For many of us, when we hear of a “conference,” we think, Oh, it’s one of those events where university and college types get together. That doesn’t mean anything to me, because they don’t understand our real world lives and experiences. But contrary to some misconceptions, conferences are often opportunities where some from universities and colleges, others from organizations and ordinary people come together to share information, research and material they’ve gathered, along with a wide variety of experiences.
This year, a collection of volunteers led by Depressed Black Gay Men (DBGM) — an organization committed to raising awareness of the underlying factors contributing to depression in Black gay men, to prevent their suicide, including contracting HIV — hosts the third annual “In My Mind: A LGBTQ Peoples of Color Mental Health Conference” on Oct. 5–6 at The Stewart Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.
Recognizing the effect the campaigns and the 2016 elections had on people — especially LGBTQ peoples of color — and with the present White House occupant and Congress, much of today’s rhetoric on health care has real-world consequences for those living with mental health issues and who need therapy.
The organizers chose this year’s theme, “Navigating Mental Health Care: Concerns, Developments and Promises,” to provide LGBTQ peoples of color communities with opportunities to discuss ways in which they can identify, access and make use of resources for their own mental health. They feel that by removing stigma and shame as a community, we could be working toward a healthy and balanced life, and realizing our true potential.
At this year’s conference, keeping it close to the communities and peoples it’s intended to serve, workshops will reflect real-world experiences, a mixture of both academic and personal presentations.
One workshop is titled “My Self-worth Is Not Defined by the 13 Inches of My Gay BBD (Big Black Dick)!” and will be presented by Leo Donato, a former Black gay porn star, who says, “Presenting at this conference represents many things to me in so many different areas of my life that it is difficult to pick just one. However this statement comes very close to encompassing all of them: Presenting at the “In My Mind” conference is the incontrovertible truth that despite the many undesired circumstances, situations, decisions and choices I have lived and made in my life, I have healed and continue to heal myself enough to be able to share my life and my stories and thus give back to my community as best I can!”
Donato adds that he hopes to examine and explore the mental health needs of many Black gay men in the porn industry, including those who watch porn and have become addicts.
It’s important to recognize and accept that mental health is often a combination of biological reactions in a person’s brain and external/environmental factors, and despite the shame and stigma from our family, friends, community and society, a person with a mental health issue is not to blame; it’s not his or anyone’s fault.
For many peoples of color, mental health is based on conditioning from slavery. That prescribes that a person who may be feeling different — or is perceived by others to be different — is forced to keep his or her feelings and issues bottled up inside, and not share or discuss how he feels for fear of being taken advantage of or exploited. This includes being thought of as lazy and being severely abused, and for protection and preservation, gave rise to the unwritten maxim “You don’t talk your business.”
This injunction added to the very real experiences of racial discrimination passed down through generations, creating an almost impenetrable veil of silence and often deep-seated internal struggles and suffering. Often, despite best efforts to hide and be in control, aspects of a person’s suffering can leak out and manifest in various ways, such as hyper-masculinity, machismo and homophobia. (Churches in the Black community, taking examples and teachings from the White community, have exploited and demonized a facet of human sexuality. There will be a workshop titled “Why Do LGBT Same-Gender-Loving People Remain Faithful to Religion?” at the “In My Mind” conference.)
They can also be manifested as alcohol and drug use and abuse (to help take the edge off or to hide feelings), risky sexual behavior (behind bushes in parks and in tea rooms) and knowing the dangers yet still taking chances on anonymous meetings. Plus there are many traumas that peoples of color have experienced and live with on a daily basis. (Another workshop will be “Sexual Healing Beyond Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress.”)
For many years, going back to World War II and later to the revelations from the Tuskegee Experiment, many in the Black community distrusted health care and saw mental health care as an invasion of their privacy. Many were — and some still are — concerned about confidentiality.
The “In My Mind” conference is an opportunity to break the hold that stigma and shame has on peoples of color communities surrounding discussing and addressing mental health, and hopefully to advance these discussions. The goal is for there to be more opportunities to talk about mental health, including on Hornet and other social apps; that a person isn’t shamed or made to feel less than; that a person could feel comfortable to say, “I’m struggling with depression and I don’t know what to do.”
There are two key aspects to working towards healing: Being strong and confident to say clearly that someone is struggling with a mental health issue and needs help, and being willing to listen, without judgments or jumping to conclusions.
Each of us has a responsibility to assist the individual who asks for our help; to identify a therapist — one who is culturally competent, who understands what it means to be a person of color, your culture and your history and your sexual orientation, however you define yourself.
See you at the conference.
Featured image by wundervisuals via iStock