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Let’s Talk About Mental Health: All are welcome here

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By Shannon Steele EBS COLUMNIST

There is one month a year where the LGBTQIA+ community is actively celebrated, along with the progress that’s been made toward acceptance and inclusion, the heroes who got us here, and to also commemorate the lives lost to hateful acts, government indifference and personal despair.

June feels long-gone as we enter the depths of winter, and it’s important to continue honoring our commitment toward a more supportive, open, and loving future for all. Each person who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, intersex, and/or other has a story—one that’s often painful, risky and scary and that compromises their sense of safety.

Chris Dunkerson, Director of Rental Homes at Yellowstone Club and a volunteer navigator, shared his story with me on Dec. 21. He mentioned he still thinks back to memories that impacted his sense of self and way of relating to the world around him.

Dunkerson grew up in the South and described living in a household as a teenager, struggling with his identity. He was without support from his family, friends, and had no resources to go to or people to confide in when navigating what it meant to be attracted to the same sex. No one was talking about sexuality or identity, and it was frankly unsafe to talk about it. After writing a note to a friend to bring voice to his experience, he was met with a counselor and parents who deemed it unacceptable.

“This destroyed my personal view of myself, and I began to believe something was wrong with me,” Dunkerson shared. “I was backed into a corner that forced me to view myself poorly, and where I couldn’t be Chris Dunkerson.”

Though he eventually found spaces in college where he could explore who he truly was, he often led two different lives and realized it was ultimately unsafe to hide who he was.

“If I didn’t accept who I was, I would end up killing myself,” he said. Dunkerson committed to leading a more true, authentic life. The journey has not been without its ups, downs and spirals, but he has found solace in welcoming spaces, being around others who are fully themselves and accepting of all, and knowing that he is not alone.

Throughout history and today, risk is ever-present, and victory is slow and ongoing for the LGBTQIA+ community. Many states enforce equal protections and marriage equity as the law of the land. However, we continue to see bills that target specific groups, allow discrimination to perpetuate and limit local protections. This is on top of navigating safety, relational, communal and intrapersonal challenges.

Safety is a fundamental requirement for being our best, authentic selves and impacts our ability to genuinely connect with others. Safety occurs when we can relax and be present and curious about what’s going on around us. Everyone has the right to FEEL safe all the time. As a community, we have a shared responsibility in creating safe spaces that communicate “you belong here,” and “all are welcome here.”

Dunkerson offered how we can move toward a more supportive, open and loving future as a community:

  • Hold space for people’s experiences and stories: “I didn’t have anyone to talk to or listen to what was going on in my world…what I was dealing with. I can only imagine what it would have felt like at 14 for someone to say, ‘How can we help you?’”
  • Be open to one another. Be willing to listen and learn.
  • Educate yourself, your organization, and your community: The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce is stewarding diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives centered around Belonging in Big Sky. Their hope is that, whether here for a day or a lifetime, everyone in our community feels welcomed, valued, respected and safe. This is certainly a step in the right direction, and still, we have a ways to go. Stay tuned in 2023 to learn more about the Belonging in Big Sky initiative or reach out to Anna Johnson to learn more: anna@bigskychamber.com.  

As individuals, within families and in society, the fight to merely exist and love openly never ends. For everyone who is “out,” we must keep in our minds and hearts the disappointed senior citizen who was blocked from true, reciprocal love, the scared teen who doesn’t know who to trust, the bullied school kid wondering what’s wrong with them and the small child who hates their toys and clothes.

Dunkerson wants you to know:

“You are not alone in being scared to be who you are. Don’t settle for someone who you’re not. There are people in this world that want to know you. Go through this life with an open heart. It’s okay to be who you are.

“You are not alone.

“You are not alone.”

All are welcome in Big Sky.

Shannon Steele is the behavioral health program officer at the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, and values a collaborative and community-centered approach to mental/behavioral health and wellness. She has a background in mind-body wellness and community health, and is also a certified yoga instructor and active volunteer. Community, wellness and the outdoors have always been pillars in Shannon’s life.

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