Author: Willa Goodfellow
It goes back to Freud. You could call him a liberal for his day. He did not believe that homosexuality was a character flaw or degeneracy. He viewed it as a kind of arrested development.
Does arrested development sound better than the later psychiatric diagnosis, sociopathic personality disturbance? That was how the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) in 1952 diagnosed homosexuality. It was “treated” with aversion therapy, using electroshock and drugs to produce nausea. Later editions did soften the judgment with each revision until 1987, when the word was removed. Homosexuality does not belong in the DSM.
Today the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association both acknowledge LBGTQI varieties of sexual expression as normal. They condemn reparative or conversion therapy, attempts to use physical, psychological, or spiritual means to change sexual orientation. But given the history, some members of the LBGTQI community want nothing to do with psychiatry or psychology, especially if they have experienced attempts to change them inflicted by counselors often motivated by religious judgments.
Being gay is not a mental illness.
Nevertheless, LBGTQI folk are overrepresented among those with mental illness. And that is where it gets complicated.
Being gay is not a mental illness, but…
A growing body of literature connects adverse childhood events with mental illness. Trauma is the trigger that turns genetic disposition into conditions like depression and bipolar. And trauma we have. Being LBGTQI doubles the risk of being bullied in school. Supportive adults can mitigate against lasting emotional damage, but parents sometimes compound it instead, by rejecting their gay child. Abused and/or kicked out of the house, up to 40% of homeless children are LBGTQI. As many as 60% of those attempt suicide. Even those who manage to “pass” as young people and adults experience these traumas vicariously. That’s what hate crimes are about. There may be one physical victim, but others learn about the crime and are traumatized by it. Only one Matthew Shepherd hung on that fence in Wyoming. But millions of us got the message. We hung right next to him.
Being gay is not a mental illness, but we have higher rates of mental illness.
And here is where the complications get exponential.
Some of us are fine. Despite continuing prejudice in employment and housing practices, despite rejection by family and faith communities, most LBGTQI people go to school, have jobs, are represented among professions, have children, own our own homes. Me, I am a priest. There are bishops in my church who are gay or lesbian. We fought for our civil rights, by demonstrating to the general public that we are just like everybody else. We are NORMAL.
But being mentally ill is the definition of not normal.
So even the most successful, most educated among us who know that gay is not a mental illness, or especially the most successful among us, pause before acknowledging our mental illness. One priest who is out as a gay man complained, “We’re allowed only one ‘off’.” We can be gay, or we can be depressed. But both is too much. When they know we are both, then people who are enlightened about sexuality get nervous. Their enlightenment slips. The old scripts return.
Being successful can raise a barrier to seeking help for mental illness. It raises the specter of NOT NORMAL, when NORMAL was the promise on which LBGTQI success was so dearly fought for and won. But here’s the thing…
Untreated mental illness is progressive. Untreated mental illness will eventually burn the successful house down.
If you are an LBGTQ person with a mental illness, go get help. Go to another town, if you must. Go online. But go get help.
Meanwhile, some of us will turn the knob and walk through the closet door before you, as others did before us.
I am a lesbian. I have bipolar. I am not normal, if that’s what you want to call it. And I will prevail. We will prevail.