This weekend, in my hometown of Atlanta, Scout Schultz, a bisexual nonbinary intersex student organizer, carrying only a small multi-tool, was fatally shot in the chest by police on the campus of Georgia Tech. Preliminary reports of the incident and statements from the victim’s family suggest that Schultz, who was the president of Georgia Tech’s Pride Alliance, struggled with depression and anxiety and was likely experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of the incident.
As the bisexual community celebrates Bisexual Awareness Week, Scout Schultz’s story is a devastating reminder not only of the problem of police violence against LGBTQ people –– particularly trans people and people of color –– but also of the ways that trauma and mental illness within the bisexual community, and our reluctance to talk honestly about these unfortunate realities, continue to limit our advocacy work and threaten our very survival.
“Mental illness and bi activism go hand in hand like termites in trees,” nonbinary bisexual student activist Miles Joyner told ThinkProgress. “The tree can grow and grow while the termites are mild, but the second the termites start spreading the tree becomes food. It stops growing, and when the problem goes untreated, everything comes crashing down. A lot of activists keep working through their termites, going and going, even when we know that the tree is going to fall. We don’t give ourselves any time to heal.”
Among any marginalized group fighting for greater inclusion, there are those who would rather be silent about problems within their community. We are reluctant to air our dirty laundry, lest we confirm harmful stereotypes about ourselves and give our opponents more fodder. The problem with this approach is that we’re prioritizing respectability over our own humanity and need for healing. As a bisexual woman who struggles with chronic depression and generalized anxiety disorder, I know first-hand the stigma we face, and it is time for the bisexual community and the larger LGBTQ movement to make space for openly addressing our trauma and mental health disparities.
Stigma, discrimination, and the disparities they create in the lives of marginalized people all contribute to what scholars have termed “minority stress.” For bisexual people, minority stress most often takes the form of poverty, family rejection, job discrimination, intimate partner violence, and added marginalization within the LGBTQ community. To make matters worse, our community has higher rates of poverty than gay men and lesbians, making it all the more difficult for us to access mental health support services.
Across numerous studies, bisexual youth and adults consistently report higher levels of mental illness and suicidality compared to gay- or lesbian-identified peers. We also experience significantly more intimate partner violence and sexual assault than these other groups. For the one-in-three transgender people who also identify as part of the bisexual community, the rates of violence are even higher. Among bisexual women, rates of sexual trauma and intimate partner violence are particularly shocking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly two-thirds of bi women will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 44 percent of lesbians and 35 percent of heterosexual women.
“It is difficult to not become discouraged,” Lynnette McFadzen, president of BiNet USA and producer of the bisexual+ community podcast, The BiCast, told ThinkProgress. “With the constant barrage on social media and in our daily lives of microaggressions, threatened violence, biphobia, bi erasure, and heartbreaking stories like Scout’s –– it’s emotionally and spiritually exhausting.”
McFadzen said Scout’s story is particularly devastating because it is being used “to villainize activism and people with mental illness. Our society does not understand what a mental health crisis is. Police are not trained properly. Scout was a kid under pressure and in trouble. They were not a threat and they did not deserve to die.”
In my own advocacy work with the bi community, I have seen the ways that surviving trauma can translate into exceptional patience, forgiveness, and empathy for one another. But I have also seen too many of us succumb to our own demons or replicate the toxic and abusive behaviors of those who have traumatized us. Inevitably, as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. Bi organizing, then, consists of balancing our own needs with those of our unusually broken community.
Co-founder of BiNet USA and professor of sexuality studies Loraine Hutchins told ThinkProgress, “We need to take our mental states and peace of mind and composure into account as we respond and organize, especially with young people.”
As an advocate for LGBTQ students, Hutchins said Scout’s story was common. “Some of my best students who are queer-identified struggle with depression and have problems in classroom settings or drop out of classes. I am always trying to draw in understandings of trauma and its cost into teaching about healthy sexuality, behavior, and relationships, and that’s what we should be doing in all of our advocacy spaces.”
Scout’s death demonstrates the importance of having difficult conversations about how trauma has affected all of us, the mental health disparities we face, and how we can work together to support each other, address sexual harassment, and interrupt cycles of abuse within the bisexual community.
“I was joking with another activist recently about self care and that we ‘talk the talk’ but never walk the walk,” Joyner said. “We were laughing about it, but we shouldn’t have been. We should be mourning our mental health, checking it. If we don’t, we’re all going to risk being in a position that we can’t turn around from. If we don’t call for help, it won’t know to be there when we need it most.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated with the correct spelling of Loraine Hutchins’ name.
If you are experiencing a crisis or suicidal feelings, help is available.
US: (877) 565-8860
Canada: (877) 330-6366
The Trevor Project
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
(800) 273-8255 (online chat available)
Crisis Text Line
Text START to 741-741
Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
800-656-HOPE / 800-810-7440 (TTY)
Beth Sherouse is a writer and activist based in Atlanta.