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My suicide ideation: A journey to self-love

It is much harder for those of us on the margins

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Jessica Arends is a writer who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland.

(Editor’s note: This piece is a response to last week’s Blade cover story by David Lett recounting his suicide attempt. If you are experiencing suicidal ideation, call 988 or one of many LGBTQ-specific advocacy groups offering support. If you would like to share your own story of overcoming isolation, depression, or suicidal ideation, email us at [email protected].)

Perhaps it was the grinding loneliness of the pandemic, but about two years ago my fantasies of being with women became daily distractions. I could not be fully present with my husband and felt a constant tug for something more, something outside of a life I had spent 18 years cultivating. I lived in a constant cycle of fantasy, guilt, denial, back to fantasy.  

My supportive husband was willing to try an open marriage, but non-monogamy did not agree with my Christian upbringing. Then, as most stories go, I met someone. She was funny, attractive, and OK with the situation, so we gave it a shot. Each date sailed me up into unprecedented heights and hollowed out an equally deep pit of despair. “Yes! I am like this. . . Oh, dear God, I am really like this!” It was like coming home to who you knew you always were only to find you were now among those most judged, wicked, and despised. With each queer book we read and lesbian drama we watched, I discovered deep and integral parts of me debilitated and atrophied by shame. They started to heal.

The more these parts of me solidified, the more other parts unraveled. A cascade of questions and doubts plagued me. If I was not heterosexual, what else was not true about me? Was my life just a string of acts meant to fulfill social expectations? My career, education, even my friends. Was I me or just performing someone not me for others? The great irony of living by the rules of others is that we live for no one. Without the willingness to bravely share who I truly was, no matter how broken, that primal quest for connection, love and belonging would never be satisfied.

Hence I navigated that precarious path of how out to be — how to stay honest to myself but not cause discomfort. My husband remained open, but my late nights and emotional distance took a great toll on our relationship. I would return home to neatly folded laundry, well-prepared meals and enormous guilt. It was liberating and devastating all at once.

Staying with my husband seemed impossible, but the fear of being alone and rejected from family at age 45 was unbearable. This innate thing inside of me was destroying my life. I imagined cutting myself open and tearing out those parts, but when I looked closely I found they were inseparable — my queerness is fully entwined with my heart, head, and gut. I broke under the weight of this agony and spent weeks in and out of crying spells.

One day I found myself down by the tracks. The sound of a train thundering by broke through my numbness. With a few steps, I could surrender and be free from this torment. I stepped through the thin line of brush that separated me from the tracks. They seductively glistened in the sunlight. Relief. Yes, the final silence of death could take away everything.

Another train raced by, the horn deafening. The blast of wind pushed me away. I collapsed sobbing. I needed help if I was going to survive this. 

Thanks to therapy, acupuncture, yoga, LGBTQ support groups and caring friends and family, I am slowly opening the door to self-love. It is much harder for those of us on the margins. The love from others is no substitute, be they a long-time partner, new girlfriend or family member. Unlearning my self-hatred meant letting go of the deeply held but deeply flawed promises of the straight life: be they heteronormativity, monogamy, gender conformity, the picket fence  — you name it. I had to break my own heart. Only then I could truly love myself.

Jessica Arends is a writer and artist.

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Underfunded, undermined and unabashedly victorious in Brazil

Country’s LGBTQ politicians are bringing diversity to democracy

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Brazilian Congresswoman-electErika Hilton (Photo courtesy of Erika Hilton's Twitter page)

Imagine a group of 18 winners where you’ll find only one white man. The recent election in Brazil not only brought back former President Lula, but also doubled the numbers of out LGBT+ representatives in both the national and state legislatures. Out of these 18 elected officials; 16 are women, 14 are black and five are trans. There is only one white man in the group.

Women, LGBT+ and Black people have always showcased political leadership in their communities. But the path to occupy a space in Brazilian institutional politics is often violent and expensive. In recent years, many organized social movements have directed their efforts to set the agenda for public debate into the intersectional realm and support community leaders. In a poll VoteLGBT conducted in 2017 during the São Paulo Pride parade, the biggest in the world, only 45 percent of Pride participants surveyed thought that identity matters when choosing a candidate. In 2022, 85 percent believed so.

Despite the many obstacles and violence they face, Brazilian LGBT+ leaders are gaining political power, often being the most voted individuals in their states or cities. Many trans women who won big in their cities in 2020 advanced to higher positions in 2022. Four LGBT+ people (all women) were elected to congress: Three of them Black and two of them trans, a major breakthrough for LGBT+ political participation.

In Brazil, campaigns are publicly funded. Taxpayers’ money goes to parties’ leadership who can pretty much do whatever they want with it. There are rules made to fight the underrepresentation of women and Black population, but they are often corrupted by fraud.

Party leaders are often older rich white cis men who focus their efforts and financial support to old allies. LGBT+ politicians receive an average of 6 percent of the legal limit for what parties can provide to a single candidate. When interviewing 30 of those who ran in 2020, we came across three trans women who didn’t have enough to eat during their campaigns and still won their seats. Our vote is the cheapest in the election market.

Once elected, LGBT+ officials often face discrimination from their peers in the chambers, many times from their own parties. In a poll we did in 2021 we found that more than half of LGBT party members reported facing discrimination. And those who decided to report it found that there’s no accountability for LGBTphobia inside the parties.

Not to mention the constant death threats that (especially) Black and (especially) trans women face when elected or running for office. City Counselor Benny Brioly, who is Black and trans, had to flee the country in 2020 after public security forces refused to offer her protection, which was her legal right. In 2022 she kept getting death threats from a congressman, from his official Cabinet’s email. Erika Hilton and Duda Salabert, the first trans women elected for congress in 2022, had to conduct campaign activities with armed security and bulletproof vests.

It seems like the world is looking for the tools we are developing to fight extremism and LGBTphobia. International organizations have long supported many of those initiatives. The partnership and support from organizations like the National Democratic Institute and the LGBT Victory Institute have been fundamental to promote a comprehensive approach to such a complex issue.

VoteLGBT’s innovative research strategies have a political and historical importance due to the lack of official data about the LGBT+ population in Brazil. Research has been fundamental for us, not only to give visibility to our issues and set the agenda for public debate, but also to better strategize where to allocate resources. Since 2021 we have been investigating the parties, conducting in-depth interviews with candidates and LGBT caucus. We’ve produced a list of 327 out LGBT candidates in the 2022 election cycle with their racial and LGBT+ identity self declared. That had never been done before.

We’ve offered direct support through organizing a series of webinars, creating downloadable toolkits, conducting pressure campaigns on parties, lobbying the Supreme Electoral Court for them to produce official data on our leadership, creating a gallery with over 300 LGBT+ candidates and their priorities, and offering confidential psychological support, especially after such a violent campaign.

It would be dishonest, though, to claim any part of such astounding victories. Each of those candidates struggled to run their underfinanced and understaffed campaign, and still created strategies to reach and amplify their audience brilliantly. Also, we are not the only ones on the task. There are other organizations who are great examples and partners.

Brazil’s recent election results show us that an intersectional approach to the issue of political representation is not only possible, but potent. LGBT+ candidates earned over 3.5 million votes. Of those votes, a third went to trans women. Seven in 10 went to a Black candidate. Brazilian voters are showing us what kind of democracy they are willing to fight for. Without diversity there is no democracy.

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Even in death we fight to be visible

Mahsa Jina Amini’s death sparked protests across Iran

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A Pride flag flies over a protest against the Iranian government in London's Trafalgar Square (Photo courtesy of Darya Nili)

I was a lone soldier of the queer community, waving the rainbow flag in Trafalgar Square in London during one of the many protests organized by the Iranian diaspora. Most of the people shouting “woman, life, freedom,” were Iranians who had lived outside Iran for years, even decades. Some were second generation immigrants; some had only just arrived. 

My flag soared high among the many iterations of the Iranian flag. It was visible in its singularity. So visible, in fact, that I was stopped several times and asked who my flag represents. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. How could those who had lived in Europe for years be ignorant of such an established symbol? This was London, one of the most queer-friendly cities in the world, the host of one of the biggest Pride parades in Europe. I suddenly found a deeper understanding of the ignorance that drives homophobia and transphobia in my community and home country. If Iranians who live in London, where queer culture is present and visible, are ignorant of its existence, Iranians back home stand no chance.

After Mahsa Jina Amini’s death was announced on Sept. 16, 2022, protests began nationwide and are ongoing. The regime has killed many of our young pioneers, seemingly targeting LGBTQ+ people, who are amongst the most repressed minority groups. Iran is one of seven countries that punishes same sex relationships with the death penalty. If not death, LGBTQ+ individuals who are found to have engaged in “unorthodox” relations or gender expressions can expect to be punished by lashes, beating, other forms of torture, and imprisonment. Honor killing, forced marriage and rape are also common experiences of the LGBTQ+ community in Iran.

The queer voice of Iran has been in the forefront of the current protests. From a lesbian couple kissing in public to queer people holding rainbow flags, the LGBTQ+ community has been traying to make itself visible. However, instead of support for a group who is continuously quashed, a large subset of Iranian society has resorted to online attack and hate.

The irony is that one of the symbols and martyrs of the revolution is a young queer person. 16-year-old Nika Shakrami, in her courage to fight oppression, became a household name on the day of her death. Details of her life circulated social media after she died. Her unrealized dream of being a singer brought us to tears. Her love for another 16-year-old girl, Nellie, was also revealed. However, her family has been hell-bent on erasing her identity.

The ugly homophobia of Iranian society reared its head last week on social media after the Lesbian Visibility Award was given to Shadi Amin, a prominent figure in the community and the director of the Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network (6Rang). Amin had dedicated the award to the young LGBT+ people of Iran who had given their lives for freedom; one of these young martyrs was Nika Shakarami. 

The response of the Iranian community was to berate Amin for attaching a ‘dirtied’ identity to their beloved Nika and offending her family, fuelled by a statement given by Nika’s aunt. In the statement, Nika’s aunt claimed that Shadi Amin and the LGBTQ+ community were forcing an identity on her niece, that she had not figured out her sexuality before being killed. In the same statement, her aunt insisted that Nika was straight, forcing heterosexuality onto the same niece who had not figured out her identity before dying. Although her intentions may have been to protect her late niece, Nika’s aunt released an influx of death threats towards Amin and the LGBTQ+ community.

In unison, Iranian LGBTQ+ people voiced their experiences of harassment and erasure at the hands of their families. It is a tale as old as time for queer people everywhere. They spoke out about how families are not trustworthy sources on their identities, given the violence and abuse they face by being openly queer in such a homophobic society. 

The controversy over Nika’s identity is now driving many LGBTQ+ protestors to post their last will and testaments on social media, stating that they are not straight, and the claims of their families should not be listened to in case of their deaths. Those who are not openly out are sending their wills to LGBTQ+ organizations like 6Rang. Even in death, the Iranian LGBTQ+ community is in a constant battle for visibility.

The events of last week must have shaken the community. We are seeing more and more brave young queer people walk the streets of Iran, holding the rainbow flag high. Pro-LGBTQ+ graffities are appearing across the walls of university campuses. They risk death and imprisonment, harassment, and torture. Their fight is unjust and endless; their chants are met with batons; their flags bear the holes of bullets. 

My LGBTQ+ brothers, sisters and non-conforming siblings in Iran must have had the same realization I had in Trafalgar Square that day. We are less than visible unless we stand proud, clad in our rainbow armor. Without making ourselves known, we stand no chance of having our demands met by any new government. It is fear that keeps us apart and gives the regime the chance to massacre us and our families the opportunity to erase our true selves. 

Our message is clear: There is no democracy without freedom for all LGBTQ+ people.

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Post midterm notes: Drexel Heard, Kipp Mueller, Max Huskins and me

Knowledgeable experts to explain what it all means

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I choked up Election Night. For months, every waking and sometimes dreaming moment not devoted to my job was consumed by the image of democracy slipping like water through my clenched fist.

The historical imperative of the midterm elections forecast a MAGA Republican tsunami victory akin to the tidal wave in Tea Leoni’s “Deep Impact.”

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, stripping us of our fundamental right to bodily autonomy and threatening to overturn marriage equality and recriminalize homosexuality — which was met with the same kind of tisk-tisk reaction to decimating the Voting Rights Act — the path ahead looked strewn with more murdered and maimed bodies of women, people of color and LGBTQ people who couldn’t fit into a gilded glass closet.  

Alarmed that the Democratic Party was not reaching out to our numerous intersectional LGBTQ communities for money, engagement, and votes as they had in the past, I felt an overwhelming compulsion to do something and coaxed my equally freaked out Millennial ally friend Max Huskins to create an LGBTQ-targeted YouTube series of candidate interviews and expert political prognostications which we would produce in partnership with the Los Angeles Blade.

We didn’t know if our Race to the Midterm series would make a difference — but at least me and Max were not doing nothing. 

We’ve interviewed a range of extraordinary people who immediately grasped our mission and wanted to participate: out Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chair Mark Gonzalez; gay Palm Springs candidate Will Rollins (here and here); Equality California Executive Director Tony Hoang; major ally candidate Christy Smith (here and here); Victory Fund President Annise Parker; California Assembly candidate Rick Chavez Zbur;  [email protected] Coalition CEO Bamby Salcedo; U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.); National Black Justice Coalition Deputy Executive Director Victoria Kirby; and Black, gay, HIV+ Dallas candidate Venton Jones; gay military veteran candidates Shawn Kumagai (California Assembly) and Joseph Rocha (California Senate); and history-making U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) for closing arguments. (See our series, with additional “advancers,” and the Blade’s political coverage here.)

From top left: Karen Ocamb, Max Huskins, Kipp Mueller, and Drexel Heard
(Photo Credit: Screenshot/Huskins)

No matter the outcome, I knew we had to have knowledgeable experts to explain what it all means. I asked Drexel Heard, Black gay former executive director of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party who’s now a Democratic political strategist, and Kipp Mueller, who ran for state Senate in the Santa Clarita Valley area alongside Christy Smith in her 2020 run for Congress, to share their insights with us after the dust settled a bit.

I met Kipp while working on Senate Bill 1149, the Public Right to Know Act, which was co-sponsored by Public Justice and Consumer Reports, shepherded by attorney and Legal Ethics Professor Richard Zitrin, Kipp’s mentor. 

Little did I know that the dust settling over the midterms was choking MAGA Republicans and allowing me, Max, Drexel and Kipp to exhale, exhale, breath deeply, exhale and laugh. By the time we recorded our Zoom session, the Democrats looked likely to retain the Senate and maybe, maybe, if California broke right — retain the House. What the hell! HISTORY was being made in defiance of Trump cultism. 

“My honest takeaway is that the GOP is utterly lost,” Kipps says in our final episode. “My honest takeaway is that, despite all of the odds being in their favor, they’ve fumbled it. It’s amazing to me. And I have some unsolicited advice for the GOP: First, banish Trump. He’s a loser. He loses every time. He lost the popular vote in 2016 when he managed to win the Electoral College. And ever since then, he’s lost horribly — every single time. And the fact that they don’t see that on the wall blows my mind. He’s a total loser. 

“And the second,” he continues, “is to start standing for things. To your point about what can we take from this (California Assembly) speaker negotiation and work it into. Well, I have some conditions on that. I’m open to that with Republicans. But I have some conditions — start proposing solutions; stop being a party of bizarre fearmongering about litter boxes in school bathrooms. And because they’re not going to survive the 21st century of being a party of 20th century lunatics, what do they even want? What do they stand for — other than tax cuts for the rich? We know who they don’t like. We know who some of them hate. But what do they even want? I can’t even answer that …

“They’re just visionless bullies right now. And it’s only going to get worse because they might eke out a slight majority in the House, and then they’re going to have to kowtow to the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert and Trump. And they’re going to lose horribly again. So my unsolicited advice to them is — become normal again.”

Max opined “that, hopefully, the future is looking brighter than expected, at least from our perspective here, because of Millennial turnout and the Gen Z turnout was pretty damn strong. Young people showed up to the polls and showed up to vote for important issues that pertain to all generations.”

Their most pressing issue, aside from student loans and climate change? 

“Women’s rights to bodily autonomy, for sure,” Max says. “I think that was one of the drastic social problems that we’re facing this time around, that people were motivated to go out and vote.”

“Overturning Roe was a huge motivator for Democrats to come out, for independents to come out and vote,” says Kipp. But (gay pollster) Nate Silver found that in the states where people felt like these rights were more protected, it less directly influenced turnout and people showing up.”

I noted to Drexel that both Mark Gonzalez and Tony Hoang strongly advocated for Proposition One, which would codify reproductive rights in the California Constitution (it passed.)  

“I think a lot of folks pushed Prop One to make a national stance because as California goes, so goes the nation,’ Drexel says. “So, if California is making the big push, it is going to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. One of the things that I have said about not just Prop One is about our Democratic messaging on since Dobbs (the case the Supreme Court used to overturn Roe and abortion rights) has been making it an economic issue, not just a reproductive freedom issue … We cannot separate Roe v. Wade from how it impacts the economy. 

“Women are a huge portion of our workforce,” he explains. “Obviously, reproductive freedom has a huge impact on how folks — how women — are impacted in the workforce, and not many other states have family policies like California. “I think that we box up choices. We forget how choices are impacted, not just, ‘Hey, I’m not ready to be a parent because I’m not ready to be a parent.’ But why are you not ready to be a parent? And that is, in a lot of cases, an economic issue,” that impacts the trajectory of a single mother’s life, such as going to college or work and paying for childcare. 

These are just some of the issues we tossed around in our casual, free-flowing conversation about the midterms and what might happen next. My thanks to Drexel and Kipp for the smart fun. 

But after we wrapped the interviews, Max mentioned an Oregon initiative that I knew nothing about — Measure 112, “a change to the state’s constitution, stripping language that for more than a century has allowed for slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime,” according to opb.org.

Wait – what? But here’s the really big deal: as of Nov. 13, Measure 112 passed by 55.53 percent of the vote, compared to 44.47 percent opposed. Translation: 945,075 Oregonians voted to remove slavery language from state constitution — but 756,779 Oregonians voted to KEEP the slavery language!

“Removing language referencing slavery from the Oregon Constitution is a good thing and is long over due,” state Rep. Travis Nelson (D-Portland), who won election Tuesday as state’s first Black, openly LGBTQ lawmaker, told OPB. “It’s a big number … That’s troubling to me.”

“This was a state that was meant to be a white utopia and was not welcoming to people who were not white,” Nelson added. “Given the history of Oregon, the results that have come from Measure 112 are disappointing, but not incredibly surprising.”

“We have conversations all the time about our Oregon values, and now we know that there’s a segment of the population that values slavery being a form of punishment,” Jennifer Parrish-Taylor, director of advocacy and public policy at the Urban League of Portland, which backed Measure 112, told OPB. “That’s a hard conversation, but I think it’s also reflective of the broader national conversation that we’re seeing just in terms of this rise of white nationalism, of racial hatred that’s happening, folks feeling further and further isolated and disconnected from each other.”

Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley has introduced legislation that would addressed language in the U.S Constitution’s 13th Amendment that has similar exceptions for slavery as a criminal punishment. “This horrific loophole in our Constitution is a moral abomination that launched the mass incarceration we see continuing to this day,” Merkley said at a news conference. “[T]here should be no exceptions to a ban on slavery.”

I know some folks in the Deep South still love their Civil War Confederate soldier monuments. But it never occurred to me that so many Northerners would find an excuse for any exception to an outright ban on slavery. 

We have so much more work to do. 

Deconstructing the 2022 Midterms | Post-Election Special:

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