From February 3 – 8, the Spectrum Center hosted the 2020 LGBTQ+ Health and Wellness Week. The week featured several events of different varieties. The events steered clear of the image of a cliché wellness week; there weren’t any workshops on how to make stress balls, or on the importance of self care without defining what that means beyond the surface-level. Instead, the organizers have realized the importance of acknowledging the wider stresses and trauma overlying the community, and the specificity of the issues for people of LGBTQ+ identities. Along with this comes an understanding of the necessity of activism against the overlying oppression on the community as a whole. These events did a great job balancing the amount of complexity that goes into health and wellness for people of LGBTQ+ identities while being interesting and supportive.
Art by Max Coolidge.
The week started with a keynote talk by Dr. Joy Saniyah (she/her), who founded and directs the Integrative Empowerment Group, a practice dedicated to providing mental health and wellness services to people of a diverse range of identities and intersections, including people identifying with LGBTQA+ identities, people of color, and those interested in kink or polyamory (consensual relationships between more than two partners).
Dr. Saniyah’s talk served as an introduction to the concept that the rest of the week revolved around, namely, what does health and wellness actually look like for the LGBTQ+ community? She mentioned the importance of redefining what health and wellness should look like for ourselves and our communities, instead of what is projected by society. The definition of what is healthy and well in wider culture is often as narrow as other commonly critiqued standards, like those within beauty. The history of what is considered healthy and what is not has often looked poorly on those of LGBTQ+ identities. For example, it was only in 2013 that the DSM removed “Gender Identity Disorder” from its list.
Another key point Dr. Saniyah focused on was the idea of resilience versus resistance. Often there is a focus on resilience under systems of oppression, on just surviving and getting through day by day. In response to this idea Dr. Saniyah said, “I don’t want to survive in spite of the system, I want to change the system.” She also emphasizes that resistance and acts of resistance can look like a variety of things. A particularly important act of resistance Dr. Saniyah pointed out is the idea of self-care, saying, “Any act of self-care is a revolutionary act.” This idea, inspired by an Audre Lorde quote with a similar message, is especially important for members of marginalized identities and groups in which the only mission was to survive under the system, and not to care for yourself and love yourself under it.
The other events of the week largely fell underneath the categories of resistance as wellness and the act of self-care under an oppressive system.
Worthy Bodies: Trans and Nonbinary Body Positivity, held on Feb. 4, was a discussion-based workshop that gave people identifying under trans and nonbinary identities a place to discuss, vent, and give advice about topics with a group that understood and related to their experiences. Discussions like these are important in providing an opportunity for people to connect and feel validated in their experience. It’s incredibly important for people to have space to talk through things like dysphoria, as well as topics like the pressure of performing within the gender binary and how traditional body positivity often excludes or overlooks the trans experience.
The Tension and Trauma Release Exercises Workshop, held on Feb. 6, was a workshop utilizing a series of techniques to help the body release muscle tension and calm down. This technique is done through activating a reflex mechanism found in the body by shaking and/or vibrating. This workshop was the closest to what one thinks of when thinking of a traditional wellness week but was still tweaked to relate to the needs LGBTQ+ individuals might have in regards to high rates of trauma and tension.
The second keynote speaker of the week was Dr. Brett Kruzsch (he/him), author of the 2019 book Dying to be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics. His talk, which was held on Feb. 5, focused on contrasting the activism and media coverage surrounding the deaths of two LGBTQ+ individuals: Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, and F.C. Martinez, a two-spirit high school student. (The term “two-spirit” refers to an umbrella term used by many indigenous cultures to refer to a traditional gender identity outside of the male-female binary.) He discussed the role religion, namely Christianity, played in the media coverage of Matthew Shepard, and how race, gender nonconformity, religion, and economic status led to Shepard becoming more of a political figure than Martinez.
Although this event does not seem on first glance to fit under the umbrella of health and wellness, it definitely fits in the theme of activism underlying these events. The content covered was incredibly interesting but heartbreaking. It’s valuable to be reminded of just how much impact the intersection of different identities has– the high rates of murder against trans women of color, as one example.
Activist Love Letters, held on Feb. 7, was a performance and workshop run by artist Syrus Marcus Ware (he/him), who is a visual artist working with paintings, installations, and performances. He is also an activist, youth-advocate, and researcher. The workshop focused on the role participants have in supporting and sustaining movements and communities. This event again fit under the theme of activism as self-care. It emphasized the importance of support, given here in the form of love letters, in providing communities with hope and connection, all of which is incredibly valuable in a week focused on health and wellness.
The week ended with a discussion and book reading of Nia King’s (she/her) “Queer and Trans Artists of Color, Volumes 1 and 2,” as well as talks by artists Noura Ballout (they/ them), Micha Cardénas (she/her), and Darryl DeAngelo Terrel (they/them). This event was the second of an ongoing series discussing Nia King’s books. The books are a series of interviews pulled from her podcast, “We Want the Airwaves.” The last event in this series is on March 14, with Nia King herself presenting. An RSVP link is available at the “Happening @ Michigan” page for this event.
The week mostly steered clear of discussing statistics of the high rates of depression and suicide in the LGBTQ+ community, and of discussion of mental health resources. However, the focus on activism and wellness was valuable. There’s more to discussing wellness than focusing on the bad and the depressing, and this week largely focused on giving hope and a feeling of connectedness.