Life at the Intersection of Race, Gender, and Mental Health
by Phantazia Washington
I’m not in pain anymore. I’m not upset anymore. I’m a very happy, unique kind of person. And it feels good.
–Monica Tiffany Rose in the video A Journey Within
Gender is the complex interrelationship between an individual’s sex (gender biology), one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither (gender identity) as well as one’s outward presentations and behaviors (gender expression) related to that perception, including their gender role. Together, the intersection of these three dimensions produces one’s authentic sense of gender, both in how people experience their own gender as well as how others perceive it.
DEFINITION FROM GENDER SPECTRUM’S WEBSITE
Intersctionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage: through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us.
DEFINITION FROM OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
Editor’s note: In sometimes strategic, sometimes mysterious ways, films grow legs and walk around the world.
They find audiences that are in need of experiencing them. In today’s digital age with so many distribution options, chances are increased that someone can randomly chance upon a film that has meaning for their life.
Yet it is always a pleasure, and an honor, when a film is selected to be shared with a group of people who are hungry for the story it tells. Such is the story of A Journey Within, a short OC87 Recovery Diaries film about Monica, a young woman who shared her story of growth and resilience as a transgender youth.
This summer, A Journey Within was featured at the 2015 Gender Spectrum Conference in California. Monica and her friend Phantazia participated in the conference and they screened A Journey Within for the attending audience. Here is Phantazia’s account of their memorable trip:
I think what’s so touching about Monica’s story is that she’s able to look back on some of the more difficult times of her life with sort of an open mind. She doesn’t come off bitter about her experiences.
I think that’s a really beautiful thing, because often times we look back on our experiences and we feel all of the negative emotions that we had at the moment.
–Phantazia Washington in the video A Journey Within
My name is Phantazia Washington. I work in the Bryson Institute of The Attic Youth Center, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ youth center, as a community educator.
The mission of The Attic Youth Center is to create opportunities for LGBTQ youth to develop into healthy, independent, civic-minded adults within a safe and supportive community, and to promote the acceptance of LGBTQ youth in society.
I was first introduced to The Attic as a freshman in high school, and quickly became a regular through the doors. I recognized pretty early on that the staff and administration at my high school were very homophobic. As an out queer youth, I would go to school and spend the day hearing negative messages about my community. After school I would go to The Attic and be surrounded by all the unique beauty of the LGBTQ community — a reminder that this identity is not a point of shame but of beauty, resilience, and community. As I grew older, I heard about the Bryson Institute, the education and outreach arm of The Attic Youth Center, which provides workshops and trainings around best practices for working with LGBTQ youth. The same year, I began working with the Bryson Institute as a panelist, sharing my experience of recognizing my identity, coming out as queer, and experiencing homophobia in my school with audiences that included teachers, foster parents, doctors, social workers, and other folks looking to better support LGBTQ youth.
Which is how I came to know Monica.
Listening to Monica tell her story on a panel, I was immediately struck by her bravery and resilience. Monica has formed an amazing chosen family, started a drag career, began walking runway in the ballroom community, and is still sharing her story as a panelist. When Monica first told me that OC87 Recovery Diaries had approached her to feature her story I wasn’t surprised – she has an amazing story and incredible insight to share. When Gender Spectrum approached The Attic about featuring Monica’s video at their annual conference and invited her to San Francisco to attend, I was a bit more surprised.
Gender isn’t about a single child, a single family, or a single school. It’s about all of us. Perceptions of gender shape how we understand ourselves and those around us.
At the heart of this understanding are the stories we bring with us. The experiences we’ve had. The moments we’ve shared. In shaping the conversation about gender awareness and acceptance, all of us need opportunities to tell our gender story, and see ourselves reflected in the stories of others.
Gender Spectrum’s mission is to help create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens. They provide consultation, training and events designed to help families, educators, professionals, and organizations understand and address the concepts of gender identity and expression. They present an overview of how society currently defines gender and how these restrictive definitions can be detrimental to those who do not fit neatly into these categories. They then help people identify and remove the obstacles so all are free to be their authentic selves.
– Read more on Gender Spectrum’s website
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We began conversations with Gender Spectrum and OC87 Recovery Diaries about the trip. We decided in addition to Monica’s video we would create a larger workshop that would accompany the video to dive deeper into the layers of institutional oppression that transgender youth of color face.
I began the process of creating a workshop for middle and high school students that addressed racial and gender oppression. The workshop was titled: Intersectionality: Race, Gender and Me.
This topic is a personal one. I identify as biracial, black and white. I dropped out/was pushed out of high school, and have experienced homelessness throughout my life. I’ve experienced a number of different oppressions throughout my life, and I’ve had to push against systems that fought to push me down.
It’s important for me to be able to share my experience with young people, and to also help them recognize that as young people they have power. Power is often taken away from young folks, and I try to empower them to create their own stories and push back against the systems that are impacting their lives in negative ways.
When I first met Monica I saw a lot of trying to please other people and suppressing who you really wanted to be and who you really were. Just not knowing how to cope, not knowing how to communicate, not knowing how to trust, not knowing how to love yourself or others.
Mental health plays a big role in that, especially when you don’t have a solid support system. And when the people you expect to love you the most are the ones that hurt you the most.
– Christian Hill, Counselor, Camden AHEC in the video A Journey Within
We arrived Saturday morning at St. Mary’s college, and were struck by the beauty of the campus. After registration and lunch, we prepared for our workshop. The workshop was designed to address the basics of privilege and oppression — What identities fall into each? What does it mean to hold a privileged identity? It’s important to remind participants that privilege and oppression is not based on a good/bad system. It is no more the privileged person’s fault that they were born with privilege than it is the oppressed person’s fault they were not.
This understanding that privilege does not make you a bad person is key to the ability to recognize and acknowledge our privilege. After all, most of us do hold a combination of privileged and oppressed identities simultaneously. For instance, though I identify as black, I am also mixed with white which has given me fairly light skin. Though I experience oppression as a black woman, I’m given more privilege than someone with darker skin.
To have a better understanding of what this looks like, participants were asked to create a list of their identities based on a list of identity categories: age, race, gender, etc. Once finished, we discussed which identities they were the most proud of and if those identities were privileged or oppressed. Something that came up time and time again was that they felt that some oppressed identities weren’t necessarily oppressed because they hadn’t experienced challenges, or because they were proud to belong to that group. One trans* youth spoke in depth about never experiencing oppression around their identity, stating “My friends and family support me, I’m proud to be trans*, and I don’t feel oppressed.”
This happens a lot in these conversations, particularly when a person’s privileged identities have afforded them limited interaction with oppressive systems. For instance, a trans* youth with economic resources and family support to transition and who attends a supportive school is less likely to encounter the child welfare or juvenile justice system than a trans* youth with little family support or financial resources who attends an unsupportive school.
After the identity mapping we began an activity to identify various tools for resisting racism and cissexism (the idea that a person’s gender is based solely on their assigned sex). First, participants were asked to think of one tool to resist each. Then, as a group, we discussed how those tools could become intersectional. As resistance to racism, one youth wrote, “Support people of color-led nonprofits.” To make that intersectional, we decided as a group that we could not only also support trans* led nonprofits, but support nonprofits led by trans* folks of color. Another youth wrote, “Hold a screening of the Caitlin Jenner TV special.” As a group, to make it intersectional, we decided to hold a double screening and also include a video of Laverne Cox or Janet Mock. By the conclusion of the activity the participants had created 25 tools for resisting the intersection of racism and cissexism!
I learned a lot from the past and I just work on the future, cause you know, not everybody has the same story or the same feeling about things.
– Monica Tiffany Rose in the video A Journey Within
The opportunity to have this conversation and build solidarity with young folks is so important to me. Many of us hold both racial identities and gender identities that are inherently intertwined. Youth voices are often excluded from the language of power and privilege, intersecting oppressions, and cultural dominance. Young folks are not exempt from oppression — quite the contrary, they experience adultism (adult dominance over youth) every day of their lives. I’m only 23 myself, so adultism is something I understand all too well. I wish I would have had this language at thirteen to articulate what I was experiencing.
Since I cannot change my own experience, I can educate other young folks so that they are able to begin to advocate for themselves and their peers. After all, there is no age limit to be a social justice warrior.
Sunday was our last day in San Francisco and the last day of the conference. Today was the day Monica’s video would be featured, and her excitement was contagious! Monica’s video was to screen with two other videos featuring gender variant youth. When the videos began, the excitement levels were back at full blast! After the video a staff member invited Monica to the front, and she received a standing ovation. “I was experiencing the very happiness of joy,” Monica said afterwards.
As we walked through the conference, Monica continued to receive praise for her bravery, strength, and resilience. Diving into the content it became clear that this was a conversation that resonated with the audience’s lived experience. Watching Monica’s video connected to their humanity — through just ten minutes of video they felt a connection to her. One I won’t soon forget, and one Monica says she’ll hold onto forever.
Before I was struggling, and I didn’t have that much help, but now I feel really complete.
– Monica Tiffany Rose in the video A Journey Within
Our goodbye was bittersweet. The folks from Gender Spectrum had been absolutely wonderful hosts and California is outrageously beautiful, but Monica and I agreed, we both missed home. On the flight home, we reflected on our favorite parts of the trip: Golden Gate Bridge, Monica’s video, the opportunity to have conversations with young people about the intersection of race and gender. Too often, conversations of race and gender oppression are kept separate. Gender Spectrum is taking huge steps to begin to bridge that gap. However, neither their work — nor ours — is close to being finished.
We need to continue to have conversations that include all members of our community – conversations that are intersectional, and conversations that have youth voices at the center.
Trans* — the asterisk denotes that there are an infinite number of identities that fall underneath the trans umbrella.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Bud Clayman | EDITOR: Glenn Holsten | ART & LAYOUT: Leah Alexandra Goldstein
See Related Recovery Stories: BIPOC Mental Health Recovery Stories, Depression, Mental Health First Person Essays