feel like the community affected by the shooting almost always gets erased from those discussions.
“We need to have a national conversation about racism, homophobia, and transphobia,” the poet said. “If these things do not happen, the nation, by definition, will have done nothing to support our communities.”
Rethinking ‘Pride’ for People of Color
In mid-May, Rewire reported on the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA)’s week of action to #RedefineSecurity, which encouraged participants to reimagine what safety looked like in Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and called for them to push back against police presences at Pride events.
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Pride events and festivals take place each June to commemorate the Stonewall riots in New York City, a clash between police officers and members of the LGBTQ community—led by trans women of color—that would kickstart the modern LGBTQ movement.
Even after the Orlando shooting at a gay nightclub, NQAPIA organizing director Sasha W. told Rewire their stance on police at Pride events hasn’t changed, but only grown more resolute.
As an organizer working with queer and trans Muslim, South Asian, and Middle Eastern communities, Sasha W. said the populations they work with say that framing the Orlando shooting as a “terrorist attack” makes them feel “increasingly unsafe.”
“I think part of what we need to remember is to examine what ‘terror’ looked like in queer and trans communities over the course of our history in this country,” Sasha W. said. They cited the Stonewall riots and the inaction by the government during the HIV and AIDS epidemic as examples of some of the many ways the state has inflicted violence on queer and trans communities.
Sasha W. added that pointing blame at Daeshis too easy, and that the oppression queer and trans people face in the United States has always been state-sanctioned. “We have not historically faced ‘terror’ at the hands of Muslim people or brown people. That is not where our fear has come from,” they said.
What’s missing, they said, is a conversation about why police officers make certain people feel safe, and “interrogating where that privilege comes from.” In other words, there are communities who do not have to fear the police, who are not criminalized by them, and who are confident that cops will help them in need. These are not privileges experienced by many in queer and trans communities of color.
Asking the mainstream LGBTQ community to rethink their stance on police and institutions that have historically targeted and criminalized communities of color has been challenging for queer and trans people of color.
What’s become clear, according to Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement founder Jorge Gutierrez, is that after a tragedy like Orlando, white LGBTQ members want to feel united, but many don’t want to discuss how things like race and citizenship status affect feelings of safety. Instead, some will push for a greater police presence at events.
There have already been instances of white members of the LGBTQ community publicly shutting down conversations around racial justice. Advocates say the public needs to understand the broader context of this moment.
“The white LGBTQ community doesn’t face the criminalization and policing that our community faces every day. Not just at Pride, but every day, everywhere we go. That’s our life,” Gutierrez said. “If you don’t listen to us when it comes to these issues of safety, you’re not just erasing us from a tragedy that impacted us, but you’re really hurting us.”
As Gutierrez explained, in the hours after the shooting, some media coverage failed to mention Pulse was a gay club, failed to mention it was people of color who were killed on Latino night, and failed to mention that trans women were performing just before the shooting broke out. Gutierrez told Rewire he felt like his community and their pain was being erased, so his organization put together a video featuring queer and trans immigrants of color, including Lopez, to discuss their immediate feelings after the Pulse shooting—and many shared sentiments similar to Sasha W.’s and Lopez’s. One trans Latina said the shooting was “years in the making.”
“The video was important for us to release because the shooting was being framed as an isolated event that randomly happened, but we know that’s not true. We know that the United States has a history of hurting queer and trans people of color and we needed to produce our own media, with our own messaging, from our own people to tell people what really happened, the history that lead to it happening, and who it really impacted. We didn’t want our voices and our realities as immigrants, as undocumented people, as queer and trans people of color, erased,” Gutierrez said.
Without even factoring in an increase in law enforcement, Lopez told Rewire Pride already felt unsafe for people like them.
“I have experienced a lot of racism [at Pride events], the pulling of my hair from people walking behind me, and I have also been sexually harassed by white people who claim to want to experiment with being with a Black person,” Lopez said.
Though Lopez didn’t attendany Pride events in Los Angeles this year, they told Rewire that in previous years, there was already a large police presence at Pride events and as a “traumatized person” who has had many negative interactions with police officers, including being racially profiled and stopped and frisked, encountering law enforcement was scary.
“Seeing [cops] at Pride makes me remember that I am always a target because at no time has the police made me feel protected,” the poet said. “Signs of heavy police presence are really triggering to people who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder from violent interactions with the police, for undocumented communities, for transgender communities, for young people of color, and for formerly incarcerated individuals. When I think of security, I do not think of police.”
Another reason Lopez chose not to attend Pride this year: It was being sponsored by Wells Fargo. The banking corporation sponsors over 50 yearly Pride events and has been called a “longtime advocate of LGBT equality” by organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, which also lists Wells Fargo as a top-rated company on its Corporate Equality Index. But Wells Fargo has a history of investing in private prisons, including detention centers. Calls to drop Wells Fargo from Pride events have been unsuccessful. For queer immigrants like Lopez, attending Pride would mean “financially contributing” to the same corporation and system that they said killed their friends, the same corporation that they said has incarcerated their family, and that they said has tried—but failed—to incarcerate them.
Sasha W. told Rewire that for QTPOC, it’s easy to forget that the event is supposed to be about celebration.
“For many of us, we can’t really bring our whole selves into these places that are meant to make us feel free or we have to turn off parts of who we are in order to enjoy ourselves” the organizer said. “And as far as the policing of these events go, I think it’s worth noting that policing has always been about protecting property. It’s always been about property over people since the days of the slave trade. When we see police at Pride events the assumption [by our communities] is that those police will protect money and business over our queer brown and Black bodies.”
“Really Troubling Policies”
As organizations and corporations work to meet the short-term needs of victims of the Orlando shooting, advocates are thinking ahead to the policies that will adversely affect their communities, and strategizing to redefine safety and security for QTPOC.
Gutierrez told Rewire that what has made him feel safe in the days since the Orlando shooting is being around his QTPOCcommunity, listening to them, mourning with them, sharing space with them, and honoring the lives of the brothers and sisters that were lost. His community, the organizer said, is now more committed than ever to exist boldly and to make the world a safer place for people like them—and that means pushing back against what he believes to be a troubling narrative about what safety should look like.
However, Gutierrez said that politicians are using his community’s pain in the wake of the Orlando shooting to push an anti-Muslim agenda and pit the LGBTQ community against Muslims, conveniently forgetting that there are people who live at the intersection of being queer and Muslim. Perhaps more troubling are the policies that may arise as a result of the shooting, policies that will add to the surveilling and profiling Muslims already experience and that will further stigmatize and criminalize vulnerable communities.
“The government, the police, politicians, they’re trying to equate safety with having more police on the street, at gay clubs—that are like home to many of us, and at Pride. We know that doesn’t make us safe; we know police are part of the problem,” he said.
“Of course we need to make it more difficult for people to get guns, but we also need more resources for our communities so our communities can truly be safe on the streets, in the workplace, at school, at the clubs, and at Pride,” he said. “That means having healthy communities that have resources so people can thrive and live authentically. The answer to our problems is not more police.”
Sasha W. echoed Gutierrez, saying that their community is already fearful of what’s to come because moments of national crisis often create the space for “really troubling policies.”
“That’s how we got the Patriot Act,” the organizer said. “There is a fear that we are in another one of those moments where there are calls for protection and it’s being tied to the false idea of a foreign threat that requires an increase of surveillance of Muslims. Think of how calls for protection have also hurt queer communities, communities of color, trans communities, like the idea that bathrooms aren’t safe because of trans people. Who is really unsafe in this country, and why do policies hurt us instead of protect us?”
Lopez added: “The Orlando shooting was powered by the fact that the United States has a history of violence against LGBTQIA communities, a history of violence against immigrants, a history of violence against women, and a history of colonization of the island of Puerto Rico …The U.S. needs to address institutional problems of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sex, and sexuality if it wants to put an end to future massacres.”
Sasha W. urges QTPOC to “expand their political imagination” and re-envision what security looks like. In the long term, the organizer said, they hope more people recognize who their communities’ “actual enemies” are, instead of turning on each other.
“Let’s recognize that the state has always been something we’ve had to fight to survive and that institutions that hurt us are growing increasingly strong in this moment of crisis, as they often do, so we have to work to disarm and dismantle the institutions that terrorize our communities” they said.
“On another note, we have always been our own best defense, especially in communities of color,” they said. “Supporting each other to protect ourselves better doesn’t happen overnight, I know, but so much of this starts with building community with each other so that we know each other, love each other, and throw down for one another.”