Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW discuses how joy may look different to queer people.
Incessant Attacks on Queer Communities Bombard Us as Individuals
It’s not surprising that joy feels hard to come by these days. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), state legislatures have introduced more than 100 bills targeting transgender people since 2020. That means that amid the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, politicians still found the time to attack sexual and gender minorities, and these attacks have real-life consequences.
Jonah DeChants, PhD (he/him/his), a researcher with the Trevor Project, says “Recent political attacks aimed at transgender and nonbinary youth have not only threatened their access to healthcare, support systems, and affirming spaces at school, they’ve also negatively impacted their mental health.”
In a 2022 survey of more than 34,000 American LGBTQ+ youth ages 13 to 24, the Trevor Project found that, while support from family, friends, and community can mitigate mental health and suicide risk, nearly half of all respondents had seriously contemplated a suicide attempt in the past year.
This society is crushing our youth, and it hurts us all. I personally found myself having visceral reactions to this news, including emotional withdrawal and thoughts of ending my own life.
A lifetime of daily stresses can add up. Sabrina Sarro (they/them/their) is a New York City–based therapist and self-described “spirit exfoliator” who helps their trans and gender-nonconforming clients scrub away accumulated mental toxicity and trauma to reveal the emotions and beauty hiding behind the presenting issue. They say, “Something I’ll typically see is a narrative, an underbelly, or a haze of formative experiences that have fossilized the nervous system” into a persistent state of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn — a self-protective reaction that nevertheless affects the ability to access joy.
Sarro notes that sharing certain identities with clients — as well as skillfully supporting clients through recalling experiences colored by violence, genocide, and repression — allows them to cultivate intimate therapeutic relationships where clients can explore centering themselves in “joy-bearing” ways such as education and career advancement, self-advocacy, art making, and relationship building.
Every single person has to find joy where and how they can. But queer people, especially people of color, often must carefully sift that joy from difficult social realities.
The Texas therapist and active ally Kiana Shelton (she/her) observes that her queer clients sometimes struggle with measuring their joy against heteronormative society. “For the older clients,” she says, “it’s actually easier to count certain things as joy, because they hold a longer history of feeling so constricted in certain spaces. [With] younger generations, it’s a frustration with needing to celebrate something that seems so small because of where we should be” — like being able to use the restroom you’re most comfortable with, for example.
In Queer Spaces, Emotional Expression Is Nuanced and More Tolerant of Expansiveness and Intensity
I am also neurodivergent. Ever since I was a child, I have been told the way I express myself is “too much.” At one job, when a coworker said she could hear my laugh across the building, I felt subtly judged. But when a queer friend recently shared their delight at my uninhibited laugh, it made me feel seen and valued. With other queer people, I feel freer to display a spectrum of authentic reactions.
Shivani Seth (she/they), a fundraiser for Happily Ever Afters for Trans Kids, speaks about complicated feelings regarding the first gay wedding she attended. It dawned on them that, unlike the stifling environment they were raised in, the happy couple could make a public declaration of love to each other among a loving community.
“My brain expected something bad to happen,” Seth says. “It was incredibly revelatory that nothing bad happened.” Her friends later told her she cried as if she were at a funeral, not a wedding. “I was so emotionally overwrought because it showed me maybe it can be different. My queer joy is often very linked with a sense of mourning that I did not get to experience it sooner.”
Reveling in Gallows Humor as a Show of Resilience — and Subversion of Oppressive Norms
In his book The Modes of Human Rights Literature, Michael Galchinsky describes laughter as a means for people enduring human rights abuses to exercise and maintain agency, however limited. One of the types he names that most resonates with me is gallows humor, “the reflexive laughter expressed by those in the immediate grip of the state.” This laughter prevents oppressed people from becoming immobilized and helps preserve their dignity.
The New Jersey comic Sammie James (she/they) is a trans woman and no stranger to gallows humor. Although they are now focusing on lighter routines, they initially used dark jokes to strip traumatic situations of their power. “One of my regular jokes,” James shares, “is about being physically assaulted. A guy saw me, grabbed me. He got in my face, he shouted at me. But he shouted, ‘You will never be a man!’ As a trans woman … the setup to the joke 100 percent happened. The punch line is that he is so confused when I thank and then hug him.”
It reminded me of a phone call I made to reschedule a critical appointment with a counselor I had not yet met in person. The counselor interrupted me as I was identifying myself to say, “You are not! Dominic is a man!” After which I had to explain the concept of being nonbinary.
The burden of having to educate others about the vast diversity of gender expression — and the implication that I need to repeatedly justify my existence or identity — can be exhausting. But rather than dwell in my frustration after the fact, I just laughed. My aunt and I ad-libbed an alternative scenario where I called the counselor a “butthole” and suggested cultural competency training.
Horror Movies Can Be a Cathartic Outlet
Following the thread of gallows humor, I have long been fascinated by and found comfort in the horror genre. My gateway franchise was Nightmare on Elm Street, which my siblings and I would watch together.
While some may struggle to understand how horror can be comforting, the researcher Coltan Scrivner has helped me put a finger on it. A study Scrivner coauthored and published September 2020 in Personality and Individual Differences looked at pandemic resilience specifically in horror fans, and found that horror content allowed viewers to acquire cognitive and emotional skills that they then were able to apply in real-life situations.
When I reflect on this finding, I can identify a variety of lessons I have learned from my own horror movie consumption. Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, taught me as a teenager that there are a lot of truths adults pretend not to know. Often, they can’t or won’t protect you, and it’s necessary to find your own solutions.
What does this have to do with joy? I find a measure of joy in acknowledging that the monsters underneath the bed are real, and that the people who confront them, even if the confrontation ends badly, at least exhibit a willingness to engage with the ugliness.
Talking With Peers About Trauma Can Create Connections Around Shared Experiences
I am a former social worker and someone who navigates the mental health system on my own behalf. Something that has always troubled me is the implicit and sometimes explicit expectation that you contain every vulnerability and hard story within four walls opposite a therapist, who may or may not be culturally competent to treat you, so that you can go back out into the world and not make a ripple.
But people heal in community. When I was younger, I joined a homicide survivor support group to cope with a tragic loss. It reignited memories of past violence I endured and the fear that I would ultimately meet a similar fate to my loved one. This moved violent death from an abstraction to a possibility so close I could feel its breath on the back of my neck.
I needed the group in order to process these complicated feelings, and the work I did in the group, while not inherently joyful, helped me begin to complete the grieving process in a way that would not have happened otherwise. And, in fact, there were things I did as a result, such as getting a tattoo in my loved one’s honor and dedicating parts of my creative practice to him, that did bring me joy.
Similarly, Shivani Seth speaks about a online community they participate in that has become informal support for fellow queer folks, particularly those who are still figuring out which identities suit them best — answers that can evolve over one’s lifetime, as I can attest. It’s a space where they can find fellowship without the expectation to conceal “unacceptable” parts of themselves.
Joy Is Our Birthright
“They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” The therapist Kiana Shelton (she/her) says this phrase locates “very much where rejoicing sits when you are in a marginalized group.”
Our collective history of queer agitating and advocating must be referenced in order to make sense of joy, which Shelton imagines more as an active practice than a feeling. For me, this looks like belting out karaoke on a rare outing, distracting a friend from pain during a hospital visit, and, of course, cheering the loudest when we win … anything.
Leaning in to the idea of joy as a birthright, Shelton says — one that should not be delayed and that lives in the smallest of glimmers — allows people “to see the ways in which folks cracked, they break, they grow. And they still continue to rise up.”
We never stop cracking. That’s why we shine so hard. Others may covet it. Try to steal it. To dim it or extinguish it. But that shine can’t be taken away. It’s who we are. Happy Pride.
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