On Halloween in 1998 I decided not to go out to the party-in-the-streets extravaganza that is Halloween in The Castro. It was just a few weeks after Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Wyoming and although I lived in San Francisco, the world no longer seemed like a safe place to be out, queer and playing on a night that is traditionally about hauntings, restless spirits and unfinished business.
I wasn’t the only person that felt this way. In one of the “Gay Meccas” of the world, a shadow had fallen, and it wasn’t the first. That shadow could be described as trauma — or an experience of coming in direct or indirect contact with an event that terrorizes and renders you helpless. Judith Herman, in her highly respected book on trauma, Trauma and Recovery states that “Psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless. At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force.” Trauma is when you fear for your life and there is nothing you can do about it. The mind’s response to trauma — anxiety, vigilance, numbing, disconnection and intrusive thoughts of the event — are the way that the mind attempts to “keep us safe” from re-experiencing the event, but never really allows us to integrate what has happened. When this persists, it is called “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD).
Trauma strikes the LGBTQ community in a variety of ways. On August 1st, two young people were murdered and about 15 others badly injured when a gunman opened fire on a group of LGBTQ youth at a Tel Aviv gay center. Reports roll in of friends and family of the young people standing vigil, waiting for news of their injured loved ones. Certainly those that were present at that attack will suffer the effects of trauma.
What of the young people who, each day they attend school, fear for physical harm and threats of physical harm because of their real or assumed sexual orientation? GLSEN reports that 4 out of 5 gay youth experience harassment at school.
When we hear of violence against LGBTQ youth such as the murders of Angie Zapata, Lawrence King, Matthew Shepard, Sakia Gunn, and the Tel Aviv youth we can experience trauma as well. When we’re exposed over and over to the video of the “exorcism” of a young gay man that became so physically intense that he vomited, or to pictures of the aftermath of a ant-gay murder, we can experience trauma. Although it hasn’t happened directly to us, it is a threat to our lives. “When,” we might wonder, “will I say the wrong thing, be in the wrong area, encounter the wrong people and be the next victim?” We are helpless to prevent this violence although many of us try by hiding ourselves: refusing to hold hands with a partner in public, not showing up to events, keeping our identity a secret, trying to dress and act in ways that are as gender-normative as we can manage. We trade ourselves for a modicum of safety.
When youth are threatened daily at school, when you avoid certain areas, are afraid to hold hands in public, or narrowly miss a bottle being thrown at you, when you hear on a regular basis of horrifying crimes against those like you, this has an impact on your health, your wellness and your life.
Hate crime is terrorism. It is terrorism because it creates an entire class of people who live in fear. Emotional trauma contributes to PTSD When the airwaves are full of talk of “gay marriage” (which suddenly sounds frivolous when we contemplate the deaths of young people) we might forget that acceptance of LGBTQ people is a life and death issue. LGBTQ youth everywhere experience fear, trauma and even terror on a daily basis. The mind’s response to that trauma is anxiety, depression, isolation, withdrawal, constriction of emotion, inability to sleep, relationship difficulty, anger and agitation, failure to attend class or missing work and at times, suicidal or self-harming behavior.
Whether we live in fear because we have seen the horrifying pictures, because our own safety is regularly threatened or even because we’re alert at all times to possible danger as a result of homophobia in our culture, terror against LGBTQ youth exacts an enormous price. The price is our ability to be healthy and happy and worse, the lives of our young people.
If you’ve experienced or been exposed to violence or emotional trauma and experience symptoms such as flashbacks, nighmares, extreme jumpiness, emotional numbness, intrusive memories, loss of memory of the event, feeling that you will never live a normal life-span, irritability, weepiness, thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please seek professional help. There are many effective treatments for PTSD. Read more about PTSD here. PTSD Support Services is also a helpful resource.