“As a child of God, I am greater than anything that can happen to me.” ~ A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
Since living in Los Angeles for 10 years and working in West Hollywood, LA’s gay neighborhood, I’ve known far too many people who have overdosed from drugs or alcohol or who have committed suicide.
Just last night I was told that a young man I once worked with at a bar, who from the outside appeared to have it all, killed himself this week. He was handsome, charming, in good shape, and commanded attention wherever he went. Even in the sharing of his death, everyone I spoke to said, “He was so handsome.”
Similarly to others I’ve known who have died or taken their own life, he embodied what, for most people, especially living in West Hollywood, would consider as ideal: external beauty and strength. But each of us has an inner world that is more than what appears on the outside.
I can’t say what compelled this young man to take his own life, and we cannot know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes, nor do we know what the journey is for someone else’s soul. What I do know, though, is that cultivating a meaningful spiritual connection is what saved my own life since coming out of the closet and turning to drugs and alcohol as my source of strength.
Author Brené Brown wrote in her book Daring Greatly, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
This applies to everyone, but being young and being part of a culture that validates strength and beauty from the outside in, I thought about the importance of seeing someone from the inside out. It’s one thing to look around and see people through the lens of what they show us from the outside, but another to fully accept and embrace someone wholeheartedly and unconditionally for who they are on the inside.
I also thought about the LGBTQ community’s level of self-acceptance and from where is it cultivated and, more importantly, nourished. Most of the people I know who have died while living in LA have either worked at a gay bar in West Hollywood or have been a part of the community.
Correlation is not causation. However, when I first moved to Los Angeles, I worked for a national LGBTQ organization, and one of my primary responsibilities was to help organize new member recruitment events. The events always took place at gay bars across the United States and were a way to attract new members.
Once, when I secured a venue for a new market at a non-bar, I was called to meet with the president of the organization at the time. He told me I’d have to find a new venue at a bar. Even though the location was perfect for our event and they were going to give us a great deal, we couldn’t have our event somewhere that wasn’t a gay bar. I was told, “The bar is for gays what the church is for straights.”
At first glance, the comment sounds problematic. But if we were to explore the history between the LGBTQ community and the church, his comment was actually pretty accurate. For years, certain religions have failed to accept gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. And for that reason, the LGBTQ community has had to create alternative spaces to gather, connect, celebrate, and, essentially, worship. After almost six years of sobriety and nine years working at a gay bar, what I share with others from my experience is that what people do at a bar and what they do at church is ultimately the same: the pursuit of a connection with something beyond the realm of this world. It’s just that one source is sustainable and one isn’t.
It’s not that gay bars themselves are bad, it’s that everything, including gay bars and the reason for which we go, is consciousness. Just today, while running an errand in West Hollywood, I overheard someone say to a friend, “I don’t know what my deal is with West Hollywood, but the last time I was here I lost my shirt.”
If a person doesn’t have a strong enough foundation to sustain themselves while seeking fulfillment through substances, or only being seen externally and less for who they are on the inside, the results can be devastating.
A few years ago, I attended a conference for mental health professionals, and the keynote presentation was about LGBTQ youth and trauma. During the talk, the connection between trauma, addiction, and the LGBTQ community suddenly became clear to me. I had always looked at increased rates of drug and alcohol abuse amongst people who are LGBTQ through the lens of shame, but in order for us to get a complete picture, we have to be able to see the effects of trauma, including trauma caused by the church toward the LGBTQ community.
Most of us think of trauma as a rape, murder, death, war, or a catastrophic event or natural disaster. And while these are unequivocally traumas, a trauma is also experienced as a daily microaggression, such as homophobia, transphobia, bullying, and time spent in the closet. Any person who has experienced the closet has known shame—and shame itself is trauma.
Just like any serious individual religious or spiritual path, making amends where there’s been harm is part of the healing process. The more religious institutions can recognize, repent, and repair, the more we can prevent future generations from experiencing not only shame, but trauma.
And the more we can make space for a young person to cultivate a meaningful spiritual connection and teach them an inner sense of self-acceptance from an early age, which includes feeling welcome, celebrated, and affirmed, the more we will be able to offer repair.
According to Native American tradition, when we heal, we heal seven generations before us and seven generations after.
Doing the work to repair, both individually and collectively, will not only heal our past, but it will help heal the future.
In honor of all lives affected by addiction, mental illness, and suicide.