Mental Health and the LGBTQ+ Community: The Magnitude of Microaggressions

By November 2, 2016 No Comments

By: Holland Hall,
staff member at the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program

When I began working on the Florida Queer History Project
for the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, I wanted
our expanding collection of queer voices to highlight the “subtle” ways our
experiences are influenced by our queer identities. That’s not to say that
overt homophobia and transphobia don’t contribute significantly to the narratives
of queer lives, but the repercussions of hateful actions are perhaps more
comprehensible to straight and cisgender individuals than microaggressions—the
seemingly minute, harmless interactions that remind queer individuals that they
are existing in a historically oppressive, heteronormative culture.

Microaggressions and stigma go hand-in-hand, and they are capable of causing tremendous damage
to those who they affect. I applaud Stronger Than Stigma™ for identifying the
need to demolish the stigma of mental health illnesses in our society, and for
undertaking such a worthwhile task. A large part of that mission requires
education and, perhaps even more powerful, the sharing of human voices that can
illuminate how mental illnesses play a role in their daily lives. It is
through learning about the experiences of others that those who aren’t directly
affected by stigma can work to create an environment that does not produce

Those reading this blog are likely aware of how stigma affects those faced with
mental illnesses, and perhaps many of you could point to a specific
moment that you witnessed a microaggression related to the stigma of those
illnesses. I would therefore like to expand on that understanding by sharing how
LGBTQ+ lives can be affected by microaggressions, and how those kinds of
situations play a role in the overall mental well-being of queer individuals.

To do so I will share the words of Ray Ward, a 22-year-old transgender student at the
University of Florida. Mr. Ward recently provided the Florida Queer History
Project with an interview, during which he discussed discovering his gender
identity, as well as what it’s like to navigate daily life as a transgender
male. Some of the situations Mr. Ward shared seemed obviously stressful, such
as visiting the gynecologist:

Ward: Yeah, they call you by the right names and
stuff like that, but you’re sitting out with a bunch of chicks in the waiting
room. I mean you sign the paper and you fill out the paperwork, you’re the only
one there. I don’t know what on Earth they could be thinking but… it’s one of
those small things where it’s stressful, even if you have a good attitude about
it. And I do. You sit outside your car for a few minutes before and you have to
work yourself up to go up inside. I think it’s a lot of that. It’s stressful,
and I would actually say the majority of the hardship I face as a trans person
is dealing with doctors, prescriptions, insurance… stuff like that.

Other situations, however, were not so expectedly stressful.
Take for instance, the first day of classes. (Well, everyone has a right to be
stressed on the first day of classes). Transgender individuals may face a
unique set of stressors, however. Mr. Ward shared the experience of sorting
through a teaching assistant’s confusion regarding his birth name—a name
typically given to females.

 Ward: For instance, this semester I had just started a class, and I got added to the
class late. So I was coming in a week late. New classes are always really
stressful for me, because I deal with some social anxiety, so even though I’m
really social, having to show up to a new place with new people, not knowing
what to expect is really hard for me to begin with. And it’s a really hard
class, a stressful class, and so I go there, and I always send my teachers or
professors emails. It’s hard to balance between giving them enough information
and giving them too much information. Cause I don’t want to make a big deal out
of it, I just want to be treated as a guy and not have it come up. But I think
he missed my email, the professor did.

Hall: And this email is just letting them know, “I’m a trans male, my name is Ray?”

Ward: Yeah, and I keep things very short and to the point, and very clear. You know I say,
“Yeah on your papers my name is this, but I’m a trans guy. I go by Ray Ward,
and I don’t like to be called by my birth name. I only go by male pronouns, and
on all my assignments I’m gonna submit them under Ray Ward, and I only want to
be addressed as Ray Ward” kind of a thing. But he missed that email, so of
course the TAs didn’t get any information about that. So when they’re getting
assignments from me, they see I’m a guy, but obviously I’m submitting things as
Ray Ward, and they have a Rachel Ward on their roster. I mean, I can kind of
see them connecting the dots, and the first time was a lab, actually. It was
seven o’clock at night, you know I wander into lab, it’s an alien environment,
again, and I was a little bit late. And he was trying to be a good TA, and he
wanted to know everybody’s names and stuff like that. And you know I said like,
“Oh no, my name is Ray Ward, dah-dah-dah.” I wasn’t obviously on his roster
under Ray Ward, and he says, “Oh, well you know I have a Rachel Ward.” And I’m
pretty good at rolling with the punches. I kind of made a joke out of it and
was like, “No, definitely not.” I made an excuse like, “Oh I was added late,
you probably don’t have me there yet.” And he wasn’t trying to be malicious—it
didn’t even enter his head. And he kind of dragged it out too long, and he
asked like maybe three times, or in a different way, like maybe in his head he
knew subconsciously what was happening, but consciously he couldn’t connect the
dots. And at some point I just turned around and gave him this look like, “Dude,
really?” And of course I was making a joke out of it, and everybody laughed and
stuff like that, and he dropped it. But I mean obviously my heart was beating
super fast, I was in defensive mode, and of course I was distracted the whole
class. I could barely function. It’s like afterward I just told him like, “Dude…”—and
I had to tell him three times before he believed what he said, and I could just
see his face as he realized what he had done. And it was one of those cases
where he wasn’t being malicious, but I still am not comfortable in that lab,
and I still dread going to that lab. And I actually went to the crisis center
the day after because I was upset about it.

A few days later, Mr. Ward notes another similar situation
happened in the same lab.

Ward: I went in on Tuesday, and I was like, “Okay, it happened, I’m over it.” They were
passing back papers. One of the TAs walks out, and you know I’m an engineering
major, so these are engineering TAs, a lot of them aren’t as educated on these
kind of issues or maybe they’re not socially savvy. And he walked up to me, and
he really loudly said, “Are you [birth name]?” And it was like, I basically
could not say no. It’s like I couldn’t say no, and this was in front of some
people at my desk that I was just starting to get to know. I don’t know them. I
don’t know what their opinions on LGBT are. And you know, I think the first
thing I said was like, “Dude, are you trying to get me killed?” And it all
happened, and then a few weeks later, again I went to therapy, and I didn’t
know what I wanted to do. Because you’re in that space where again it’s like, do
you speak up? Do you email the TAs? Do you email the professor? I’m not the
kind of person to get people in trouble, that’s not what I want. And again,
maybe he wasn’t being malicious, but it still had consequences for me.

When discussing this second situation, Mr. Ward explained
that microaggressions, even when they are a result of ignorance, play a role in
his overall mental health:

Ward: I think that’s part of why I think I deal with some social anxiety is like, for
instance, walking in that classroom. Nothing had ever happened to me, but I
still was on edge, because I didn’t know if I was going to deal with
discrimination that day. And it’s like even if that never happened, it’s
stressful to deal every day of your life walking through having to be prepared
to defend yourself. And I think that’s maybe the hard thing to understand for
some people. It’s like, “Oh, well you only get one thing said to you once a
year, it’s not a big deal.” Well yeah, but the other 364 days I had to be ready
for it, anyway. But like I said… and then the Pulse thing happened and it’s—I
don’t know, I still sometimes wonder if they will ever understand the consequences
of what those kinds of things do, the small things. Sometimes I think like—well
this is probably the wrong thing to say—but it’s like at least if somebody’s
actively hating me maliciously, I can say that they’re an actively malicious
person, and they’re not worth my time. But when it’s just a normal person, you
can’t do that. Sometimes ignorance is just as hard, or if not harder, to deal
with than active maliciousness.

Mr. Ward concluded his interview by explaining that, larger society
aside, being transgender is still emotionally stressful. However, he did not
fail to highlight the strength of character he has formed through the
tribulations of being transgender:

 Ward: I think with anything that happens, there are good aspects to it. And I don’t think
the good aspects mean the bad parts are any less bad. And you know, I wouldn’t
wish being trans on anyone. Even if there wasn’t the social aspect, I think if
you put a trans person on an island to live on their own, they would still deal
with emotional stress because of being trans. I think overall, it’s obviously
made me more resilient. You can only deal with so much shit before it stops
phasing you. So it’s like, things happen, and it just doesn’t—I think I know
I’m strong enough to deal with it. It’s like I’ve survived. I’ve survived this
long, I’ve survived so much stuff that I know at the end of the day, no matter
how bad things get or how much I suffer, I’m going to survive… I guess the
good thing about where I’m at right now in my life is that I don’t think I’m
perfect, but I’m happy with myself. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else,
but I don’t think I’m worth less than anyone else. So if I like myself, then I
have to say that everything that has happened to me up until this point is just
a part of who I am. And if I like who I am, I have to accept those parts of my
life, too.

Mr. Ward’s experiences relay the necessity for us as a
society to educate ourselves on LGBTQ+ issues so that we can create spaces
where microaggressions don’t exist, and the LGBTQ+ community can live out their
lives with less societal stressors. It is all of our jobs to build this future
for ourselves, and it begins by sharing and listening to the voices of those
who live these realities.