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