Overcoming a Double Stigma

A club for mentally ill queers serves a segment of the community often ignored

It’s roughly two o’clock on a Friday afternoon and Kimberly, a 45-year-old peer specialist at the Rainbow Heights Club, is preparing a chicken dinner for the ten or so club members who have braved freezing temperatures to come to the club’s downtown Brooklyn location.

That these folks came out in the bitter cold is a testament to the club’s importance in their lives. It has roughly 150 members and serves lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people who are living with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression.

“I can say whatever I want here,” said Victor, 27, who asked that he be identified by a pseudonym. “Everyone here seems to be friendly. I’m impressed by everyone here. I respect everyone here.”

The club, a program of the South Beach Psychiatric Center, meets five days a week though it will soon expand its hours to accommodate members who work during the day.

Members cook and eat meals together, they play cards or board games, or they watch movies. They meet in support groups to discuss spirituality, dating, or a number of other topics. They take art classes. Mostly they are breaking through the isolation that can accompany mental illness.

“It’s my home away from home on my days off,” said Jeanne, a 45-year-old member who asked that she be identified only by her first name. “I love to come here and hang out with my friends. It’s a very comfortable space.”

For Jerry Hunter, a 67-year-old member, eating meals with other members and talking with friends were the most valuable activities that the club offers.

Christian Huygen, a psychologist and the club’s director, told Gay City News that socializing is the club’s primary function.

“For a lot of people this is the first place where they are interacting with other people with mental illness,” he said. “Sometimes they’re very startled to realize that other people enjoy their company.”

The isolation can be severe. Huygen recalled a client he met when he was an intern at the psychiatric center. Huygen launched the club just over a year ago and the client joined. When Huygen asked him where he had been for the prior two years, the man said, “I’ve been at home.”

Isolation can result in a client not getting treatment or ending up in the hospital. It can also lead to clients using illegal drugs in an effort to self-medicate. Drug use among people with mental illness can run as high as 80 percent.

“Among all people with mental illness, there is a very high co-morbidity,” Huygen said. “People who feel bad are looking for a way to make themselves feel better.”

The Rainbow Heights Club serves another function. Its members can be open about their entire lives.

“I have been to two other clubs where I have to act straight,” said Michael Lozada, a 27-year-old member. “I can’t be who I am because they are afraid that you are sending the wrong message about the club house or you are making people uncomfortable.”

For the club members, disclosure of their sexual orientation or gender identity as well as their mental illness can be difficult. They can confront prejudice if they reveal any of these aspects of their lives.

“It’s really hard for them to find a place where they can be accepted,” Huygen said. “It’s a double stigma so people in that situation often try to hide all or part of themselves depending on where they are.”

The club members who spoke with Gay City News generally gave community institutions such as the Hetrick-Martin Institute or the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center high marks for their welcoming posture towards queers with mental illness. But some still hesitate to discuss their mental illness within the wider community.

“In the general gay community I feel like that,” said Robert, a 37-year-old member. “I feel like I have to hide the illness part.”

Queer people with mental illness can encounter their greatest struggles with mental healthcare providers. A client’s sexual orientation or gender identity may be seen as part of the mental illness and providers try to cure them. Others may be flat out bigots or uncomfortable talking about a client’s sexuality or gender. Some, in an effort to appear non-judgmental, may ignore behaviors related to a client’s sexual orientation or gender identity that are destructive.

Because there is so little research on this population it is hard to say how many queers with mental illness there are. It is also hard to identify the problems they confront.

“The first answer is that we don’t know,” said Dr. Alicia Lucksted, a researcher at the Center for Mental Health Research Services at the University of Maryland. “There are no organized research efforts or surveys.”

Lucksted produced “Experiences of LGBT People with Serious Mental Illness: Raising Issues” in 2000. That report, which details many of the problems these people confront, has been updated and will be released this year. What is clear is that there is a crying need for services.

“They are an underserved population,” said Bert Coffman, the founder of the Zappalorti Society. “We need a Rainbow Heights Club in every borough of New York City.”

The Zappalorti Society, a support group for queers with mental illness, was founded in 1992. It is named for James Zappalorti, a gay, mentally ill man who was murdered on Staten Island in 1990. In addition to the club and the society here in New York City, there are clubs in Baltimore, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

Coffman, 54, founded the society out of a “need for people to be open and free, to come out of both stigmas, mental and gay.” He has been a leading advocate for queer people with mental illness for the past 15 years and has seen a “greater acknowledgement and awareness” develop over that time, but it is still lagging.

“In general, the mental health system is reluctant to address issues of sexuality,” Coffman said. “There are a handful of people across the country discussing it, talking about it.”

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