This article is the second in a quarterly series giving voice to the perspectives of individuals with lived experiences as they share their opinions on a particular topic. The authors of this column facilitated a focus group of their peers to inform this writing. The authors are served by Services for the UnderServed (SUS), a NYC nonprofit that is committed to giving every New Yorker the tools they can use to lead a life of purpose.
We came together to discuss the LGBTQ experience and perspective in the nexus of health, behavioral health and support services. We are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, young, old, middle aged, Muslim, Catholic, African-American, Latino, the granddaughter of slaves, the grandmother of gay grandchildren. We shared our life challenges, our struggles with mental illness, addiction and homelessness and the fact that we all experience discrimination because of our sexual orientation. What we commonly hold true is that we are the whole of those life experiences and not just our sexual orientation. Identification with the LGBTQ community is complex. The diversity umbrella within the community makes definition challenging but what binds us is our coming together to fight for our civil rights, equality, and acceptance.
We came together to talk about our common ground but ended up talking more about our differences or put another way—our uniqueness. Our experiences as part of the LGBTQ community were all different. We grew up in different times, different cultures and different places. We debated whose experience was the hardest, who experienced greater discrimination and marginalization — transgender vs. gay vs. lesbian vs. bisexual. We talked about our recovery, our work, and our lives. We talked about our family and cultural backgrounds and how differently we experienced acceptance of our sexual identity, and how some of our cultures were not accepting of us at all. We talked about how even in New York City, one of the most progressive cities in the world, discrimination against the LGBTQ community still exists.
We also talked about how access to culturally sensitive services is not where it needs to be. How access to health care and housing for transgender individuals is a huge challenge and that even within the LGBTQ service community all are not welcome. Do you know how hard it is to find a primary care doc who is sensitive to the needs of someone who is transgender? Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox do not represent us. Their experience and access to health care, economic security, and services have not been our story. We realize we have to be our own spokespersons, speaking up about who we are, what we face, and what we need and deserve.
And finally, we talked about how people in the LGBTQ community are hardest on themselves. We have internalized a lot of the abuse we have all experienced over the years, and sometimes we just take that out on each other without even realizing it.
So here is where we landed on the topic of access to quality culturally-sensitive health, behavioral health, support services and housing. Our simple yet complex advice to practitioners/organizations and our own members of the LGBTQ community…
- Acceptance of differences and embracing diversity starts with the organization’s leadership. It should permeate the organization’s culture. Services and the environment in which they are offered need to be welcoming and sensitive to our diversity.
- Cultural sensitivity training is important, but it is more important for practitioners to understand their own biases and judgments and work at setting them aside. If we don’t suspend judgment about people, we can’t support their life goals.
- We are people first with unique experiences and abilities. Accept me for who I am, not who you want me to be. See Me and Hear Me.
- We must fight for access to culturally-sensitive health care. As long as we are alive, we are never finished. We have to keep fighting and working to help ourselves and others.
- The LGBTQ community must embrace its own diversity. We must accept each other.
We wish we had the power to wave a magic wand so that we could all see that we share a common humanity. All we need is love.