July 21, 2023

By Casey Chaffin

Illustration of faces
I’m at the hair salon, chatting with my stylist. We both realize quickly that we have two things in common: neurodivergence and queerness. I mention a girlfriend, he mentions an ex-boyfriend — we are on the same page.

Our conversation starts with my work at NAMI Oregon but soon wanders to politics. We say the thing that’s in the air without actually saying it: I’m so glad the person I’m interacting with right now is also queer. Because if you weren’t, I might be scared.

I live in Portland, Ore., where LGBTQ+ people are plentiful. I cannot leave my apartment without bumping into other queer folks, and I’m grateful for that. But even in Portland, which has a reputation for its progressive leanings, I don’t always feel safe. My partner and I present as queer — we fit the “femme/butch” stereotype, as far as queer women go — and sometimes people who aren’t part of our community notice. People yell homophobic slurs regularly.

Recently, my partner and I walked past a woman talking on the phone outside our apartment building. She stopped her phone conversation to say something to us.

We didn’t quite hear what she said, so we both paused and turned around, thinking maybe we had dropped something.

“What’s that?” my partner asked.

The woman pulled her phone away from her ear. “I said, you look like f—– bitches.” She turned her body toward us, readied for a confrontation.

We didn’t give her one. We walked away. But I didn’t leave that conversation on the street. I carried it through the lobby of our building, up the elevator and into our apartment. I felt it in my body for the rest of the night: the fear that someone who so casually hated us knew exactly where we lived.

Being Queer Puts Us in Danger

This incident is the tip of the iceberg as far as hatred toward the broader LGBTQ+ community goes. My partner and I are queer, but we are also white and cisgender. We live at intersections of privilege that shield us from even worse treatment. While we get slurs spit at us on the street, no one has ever tried to physically attack us.

Meanwhile, in 2022, the Human Rights Campaign tracked 38 violent killings of trans people in the U.S. This does not include the high number of transgender people who lose their lives to suicide every year. Transgender people are nine times more likely than the general U.S. population to attempt suicide.

We may not all be in the same amount of danger (our trans friends know that better than anyone) — but the legislation making its way through statehouses across the country targets all of us.  “Don’t say gay” bills, drag bans, harsh restrictions on any gender-affirming care for minors, requirements to share a students’ pronouns with their parents — all these efforts are trying to legislate queer people out of existence. These bills most harshly target trans folks, and as a community, we must rally around those most vulnerable.

This is not just my opinion. Data from the Trevor Project provides some context.

We don’t feel safe.

  • Nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor “most of the time” or “always” due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation.
  • Fewer than 40% of LGBTQ young people found their home to be affirming of their identity.

Because we are not safe.

  • 1 in 10 transgender adults report being pressured by a mental health professional to “stop being transgender.”
  • Hate crimes against LGBTQ people rose 70% from 2020 to 2021.

The Danger Extends to Our Mental Health

Even before this most recent wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation shined a national spotlight on the fear LGBTQ+ people live with every day, suicide rates among queer and trans youth were sky high. Studies from 2019 and earlier show that queer and trans youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide compared with their cisgender, heterosexual peers.

These statistics are not just numbers to me. As a college student, I was immersed in the untreated mental health problems of myself and my friends. We cycled through holding onto each other for dear life and pushing each other away for fear we were too broken to be loved.

At one time, I searched campus after my friend had sent a text to the group chat threatening to hurt themselves and then went silent. He is queer.

At another, I listened to my voicemail to find a message from another friend. She called me from the hospital after attempting suicide. She is queer.

I tried my best to support them, but I had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Caring for my friends left me awake at night, panicking over whether I had done enough.

Despite all of our struggles, we were there for each other, because no one else was. If we really look at our history, at queer history, this is what we see. Queer people caring for each other when no one else will.

What We Need from Allies

When we talk about allyship, I see too many well-meaning cisgender, heterosexual people lean on phrases like “love is love” and “you are valid” — but I don’t need you to tell me that. I know love is love, because I feel it from my queer community every day. I know I’m valid, because my queer community shows me that every day.

I don’t need platitudes. I need you to ask yourself, what are you doing for queer and trans people?

My community — my trans, lesbian, gay, asexual, intersex, queer community — needs you to show up. We need collective care and radical solidarity in the face of trauma and tragedy. We need you to put yourself on the line as much as we have, over and over and over again.

I need you to ask yourself: Have you learned about supporting the mental health of queer youth through resources like the Trevor Project or the Family Acceptance Project? Are you educating yourself on the contributions of queer and trans people in our society? Have you read up on the history LGBTQ+ activism, including around mental health care, by queer writers like Susan Stryker or Leah Lakshmi? Are you showing up at protests? Are you calling your representatives? Are you donating your money to mutual aid funds that materially support queer and trans people?

“Loving” us is not enough. And remember: queer and trans people exist in every culture, every race, and each member of our community faces different intersections of privilege and marginalization. There is no one thing we need, but we all need those who stand firmly atop the social hierarchy (white, cisgendered, heterosexual people) to listen to us and then use their privilege to act up for the queer community.

NAMI Oregon has been compiling mutual aid resources local to the Portland Metro area. You can use these as a jumping off point to find local resources to support the LGBTQ+ people in your area year-round.

Queer and trans people have died, have been killed — and will continue to die and be killed — if our political landscape continues to be this hostile toward us. Our mental health is on the line and so are our lives.

Casey Chaffin is NAMI Oregon’s Outreach and Events Manager. She lives with her partner and a large orange cat in Portland, Ore. If you want to share your story of queerness and mental health, please feel free to reach out to her at [email protected].

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