Five years researching love and I have found a fascinating dynamic. When I asked Black Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender activists, organizers, and educators about love, I notice narratives of trauma emerge as a prominent theme in their lives. Little did I know that reading their narratives of trauma would begin to trigger my own past trauma as well as open new possibilities to heal myself.
As a Black queer man, my experiences of trauma echoed many of the folks I spoke with. In childhood, and even today, I hear things like “sissy,” “blister,” or “punk.” It was uncanny how the 14 folks I interviewed experienced some sort of gender based bullying and or violence in their early years, which had a lingering impact on them. As more and more narratives of trauma emerged, I had to explore trauma in greater depth.
In my literature review, I found the groundbreaking study by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, the Adverse Early Childhood (ACE) study. The study surveyed over 17,000 people and found that early experiences with trauma was linked to increased health risk later in life (Felitti et al., 1998). The ACE study identified 10 adverse childhood experiences that contributed to those increased risk factors: neglect (emotional and physical), abuse (psychological, physical, and sexual abuse), and family issues (substance abuse, parental separation/divorce, mental illness, battered mother, and incarcerated relatives) (Felitti et al., 1998; Dong et al., 2004). This study found a dosage affect between the adverse childhood experiences and various health issues (diabetes, obesity, depression, to alcoholism, substance abuse, etc.) with 4 or more being significantly related negative health outcomes in life.
When people experience trauma they may experience: disturbances in the sense of self, such as a sense of separateness, a loss of autobiographical memories/ and disturbances of body image, poorly modulated affect and impulse control, including aggression against self and others, and insecurity in relationships such as distrust, suspiciousness, lack of intimacy, and isolation (van der Kolk & Fisler, 1994). Additionally, trauma impacts cognitive functioning and development, including difficulty with concentration and learning, disruption of emotional and behavioral regulation and stress responses; decreased self-awareness; diminished capacity for self-care; and impairment of the ability to connect with others (Epstein & González, 2017).
As I grappled with their narratives and read their trauma narratives, the flood of memories I had locked away from myself began to emerge. All of the abuse, all of the neglect, all of the times when family was supposed to love me but shamed me instead came flooding back. It was at that moment when I realized how love was connected to trauma: it was through the everyday victimization by those who promised to care for me but meant it only conditionally and on their terms. It was in the double talk of “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” It was in the “I love you, don’t talk to me about your ‘lifestyle’ in this house.”
The things that I thought I dealt with started to stir. There would be passages that literally made me sick to my stomach as I read them because of how disturbingly similar many other Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender folks lives were to mine. While I was unraveling, I started to realize that while it was true that we experienced a bunch of trauma, we were not alone. I was not alone. I started to find community in the struggles and in their triumphs. While trauma played a critical role in their lives, they also shared stories about how they were thriving.
They shared stories about how they healed as well. They spoke of the importance of reconceptualizing love in order to address the ways in which love has been used as a tool of manipulation and violence. In order for them to heal, they had to grapple with their lived realities and do self-work to heal. Apart of their self-work required that they reconceptualize love. No longer could love be based in white heteronormativity, but instead love had to be reconceptualized in a way that would resist Black LGBT erasure and dehumanization. This reconceptualized love was based in:
- Self-work and self-affirmation
- The notion that love was a covenant and built over time
- Unconditional love but also required boundaries
- Their critical understanding of issues of power, oppression, and domination in love
- Wholeness, Justice, and Completeness
In fact, exploring their journey toward healing is what opened up a door and allowed me to push toward a deeper understanding of what love means for me. Now I understand that love is the capacity, will, and courage to nourish and affirm one’s self, another, and community toward unapologetic wholeness and completeness. Spending time grappling with the ways in which normative notions about love have been used to oppress allowed me to focus on my healing. It allowed me to assess my relationships and determine if they were nourishing me or not. If they were not nourishing me and allowing me to grow than I knew I had to leave those relationships, people, or situations behind. I had to learn that love is first and foremost about growth and secondly about justice. Love and justice work together to provide a space of healing, nourishment, and completeness.
Dong, M., Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Dube, S. R., Williamson, D. F., Thompson, T. J., … Giles, W. H. (2004). The interrelatedness of multiple forms of childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28(7), 771–784. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2004.01.008
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., … Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8
Van der Kolk, B. A., & Fisler, R. E. (1994). Childhood abuse and neglect and loss of self-regulation. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 58(2), 145–168.
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