Personal Trauma, Public Issues

I am a community psychologist, trained to diagnose the intersection where personal trauma meets public issues, and a veteran of struggles for social justice. Steeped in the Civil Rights Movement, I envision the movement evolving to embrace gender equity and LGBTQ rights. Through these lenses I view the Orlando shootings and subsequent tsunami of discourse.

Support in South Bend was immediate and generous. The LGBTQ Center was inundated with donations, sympathy, and invitations. Even I, as an ally committed to the LGBTQ community but not of it, was asked for insight on helping survivors.

That’s what people of conscience do, isn’t it? When tragedy strikes, our collective response is to provide succor. Over 150 attended the LGBTQ Center’s vigil; later, Mayor Pete Buttigieg joined 200 others for a special river lights display. Islamic Society of Michiana and Universalist Unitarian Church hosted LGBTQ inclusive programs.

Yet as a psychologist, I am deeply troubled public commentary has rapidly shifted to “moving on.” Barely a week after the attack, I facilitated an emotional check-in at LGBTQ Center. The group scrambled to cope while the space to feel however they feel was rapidly shrinking. They balked at pressure – to demonstrate their pride, to show that fear will not win, to be resilient.

These sentiments are not inherently bad but each ignores multilayered psychological realities. The shooter’s behavior signaled deeply conflicted gender identity: control issues, domestic violence, failed relationships. He was a regular at the very club later chosen for carnage, further evidence of inner turmoil. “Moving on” requires comprehending what generates such devastating emotional pain that 49 lives are lost.

Victims’ families and compassionate witnesses will suffer for years: panic attacks, depression, sexual dysfunction, PTSD. Healing is a process without a timetable. Some suggest after sudden loss there can be no closure, only redirection. Powerful emotions, left unattended, set a trap for future battles.

The set-up explains my frustrations as an activist. Labels misdirected the conversation. The shooter as “terrorist” led to discourse on gun rights, ignoring psychological dysfunction. When internalized homophobia was acknowledged, race remained obscured. The shooter attacked a LatinX crowd, an underreported fact compared to the caliber of the gun even though LGBTQ people of color are particularly vulnerable.

Public discourse cannot ignore deeply rooted structural antecedents, namely racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Sympathy following this tragedy cannot balance benign neglect preceding it. Where was outrage over Jodi Henderson’s murder by a man who bragged he beat a gay man to death? Who objected – and to whom – when hate crime measures protecting victims targeted for race, sexual identity, or religion died in the House?

Daily micro-aggressions are psychological attacks: decisions about which bathroom, introductions of spouses, responses to phrases like “that’s so gay.” Shunning by people, claiming a sacred text, whose skin is the same shade of dark as your own. When public narrative is rife with casual cruelties, how can healing occur?

I am concerned about “issue tourists.” People of conscience drawn to catastrophic events like passersby are drawn to massive interstate pileups. The gory details consume the mind, throttle the heart, and create affinity with the sufferers. As the wreckage is cleared, the outpouring flows away.

Don’t be that tourist. Get informed. Find out who stonewalled the Indiana hate crimes legislation. Spread the word if you know about (or operate) a program, nonprofit, or youth-serving organization inclusive regarding race and sexual identity.

Get involved. Show humanity to LGBTQ friends but also talk with straight friends and family. Attend Civil Rights Heritage Center events; join LGBTQ Center groups.

Write your personal story in a letter to the editor, a book, a poem, or lyrics.

Raising a fist in racial solidarity and flying the rainbow flag are the beginnings of an action.

Do, do step further in your walk toward justice.

Originally published in the South Bend Tribune

Hair Days

Ok. We’ve all had them. Those days which begin in negotiations with the hair. In my experience, this bit of diplomacy is often protracted and, ultimately, futile. My hair is twisted into dreadlocs that have been growing since the late ’80s. At 38″, they are almost as long as I am tall. (I am 4’9″. I can see you doing the math!)

Locs are spelled L-O-C-S, not to be confused with hardware meant to secure one’s belongings. Instead, l-o-c-s are a statement: racial solidarity, political stance, fashion forward, or simple convenience. Their meaning in any given moment depends on the context, my intention, and quite often, on the observer’s interpretations.

My l-o-c-s are independent thinkers. They are wiry and strong, some days resisting any attempts to style or direct them. They routinely arrive in a room ten minutes before I do and hijack all conversation. Inquiries about me, either in my professional capacity or in social settings, begin with the words, “You know, that little Black woman with the braids down to her knees…” Apparently, my l-o-c-s do not suffer in the least from mistaken identity.

They acquired a secret identity on my recent trip to Japan. One student traveling with me was a dedicated anime fan. She created a pencil drawing of my superhero alter ego. Not surprisingly given their tendency to upstage me at will, this other-me champion of justice and truth wields the power of sentient l-o-c-s.

Imagine the possibilities!

It’s an ordinary day, another lecture prepared, the last meeting attended. My l-o-c-s are hanging quietly down my back, moving only when I do and according to the known laws of physics. Then, suddenly, they whipsaw above my right shoulder, Warriors for Truth moving as one.

What foul deed alerted them? What will they do to right the wrong or to protect the innocent or to mete out justice?

Here’s where the mind movie has to pause for the Narrator. My 270 sentient l-o-c-s, motivated by righteous fury, are still attached to my one head.  There’s no need to do the math! Once again, I will be dragged along in a supporting role in the epic battles to come.

 [Whipcrack] Systemic barriers disintegrate, opening possibilities for all regardless of the shade of your skin nor the description of your gender identity. “… Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman…”

[Whipcrack ] Hatreds that polarize us behind lines in the sand in the country called Oppression dissolve. Now “…black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands…”

Not every crucial moment in a life changes the fabric of the whole society. Some of the most important struggles are small and quiet. At times like these, my l-o-c-s gather into hands, to reach out with the lightest touch, like a breeze slipping past a cheek.

[wind] This child stands up to the bully posting hate-speak on her Facebook wall.

[wind ] That woman and her kids all graduate the same day, she with a high school diploma and them with their bachelor’s degrees.

[wind] The guy over there got the brakes on his car fixed for half the estimate. There’s money for groceries after all.

[wind] She leaves him for the last time. No more lies to staff in the emergency room about broken bones.

[wind] They create an affirming space to be who they are, each becoming the person they came here to be.

My l-o-c-s don’t have a super hero name but they clearly have earned one. Wonder what they would call themselves…

[cue super hero theme song]