Why Am I So Worn Out? Stigma and Stress of Queer Folks
To carry on to the next pillar of the Minority Stress Perspective, summarized here, this week I’d like to jump into how stigma creates a great deal of the stress that queer people have to metabolize.
In the 2005 Brokeback Mountain, a love story featuring two unexpected protagonists, was nominated for Best Picture. The movie follows the lives of cowboys and ranchers Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist as they fall in love with one another in the hyper-masculine American West. The dramatic Wyoming backdrop, with soaring mountains and icy rivers, acts as its own character in the film, seeming to communicate both the naturalness of their love and the brutality of their lives. Though there are many movies that highlight stigma, something about the natural and rugged environment of the film always comes back to mind when I think about this form of stress.
At one point in the movie, Ennis and Jack are together again and Ennis asks, “You ever get the feelin'... I don't know, er... when you're in town and... someone looks at you... suspicious, like he knows? And then you go out on the pavement and everyone's looking at you like they all know too?”(quote from IMDB). What he is putting words to is a feeling of hypervigilance that queer people are well acquainted with. It is the feeling of being found out, of the potential for violence, and the nameless dread of not knowing what judgments those around you hold hidden.
Working with the fear of stigma can be tricky. On one hand, we all adopt this fear honestly, learning after one too many experiences of rejection how much it hurts to be rejected or harmed with our guard down. Many of us exist in spaces where a certain degree of this vigilance is not only understandable but necessary. On the other hand, this sort of constant stress wreaks havoc on mental and physical wellbeing. The stress hormone cortisol, used to prime the body for quick motion (think fight/flight/freeze), acts as a sort of acid if present for long periods of time. Though each individual may have to work through exactly how much of this stress they can/have to bear, generally less is always better.
In therapy, there is space to experience an enormous release in this constant tension. In fact, for some clients, this protected and confidential space is the first space they have ever had where they can feel what it is like to be themselves without the constant internal noise created by perceived stigma. I personally didn’t know how much of my brain and body were being consumed and drained by my response to stigma. Therapy became one of the best places to gain clarity, sort through thoughts and feelings, and wonder about who I was in the process of becoming.
It is not uncommon for queer folks to feel chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, and digestive problems. Though there are many potential causes, one of these can be the impact of long term stress caused by the perceived stigma. If any of these things feel resonant for you please don’t hesitate to give me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to connect and see what you’re next steps might be.