Self-Care Is Crucial in Maintaining Sanity For LGBTQ Activists in the Age of Trump

Being an LGBTQ activist in the Trump era isn’t a sprint. It’s more like a marathon, against the current in a waist-deep river of sewage. We often feel that as bad as running the race might be, drowning in it would perhaps be a mercy.

Transgender people, in particular, have been targeted by policy, legislation, and by cultural and religious conservatives who believe they should not be tolerated in society. At the same time, the administration is packing the courts with marginally qualified anti-LGBTQ ideologues. In just the last few weeks the Supreme Court has made it much harder for civil rights commissions to protect LGBTQ people from religious discrimination, greenlit gerrymandering, okayed the Trump administration’s ban on Muslims, and made it impossible to stop states from regulating fake women’s clinics.

Against this backdrop, is it any wonder that LGBTQ people, and transgender activists, in particular, are experiencing increased anxiety and depression? *Sharon is a transgender blogger, public speaker, and educator who mentors other transgender people just coming out. Since the election, she has been trying to regain her footing, without success.

“I remember watching the election returns with sheer horror,” Sharon tells INTO. “I knew that Trump’s election would mean that a lot of LGBTQ people were going to suffer—even die. This has led to a feeling of dread and depression that I can’t shake.”

*Elizabeth is a cisgender lesbian who works at a major LGBTQ rights organization. Continuing the work of civil rights under the Trump administration has taken a physical toll in addition to the mental strain it has placed upon her.

I am not sleeping well, I am overeating–a poor adaptive behavior stemming from early years of self-soothing–drinking more than I should,” Elizabeth says. “Our democracy is in peril and I am filled with worry, and trying every day to muster the energy to keep fighting in ways big and small.

While Americans, in general, are experiencing heightened anxiety since the 2016 election, there are indications that LGBTQ people have been hit even harder. For many LGBTQ people the damage will be long-lasting, as it has made them aware that most Americans will tolerate the beliefs and actions of Trump’s base. For many, it has unearthed deep traumas that had almost healed over.

*Lisa is a cisgender lesbian who was active in the fight against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  The election has also effectively estranged her from her parents and re-opened old wounds.

My father’s authoritarianism and narcissism bear a lot of resemblance to the way Trump communicates and behaves,” she says. “I’m reminded of how many angry old white men there must be in this country, who are exactly like my father. ”

One of the most frequent pieces of advice given to people suffering from anxiety or depression is to “get therapy.” However, about half the activists interviewed either found therapy of limited value or simply unavailable. Some living in the south couldn’t find any therapists who weren’t Trump supporters.  Sharon believes that therapists will have an uphill battle working with LGBTQ activists, since they cannot do anything about the root cause of the mental health issues (namely, the Trump administration). She said the therapist didn’t help her much — “They deal with the symptoms but not the cause.“

Lisa has forgone seeing a therapist because she didn’t see it as productive.

“I saw a therapist for many years, to deal with my issues with my father, as well as to manage my anxiety, so I didn’t see much value in re-hashing all that,” she says. “I know what the problem is, it’s just that the election has reopened some old war wounds and made it difficult to manage a relationship that I thought had reached some kind of detente.”

Elizabeth, however, found her time with a therapist after the election productive.

It did help,” she tells INTO. “Now I share daily with my loved ones the ‘WTF’ of the day — Trump’s tweets or a rollback of federal regulations or the dropping of bombs or stripping of the environment.  My therapy is the circle of loved ones and wonderful colleagues at work — we are all in this good fight together.”

Therapists say they have seen an increase in mental health issues in their LGBTQ clients since the 2016 election.

Dr. Michele Angello, who has over 20 years of experience, and works primarily with transgender people, agrees. “For the first six months after the election, I had more adolescents hospitalized than I’ve had in my career,” she tells INTO. “The vitriol and harassment that they experienced in school and their communities increased exponentially.”

People who are politically engaged tend to be more at risk for anxiety and depression since 2016, according to the professionals interviewed.  “[They] are far more likely to be empathically attuned to the daily suffering of their friends, loved ones, and fellow marginalized citizens,” Rubin says.

Conversely, Dr. Angello says, “Folks who are less engaged or more oblivious of what is out there didn’t seem as impacted.”

The effects of this administration on LGBTQ mental health go beyond just anxiety and depression. Just as Trump has been highly disruptive to governmental functions in the US, his administration has stretched families past the breaking point, and his “anti-PC” attitude has allowed long-buried ugliness to surface. LGBTQ activists can also suffer physical and health issues as a result.

Arlene Istar-Lev is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who has worked with transgender people for over 30 years. She tells INTO she finds there to be “an increase in hopelessness and despair.”

“These can lead to depressive thinking, and an increase in alcohol and other substance use,” she says.

For some, a combination of therapy and medications for anxiety or depression may be the best option. For others, though, this might not be possible or effective.

Dr. Angello emphasized that finding ways to “take a break” are essential. “Self-care is also important both for the clients as well as the therapist.”

“It is a careful balance between movement work for social justice and tending to children, lovers, laundry, and quiet walks on the beach,” Istar-Lev concurred. “Often we don’t think we can afford a weekend hiking or a fancy dinner, but in actuality, we can’t afford not do those things that heal and sustain us. ”

Activists need to remember themselves that there are others to pick up the torch—even if briefly—so that self-care can take place.

“The process will not end with us,” Istar-Lev says. “We need to balance our work with deep loving and good fun, plant food, and feed our friends, care for the children, travel a lot … plant, till the fields, weed — but don’t forget to harvest and cook. That’s all we’ve got in the end. ”


*Names were changed

Image via Getty


Brynn Tannehill

Brynn Tannehill is a Naval Academy graduate and former naval aviator. She earned her masters in operations research from the Air Force Institute of Technology in 2008. Since 2012, she has written hundreds articles on LGBTQ+ issues for dozens of outlets, and is the author of the upcoming book, "Everything You Every Wanted to Know About Trans* (*But were afraid to Ask), due out in November 2018. She lives in Northern Virginia with her wife Janis and their three children.

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