Health and Inclusivity: LOVE IS LOVE and Healing Trauma through Comics for PRIDE

Seeing as this month is Pride, I wanted to write an article that focused on being trans and queer. And seeing as how I’m a sucker for the sads, I wanted to write about our history with trauma in the LGBTQ community.

So, that lead me back to Love is Love, an anthology comic spearheaded by Marc Andreyko and created by a multitude of talent, including Tee Franklin, Carla Speed McNeil, Alejandra Gutierrez, Jay Edidin, Sophia Foster-Dimino, Chuck Kim, Phil Jimenez, Jordan Boyd, Jared K. Fletcher, Marguerite Bennett, Aneke, Travis Lanham, Josh Trujillo, Michael Hoeweler, Steve Orlando, Iain Laurie, Harry Saxon, Corey Breen, and Comicosity’s very own Emma Houxbois.

Love is Love was developed in response to the Pulse shooting, occurring on June 12, 2016 and wherein 49 LGBTQ people were killed, including many Latinx trans and queer folks. I write these words now, as I am reading the opening pages, and I wanted to convey my emotions in the purest way possible, before they become vestiges of memory with lessened impact.

I’m brought to tears with the words “Mommy I love you,” texted by Eddie Justice, who lost his life as a result of Omar Mateen’s violent transphobia, queerphobia, and misogyny. I’m brought to tears knowing that there is a preceding statement: I’m gonna die.

The Pulse shooting is one that many of us remember, and I imagine that, even by its third anniversary, there are haunting remnants of vicarious trauma for many of us and lived trauma for those who were there, who lost someone that night, or who were close to the events. Love is Love is a reminder that art gives a home to grieving, and it is reflective of how media can be used to help us process trauma, though it comes with its own caveats.

This anthology lays bare the vast array of feelings from the Pulse shooting. Stories of remembrance, lamentation, grief, love, and joy sprinkle its pages, and they help us understand the depth of our emotional experience especially after a painful event. Some of these stories are ones I have to stop reading, ones which I encounter with apprehension because they are painful, while others help me stay mindful of where I am.

My first experience with Love is Love, where I promptly put it down after a significant surge of emotion, hit home in a way few stories do, and drawing back on that experience is why I wanted to discuss it in this month’s “Health and Inclusivity.” There is a power in the story, and the story can often be a safe haven for us as we work through difficult emotions.

Trauma is a word we use a lot, and for good reason. Given how our brains can and do respond to specific events across our lifespan, it can be remarkably easy and just as jarring for something to be registered as traumatic. We often connect trauma to sexual violence, warfare, abuse, and natural disasters, again for good reason, but painful experiences in their wide variety have that capability.

With the idea that trauma operates as a narrative with accompanying contextual representations, Allan Young (a medical anthropologist cited in Mohatt, Thompson, Thai, & Tebes, 2014) points to two levels of this understanding: “an internal logic describing a cause-effect relationship between a past event and present symptoms, and memory as a constructed representation of a traumatic event.” Such a conceptualization of trauma is helpful for understanding its impact on the individual, but also on entire communities.

A significant portion of research and work on trauma extends past us as independent beings. In fact, more researchers have been paying attention to the effects of trauma that people do not experience directly, but that may have occurred in distant generations. This phenomenon — intergenerational trauma — discusses the context of specific families and trauma and its effects may move to future generations, but does not extend from their specific familial systems.

The Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health points to impact caused by issues including unresolved feelings about a trauma, lack of treatment for substance disorders, and complex personality traits or disorders. Intergenerational trauma is also one of the gateways to how the Pulse shooting, and other acts of violence against non-binary, trans, and queer people, can lead to a collective traumatization.

Mohatt and colleagues discuss the concept of historical trauma in their 2014 paper, adding a new dynamic to how we understand its impact and begin to see how it can affect a wider group of people. Largely within the realm of racial and ethnic groups experiencing dehumanizing violence and events — such as White American and European slavery of those within the African diaspora, Native and Indigenous genocide perpetuated by these same groups, and the Holocaust — historical trauma (sometimes referred to as cultural trauma) seeks to highlight a conundrum. It’s the fact that while specific generations may experience these acts and events of subjugation and harm, later generations with greater temporal separation from them may also experience adverse consequences. Thus, historical trauma can be a method of framing the present experience of negative physiological and emotional symptoms within present generations as connected in some way to past events.

In this same article, Mohatt and colleagues specifically highlight the reality that trauma narratives are indeed connected to actual injustice or dehumanization. While these narratives carry a constructed meaning that changes throughout time, they stem from something material in nature. As a result, we see health disparities as a particularly tangible outcome of historical trauma, playing a much more significant role in what we see today than we may have ever accounted for.

So, as a discussion of trauma and how it can occur in circumstances wider than just our personal experience, we are arriving at a point where we can begin to see why an event like the Pulse shooting can cause such a resonance, and unfortunately a trauma, for many of us in the LGBTQ community.

There is far less research and literature on historical or cultural trauma for non-binary, trans, and queer people. Yet, as a collective community, we may be just as susceptible. We point to many events through our history that could prompt such a feeling, including the Stonewall Riots and the police raids that lead to them, as well as the AIDS crisis, leaving us without almost an entire generation of LGBTQ elders.

And now, we have the Pulse shooting, an event nearly a year after the legalization of same-gender marriage in America. Many of us remember this day and how we felt, the tears we cried, and the days we took off of work because we just couldn’t. I think it also created a painful bookmark for many of us as well, but one that certain elements of Love is Love may be able to help us work through.

This anthology and its rawness potentially allows a safe space through which we can navigate intense and harrowing emotions. I remain firm in my assertion that comics as a medium are a more readily accessible format which can aid in these processes. We are allowed to put comics down, to read them out our pace, and to derive our own meaning from them.

So, we can read Love is Love page by page and stop when we need to, as I had to do many times going through it. It also provides stories written by LGBTQ people, though not all of them are, something which is important for considering the context of the anthology and how it can inform our health and well-being. Stories and narratives provide a way for us to see ourselves but not necessarily be ourselves, a healthy separation from the here and now though still with an awareness of what events and feelings these same narratives connect to.

Seeing a visual and textual manifestation of pain can be an experience which helps us meditate on our own and find the time and physical space to process our feelings. However, these narratives need to be encountered within the boundaries of those encountering them. Beyond this fact, centering the affected should take priority. A helpful foundation to build from is based on trauma-informed care, a process of putting a traumatized person at the center of the care and working with them, not for them.

There are five tenets of this perspective: safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness, and empowerment.

Seeing Love is Love through a trauma-informed context, here’s how I think it plays out. With regards to safety, the comic provides a somewhat safe space to navigate a trauma response to violence perpetuated against LGBTQ people. It addresses some of the realities of anti-queer violence, but seems to speak less to anti-trans violence, and does not truly approach violence LGBTQ people at other intersections of marginalization may face. It also has a few creators who I do not think would comprehensively contribute to a sense of safety for LGBTQ people, an ironic choice given the nature of the anthology, though unsurprising given how it is easy to make statements toward palatable and easily digestible platforms even with a questionable history.

Next, regarding choice, I do think Love is Love offers a variety of choices that LGBTQ people can use in directing their feelings as a result of trauma. From introspection to holding onto joy, the comic begins to point toward methods of emotional management that honor not just the challenges and triumphs of being LGBTQ, but also how to process identity in the meanwhile and meantime.

Emma Houxbois and Alejandra Gutierriez’ story gets at the nature of safety and openness and finding spaces that help us as we process our boundaries and security around identity and disclosure. James Tynion IV and Molly Knox Ostertag create a similar narrative around internal feelings and moving to a place of self-acceptance despite fear. Rather than firmly hold onto the erroneous ‘You must always come out,’ narrative easily spun by those with more privilege in the LGBTQ community, these stories respect the fact that coming out is not always easy and neither is the internal evaluation that is a part of navigating who you are.

In terms of collaboration, Love is Love is complicated. While curated by Marc Andreyko and with stories by many LGBTQ creators, there are also stories done by cishet creators which center their experiences and maybe aren’t the most helpful for processing trauma or difficult experiences. Having many non-binary, trans, and queer creatives was a step toward the collaborative element in trauma-informed care, seeing as how some of the stories directly speak to an LGBTQ existence. Yet with other stories that do not center this experience, I can see how this particular area falls short.

Similarly, this anthology has an unsteady trustworthiness. There are creators who have been at their own center of controversy, whether their issues have pertained to the LGBTQ community specifically or to other dubious political or personal contentions with others. Even with a huge mix of talent, I think more care and deliberation could have been exercised to vet these teams, who they are, and what they’ve done in the past.

Love is Love could have also done better to amplify the voices of the people affected by the Pulse shooting, directly or indirectly, specifically choosing more non-binary, trans, and queer Latinx creatives, or more generally working with LGBTQ creators on a wider scale. All of these points figure into how LGBTQ justifiably may not find solace in this comic, regardless of the emotional relevance or content.

Lastly, with the element of empowerment, Love is Love works best when LGBTQ creators tell their stories and point to their personal narratives or mechanisms of growth and change.

According to the University of Buffalo School of Social Work, empowerment in practice within a trauma-informed context “Provide[s] an atmosphere that allows individuals to feel validated and affirmed with each and every contact at the agency.” I feel it would be appropriate to bring up a similar argument from the area of trustworthiness that LGBTQ readers can feel empowered in general from this anthology, but that it is again justified if some of the agents within the comic do not elicit this feeling from them.

From a trauma-informed standpoint, Love is Love can hit some marks that are beneficial, while others must be called into question. And, of course, trauma-informed care is based on practice between people, not based on a comic that is not being used in this context.

With all these factors in mind, I do think that practitioners and helpers can create a nuanced framework through which they can operate, and I would recommend very deliberate use whether as an individual or in practice if someone desired to use the comic in a more therapeutic setting. Even with this challenges and drawbacks to the anthology, I think this creates an opportunity for healing with the comic as the focus and allows LGBTQ readers and particular to process by seeing affirming stories and critiquing the stories that do not center them or their experiences.

Still, (at least) one major point remains, and it directly relates to Latinx LGBTQ people, the community disproportionately affected by the Pulse shooting.

The night the shooting happened was ‘Latin Saturday,’ a regular event specifically geared toward the Latinx LGBTQ community in Orlando. As many have pointed out, this particular piece of context is vital. LGBTQ nightclubs are one of the few open safe havens for LGBTQ people, and for a night to be for Latinx folks, who have their own unique experiences within the LGBTQ community that create different barriers and challenges, is meaningful, especially in the face of white queer racism.

Thus, it is also a deep heartbreak for people at this intersection of identities to be targeted. For Love is Love to have relatively little mention of Latinx LGBTQ people, instead giving many more broad messages of ‘Love is love’ in general to the LGBTQ community, is a disservice to them. It decenters their lives and loss and consequently may not offer a holistic refuge for them.

Because the comic has sparse ventures toward the recognition of the adverse impact of the shooting on Latinx LGBTQ people, it may not fully be efficient from a trauma-informed perspective. If the people most significantly affected have little voice in this collaboration, can we say it is for them?

This is one of the major areas where Love is Love does not fully address the harm incurred from this extreme and violent act of LGBTQ bigotry. My assertion does not mean that Latinx LGBTQ people do not, cannot, and will not find value, nor that they have not found value, in these stories, but it does point to the fact that maybe the voices most in need of centering in the anthology are among the crowd, not at the mic.

Other comic anthologies, like Puerto Rico Strong and We’re Still Here work diligently to center Latinx, Puerto Rican and non-binary, trans voices, respectively, and I think point to how Love is Love could have made changes among the creative teams to amplify Latinx and LGBTQ voices. These anthologies are also informed by direct trauma and/or historical and cultural trauma, providing other narratives which can be helpful in processing the emotions that accompany or result from these experiences.

So, while I appreciate the existence and the rather prompt creation of Love is Love, as well as its potential for helping LGBTQ people process the Pulse shooting and other experiences, I would be remiss to gloss over its issues and where I feel it could have had more impact with its content.

With the myriad aforementioned points in mind, I come to realize that the stories I want are from my family, from the ones who hurt not just because the Pulse shooting was an egregious act of violence spurred and created by many forms of marginalization and violent oppression, but because they recognize the pain, fear, and reality of constant intrusion upon the safest spaces we have.

If we are talking trauma, those are the only stories I want. Because they speak truth to that pain, and through art they can enable healing. In some ways, Love is Love functions well within a trauma-informed narrative, and we see that best in the stories by LGBTQ people. In others, however, we see more of an assuaging of privileged people’s feelings, maybe even some who should not have been on this project.

Healing from trauma can take many forms, just as trauma itself does in individual to intergenerational to cultural iterations. I think there is much value in people sharing their stories of pain and trauma, and I also think there is a way for others to read these and heal from their own. Through this process, though, there needs to be a focus and a centering on those affected, on those for whom the pain is much more than discomfort but a haunting reminder that our global society is built upon foundations of marginalization.

When centering the people affected, we can think about the five facets of trauma-informed care: a sense of safety (non-binary, trans, and queer people being able to close the book), a sense of choice (non-binary, trans, and queer people have options for response and healing that they are free to choose from), a sense of collaboration (non-binary, trans, and queer people having an active voice in telling their stories), trustworthiness (non-binary, trans, and queer people being able to set boundaries in telling their stories and having them respected), and empowerment (non-binary, trans, and queer people being able to find their own source of strength from these narratives).

Some stories hit the mark. Others don’t. If nothing else, non-binary, trans and queer people’s stories exist within this book as a font of power, and those are the ones I find the most value in addressing the loss of black and brown LGBTQ lives, the pain incurred from the Pulse shooting as a queer person in America, the fear it spoke to and the ways we can work to live despite it.

There is much more research about crafting trauma narratives and how they help us heal than reading others’ narratives. Yet, it bears repeating: I think there is power, choice, and safety in being able to bridge our own pains and traumas to someone else’s. So, Love is Love doesn’t hit the bullseye, just as few pieces of media are ever able to. Still there are some things within it that I hope can be helpful for LGBTQ people on the anniversary of the Pulse shooting, during Pride, during LGBTQ History Month, or through the rest of the year, in processing the feelings from the event or just from the recognition that transmisogyny, transphobia, and queerphobia are very real things.

One more thing. May we remember the 49 lives lost in Orlando that night, who they were, and the spaces left in our family because of someone else’s bigotry.

Rest in Love:

  • Stanley Almodovar III, 23
  • Amanda Alvear, 25
  • Oscar A. Aracena-Montero, 26
  • Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33
  • Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21
  • Martin Benitez Torres, 33
  • Antonio D. Brown, 30
  • Darryl R. Burt II, 29
  • Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24
  • Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28
  • Simon A. Carrillo Fernandez, 31
  • Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25
  • Luis D. Conde, 39
  • Cory J. Connell, 21
  • Tevin E. Crosby, 25
  • Franky J. Dejesus Velazquez, 50
  • Deonka D. Drayton, 32
  • Mercedez M. Flores, 26
  • Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22
  • Juan R. Guerrero, 22
  • Paul T. Henry, 41
  • Frank Hernandez, 27
  • Miguel A. Honorato, 30
  • Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40
  • Jason B. Josaphat, 19
  • Eddie J. Justice, 30
  • Anthony L. Laureano Disla, 25
  • Christopher A. Leinonen, 32
  • Brenda L. Marquez McCool, 49
  • Jean C. Mendez Perez, 35
  • Akyra Monet Murray, 18
  • Kimberly Morris, 37
  • Jean C. Nieves Rodriguez, 27
  • Luis O. Ocasio-Capo, 20
  • Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25
  • Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36
  • Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32
  • Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25
  • Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37
  • Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24
  • Christopher J. Sanfeliz, 24
  • Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35
  • Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25
  • Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34
  • Shane E. Tomlinson, 33
  • Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25
  • Luis S. Vielma, 22
  • Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37
  • Jerald A. Wright, 31

To all of you, these 49, and everyone in this gigantic family we love now and have mourned: I love you. Take care.


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