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Let’s talk about mental health

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Pride Month

By Shannon Steele EBS COLUMNIST

“Without community, there is no liberation.”
– Audre Lorde

Pride Month is a celebration throughout the month of June of the LBGTQAI+ community, the progress that’s been made toward acceptance and inclusion, the heroes who got us here and a renewal of commitment toward a more supportive, open and loving future. It’s also a time to honor lives lost to hateful acts, government indifference and personal despair. 

With the parades and recognitions, it’s also important to remember that each person who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, asexual, intersex, and/or other is on their own journey—one that’s often painful, risky and scary. As individuals and 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.

Throughout history and today, risk is permanent, and victory never is. Many states enforce equal protections and marriage equity as the law of the land. However, we continue to see bills that target specific groups, perpetuate and allow discrimination and limit local protections. The LGBTQIA+ community must also navigate safety, relational, communal and intrapersonal challenges that have a tremendous impact on their mental and behavioral health. Compared to heterosexual people:

  • LGBQIA+ adults are more than twice as likely to experience a mental health condition
  • Transgender individuals are nearly four times as likely to experience a mental health condition
  • Four times more LGBQIA+ youth attempt suicide
  • Members of the LGBTQIA+ community report, on average, higher rates of binge and
    heavy drinking
  • More than one in five LGBTQIA+ Americans say they have withheld information about their identity/orientation while seeking support for fear of discrimination or disrespect,
  • and more than 50 percent report they’ve personally experienced healthcare providers denying care, using harsh language or citing their sexual identity or gender orientation as the cause of their illnesses.

A personal story 

Lee (they/them), a former Big Sky seasonal worker and current Montana resident who identifies as gender queer and is bisexual, reflected recently on what it was like to “come out” and their experience moving from Atlanta, Georgia to Yellowstone National Park and eventually Big Sky. 

“I waited until 19 to come out,” Lee said. “Many kids were sent to ‘pray the gay away’ camps where I am from, and I knew people that would at least attempt suicide after those camps. I decided to stay quiet and wait it out.” 

After coming out around college, Lee found a supportive queer community in Atlanta but certainly experienced and continued to witness discrimination and harassment.

Lee described moving out West with a friend who hesitated because of the story of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay 21-year-old who was brutally murdered near Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. That fear was heightened during a stop in Livingston when a man yelled, “Faggot!” while throwing a bottle from his truck window.

The seasonal work culture, thankfully, is much better, according to Lee. They shared that most people are open-minded. They continue to meet people who are open about their gender identity and sexuality. Lee makes it a point to seek out social spaces that they know are safe and accepting. 

Resources are available for LGBTQIA+ folks seeking community, connection and support, and allies who would like to know what more they can do. 

Lee offered a few ideas for Big Sky to expand its focus on inclusivity:

  • Fly those rainbow flags! They really do help.
  • Plan events to celebrate pride and elevate LGBTQIA+ voices
  • Create queer-centered spaces and activities like drag shows
  • Support an LGBTQIA+ advocacy group
  • Launch awareness and education initiatives
  • Big Sky businesses have created safe and celebratory spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community in the past, according to Lee. 

The Big Sky Chamber of Commerce is organizing a diversity, equity and inclusion committee and hosted educational workshops for the community this spring. This is just the beginning. 

“Overall, I feel really positive about how this area is developing,” Lee said. “More and more people are coming out here … And I genuinely think
it’s been good for the community. More people will be open to the various identities.”

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.

GRAPHIC BY SHANNON STEELE.

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