An exploration of Queerness, creativity, & mental health at Queen’s

How I found self-validation in creative expression

Cat Rose's piece entitled "Quarantine: Creativity and the case of chronic loneliness."

This article discusses mental health and may be triggering for some readers. The Canadian Mental Health Association Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-875-6213. 

This article uses “Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, Queer, and Two-Spirit (LGBTQ2S+)" when referring to students with diverse experiences with gender and sexuality. While many of these labels are popular among those who self-identify, they are not universal. 

I’ve always grappled with my identity and how to express it.

Before Queen’s, I understood my mental health, gender, and sexuality as complex aspects of myself that I wanted to unpack, but growing up in a rural conservative community denied me the affirming space needed to do it. Instead, I tried to push it all out of my mind as much as possible.

In high school, I put all my creative efforts into my classes and community advocacy, but the shame I attached to my identity and my reliance on external validation kept me deep in the closet. I felt uncomfortable in so many spaces where I was supposed to feel at home, and I couldn’t acknowledge my identity through creative mediums.

For a long time, exploring my identity on my own terms through art and through creative expression seemed completely off the table. I couldn't self-reflect or connect with other LGBTQ2S+ students, and the thought of engaging in LGBTQ2S+ activism terrified me.

When I started at Queen's in the fall of 2019, I experienced burnout and lacked both a strong sense of self and an affirming community—I hadn't yet found the means to express myself creatively.

On top of feeling incredibly disconnected from my community and identity, my then-undiagnosed bipolar and anxiety disorders caused depression, paranoia, and impulsive, erratic behaviour and further isolated me from those who couldn’t understand my often intense and overwhelming emotions. 

My lack of knowledge regarding Ontario’s mental health system, combined with misdiagnosis and experiencing invalidation while trying to access care, prevented me from getting effective treatment until my second year at Queen's.

Navigating the system for the first time during a crisis proved incredibly difficult. My aversion to being vulnerable made it hard for me to recognize that I needed help and impeded my ability to accurately describe my symptoms without diminishing my own experiences.

It took months to find an affordable therapist who was both part of the LGBTQ2S+ community and had training in understanding my unique identities and experiences. Accessing equitable and effective care is even more difficult for racialized members of our community, especially those who experience racism and homophobia on top of the stigma surrounding mental health.

While getting a diagnosis and proper medication was difficult enough, I struggled most with how my mental health intersected with my gender and sexuality.

In group therapy, I tried prioritizing one aspect of myself over others, but found that categorizing my identity using labels and hierarchies just made describing my experiences even more complicated.

Even now, months after my diagnosis, I’m still learning about my condition and understanding my identity as so much more than just clinical labels or a difference in brain chemistry.

My creativity has bloomed since I started treatment. I've begun combatting my harmful behaviours and seeking out safe spaces for Queer creative expression. While the support of my friends has shown me the value of community, I’m learning to find validation within the individuality of my queerness.

No amount of societal acceptance or medical diagnosis could ever validate my identity in the same way as my authentic self-expression.

I started shooting film photography for fun last fall, experimenting with expired film and different cameras. Growing up, I always believed that my presentation within images represented a performance of what I thought others wanted from me, rather than a creative exploration of self-expression within the context of my gender, sexuality, and mental health.

I experimented with self-portraiture for the first time when creating the visual for this piece. The image, titled "Quarantine: Creativity and the case of chronic loneliness," is a celebration of the newfound self-affirmation I find within my identity, of being vulnerable in my art.

It’s also an exploration of overstimulation through substance use, creative expression, and media consumption. Making art has helped me cope with the complex isolation connected to being Queer and mentally ill during the pandemic.

When creating my visuals for the article this week, I attended a Queer Art Night event hosted by Sexual Assault Centre Kingston (SACK), and Queen's Collage Collectives. Celebrating Pride alongside a supportive group of LGBTQ2S+ creatives while exploring my identity through photography is more than I ever could have hoped for as a closeted kid.

I’m grateful for LGBTQ2S+ student leaders at Queen’s like Matt D’Alessandro, ArtSci ’22, who I’ve had the privilege of working alongside in campus activism. My own advocacy is inspired by his commitment to creating healthy support systems for LGBTQ2S+ students on campus, as well as the collective efforts of our community. 

I’ve only just started understanding myself and my identity, but I’m excited to continue my self-discovery on campus in spaces that welcome LGBTQ2S+ expression and creativity.

To all incoming LGBTQ2S+ students struggling with their mental health: you're not alone. Your experiences and identities are valid, regardless of how and where you choose to share them.

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