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Gautam Raghavan on Resilience in LGBTQ Communities

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As the official liaison to the LGBTQ and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities under President Obama, Gautam Raghavan worked on issues like marriage equality, bullying prevention, transgender rights, and access to health care. He is now a consultant for a number of organizations focused on progressive social change, including the newly launched Biden Foundation. Through all of this work, he has gained a deep perspective on the role resilience plays in LGBTQ communities.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the way the LGBTQ community copes with adversity?

Most LGBTQ people have experienced bullying, discrimination, or other kinds of hostility in their daily lives. For many of us, these experiences start when we’re young—at home and at school—and continue into adulthood. We experience bias in the workplace, houses of worship, and public spaces. Despite these experiences, most LGBTQ people will tell you that they absolutely would not change who they are—even if it made daily life easier—because their identities are also a source of incredible strength, resilience, passion, and perspective.

Q: Are there ways that we can be effective allies?

Show unconditional support. Many LGBTQ people fear they will lose friends if and when they come out. The best thing you can do as an ally is show support for someone who comes out to you and remind them that you will always have their back. Someone’s sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or gender expression doesn’t change who they are. Don't be afraid to ask questions; just do it respectfully. For example, if you meet someone who is transgender or gender nonconforming, it's okay to ask, "What pronouns would you prefer I use?" And finally, be sure to respect confidentiality. Just because someone comes out to you, it doesn’t mean that they are comfortable sharing that information publicly.

Q: What is the role of bystanders in combatting anti-LGBTQ bullying or hate crimes?

Advocates who work on bullying prevention often talk about how we need to convert “bystanders” into “upstanders.” This is especially important when it comes to addressing discrimination against LGBTQ people, who may not feel safe speaking up for themselves. Being an upstander doesn’t always mean physically intervening—although sometimes you may need to help someone leave a violent situation or get immediate attention from an authority. It can also mean choosing not to laugh at or participate in a hurtful joke or checking in with someone who has experienced discrimination to see if they want to talk or need help.

Q: How is failure related to resilience?

I call “failure” one of life’s beautiful f-words—along with “flail,” “fumble,” “flounder,” and “fall.” You have to encounter these things over the course of your life to learn how to bounce back. The more you experience them, the more resilient you’ll be when bigger challenges arise.

Q: How can people build resilience in the face of discrimination or hate?

We talk a lot in the LGBTQ community about the concept of chosen family. These are the people we choose to surround ourselves with and build our lives with because they love us unconditionally. Whether it’s in place of or in addition to our given families, these communities can be a source of tremendous strength for many LGBTQ people. When bad things happen, many of us turn to our chosen family for solace and encouragement.

Q: What can communities do to support LGBTQ friends and neighbors?

Companies, schools, and places of worship can make an intentional effort to be more inclusive and affirming. Workplaces can adopt nondiscrimination policies that protect LGBTQ employees and take steps to ensure that they feel supported. For example, they can guarantee that health care benefits are fully available to LGBTQ employees. Schools can make sure facilities, athletic programs, and other services are available to LGBTQ youth. And perhaps most importantly, parents, friends, and neighbors can listen to, learn from, and love the LGBTQ people in their lives.

Q: What is your advice for those who might be victims of discrimination or hate?

Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. If you’ve been the victim of a violent crime, including sexual assault, you should always contact law enforcement. But if you’re afraid to do so, and many people are, you can start by reaching out to your local LGBTQ community center or statewide advocacy organization for advice and support.

In addition, there is a large network of LGBTQ groups that are ready to help. The Trevor Project, PFLAG, and GLSEN provide tremendous resources for LGBTQ youth and their parents, allies, educators, and coaches. Lambda Legal, GLAD, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are constantly bringing cases in the courts to expand equality.

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