The violence that occurred in Orlando over the weekend has really rocked me, as I’m sure it has many people. I have found it both heartbreaking and deeply terrifying.
When we see horrific acts of violence it can be incredibly shocking and sad. But when I see extreme acts fueled by bigotry and prejudice against particular individuals or groups in society it can shake me to my core.
As a person who loves many people within the LGBTI community and someone who has worked with many clients who have identified as homosexual or queer or trans, I have become aware of some of the vulnerabilities that some of these people can feel in a world that still today is a heterosexual one. When things like this happen, we can see that the LGBTI community can still face dangers and feel unsafe, just because of who they are.
The Orlando shooting is not the first incident against LGBTI people. Countless incidents of bullying and attacks and murders have come before. And these prejudices, discrimination and shaming have not been limited to outward violence.
Ever since 1905, when Freud developed his theory of the psychosexual stages of development, sex and psychiatry have been intertwined. And not in a very positive or inclusive way.
First published in 1968 and up until 1974, the DSM-II (the psychiatric classification of mental disorders) listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. During this period there was little or no suggestion within the psychiatric community that homosexuality might be conceptualised as anything other than a mental illness that needed to be treated.
And the treatments were nothing short of appalling. In the 1950s and 1960s, some therapists employed aversion therapy to "cure" male homosexuality. This typically involved showing patients pictures of naked men while giving them electric shocks or drugs to make them vomit, and, once they could no longer bear it, showing them pictures of naked women or sending them out on a "date" with a female. These cruel and degrading methods proved entirely ineffective and I have met people who were left traumatised by these treatments which were given to them in the name of psychiatry.
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) asked all members attending its annual convention to vote on whether they believed homosexuality to be a mental disorder. 5,854 psychiatrists voted to remove homosexuality from the DSM, and 3,810 to retain it.
The APA then compromised, removing homosexuality from the DSM but replacing it, in effect, with "sexual orientation disturbance" for people "in conflict with" their sexual orientation. Not until 1987 did homosexuality completely fall out of the DSM.
I make these points not to show that the concepts of mental disorder can be seen as evolving social constructs that change as society changes, but to show that not only has the LGBTI community been shunned and attacked by society at large, but has also endured significant harm from the psychiatric and health communities.
I’ve met young people coming to terms with their sexuality who have been beset with psychological pain, family resistance and social prejudice. Societal attitudes may have improved somewhat, but as the most recent debates over marriage equality and sex education in schools have shown there are still people who vilify any deviation from the heterosexual orientation. People can become vulnerable to mental health conditions, self harm or even suicide as a result of such prejudice, shame and hate, and as a health professional bearing witness to seeing such people in such distress over something they do not choose is truly heartbreaking.
For many individuals the process of self-acceptance can be really, really tough. Regardless of who you are and what you might identify as. But being accepted for who you are by your loved ones, family, community and the society you live in, surely that’s not so hard.
We know that a fundamental component of the human condition is the desire to belong. This desire to belong to a group is pervasive and primal. Throughout history, those who have banded together in families, tribes or clans have thrived, while individuals who were separated by choice or circumstances faced increased dangers and limited opportunities.
This desire to belong is even more vital when we are have experienced issues around self-acceptance or may feel vulnerable or isolated from major parts of society.
Research has consistently found that feeling part of a LGBTI community can have a positive impact on mental health, emotional wellbeing and quality of life.
In a UK study that investigated what the word 'community' means to LGBTI people, participants said that feeling part of an LGBT community is particularly important when ‘coming out’. The research found that many participants felt an 'intangible' connection to other lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans people, who are assumed to have had similar experiences and to be able to offer mutual support or understanding.
This study found that generally LGBT people see the word 'community' as having positive connotations, whether it's a physical space, or a sense of belonging. A sense or experience of community was linked to reported wellbeing, including combating isolation, heightening confidence and self-esteem, and sometimes improving or maintaining physical health. – Eleanor Formby, Researcher
And I think this is why this event has really rocked me. Violence has been done to people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Just because of who they are. And this violence has happened to a group of people who have historically been mistreated over and over. And this violence has been done in a place of both physical and emotional security. A place where they would have felt safe, loved and accepted. I find this heartbreaking and terrifying.
As we all know the opposite of hate and isolation is love and acceptance. It might be near impossible to ensure that every person love every other person, but we can each add love and acceptance to the world. It might be a simple gesture of sympathy. Or it may be an intentional silent, non-response to any shown or spoken bigotry you encounter.
To all our LGBTI loved ones far and wide who are grieving this week, we offer you our love and support. We hug your hearts with ours. We send you loud, proud and courageous love today and always.