Intersectional identities

October 21, 2015 by Dayoung Lee and Wendy Tang

On Sept. 28, friends, family and the greater Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) community grieved the loss of 16-year-old Skylar Lee, an Asian American transgender teenager from Madison, Wis. Lee was an outspoken activist for intersectional queer identities within the Asian American community, leaving an indelible mark on a movement that seeks to advance understanding of a complex overlap between racial, gender and sexual identities and mental health. His passing serves as a reminder of the stresses generated by the contrast of varied identities, which, though often overlooked, can compound to take a profound toll on one’s daily life.

We write this as Asian American cisgendered women, standing in solidarity with Lee, his loved ones and the greater queer Asian American and GSA communities, to highlight the impact of mental illness among Asian Americans. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Asian American women have one of the highest comparative rates of suicide in the United States. Those between the ages of 15 and 24, in particular, are afflicted by mental illness and take their own lives at a rate disproportionate to that of the general population. But, of course, they – we – are far from the only ones affected.

Perhaps because of the stigma and disbelief of mental health issues in the Asian Pacific Islander community and the expectations imposed by the Model Minority Myth, Asian Americans struggle with mental illness in silence. According to surveys conducted by the Asian American Suicide Prevention and Education group, only two percent of Asian Americans report symptoms of depression to their doctor, compared to the national average of 13 percent. Though stories like Lee’s make headlines around the nation, little has been done to address the full complexity of their subjects’ intersectional identities.

At the College, more can be done to further comprehensive discussion of mental illness among traditionally underrepresented groups. Inclusion by the Minority Coalition (MinCo) of Williams Active Minds, an advocacy organization that raises awareness of various mental health issues, would be a vital step in advancing this discussion. Though traditionally stigmatized and narrowly understood by the American public, mental health disorders affect around 20 percent of the general U.S. population. Growing recognition of the causes and repercussions of mental health issues mark the tentative development of a more respectful and empathetic social justice community.

However, this movement, though expanding, is a nascent one. There remains a disparity between the population affected by mental health issues and representation of their experiences. For example, more can be done to understand the experience of mental illness amongst people of color, non-binary conforming individuals and others who do not fit into the traditional identities of the dominant group. This lack of contextualization further necessitates the empowerment and recognition of these voices. While the College works hard to embrace these multifaceted identities, more can be done. The intersectional issues arising between mental health and other segments of an individual’s identity pose crucial and often forgotten questions that we must collectively address. MinCo, as a “unified voice against prejudice and discrimination against minority students … [and] a mechanism for minority groups to come together in organizational, social, academic and political sphere,” has many reasons to include Active Minds in its alliance for minority solidarity here at the College.

We are fortunate to be part of a community that values the needs of each and every one of its diverse constituencies. In the past few years, MinCo has raised its voice to emphasize the need for staff at counseling services who are able to identify with the contextualized experiences of students who seek their services. This has been a positive step, and we hope more will follow. We believe that including Active Minds in MinCo’s general committee is one such way of further addressing the sources that continue to reinforce ableism and identifying the nuanced effects of racial, gendered, sexual identity on mental health on our campus. As this fall semester’s midterm season begins and stress intensifies, we hope that steps like this one will empower students of all identities to reach out and find outlets of support, understanding and solidarity.

Dayoung Lee ’16 is a comparative literature major from San Diego, Calif. She lives in Poker. Wendy Tang ’19 is from San Francisco, Calif. She lives in Dennett.

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Keith October 22, 2015 at 8:24 am

What a terrible loss.

GSAs are vital in preventing tragedies. I hope every school will have a GSA and that every GSA will be a welcoming place for all students whose gender identity, sexual orientation, or relationship orientation (think polyamory, for example) or that of their parents makes them a target for bullying.

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