Keynote Speech - Cook Children's Denton County Wellness Alliance For Children's Mental Health Wellness Conference
(TRANSCRIPTION - TALK GIVEN ON MAY 4, 2017)
Back in 1955, the National Cancer Institute started funding research for cancer treatment. Results weren’t great so in 1960 they expanded their search for cures into natural plant and animal products. Between 1960-1981, 30,000 samples were collected from nature. One such sample came from a USDA botanist named Arthur Barclay in 1962. Now, we move as slow in science as we do in society in general. So it wasn’t until much later (the 1990s through 2013) that the FDA first approved Taxol for the treatment of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, among others.
Today, Taxol is listed by the world health organization on their Model List of Essential medicines. This is the official list of the most necessary and most important medicines needed to support a basic health care system.
Taxol was produced from the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree. So as life tends to do, this is where it gets more complicated, and more interesting.
The yew tree is considered a trash tree by the logging industry. The wood isn’t appropriate for building, so when forests are being clear cut, it is dumped in the slash and burn pile by loggers. Even in the 1990s, when we KNEW what value these trees had, clear cutting practices meant that 75% of the life saving yew bark was lost as trash. About ten years ago, the Forest Service moved the yew tree from the vulnerable list to the endangered list.
But small groups of dedicated people are not having it. We have conservationists out there fighting for the yew trees. Protecting the old growth and defending the new saplings. These individuals know and value the truth. The yew trees contain something sacred. Something integral to the well being of humanity.
Although it’s a fight that feels overwhelming, the movement is growing. We cannot toss aside, slash and burn, and otherwise treat that which is sacred like so much garbage just because it doesn’t fulfill our immediate desires. The yew tree is a literal example that all life holds a piece of our collective survival. That everything is sacred.
Our LGBTQ youth today are our yew trees. And we are their protectors.
Like all protectors, all conservationists, we are hugging tree trunks and facing down bulldozers. It’s overwhelming.
I currently sit on four different not for profit boards. So fundraising is like breathing in and out for me. I keep telling people I need a million dollars and a building. Of course what I’m really asking for is a ten dollar a month commitment from enough people to help us fund our next family event.
But I really need a million dollars and a building.
My friend Brett told me recently that if he had a million dollars to fund a program, it would totally go to me. He said “I’ve seen the magic you work with zero dollars, so I can only imagine what you’d do with a million.” And all of us here today are in the same boat.
And one day, I’ll have that million dollars, but in the meantime, I will keep my arms wrapped around my yew trees, facing down bulldozers. Because I know their value and worth, even if I have nothing in my pocket but my determination. And everyone in this room is in the same boat.
My husband, out of curiosity, recently looked up the suicide rates of inmates on death row. We all know, that being in prison doesn’t stop anyone from committing suicide if they are so committed, anymore than being in prison doesn’t stop someone from using drugs.
He told me that the rate of suicide among death row inmates is 4 times higher than that of the general population.
Oh, I said, that’s interesting. It’s the same rate as it is for LGBQ folk.
Of course that number doubles to 8 times higher if they have unsupportive families.
And it’s 44 times higher if they are transgender or gender nonconforming.
Every year on the transgender day of remembrance, we host a march and memorial service for the individuals lost to hate crimes. We carry their names and photos on tombstones with us as we march. Every year, we add more tombstones to the walk, rather than take some away.
And let’s talk about our schools for a moment, our so-called bully free zones.
Nine of out ten LGBTQ youth experience harassment at school. Eight of ten students had been verbally harassed at school;
But we don’t do that, right?
Except we do. Or our colleagues do. LGBTQ persons experience similar forms of discrimination from mental health professionals as they do in the general public. A study that was just published this week by the Williams Institute found serious health care disparities for LGBTQ adults and youth in Texas along with economic disparities and discrimination in employment, housing, and public accomodations.
Additionally, there is still movement towards techniques termed “therapeutic” that focus on sexual orientation change efforts. In 2014, the Texas Republican Party Platform added language supporting “reparative therapy” as an appropriate counseling modality. Therapy to make you straight.
Just last week, someone asked me “Wait, isn’t that illegal???”
No, it’s not. Not in Texas. And not only is it legal, it was just publicly sanctioned and encouraged by the individuals whose salaries we pay.
I was training in Beaumont last year, on election day. When the results came in, every single one of my trans or gender nonconforming clients called me or texted me in the middle of the night in a panic. I got a call the next day from a colleague at the LGBTQ youth shelter in San Antonio. The kids were LITERALLY hiding under their beds. Sucide hotlines around the country reported that the number of calls that evening tripled. Staff at Equality Texas reported 8 reported suicides in the United States by LGBTQ individuals 24 hours after the election.
The new legislative session, currently in progress in our state, has already seen a flurry of bills that would strip away the rights and protections of LGBTQ Texans.
This is not a political position statement on my part, and it is not intended as a criticism of yours, if we happen to differ. Nor is it a criticism of your spiritual belief system or your religious or cultural practices. I have the utmost respect for whatever you bring to the table, because I want the same respect in return.
This is said as a statement about the reality of existence as an LGBTQ individual in this state and in this country. Our responsibility is to the health, well-being, and life span development of those we serve. And when it comes to LGBTQ folx… we are failing.
They are our yew trees. Despite their immeasurable value to the whole of society, and no matter how we in this room recognize the truth in that statement, they are still being treated like trash trees…left in the slash and burn pile.
One of the things I was asked to address this morning was the importance of language.
Here I am talking about bullying. And access disparities. And violence. And homicide. And suicide. And yew trees. So why the huge focus on language today at this conference?
I grew up in a time where most people were straight. As far as I knew. There were a few gay kids in the drama club and if you watched Donahue, you might have seen someone who was transgender on the show. The language we have today, and the space that now exists for different identities is wildly different. I train on this topic, and I still run into words that I’ve never seen before. Urban Dictionary is my best friend. And for those of us who grew up during gay-straight-or-Donahue times, it can feel overwhelming. But learning and respecting language is one of the most powerful things we can do as mental health advocates.
Franz Boas published the Handbook of American Indian Languages in 1911. He was one of the first cultural relativists and he discovered something interested when studying these languages with an eye as to how they function within their communities.
There is a bi-directional flow between thought and verbal expression. That is, what we think influences how we speak. And how we speak starts to change how we think. If we want to change the world, and we don’t have a million dollars and a building? We start with our language. The language we use in service. In direct care. In advocacy. Our language declares our allyship. Our bravery. Our intent for change. And that language changes the dialogue and changes minds. And when I’m feeling hopeless in the face of bulldozers, this is something I can do.
One of my favorite writers, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, said it with far more eloquence than I ever could:
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these - to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
This is how we protect your yew trees. And I am deeply grateful that you are with me in this fight. Thank you for being here today.