What a June this has been.
I reflect today on my experience of Pride Month in this turbulent year. I think of the June 15th Supreme Court decision that advanced the needle towards justice in regards to LGBTQ+ workers’ rights by stating clearly that it is sex discrimination to fire people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. I think of mass uprisings and collective efforts against ongoing racial injustice, systemic racism, and a long history of police violence in the United States experienced in particular by Black communities. I think of the tens of thousands of people who rallied across the country in defense of Black transgender lives a little over a week ago.
I’m a white, queer, and transgender woman. This month’s Pride seems to be much less about rainbow flags and corporate pinkwashing (though that is still seen everywhere) and much more about honoring the roots and lessons of LGBTQ+ liberation efforts in the United States, efforts so often led by Black and Brown trans people, especially trans women. There is still pride, and there is also righteous rage, dancing (though much of the dancing I’ve seen has been in reclaimed city streets and autonomous zones rather than clubs), and joyful resistance. This is not the usual Pride that centers white LGBTQ+ people, people like me, and I’m here for it. I’m here for it, because a world that only recognizes the lived experiences of some and the dignity of some, ends up harming all of us.
The movements that sought to broaden access to peer support for those in contact with the mental health and substance use service systems were inspired by and learned lessons from movements that also recognized the interconnectedness of different struggles for justice and liberation. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” are oftentimes seen on banners at disability rights marches and spoken in the circles of self-described psychiatric survivors.
People who had experienced institutionalization, loss of social connections, and/or forceful and coercive treatment because of their lived experiences of intense emotional states, struggles with substance use, or mental health status recognized the value of peer support. Peer support has been a tool of survival in a difficult world for so many. Connecting with others who have “been there” offers so much of value in a world that is reluctant to believe the words and experiences of “crazy people.”
Today’s state-Certified Peer Specialists have somewhat radical elders to thank for broader access to peer support services today. And yet, we have so far to go in making the peer support workforce and the supports we offer an actually trauma-informed, validating, and safer space for anyone other than white, straight, and cisgender people. Our movement and workforce has not done enough to honor and understand intersecting levels of systemic oppression, center anti-racism, and support LGBTQ+ people with “lived experience.”
I have to pause and admit something. I am one of two people working at Access to Independence on the Wisconsin Peer Specialist Employment Initiative contract. I work Monday through Friday to support the continued expansion and improvement of Certified Peer Specialists and Certified Parent Peer Specialists and their peer support offerings in Wisconsin. All this is true, and I would feel very hesitant about personally seeking out peer support from any CPS or CPPS in Wisconsin who is not also transgender.
My experience as a trans woman is such that when I have sought out peer support in the past, I found myself in the role of having to constantly educate people on how to show basic respect for me and other trans people. The amount of time I have spent trying to educate people on the importance of respecting and using a person’s expressed pronouns is disheartening. The reluctance so many organizations and agencies have in finding alternatives to calling 911 on people experiencing emotional distress or navigating suicidal feelings greatly scares me as a trans person.
I also believe we have a peer support community and movement on a national scale that seems much more focused on approaching people who have repeatedly caused harm to trans people with curiosity, validation, and affirmation rather than a commitment to trauma-informed, inclusive, and healing environments for those who experience various intersecting levels of oppression. This is one reason I signed an open-letter that speaks to how we approach transphobia in our movement, workforce, and communities.
The circumstances that led me to signing that letter, are the same circumstances that have resulted in me feeling safest and most seen in receiving peer support from other trans people. For anyone who knows me, you might have heard me talk about Trans Lifeline. Trans Lifeline is a peer support resource composed of, operated by, and existing for trans people. Peerness is defined in our shared lived experience as trans people, not by being people with experience navigating mental health or substance use. Trans Lifeline is also one of the few peer support resources in the United States with an expressed commitment to not engage in non-consensual active rescue. Since their founding, they have been divested from the police. That means that if you call Trans Lifeline and you are in crisis, they will not call 911 or the police — unless you explicitly ask them to.
This commitment to no-nonsense informed-consent is a basic requirement for safety and a trauma-informed approach to peer support in my book. It’s the ability to define what safety means to me – not to have someone else make that decision. It’s also a basic component of earning trust and supporting the growth of a genuine relationship of mutual support and respect.
As I reflect on this Pride Month, my queerness and transness, and the future of peer support, I also think of where we can go from here. With widespread calls to defund police and truly invest in people and communities, in healthcare, housing, education, and other basic needs for our communities, there are also calls for more peer support and mental health resources. Yet, many peer support programs operate within the mental health and substance use service systems, systems that many understand to perpetuate systemic racism, and all too often rely on methods of force, coercion, and calling in the police “for our own good.”
I think there is something to be said for re-thinking what makes one a “peer” with another. For some, a meaningful sense of peerness can be found in the shared lived experience of navigating mental health and/or substance use. For others, like me, there may be some other shared lived experience that serves to facilitate a peer connection. That may be a shared experience of Blackness, Indigeneity, transness, disability, and so on.
We see new approaches to the definition of “peer” already in organizations like Trans Lifeline and in peer support resources made by and for veterans. The answer to this question perhaps doesn’t have to be an either/or solution, but our workforce is overwhelmingly composed of white, middle-aged women currently, especially when it comes to those in supervisory or decision-making positions. The composition of our peer workforce and leadership, those serving on committees, drafting organizational policies and procedures, and any systems oversight in our field needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
Is it enough for peer support professionals to be “in but not of” the mental health and substance use service systems? Was that phrase ever really true? By being in these systems, we are still immersed in and affected by the systemic racism and oppressive nature of such systems. I highly recommend that people read the article, “We Don’t Need Cops to Become Social Workers: We Need Peer Support + Community Response Networks.”
I want to be clear here, we can’t meaningfully improve peer support and operate business as usual. If we want to create a world that better supports Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), as well as transgender people, others in the LGBTQ+ spectrum, disabled people, and all those who experience unique levels of systemic oppression, we should be listening to, learning from, and centering the voices of BIPOC people, BIPOC trans people, BIPOC queer people, BIPOC disabled people, and so on. In many ways, these communities and peoples have survived because of peer support, but it wasn’t the peer support we were offering.
It’s linked here earlier in the article, but I specifically would ask that people check out the following video that Freedom Inc. put together about the Stonewall Uprising and how Black & POC members of the LGBTQI+ community continue to fight for liberation: Queer Power Rising video – click here
Also, I am looking forward to an upcoming panel that is being hosted by the UW-Madison School of Social Work this Friday, June 26th from 12-1:30pm Central time. This panel features Certified Peer Specialist leaders in Wisconsin, primarily including Black and Brown Certified Peer Specialists as they discuss peer support in relation to calls to defund police and better support people with “lived experience.”
Carmella Glenn, CPS, Program Coordinator, Just Bakery/Madison area Urban Ministry
Tim Saubers, CPS, Peer Specialist Program Manager, Access to Independence
Tara Wilhelmi,CPS, Founder of EOTO, LLC
Dani Rischall, LCSW, Chrysalis Executive Director (UW-Madison BSW Alum 2007)