Navigating as Black and gay in College
By Antoine Craigwell
Twelve years ago, a young man, now 32-years old, left his home in the Bronx, NY to attend college in a sub-urban community. There he said because he could not find acceptance, he kept himself shut away and only ventured out to attend choir practice, as it was the one activity that interested him. While in college, he contracted HIV and he eventually dropped out and today, is struggling to make life on his own.
For while it is likely that this young man may have known that he was depressed, what was he to do, where was he to go for help? And, if indeed anyone were to know or suspect that he was depressed, without proper training to recognize the signs and characteristics, how could that person help?
Many people feel powerless to render assistance when faced with someone who is experiencing some type of mental crisis, especially if that person is about to or indicates that he or she would commit suicide. While most people think that a suicide attempt is a cry for help, as indeed it is, without proper training and knowledge most people don’t know what to do. Most often, too, when someone attempts suicide, if they fail at that attempt and are coherent enough after, he or she would say that they just wanted to end it all; for everything to stop; that pain, that is deep and bothersome..
The issue of depression and it’s ultimate conclusion has been brought into the public consciousness with the death of performers such as Phyllis Hyman, of whom it was known, was battling depression for years. Many know, also of the popular books and scholarly articles that have been written about the issue of depression, especially in the Black community. But, very little, outside of academic literature, is known about depression in the Black gay community. As an illness, depression is seen by a majority of the Black community as an embarrassment to the family, a sickness that speaks of weakness and ineffectualness.
“The thing is depression is an organic disease, a disorder just like diabetes. It is about the lack of a neurotransmitter or several different essential connecting neurotransmitters that could have a number of environmental or genetic causes,” said David Goode-Cross, Ph.D. “We don’t tend to look at depression as a medical condition in the same way we would look at diabetes or high blood pressure or anything like that. So one thing that needs to happen is that we as a community need more discussions about positive mental health, about well being, about what depression looks like, about what it really is. As a professor of Counseling Psychology at West Virginia University who also supervises psychologists, and who has published “African-American Men Who Have Sex With Men: Creating Safe Spaces Through Relationships,” and “Managing Multiple-Minority Identities: African-America Men Who Have Sex With Men at Predominantly White Universities” Goode-Cross said that depression is not a function of not having prayed, it is not a function of not having faith. Depression is a function of not having enough serotonin in your life.
In an article “Depression is Associated with Sexual Risk Among Men Who Have Sex with Men, but is Mediated by Cognitive Escape and Self-Efficacy,” which was published in March 2010, Lisa Alvy and David McKirnan of the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Howard Brown Health Center of Chicago; and Gordon Mansergh and Stephen Flores of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, GA; and others focused directly on the specific issue of the underlying cause or factor responsible for risky sexual behavior among men who have sex with men. The authors stated that they examined and conducted an investigation of a national sample of 1,540 HIV-positive and HIV-negative men who have sex with men, and who reported unprotected sex and drug use with sex partners and declared that, “more broadly, university students who report depressive symptoms are more likely to engage in everyday unhealthy behaviors including a lack of physical activity, not eating breakfast, and keeping irregular sleep hours.”
Confirming these findings, Goode-Cross said, “in general, environmentally, if you are talking about people around the ages of 18 to say, 24, one of the major tasks is to develop an identity, something that is separate from one’s parents, something that is determining who a person is and college is a way that a lot of young people do that. For more than half of the young men in this country, this is a developmental challenge in itself and for all students it can cause some wrinkles as they separate from their parents’ ideologies and learn other things about other people and question their own previously held values and beliefs. Where it gets more complicated is sometimes at this age it is the first time that students are experiencing themselves as sexual beings, although increasingly young people are having sex much earlier than perhaps in generations past even from my generation. So overlaying the idea of developing one’s identity from just being away from home or whatever is identifying another marginalized identity and if you’re talking about students who are at a predominantly white institution, they are already marginalized as being Black in a place that is largely white.
“While it can get a lot more complex, there are a lot of loses that come with “coming out,” not even coming out, but discovering or declaring one’s self to be gay or bisexual or non-heterosexual and feelings of sadness are pretty common, therefore, in the best of scenarios, even with the best adjusted student, with no other factors, those issues in themselves, this period of identity development can be really challenging.
“Many students navigate these challenges by selectively disclosing or not necessarily being “out.” “Out” is a culturally laden term, but they may be less forthright about their sexual orientation; there certainly is a perception among Black people that African Americans tend to be less accepting of homosexuality and bi-sexuality in the community.”
However, said Goode-Cross, “I don’t know that the research bears that to be exactly true. I think that most Americans are heterosexual and homophobic, I think that, but the experience and because of the high degrees of religiosity in Black communities, and the experience of their peers, they see their peers as being pretty discriminatory, so it becomes a really scary time and without lots of support and depending on where that person is, whether they are visibly gay or whether they “clockable” or whether they are masculine or not; things get tricky really quickly. The way that most young men manage that is to be selective about who they disclose their sexual orientation to, which comes with its own set of costs as one could imagine, the cost of being secretive and the pressure of keeping quiet about it, and that often that raises a lot of anxiety. I have seen a lot of students who can’t tell anyone about their sexual orientation and that can cause its own consequences, including a lot of self medication with marijuana or alcohol and lots of sex. There are lots of ways people mask the discomfort that comes with being in between or being in a marginalized group, which of itself complicates issues. This is not talking about people with more severe difficulties, students with trauma history or who don’t come from supportive or stable families. If you’re entering in those dynamics and you keep in mind that human beings have a finite amount of resilience, then what can happen very quickly is that any kind of problem already present or developing is made worse by the stress and the fear associated with being a member of a double mind or any group. Also, because of the specifics, depending on where the campus is located, if it is in a rural or non urban environments, one is generally talking about a pretty small number of people. If one was thinking about age range where developing a sense of self and exploring adult sexual and emotional relationships as part of the developmental path, that gets tricky. If a person is one of, and there are only five other gay Black men that he knows about, he certainly has fewer opportunities to date and to explore and so what does he do with that? This could present a number of issues, such as dating people who are developing pseudo-relationships online or engaging in anonymous hook-ups. A good picture about exactly how this looks in this calculation, for everyone, is that there are lots of different ways that the stressors can interact with student environments and could cause some pressure that often leads to mood disorders including depression and anxiety.”
Of the students involved in study, Goode-Cross’s said, he found that two years later, two of those students or a full fifty percent of the students had left school and they specifically highlighted that they had difficulties with depression; they both reported having suicidal ideations. One of them was so depressed that his grades dropped and he lost his scholarship and so he ended up having to leave school because of financial reasons.
Goode-Cross said that while he too was in college twelve years ago, the story of the young man could easily have been his, “I certainly had my own bout of major depression. I had grown up in a very fundamentalist Baptist household. My mother used to say, “if you grow up to be a sissy I’ll kill you,” and so it was very difficult for me to understand myself as gay and in the midst of that I certainly tried to find comfort.”
“I weep for the man I was back then but I certainly made some terrible sexual choices. Thankfully I was in a position or in a setting, I wasn’t in an urban environment where I could have been taken advantage of or my own ignorance about disease or my own need for psychological acceptance or love put me in harms way but that could have happened very easily and it happens all the time for these young men, when you don’t have enough, when you’re struggling to get a sense of who you are, when you’re not comfortable in your skin and when you’re afraid, you don’t have your full ability to reason, you don’t have all the resources to make smart, self loving decisions; in those kinds of settings a lot of people have unprotected sex, a lot of people are using a lot of substances and having sex,” he said.
Goode-Cross said that people get into horribly dysfunctional relationships, horribly abusive, emotionally abusive relationships all the time or they conceptualize themselves in this kind of stereotypical role of, “so I’m gay, I must be a woman,” and so they behave in ways that they think women should behave in terms of not asserting one’s self, not advocating for his own needs, putting up with substandard treatment, putting up with infidelity. All those types of things can happen very easily when talking about students or not even students but young men who are vulnerable at this age.
“That gentleman’s story is similar to my story,” said Goode-Cross, “ and it is similar to the stories of some of the men I talked to, similar to the many, many, many men who have been to college and not who have looked for acceptance and found something else.”
Nevertheless, he added, there are things that people can do and a lot of it is based on the individual. There is a huge stigma in the community about mental health services. If one thinks about the Black community, the idea is that if a Black person is depressed, the immediate suggestion is that the person is not working hard enough or not praying right or some such explanation, he said.
He added, that it’s quite difficult to say how someone manages that or what are the ways that people even deal with a particular stress or what is known to be the many number of factors that can test someone’s psychological resilience, well being and breaking point. There isn’t a formula and so certainly there are risk factors that students have to face. Taking an example of someone who is an African immigrant, who finds himself in a state university and now has to deal with a whole lot of white people, or an example of someone from the Bronx who is experiencing some culture shock; we do know that both of those are in environments that maybe not be risk factors but there are certainly contextual variables that can add a wrinkle to the underlying psychological processes and make them more or less likely to emerge. So for someone from the Bronx, they may or may not experience problems with adjustment. The fact that they are from an urban environment, they actually may be well suited to manage in the face of pretty adverse situations, because New York City life is not always easy and while there may be an adjustment, they may have fear that may have developed over time to approach orientation, which provides two ways to react in the face of a problem: to face the situation head on and try to figure out what resources to help him manage, and the avoidance situation, which is to retreat. What is known, is that the approach orientation has been more beneficial in this context; students who choose that, regardless of the demographic factors, are more likely to have a positive outcome. But then again, that is not a guarantee because A does not necessarily equal C.
Institutions can do some key things that beyond workshops, such as, Black students are more comfortable in Black spaces, because prior to coming to college, they tended to be more comfortable in Black spaces. Universities do a good job, as other institutions in society, with rare exceptions, about giving this spiel about being tolerant and being diverse, and many institutions have domestic partner laws which are targeted to the student body as a whole. What is left out is the assumption that Blacks, as minorities, and gays, as minorities, are culturally competent; that because a person knows what it’s like to be oppressed that he is much better off at dealing with others who are oppressed and he is not likely to oppress. That’s not the truth and this assertion has not been supported by data. What happens is that in ignoring populations, for instance when talking about anti-racism programs on campus, those that are usually addressed, are to the university as a whole. What would happen if institutions target those to the LGBT resource center on the campus and for example letting people who feel oppressed already recognize that they have their own way of oppressing others and make them look more critically at themselves? How might that provide students with another layer of safety or conversely, the safe zone that a lot of schools have about diversely tolerant and diverse sexual orientations? If discrimination was targeted at the African-American or Latino populations, what would that look like in a culturally sensitive way? Would that raise consciousness, would that make places safer for the LGBT student?
On a systemic level, on a broader level, things can change, said Goode-Cross. A person also needs culturally competent clinicians and therapists who understand the issues. Generally, if someone was doing research on gay people, the ideal psychological state historically is meant to be “out” in every context and every circumstance, which would be the picture of mental health. That‘s not necessarily true. That’s a very culturally biased perspective, “I may be gay, my mother may know I am gay but my employer may not and I can be perfectly fine and healthy.” Clinicians don’t always now that, they don’t always know the nuances of what normal development look like and that these developmental processes are really culturally based. It’s not a prescriptive one size fits all that institutions can do differently, he said.