LGBTQ Pride Month 2020: Resilience in a time of crisis

Sunday, May 31, 2020
With celebrations on hold, PAU Professor Kimberly Balsam offers perspective during COVID-19:
 
Kimberly Balsam Pride 2019
Last June, a large contingent of Palo Alto University students took to the streets of San Francisco to march in the annual LGBTQ Pride Parade. The students, organized by PAU’s Psychological Association for Gender and Sexuality (PAGES) group, held hand-made signs declaring “Therapists for LGBTQ rights” showing their pride in their chosen profession and normalizing the role of mental health treatment in addressing health disparities. As San Francisco and LGBTQ communities around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and uprising, I felt enormous pride in our students and hopeful for a future in which all LGBTQ people have access to culturally competent therapy.  
 
As Pride Month begins in 2020, memories of this event seem like a distant dream from a more innocent time. This year, there will be no march down Market Street in San Francisco, or any other street in a major U.S. city. Since the first cases appeared last fall, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the social landscape, threatening health and economic security for people around the world. LGBTQ people face an additional burden of risk based on their stigmatized identities. Despite recent progress, this population continues to face prejudice, discriminatory policies, and disparities in health and access to healthcare. Multiple marginalized LGBTQ people – people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, older adults, and low-income people – face even greater challenges and greater risks.   
 
In order to document and better understand the unique experiences of diverse LGBTQ people during COVID-19, my doctoral students in the RISE lab and I collected data from nearly 1,000 LGBTQ adults during the month of April. In addition to some standardized measures, we asked a few simple, open-ended questions about LGBTQ-specific concerns. In response, participants wrote about fear of healthcare discrimination, increasing stigma in society at large, isolation from their LGBTQ communities and families of choice, and lack of access to needed gender-affirming medical care. They discussed how the pandemic necessitated moving into less affirming environments, away from the support systems and affirmation they needed to thrive. They worried that in a time of rationing, their lives and needs would be considered less valuable. These collective voices highlighted the very real and tangible additional stressors facing LGBTQ people, even in a time that is challenging for everyone. We have come a long way since Stonewall, but there is so much more work to do to address these inequalities and truly achieve the vision that these early LGBTQ activists held for us.
 
In thinking about our role as psychologists and counselors in this movement, I am inspired by looking to the history of Pride. At its core, the tale of Pride month is a tale of resilience. It’s about standing up to people and institutions that tell us we don’t matter and asserting that yes, we do. At Palo Alto University, we draw from this historical legacy to work with LGBTQ communities and their mental health needs through a lens of strength. Through the Sexual and Gender Identities Clinic, our faculty and students provide evidence-based, affirming treatment. Through CLEAR and many faculty labs on campus, we conduct research to identify disparities, examine stressors that give rise to these disparities, and develop programs to promote resilience and healing. Our LGBTQ Area of Emphasis is at the forefront of training the next generation of psychologists to meet the complex, diverse mental health needs of our LGBTQ communities. And, as our student contingent marching down Market Street so beautifully demonstrated, cultural competence is not just confined within the walls of our therapy offices, labs, and classrooms. It’s about showing up for our communities. It’s about learning from our past, and holding out a vision of a better future.  It’s about humility, listening, and showing with our actions and not just our words.  
 
As Pride Month moves online, we now have an opportunity to engage with LGBTQ communities in new and creative ways. We are not bound by geography or the hassles of traffic and crowded spaces. We can show up for each other, break the pandemic-induced isolation, and be a part of creating a better future for LGBTQ communities. One of the most poignant findings of our COVID-19 study was the extent to which participants expressed concern for other LGBTQ people, especially those with less privilege than themselves. As we analyzed our data, my students and I found hope in our participants’ words, coming to us through our computer screens.
 
In a similar way, I was heartened this week to see that 75 LGBTQ organizations signed a statement opposing racial violence, quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s statement that “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The times we are living in call on us to think intersectionally, outside of the lines of a single identity. The Stonewall riots were led by trans women of color, a fact that is often forgotten in the white-washed version of pride we see in the media. LGBTQ communities owe an enormous debt to activists such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who had the courage to stand up to police brutality that night in 1969. And now, at this pivotal moment in time, we must all stand up in solidarity to stop the police brutality and violence facing Black people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in our country.  
 
I invite all of you to show your support for LGBTQ communities and participate in Pride Month, however you can. And I urge you to find ways be an ally during these times - to promote justice and healing for communities you may not be a part of, for people with experiences of oppression that are not your own. There are so many things that are out of our control right now, but being there for each other, providing community care as well as self-care, is right at our fingertips.
 
Happy Pride!
 
 
Kimberly Balsam, Ph.D. is Chair of Palo Alto University’s Department of Psychology, Director of the Center for LGBTQ Evidence-Based Applied Research and Director of the Ph.D. Program’s LGBTQ Area of Emphasis. She is also Past President of the American Psychological Association’s Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity.
 
 
 
 
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