Seattle Pride’s theme for 2021 is resilience, and while this references the storms queer folks have had to weather during the past year-plus of the pandemic, it also reflects a broader truth: That LGBTQ+ people, throughout the long history of our existence, have always been resilient.
While resilience helps us embody and take pride in our diverse identities, the necessity of resilience can, at times, feel like a burden. This is especially true for people who regularly have their identities called into question or who hold multiple marginalized identities.
No matter how you feel about resilience, there’s no doubt it can be an important tool for surviving — and thriving. We spoke with experts (who are also in the LGBTQ+ community) about what resilience is and isn’t and how to cultivate a healthy relationship with it as a queer person.
Resilience is a process
There are countless definitions of resilience out there, but Anne Browning, assistant dean for well-being at the UW School of Medicine and founding director of the UW Resilience Lab, likes to stick to a simple one: Our ability to recover or bounce back after challenging events or circumstances.
Though interpretations may vary, one thing about resilience is clear to Browning: It is a process, not a fixed state.
“It’s not an individual trait or characteristic, it’s a context-specific process that you continuously have to work toward,” she says.
For Keith Bussey, director of operations at the UW Medicine Office of Healthcare Equity (OHCE), his personal experience as a Black gay man and his professional experience working in healthcare equity have given him an understanding of resilience that is focused on both the present and the future.
“Resilience means that you have the presence of mind to understand what’s happening around you regardless of how it makes you feel and are able to make decisions that your future self would appreciate,” says Bussey.
Resilience and chronic stress
While resilience is primarily thought of as a good and necessary thing, there are times when it can feel more like a burden. This is especially true for people from underrepresented communities.
If you’re trans and deal with people constantly misgendering or deadnaming you; if you’re bisexual and constantly have people denying that your sexuality is valid; or if you’re Black, Indigenous or a Person of Color (BIPOC) as well as queer and have to constantly bounce back from racist and homophobic microaggressions, you likely know what this feels like.
Bussey has experienced the way resilience can shift simply by existing, since there are some spaces where his whole self isn’t welcomed. While this happens less often for him than the positive kind of resilience, he says, it still has an impact.
“Most of the time my presence brings about joy, belly laughter and storytelling that allows us to appreciate each other’s unique characteristics. Those experiences help me celebrate the entirety of my humanity. But the same presence also has the power to create strife and unsolicited hate. It’s in these instances where my definition of resilience transforms from trying to consume as much joy as possible, to minimizing the trauma of being othered,” he explains.
Browning notes that the differences in resilience experiences are connected to the difference between acute and chronic stress.
“Acute stress is finite, but intense. During acute stress, we gain some distress tolerance and increase our capacity for resilience as we bounce back. Chronic stress is a different beast and wears on us in a very different way. You’re going along and get knocked down, but before you can recover you’re getting hit again,” Browning explains.
The pandemic is a chronic stressor, as is regularly having to deal with homophobic or transphobic microaggressions. Chronic stress is linked to chronic health problems such as headaches, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, immune disorders and mental health problems, among other things.
How to cultivate resilience
The pandemic has negatively affected most people in some way, but it has done so for many queer people in particularly isolating ways.
“Connection to your chosen family has been disrupted, and there have been disruptions in ways folks have gathered and experienced community. For some people, there has been the experience of having to go back into the closet during the pandemic,” Browning says.
If you’re feeling alone, invalidated, burnt out or just plain tired, here are some ways to cultivate resilience.
People in the LGBTQ+ community regularly have to face judgments and accusations that parts of our identities aren’t real; that we’re just confused; that we aren’t valid; that we’re weird or unnatural.
None of these things are true, but they can be hard to hear and can create or exacerbate feelings of self-doubt. If you find yourself feeling this way, remind yourself that you are valid just the way you are, regardless of what other people may say.
Find your community
The pandemic has forced many of us to be more isolated than we would prefer. Sometimes, mental health struggles can make us want to isolate ourselves even further — but it’s important not to.
“The phrasing of ‘social distancing’ makes no sense. We need to stay physically distanced, though less with vaccines, but we need social connection more than ever,” Browning says.
Connect with the people you care about and feel accepted by in whatever ways you’re comfortable with, whether that’s texting, video chats or in-person meetups. Maintaining a sense of community and having a support system is a crucial part of building resilience, Browning says.
For Bussey, having a support system is a key reason he can be resilient. He calls his support system, made up of relatives and friends, his “truthtellers.”
Take care of your body
When stress hits, some of the first things to go out the window — good sleep, nourishing food and body movement — are also the most crucial toward having a solid foundation from which to build resilience.
Learn sleep hygiene tips to help stave off insomnia or other sleep issues. Focus on consuming food that makes you feel good (no strict diets). And for exercise, do whatever you actually enjoy, whether that’s taking a walk, doing a plank every morning or sneaking in bits of physical activity throughout the day.
Take care of your mind
Finding ways to effectively calm yourself down in moments of high stress can help them not be so distressing. There are many techniques you can try, from mindfulness to meditation to deep breathing to cognitive behavioral therapy. Experiment with them to see what works for you.
Put yourself first
Self-care is an essential part of resilience. This can look like the tips mentioned above and below, and it can also look like knowing when to walk away.
It is not your responsibility to educate straight or cis people or answer their sometimes prying questions. That’s what Google and countless educational resources about allyship are for. If someone is trying to make you do too much emotional labor, you have the right to say no — even if they react poorly and it makes you feel a little uncomfortable.
“I see people struggle so hard with trying to make a situation less uncomfortable. I want people to know that discomfort is not fatal. It’s not bad for our health. It’s the most temporary states of mind that we’ll experience. We have power to redirect that energy and not put that burden on somebody else,” Bussey says.
Research shows that there are health benefits to getting outside, even if outside is somewhere close by, like a local park or even your backyard.
“In this area, we are lucky we live near so much green space. Most of us can get out of where we’re staying and get into green space, which does a lot to drop down rumination on negative thoughts and feelings,” Browning says.
Find time for fun
Fun and stress may seem like an unlikely pair, but it’s important during times of stress to find pockets of fun.
This can look however you want it to, from a spur of the moment dance session in your living room to buying a new houseplant to re-watching your favorite movie to doing an artistic activity you enjoy. The point is to do something that makes you smile.
Anticipatory joy especially matters, Browning says, since the pandemic took much of that — in the form of planned vacations and celebrations — away from us.
“In a given two weeks, try to have something on your calendar that’s just for fun that you can look forward to,” she says.
Aside from pure fun, it also makes a big difference to do something that feels meaningful, whether that’s the same activities mentioned above or something else, like giving back to your community.
“It’s really important to have that sense of purpose and be connected to something greater than ourselves,” Browning says.