Fostering Resilience in LGBT Communities
Empowerment, Identity and Difference
Rev. Elijah C. Nealy, M.Div., LCSW, Deputy Director for Programs, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center
When lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons describe their childhood and early adolescence, it is often characterized by a profound sense of difference. Many gay men have a sense of their sexual orientation by the age of 6-7 years old, lesbians often by 11-12 years old; transgender persons also typically have some sense of their gender difference in childhood.
Much like immigrants in a new country, LGBT persons find themselves surrounded by a heterosexual and binary gender history and culture that is not their own.
The rituals (courtship, engagement, bachelor parties, wedding showers, marriage), the relationships (heterosexual male/female), the language (boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, male/female), all seem disconnected from their experience of themselves.
From an early age, they often know that their lives and choices (children, careers, partners, religion) will play out differently than the paths of those around them. Unlike ethnic immigrants, even their own families are different, a dynamic that creates an even more profound sense of being a stranger in a foreign land.
While most immigrants can choose to live in, or near, their own ethnic communities, queer people for many generations have had no visible community. They have typically been relegated to the margins – to “gay ghettos” like the Castro in San Francisco or Greenwich Village in New York City, or gay and trans bars and clubs that are typically hidden from mainstream heterosexual society. Even today, despite Mecca’s like San Francisco and New York City, this subaltern world continues with young lesbians, gay boys, and gender different youth typically finding themselves separated from others who are like them as they grow up and come of age.
Stigma and Shame
Many times, the power of stigma and shame creates an enforced silence that can lead to experiences of loss of self, isolation from family and friends, and concomitantly, a sense of alienation from the larger community and culture. Studies exploring whether ongoing discrimination fuels anxiety, depression and other stress-related mental health problems among LGBT people have found a strong relationship between perceived discrimination and substance abuse and mental health status.
Other risk factors within the LGBT communities include: the impact of stigma and discrimination against LGBT persons upon self-concept and self esteem; the lack of access to affirmative health promotion and disease prevention resources in the larger society; the impact of multiple stigmas and problems including concurrent poverty, racism, HIV/AIDS related issues and/or other concerns; reliance upon the bar scene for socialization and identity affirmation; family, religious and social intolerance of LGBT lifestyles; and the threat and/or experience of anti-LGBT violence.
Despite these stressors, the fact that so many LGBT persons survive, thrive, and become successful functioning adults is a testament to their resilience. Resilience studies have provided data on the benefits of adaptability and perseverance in the face of adversity suggesting that the development of strong family-like communities, similar to those families of creation for LGBT persons, provide opportunities for the development of a strong sense of identity and pride in the community. Perhaps social workers would do better to foster resilience within LGBT communities rather than to look for the deficiencies that bind groups together.
Diversity and Community Building
Against the backdrop of societal harassment, discrimination, and violence, community building models of social work practice are well-suited to provide LGBT-identified clients an opportunity to recover from the intersecting dynamics of addiction, oppression, and alienation. It is important to note here that the “LGBT community” is not a singular notion. LGBT individuals come from every conceivable community; they are black, white, Latino, Asian, young, old, differently abled, rich, middle class, working class, poor, high school educated and college graduates, urban, suburban, and rural, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and non-religious. In reality, there are many LGBT communities.
Minority group affiliations enable oppressed individuals to experience social environments free of stigma. Consequently, members of stigmatized groups who have a strong sense of “community cohesiveness” are better able to reappraise societal stigma and reclaim a positive sense of identity. The community-building environment promotes a sense of affiliation with something larger than oneself. It decreases feelings of isolation and alienation by promoting pride and empowerment. These changes are essential for individuals who have been trivialized and marginalized by mainstream society, isolated from one another, and often rejected by heterosexual and/or non-transgender family and friends.
Community Centers As Hub
Prior to 1969, there were no community centers and only a few lesbian and gay organizations scattered throughout the country. Today, however, there are over 150 community centers throughout the country, with new centers forming on a regular basis. These centers, scattered across the United States, in small towns and communities as well as large urban areas, are designed to facilitate community building, cultural celebration, caring for LGBT persons in need, and the social change necessary for LGBT persons to live healthy and full lives. Collectively, their combined membership, client base, visitors, and newsletter readership represents one of the largest constituencies in the LGBT movement.
Centers are the primary point of contact for people coming out, seeking LGBT health services, or community information and referrals. Whether organizing for social change, providing direct services, or educating the public, community centers work more closely with their LGBT constituency and engage more community leaders and decision makers than any other LGBT network in the country (see http://www.lgbtcenters.org/).
The NYC LGBT Center
The agency where I work, the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center (the Center) became a reality in 1983 when a handful of community groups and a fledgling board of directors raised over $150,000 in just two weeks to put a down payment on an unused public school building at 208 West 13th Street in Manhattan. From the beginning, the Center’s mission was clearly articulated:
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center provides a home for the birth, nurture and celebration of our organizations, institutions and culture; cares for our individuals and groups in need; educates the public and our community; and empowers our individuals and groups to achieve their fullest potential.
Today, the Center functions as a hub of Queer community in NYC and is home to over 300 different social, recreational, cultural, spiritual, and advocacy groups, including 80 twelve step meetings. Some 6,000 people come through the doors of the Center each week looking for information and referrals, community support, professional networking, educational resources, cultural programming, avenues for activism, and mental health and social services (see www.gaycenter.org).
The goal of the Center’s social work interventions is never simply about individual change – a gay man getting sober, a lesbian feeling less depressed, a homeless young person finding housing. The Center’s goal is always about empowering individuals in a way that links people together to create community health and empowerment. With social cohesion being essential to health and wellness, community mobilization toward social change efforts focused on undoing the effects of oppression, marginalization, and isolation must be incorporated into LGBT models of service delivery.
Together, the many LGBT-identified agencies and mainstream organizations with LGBT service components are doing just that throughout New York City.