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Clowns, Queers, and Bodies on High Alert

Following up from my post last week on the stress faced by LGBTQ+ people, I wanted to take a deeper dive into the first of the three core stressors in the Minority Stress Perspective. I'll start with a story. ***Warning: about to talk about some violent hate crime*** Recently I went to see IT 2 with a group of people. The first scene in the movie shows a gay couple at a fair in rural America. As the scene unfolds, it becomes clear to the audience that nothing good is going to happen to this particular couple. After a brief interaction with a group of young men who say derogatory things to them the couple leaves the festival. The tension remains high and as the couple crosses the bridge back to the town, the young men catch up with them. They proceed to violently beat one of the men and then throw him over the bridge, into the river. Though a great deal more happens in the movie after this scene, I was struck by how it was this scene, arguably the lowest budget/smallest effect moment in the movie, that stayed with me. I didn't feel like I was just watching the scene when it was unfolding; I felt it in my body as my heart rate picked up and my breath caught in my chest. My response to this scene doesn't surprise me. In fact, as a gay man, I have been conditioned by my fear of rejection, violence, and discrimination. I have had queer friends spit on, been told I'm going to hell, seen the pictures of Matthew Shepard. I know these sorts of hate crimes are actually quite common. For LGBTQ+ individuals the stress of possible discrimination often takes the form of being prepared to run or fight back if a threat should arise. We can feel a bit more tightly wound that our straight friends. This saves our lives sometimes. We run faster and farther, fight harder and longer than someone unfamiliar with this pattern. The problem is that when there isn't a threat we are still vigilant and still aware. Our amygdala, the fear center of the brain, is always keyed up, flooding the body with the stress hormone cortisol. The degree to which this is true varies person to person, but on a community level, it can be measured and seen. This constant stress can take leave us exhausted even after "normal" days or leave us feeling backed into a corner by our partners or coworkers, even when they are unaware and not trying to attack us. In therapy, we can become more aware not only of the thought patterns that accompany the stress of possible discrimination but also of the embodied responses. This is totally necessary if we are going to experience rest and relearn how to separate out actual threats from perceived ones. Then, over time, we find our fear doesn't go away entirely, but that we can move between stress and relaxation more smoothly. We can become activated and take care of ourselves without running or fighting. Maybe you're looking to explore your stress response with someone. Feel free to send me an email and we can talk some more.