By Yzzy Liwanag
A newly rolled blunt lies in between her fingers. The smell of marijuana infiltrates the dark room and bits of the shake scatter on her bed. The lights are off but the pink fairy strings hanging above her bed make the room alive. Living with family problems and mental health concerns, Jasmine Emery, a calling agent for Dial American in El Paso, Texas, is snuggled up in a warm blanket, hiding between her thoughts and a well-kept secret.
In pop culture or social media, the personal moment of coming out can be presented as a fairytale ending. Family and friends gather and accept you, the fear of hiding your self-identity is shattered, and you gain a greater sense of openness about your LGBTQ+ identity.
These are the stories we want, but sometimes, these are the stories we can’t have. Many people in the LGBTQ+ community continue to experience discrimination, prejudice, harassment, and family rejection, which can make it difficult for them to share their sexual orientation or gender identity with others.
According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, around six in 10 adults identifying as LGBT have told one or both of their parents about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Cultural and religious ties to a community can also impact people’s decision to come out to their family, out of fear that they’ll be looked at with contempt by family members who aren’t accepting of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That’s the case with Emery, who has struggled to tell her family that she identifies as bisexual.
Emery has come out to her mother, but not the rest of her family. In the fall of 2018, Emery started dating a girl who lived an hour away from her when she was a freshman at Louisiana State University. Their relationship started with a Tinder match, and it was Emery’s first time ever being with a girl. She says it was new, bold, and frightening to be matched for the first time with the same sex. And as the relationship blossomed, she decided to tell her mother about it.
“I called my mom and I said, ‘I have something to tell you. I went on a date.’ She asked me who he was and I said, ‘About that…,’” Emery says.
Emery says her mother might’ve known she was romantically attracted to the same sex beforehand because she’s been open-minded ever since childhood and never limited herself to follow a single path. “It’s okay that you like girls, as long as you’re happy and as long as they’re not doing anything to you,” Emery says as she recalls her mother’s reaction. “But don’t tell anyone else.”’
The rest of Emery’s family lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where the prominent religion is Southern Baptist, she says. Being raised in a Southern Baptist, African American household, Emery says her family pushes their religion on her as a way of thinking. Anything that doesn’t follow the Bible — including identifying with a sexual orientation outside of heterosexuality — is immediately outcasted.
I just want to be able to wake up every day and have to not worry about upsetting anyone.Jasmine Emery
But Emery’s coming out story goes further than the Bible. She spent the majority of her life moving across the country as part of a military family. From Louisiana to Texas to New York, she finds herself never staying in the same place. Moving every three to five years and leaving friends behind detached Emery from her family, to the point that outing herself didn’t seem logical.
“I’m a military kid, and I see my family maybe once every [few] years. I don’t want to have that push me further away from what could have happened with them anyways. They barely know me, I barely know them.” Emery says.
As she sits comfortably on her bed with a gold face mask on and shares her story, Emery is unphased by the amounts of discrimination she receives as a black woman and a bisexual person. Rather than worrying about what she can’t control, she cares more about the bits of shake scattered on her bed.
Trying to get every piece of the ground bud into her blunt, Emery says she’s aware that her friends are going through the same process of coming out, but are also facing another layer of challenges — their mental health issues. “[The] majority of my friends have depression and anxiety. I know one of [them] has schizophrenia,” Emery says.
LGBTQ+ individuals with mental health conditions may also find themselves facing a double stigma, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The mental health organization points to a 2015 study from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health that found that adults who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are more than twice as likely to experience mental health issues compared to adults who identify as heterosexual.
“I suffer from really bad anxiety. I get panic attacks where I can’t breathe,” Emery says. “I’ve also been diagnosed with depression, and I’m working on seeing a therapist. My mom thinks I have ADHD, and I can see that.”
Emery feels her mental health problems stem from her distant family. Their biblical beliefs led her to think they would discriminate against her if she came out, Emery says. “They look at it like its a sin and you’re going to go to hell. There’s a lot of homophobia,” Emery says of the Southern Baptist faith. They’ll be judgemental towards anything they’re not used to. They’re closed-minded and will drag me through the mud.”
Facing rejection from family members after coming out can lead to other events like being forced to leave home. LGBTQ+ young adults have a 120% higher risk of reporting homelessness compared to youth who identified as heterosexual and cisgender, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a civil rights organization supporting LGBTQ+ Americans. There are also countless non-profit organizations across the country that shelter or provide resources for LGBTQ+ individuals after they’ve come out and have been harassed or rejected by family members. For instance, the Q Center in Syracuse, New York is a case management service available for LGBTQ+ youth who need assistance with mental health services, housing, and other issues.
As she inhales the remnants of the blunt, Emery sits with her back on her bed’s headboard while her face soaks up the gold face mask.
“I just want to be able to wake up every day and have to not worry about upsetting anyone,” Emery says. “My ideal life is to be happy and to not worry. But I know that’s not realistic. In a perfect world, that would be my peace.”