Annual State of SGM Health Symposium Prioritizes Suicide Prevention

At its fourth annual State of Sexual and Gender Minority Health Symposium on October 18, the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH) brought together health experts and community leaders to discuss suicide prevention in the LGBTQIA community. Suicide prevention that addresses the unique and diverse needs of sexual and gender minorities remains an urgent health concern, as this population experiences higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts than the general population.

The State of SGM Health Symposium took place at Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center in Chicago and one of ISGMH’s community partners. The event featured remarks from Illinois State Representative Kelly Cassidy, keynote presentations by intersex activist Pidgeon Pagonis and director of the Family Acceptance Project Caitlin Ryan, performances by Youth Empowerment Performance Project (YEPP), and a panel discussion between research experts and community leaders.

ISGMH Associate Director, Francesca Gaiba, opened the Symposium with a warm welcome and introduced Democratic Representative Kelly Cassidy for opening remarks. Cassidy, who is openly lesbian, stressed the importance of suicide prevention research and how individuals can have an impact on the lives of struggling loved ones. “One supportive adult reduces suicide by 40%. It’s that simple.”

The opening keynote speaker, Pidgeon Pagonis, gave a presentation titled “From Suicide to SB-201 — Why We Need to End Intersex Surgery.” To provide the audience with background on the intersex community, Pagonis showed a video outlining concise, intersex 101 information. Pagonis provided an important re-framing of the causes of suicide among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, asexual, intersex and other marginalized populations from one of “self-harm” to one of social stigma. Pagonis shared stories of intersex people, including Herculine Barbin, David Reimer, and Bo Laurent. For more details, check out the featured documentary Intersexion.

Highlighting the failure of existing research to include intersex individuals, Pagonis turned to social media to gather data on suicide in the intersex community. “Suicide never happens in a vacuum. Suicide impacts LGBTQ adults at high rates compared to their heterosexual counterparts. The data is not there for intersex people, so I asked Twitter and 77% of 127 intersex people said they had seriously considered or attempted suicide.” Pagonis emphasized the role that intersex surgeries play in the high rates of suicide among intersex people, and encouraged researchers to create data that includes and focuses on intersex people to promote intersex awareness and advocacy. They also shared a list of 26 ways allies can support the intersex community on Intersex Awareness Day on October 26. You can also donate to the Intersex Justice Project here.

The Symposium panel discussion included Brian Feinstein, Research Assistant Professor at ISGMH; K. Tajhi Claybren, Behavioral Health Strategy Consultant at Howard Brown Health; Bonsai Bermúdez, Executive and Artistic Director of YEPP; and moderator Vanessa Sheridan, Director of Gender Equity and Inclusion at Center on Halsted. The panelists discussed a myriad of factors that contribute to the high suicide levels among LGBTQIA people, emphasizing oppression and marginalization as key risk factors. When asked how to reduce suicide among these populations, panelists highlighted the importance of access to resources, having the support of at least one person, and connecting with community and support systems.

The closing keynote speaker, Caitlin Ryan, discussed the need for family-based interventions in the fight to reduce suicide among LGBTQIA youth. “We don’t have a ready-made way to transfer knowledge between generations in LGBTQIA communities, because LGBTQIA children are typically not born to LGBTQIA parents,” she explained. The Family Acceptance Project’s framework for change is to deliver families support services that are sensitive to different cultures and value systems, as well as to include involvement from school and faith communities. From a large qualitative study, the Family Acceptance Project developed a list of 50 rejecting and 50 supportive behaviors that parents of LGBTQIA youth exhibited toward their children. A family’s rejecting behaviors correlated with high suicide risk in youth, while supportive behaviors did not.

To underscore the importance that the arts play in this conversation, YEPP offered two performances that spoke directly to the experience of living with depression and suicidal ideation. YEPP is an organization that aims to create a safe environment for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness to explore their history, investigate new ways to address their struggles and to celebrate their strengths through the process of developing a theatrical performance piece.

Kim Hunt from Pride Action Tank and Sean Connolly from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) closed the Symposium by giving a call to action. To keep the conversation about suicide prevention going, they asked the audience to reflect on the day and discuss what resonated with them and each other. They also provided more resources directly from AFSP.

The Northwestern Office of the Provost generously supported the Symposium with a Daniel I. Linzer Grant for Innovation in Diversity and Equity. The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention also generously supported the Symposium.