A Queer, Trans Interview with a Mental Health Nonprofit

Hey, all! Here’s the deal. I’m a minority — and yet I walk this earth passing (half the time) as the demographic that holds all the cards. I’ve experienced harassment, hate, self-hate, all of that fun stuff — and yet I’m also fundamentally privileged, and will never experience any of these things because of the color of my skin.

The world is intricately complex and outrageously beautiful and we live in a time where not only can anyone throw their voice into the mix — but where those without voices should (although, hasn’t that always been the case?).

I can only speak for myself. But then again, isn’t that the whole point of this? Through these differences, I think, one can unearth something both ironic and incredible: common ground.

Everyone is special. Everyone is blisteringly, vibrantly, beautifully unique. And that should be shared. Embraced. Celebrated, absolutely, and used to build each other up.

I’m agender and of trans experience; that’s my dose of diversity for you.

I’m also Communications and Outreach Coordinator for the MN/Midwest Chapter of Attitudes In Reverse, a 501(c)3 certified nonprofit that educates about mental health and aims to destigmatize mental illness.

Below you’ll find a Q&A I recently had the pleasure of doing with them, which covers six questions — three revolving around the educational work I’m striving to accomplish, and three covering the LGBTQ-etched side of the coin.  It covers some heavy topics, but life as someone falling underneath that umbrella can be difficult enough: I wanted the takeaway feeling to be uplifting. Empowering, even, if I could get away with it.

Read on to find out more.

  1. When and how did you learn about AIR and why did you become involved?

Three years ago, for the first time, Creation Entertainment brought their Supernatural convention circuit to Minneapolis. The Twin Cities are my home (despite the offensively frigid cold that permeates the state every winter), and so I decided I had to go. I went. I remember being driven with intention to make something of the weekend, eager to be and to bask in the same building as the people that continually bring me so much joy.

Here I encountered AIR. Tricia and Katelyn Baker (AIR Co-founders) were traveling the country, utilizing the conventions as a way to educate, spread awareness, raise funds, and start conversations. It definitely worked. We talked, and talked — and then talked some more. I don’t know exactly what to say here except for that they’re incredible, genuine, passionate, kind people, and that it was apparent from the start.

I became involved because the message we’re spreading resonates with me more than any other I’ve come across. Mental health has always been a topic very present and relevant in my life, and the work that we do? It absolutely blows me away. I’ve done a fair share of growing and learning lessons on my own, but if I’d had something like this nonprofit teaching me these lessons instead of having to machete through learning the hard way, who knows? It might have saved me from months or even years of guilt, self blame, shame, and misplaced anger. It might have made consistent happiness something I haven’t had to fight so hard to achieve.

Everyone is struggling with something. Everyone. But when you open up that discussion — when you open up the windows and let fresh air and sunlight roll in over something that, for so many people, has been desperately hidden away in the dark — suddenly you’re not so alone. Suddenly your fears have a name. Suddenly you can recognize what’s happening, you can face invisible terrors, and you can start taking steps towards an existence where with support, patience, and knowledge on your side, you can start to feel, unequivocally, okay.

  1. Please describe your role as MN Outreach Coordinator: what you do and what your goals/plans are.

Basically, I’m building the MN branch from the ground up. It’s an incredible opportunity because there’s so much potential here for so many unique, eye-opening, really life-changing micro-movements. Education is paramount; to start with, getting into schools and local conventions and teaching there. But beyond that, the Twin Cities are an artistic, cultural, and educational hub in their own right — as Prince once said, “I like Hollywood. I just like Minneapolis a little bit better.”

One unique aspect of living here is that there are multiple devoted grassroots efforts aimed at supporting local artists, with non-profits and initiatives and neighborhood cafe walls all dedicated to the crafts. Art in every one of its forms has always been the quintessential way of self expression, and to not utilize that here, for mental health awareness, feels like an enormous wasted opportunity. I want to engage local artists in speaking out and maybe even creating pieces specifically with AIR in mind, either in an inspired-by sense or by them dedicating a percentage of their proceeds to our work; whatever each artist is able to bring to the table. I want to engage other people-centered entities in utilizing their own platforms to spread both awareness and self-awareness and to improve their own programs, too.

I’ve already partnered with a local convention, Anime Fusion. Through them we’ve managed to fundraise over $1,000 and host two education panels, and we’re currently in talks over steps and training that they can implement with staff to make their conventions safer, more supportive environments for anyone that needs help while con-going. In my experience, conventions — while becoming more mainstream — do tend to attract a disproportionately high number of patrons that are LGBTQ+ or otherwise high-risk, making it both a perfect educational platform and a perfect place for those most needing it to find trained support.

  1. What do you see as AIR’s impact and potential for the future?

Reaching back to the first question, I want to emphasize the power of understanding what’s going on in your own head. If you’re able to put a name and an explanation to an overwhelming, nameless force you struggle with daily — if you’re given the knowledge, tools, and support to shift internalized blame or shame into something you can actually heal and build yourself back up from — then that’s the first step in a vital journey with ripple effects that could save countless lives, starting with one’s own.

There is not an aspect of life in this world of ours left untouched by mental health. It’s our brain. Physical illnesses can have subtle symptoms too; the big difference is that we as a species know extraordinarily well what a hot forehead or a yellow post-nose-blow tissue means. Lethargy, procrastination, dissociation, or see-sawing emotions, however, to name a few — these are mistaken for indifference, or laziness, or not trying hard enough, or being in some way broken. And God forbid it’s something bigger; we would never bemoan a person with a broken leg for putting on a cast, and yet so often mental health is only talked about in hushed voices after someone’s finally reached a breaking point.

Ultimately, what all of this comes down to is voice. This movement of speaking up and spreading knowledge that AIR spearheads is powerful and real and very much needed — it just needs a voice, passed onward through people, the louder and more multitudinous the better.

People need to know that they’re not alone. They need to know that there’s support and help for them out there, and that the guilt and shame they might feel are not the full reality of their situation. They need to know that there are people waiting for them, happy to get them the help they need. People need to talk about mental health, and they need to be able to feel empowered and supported as they do so. Space like that doesn’t exist in many places yet. That’s what AIR is fixing, and that’s what I see as its ultimate impact. And along the way? Anything is possible.

  1. Please share the challenges you have encountered being part of the LGBTQ community and how you are coping and/or have overcome them.

In a way it’s difficult to fully explain the challenges one encounters as a marginalized person, because — as I’m sure someone of any marginalized group can tell you — it affects every aspect of life. However, difficult doesn’t mean impossible, and while I can only speak for myself and my own experiences (which, being white and in many ways privileged, are absolutely not universal) I can definitely share some of the most focal struggles in my life.

My smorgasbord of not-so-fun experiences includes enormous amounts of gender dysphoria, inexplicable-until-they-weren’t fitting room anxiety attacks, hate-spitting family members, abusive relationships, large chasms between my own experiences and beliefs and my childhood (ex) religion, and of course, the two things I’m naturally predisposed to that definitely don’t fare well under these conditions: anxiety and depression.

I haven’t overcome everything listed above by any means, but what I have been able to do for myself is foster an environment — both internally and externally — that is consistently nurturing. This doesn’t mean that I‘m constantly zen by any means, or even consistently at the top of my game. But it does mean that I live with the focused, daily intent to give myself the space to become the person I want to be, and it means that I make a conscious effort to mentally reset if I feel myself slipping into regressive thoughts. It also means that I have the self-imposed requirement of cutting myself slack when I do slip — self-compassion rather than self-blame. This part is probably the one I struggle with most, but for me it’s also the most essential. It’s impossibly hard to pull yourself up and try again if you’re simultaneously screaming at yourself inside for not being good enough.

The most enormous thing for me — the thing that actually made a slow-blooming mindset like this physically possible — was the freedom to physically transition. My happy place is on the masculine end of androgyny, which, to achieve from my nature-given starting point, required both testosterone and surgeries. Testosterone was, for whatever reason, exactly what my body was chemically missing: it’s acted as both an antidepressant and mood stabilizer, and for the first time in my life, after months of it, I was able to look into a mirror and feel contentment. It sounds like a simple thing. It wasn’t. It was everything.

  1. What advice do you have for LGBTQ youth – for example, for accepting and disclosing their identity and seeking support from guidance counselors and other trusted adults.

It’s difficult for me to give blanket advice, because each person’s situation is so unique, and — as is sadly the case with LGBTQ+ youth — often dangerous. What might be perfect advice for one situation could get another young person thrown out of their home, or worse.

For practical advice, I would say that a good golden rule is to listen to your intuition and do your research. The internet is an incredible resource, and you can find help and support and answers to almost everything within its confines. Feel free to lean on the internet, but make sure the information you get is from reputable sources — and if you have local centers or clubs that specialize in LGBTQ+ care or education, especially non-profit ones, then you have some invaluable resources in your pocket.

Deeper than that, though, my one piece of genuinely all-encompassing advice would be this: to tell yourself you’re not broken, even if you or those in your life don’t believe it. Perspective is powerful, and it’s a muscle that must be strengthened — but strengthened it can be. It can be a weapon, a shield, a building block — a very source of lifeforce, if that’s what one needs. Regardless, this specific piece of perspective is vital: the faith, or at least the hope, that it gets better.

It might feel like hell now — it might be hell — but if you stick around, if you hang in there, life gets better. It sounds so cliche, but it’s true a thousand times over. It gets better. I want to say it again: it gets better. You are not alone, you are not broken, and you are loved, fiercely — even if you have yet to find the people that love you like you’re meant to be loved, or you have yet to align your body with your mind in a way that will allow you to love yourself.

  1. Please share information that could help non-LGBTQ youth, parents and teachers to understand, accept and be kind and supportive to LGBTQ youth.

To parents: You might feel like you have no idea who your child is anymore, since something you thought you knew about them — something you thought was an intrinsic part of their identity — ended up being so fundamentally inaccurate. This isn’t the case. They’re the same exact person you’ve known and loved this entire time. The only difference is that now they’re trusting you with a fact that 1) has already been a fact this whole time and 2) is letting you understand them on an even deeper, more genuine level.

You might also feel like this is somehow your fault. It’s not. Gender identity and sexual orientation are something inherent to the person; it doesn’t arise or change as a reaction to a parent’s child rearing style. Thinking it’s your “fault” also implies that there’s something inherently bad about what they are; there isn’t. “Different” does not equal “bad” or “wrong”, as scary as things that fall outside our own experience may be. Your child is their own person, and if you let it, this can be an opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your worldview right alongside them.

To teachers: You should absolutely make learning and consistently respecting preferred names and pronouns a priority, and you could also consider offering your support if there isn’t already a relevant club at the school and students want to create one. Staying aware of generalizations you may make or teaching methods that are traditional but otherwise irrelevant to the material (like, say, dividing class teams into girls vs boys) can also make a huge difference to those affected and provide fun, unexpected twists to the commonplace (girls vs boys is overdone and bland — cat people vs dog people or cheese vs pepperoni lovers, on the other hand…).

To other youth, and to all: In regards to both pronouns and sexualities, if you don’t know, don’t worry — you don’t need to guess or assume. ‘They’ is, in fact, a grammatically correct singular pronoun (ever played Clue?), and the overwhelming consensus seems to be that people would much rather be asked than misgendered. As for sexuality, if it’s not relevant to your relationship, then it’s probably a non-issue. People are people before any other identity, and their attraction or lack of attraction towards various genders says less about them than everything else that makes them up.

That said, to those that do have questions or are trying to learn more: don’t be afraid to do research, and don’t be afraid to ask. Not everyone will be open to answering questions (which is fine, of course; it’d be exhausting to be obligated to spend their life as a representative of their identity simply because they exist as it), so it’s a good practice to ask if they’d be comfortable. If they are, then I’d say that as long as it comes from a well-meant, respectful place and isn’t inappropriate territory given your relationship, ask. Ask about what you don’t understand, because ultimately, a lot of us just want to be understood.

Interview conducted by Shauna Moses, Communications Director at AIR and Vice President of Public Affairs and Member Services at the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s