Silence Equals Death, Post-Keith Haring


silence equals death Keith haring
Keith Haring died of AIDS and wanted to break the silence around this stigmatized disease

I can the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was killing massive amounts of people, many of whom were part of the LGBTQ+ community. One of the people who became ill with HIV/AIDS was the famous artist Keith Haring, who used his talent and renown to create images and spread awareness about the toll of stigma on the physical and mental well-being of the LGBTQ+ community. This pride month, I’d like to take a moment to remind you of the struggles that people have endured the face of homophobia and transphobia, as well as AIDS phobia. And like to offer a historical perspective as well as hope for a better tomorrow, where people like Keith Haring do not have to sacrifice their well-being because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.


Stigma silences you in many ways

Part of the power of stigma is that it creates shame in the group it targets. You, like many people, may want to fit in with your peers and not have to face discrimination or rejection from others. You may go to great lengths in order to achieve this, wearing the right clothes and behaving in socially appropriate ways. There’s nothing wrong with your desire to belong, and I believe it’s hardwired into us to survive by belonging. However, that desire to fit in can become destructive when it causes you to turn your back on someone who needs you simply because they are a member of a stigmatized group. It can also make you deny important parts of yourself and hide from social scrutiny in order to belong.


You may have experienced bullying because you did not fit into stereotypical gender roles. You might have liked to dress and play in ways that were different from your cisgender peers, or different from kids who were typically heterosexual. This bullying may have made you fearful of expressing who you really are, which in turn might have led to shame and anxiety. If you are transgender or gender-fluid, you might have to worry about “passing” as the gender you are presenting as.


You might have to bind your chest in order to not appear curvy and feminine, or make other physical adjustments over that people do not suspect that you are transgender. You might have to lie to your family members about who you’re dating, so that they don’t disown you or ridicule you. Your parents may treat you differently from your straight or cisgender siblings and be unduly harsh or critical with you. You may have even been kicked out of the house or disinherited for expressing your true gender identity or sexuality.


When it Comes to Suicide, Silence Still Equals Death

Suicide is the second highest leading cause of death in youth in the United States, ages 10 to 24; LGBTQ+ youth are four times as likely to commit suicide. This is not because they are more prone to mental illness, but because they face more discrimination and social hardship, according to the Trevor Project. Even within this community, there is discrimination based on race, culture and other forms of oppression. You may have less support if you are a member of this community and a person of color or if you are bisexual.


Normally, if you have problems at school or at work, you can go to your parents and family and talk to them about it. This is not true of all families of cisgender and heterosexual people, but there is less chance for rejection and stigmatization than for LGBTQ+ children and young people. With this fear of rejection, you might keep your problems to yourself. The problems might mound up and the more stress you feel, the less able you feel to handle it. You might start engaging in coping strategies that are not healthy for you, like substance abuse or self-harm. Over time, the pressure can mount and you might find yourself thinking about ending your life so you don’t have to suffer anymore.


Thankfully, there are organizations such as the Trevor Project that provide free crisis counseling for people who are in such a position. In spite of all the recent, hateful legislation that targets the LGBTQ+ community, the majority of US citizens oppose anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. Yes, there are people who are very virulently homophobic and transphobic, and I’m not pretending that they did not pose a real threat to your safety if you belong to this community. However, it is somewhat heartening to know that not everyone shares that viewpoint.



Hands holding rainbow heart; silence equals death Keith Haring
Not everyone is hateful against LGBTQ+ people

Is There Hope at the End of the Rainbow?

So how do we protect one another from hateful thoughts and speech? How do we prevent stigma and silence from leading to violence against LGBTQ+ folks? What can we do so that silence no longer equals death for all of our communities in the US?


It is a profound act of courage to be openly gay, bisexual, or transgender in communities where it is not accepted. You have to weigh your risk of being victimized physically, financially, and otherwise against your need to be authentic and live your truth. Having that courage is an individual choice. You can decide with whom it is safe to express your authentic self, and how.

I think that cisgender and heterosexual allies can create a safer space for you by openly discussing myths and correcting misinformation when it is presented, both publicly in news media, as well as in casual conversations. Calling people out on homophobic or transphobic slurs or jokes that stigmatize or demean LGBTQ+ people is a good place to start.


Examining and confronting our own transphobia and homophobia, as well as some of our beliefs and assumptions, is also critical. Contacting public officials and legislators who make derogatory comments and worse yet, discriminatory policy, must also be held accountable. We do this through the proper channels of contacting their office and voicing our opinions respectfully, but firmly. All of these are ways that we can support our fellow human beings who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.


Silence Does Not Have to Equal Death If We Work Together

Clearly, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in order to make our society safe for everybody. Increasingly, there are groups of people that have to fear for their safety because some people choose to be hateful and have access to weaponry that can end our lives. I know that psychotherapists are not supposed to be political and outspoken, but it is very hard as a human being to sit back and watch innocent people become target practice for people who are uncomfortable with racial, cultural, and gender differences.


The discrimination takes place on so many levels, from government to street violence. You may become very disheartened by the enormity of it. However, if we work together to create families, friendships, and communities where everyone is accepted and welcome, I think there is hope for us yet.


If you are struggling to cope with the minority stress of being part of the LGBTQ+ community, please call 661-233-6771.

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