The Mental Health Struggles of Queer BIPOC Folx
The Impact of the Colonial Gender Binary
Trigger warning: This article discusses suicidal ideation, mental illness, colonialism, and gender-based violence. Please read at your own discretion.
Friends spewing the f slur and c slur and using “gay” as a derogatory term made living in a racialized community difficult. Pressure from my family, peers, media, and culture provoked harmful coping mechanisms, including self-harm and suicidal ideation. Homophobia, misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and Sinophobia are all root causes of why I, as a queer Asian Canadian woman, face severe anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Identifying as part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community is considered taboo within many Asian cultures. Mental health, likewise, is a highly stigmatized topic. When combined, you can see why queer Asian folx often feel isolated and afraid to open up about their experiences.
Having grown up in an extremely toxic environment, I learned to hide many of my mental health struggles, stemming from racial trauma and gender + sexual identity crises. I was unaware that there was more to gender expression than what I was taught. This led to constant struggles with my identity, leaving me feeling outcasted and neglected. I would often “act out” and disobey conventional feminine standards, branding me as the designated “boy” or “tomboy” of the family. This rejection of gender norms provoked many of my relatives to scold me over what they perceived as a lack of etiquette and manners.
I’ve waited nearly ten years to seek mental health support, hoping that moving out for university would grant me more autonomy and agency over my life. Everyone’s story varies, but it is with much certainty that I can affirm, members of the Asian 2SLGBTQIA+ community have serious mental and physical scars. To heal these traumas, we must apply an intersectional approach that values all aspects of a person’s identity, such as race, class, ability, sexual orientation, gender, religion, language, culture, and nationality.
A Need for Intersectionality-Driven Mental Health Initiatives
Andre Menchavez (he/him), a queer Filipinx, shares his story as well as the stories of others in his article, “It's Time to Talk about the Mental Health Impacts of Being Asian and Queer.” Here, he discusses how queer movements are deeply influenced by the white colonial lens, neglecting intersectional identities.
“Most queer spaces favor whiteness; I have been alienated from the queer community because of my Asian identity. These experiences of alienation taught me that the color of my skin made me undesirable... Additionally, in my experience in the Filipinx community, religious fundamentals engrained in this culture were often anti-queer, and therefore, anti-me... I was taught that queerness was blasphemous and wrong.”
— Andre Menchavez (he/him)
“It's Time to Talk about the Mental Health Impacts of Being Asian and Queer”
Andre’s experiences are not isolated to the Filipinx community; it is common among all cultures subjected to racism, xenophobia, and colonialism. The Trevor Project conducted a survey that affirms numerous queer BIPOC youth share the same struggles as him.
“Half of respondents reported discrimination based on their race/ethnicity in the past year, and only 1 out of 3 found their homes to be LGBTQ-affirming.”
Kali Cyrus, MD, MPH, noticed common themes in her patients with depression (ages 20s and 30s) and mental health struggles that began in their youth. Several recalled stories of feeling excluded from their racial communities or undesirable as genderqueer teens.
Westerners paint BIPOC communities as homophobic and backwards when it is truly the colonial state that perpetuated these beliefs. From my experience, I notice that cultural assimilation, when paired with Asian shame culture, can create a harmful setting for any queer Asian immigrant.
Unpacking the Stigma in South Asian Communities
As mentioned above, immigrant populations are especially vulnerable to mental health problems as they endure the pressure of social conformity. The South Asian 2SLGBTQIA+ community provides much-needed support, but this lack of acceptance from family leaves them vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Children of immigrants already carry the burden of knowing that their parents made a huge sacrifice by moving to a foreign country for a better life. The never-ending struggle to avoid disappointing them is a gateway to guilt-tripping and self-loathing. Therefore, the act of coming out or even being open about their queer identity is a lot more stressful.
“In that context, how your family reacts can be crucial. There can quite literally be a sense of life and death in terms of someone feeling accepted and knowing that they are still loved and cared for regardless of what their sexual orientation is and regardless of what their gender identity is.”
— Sree Sinha, Co-Founder of the South Asian Sexual & Mental Health Alliance
“How LGBTQ+ Members of the South Asian Diaspora Navigate Stigma and Stress”
At a young age reading between the lines was almost impossible for me. Whenever I made a mistake, I felt immensely ashamed, rejected and unloved. When my dad reacted negatively to me questioning my sexuality, that same level of fear came back stronger than ever. Kids are at that stage in life where because of their young age, they’re highly impressionable and reactive to any sort of conflict. Having strict parents is already a fearful situation, but once they start tearing down who you are as a person, it can instill serious life-long trauma. However, this is not an issue that we can blame solely on our parents, but rather the origins of the colonial gender binary and what we are socialized to believe.
How Colonialism Plagued the World with the Gender Binary
Immigrant families in Canada and the US are most concerned with assimilating into western culture and avoiding judgement from their family and cultural community. One thing that bothers me is that many immigrants reinforce and perpetuate colonial ideologies due to a newfound pride and love for their new country of residence. Along with this comes the desire to sustain white heteropatriarchal standards, which manifests into the oppression of queer voices.
In contrast to these white heteronormative standards, I've always been intrigued by the approach to gender and sexuality taken by Indigenous communities in North America. They recognize the existence of two-spirit people, an umbrella term used to describe the concept of a third gender, which encompasses spiritual, sexual, and cultural identity. The notion that gender is dichotomous or binary — there are only two genders, male and female — is a social construct bred from western ideology.
“It has to do with the connection between the body and shame, through a narrative of Christianity, capitalism and colonization. You can’t separate those three. They exist as a triumvirate.”
— Rain Prud’homme-Cranford
“English Professor takes on Notions of Gender Binary, Colonialism and the Patriarchy”
According to Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist, the gender binary is inapplicable to hunting and gathering societies like the Anishinaabeg, who have always embraced the existence of gender fluidity. Anishinaabeg women, men, and gender-diverse peoples equally took on various roles and activities and were also encouraged to openly express their emotions, genders, and sexual identities. In place of the gender binary, positions depended on one’s name, clan, extended family, skill and interest, and most notably, their individual self-determination or agency. Colonizers flagged the focus on agency and instead worked to confine Indigenous peoples to the gender binary by painting their men as emotionless savages and their women as sexual objects. This strategy evoked the harmful misconception that Indigenous men are to blame as the perpetrators of gender violence, instead of the colonial state.
Furthermore, the state intentionally suppresses mobilization because they know that the communities coping with the gender violence epidemic do not possess the physical and emotional capital to fight back. While the agency of Indigenous women renders their exploitation a challenging endeavour, the infusion of heteropatriarchal forces further upholds Canada's colonialist state. It is the neglecting of Indigenous self-determination and perpetuation of gender-based violence that work together as colonial weapons meant to destroy the base of Indigenous nationhood.
“This is why I think it’s in all of our best interests to take on gender violence as a core resurgence project, a core decolonization project, a core of any Indigenous mobilization. And by gender violence I don’t just mean violence against women, I mean all gender violence.”
— Leanne Betasmosake Simpson
“Not Murdered, Not Missing: Rebelling against Colonial Gender Violence”
The colonial roots of the gender binary is a topic that is rarely explored in our regular conversations about queer liberation. Immigrant and Indigenous communities are pushed to the margins by cishet white men in positions of power. Even during Pride, gay white men are generally given the larger spotlight, leaving little to no room for the amplification of efforts led by queer BIPOC folx. When discussions about mental health are raised, let alone the mental health of racialized and Indigenous communities, these spaces are also overconsumed by white people. Racial identity dictates how much advocacy, safety, and acceptance a queer community receives, and in this case, BIPOC are significantly disadvantaged.
Had I decolonized my understanding of gender as a child, I would have been a lot more confident with my sense of self. It’s important that we prioritize and amplify the stories of all queer BIPOC folx. We need to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. If someone feels uncomfortable in their own skin, we should make an effort to meet them where they're at and ensure that they feel accepted. No actual personal and societal growth can occur without the willingness to actively challenge and broaden our lens of perception.
What are your thoughts on the gender binary? How have colonial frameworks for mental health, gender, and sexuality shaped your life?
To further support and learn about queer BIPOC mental health initiatives: