‘Killer Lesbians’ in PBS Movie Open Up About Trauma, PTSD, Mental Health

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Originally published June 19, 2015, on Healthline Contributors, which no longer is live. Reprinted with permission.

By David Heitz

It was intended to be a fun night on the town for the seven Jersey women of color – an evening in the West Village of New York City.

They enjoyed being around other gay people while visiting the neighborhood of the historic Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of our nation’s gay rights movement. But as the POV documentary “Out in the Night” shows, it ended up being a night filled with harassment, violence and enduring trauma.

The PBS documentary by filmmaker Blair Dorosh-Walther will air Monday, June 22, at 10 p.m. EST on PBS. Check your local listings. The film will stream online for a month thereafter.

In my view, “Out in the Night” illuminates public health hazards that are getting worse every day.

As these women strolled along that summer night in 2007, the last thing they expected was for an older black man to get in their face and talk filthy – especially not in the West Village.

But that’s what happened. When the man first said, “I want that,” tiny Patreese Johnson thought he simply wanted a drink of her friend’s Pepsi. Sitting by a fire hydrant, he looked a little down and out.

Patreese had seen her share of struggle – her brother was caught up in a gang fight when she was 11, shot dead by police at the age of 17, caught in the crossfire.

But when the man pointed at her crotch and said, “I want THAT!” and followed with “D-ke b-tch-s” and “I’ll f— you straight and put my d— in your a—,” they had heard enough.

Renata Hill, another of the women, had been raped by her mom’s husband when she was a child. She wasn’t about to listen to all of that.

Ultimately, the man lunged at the women, struck them, and a fight ensued. In fact, he pulled out Renata’s dreadlocks, leaving her weaves on the concrete and her scalp a bloody mess.

And, ultimately, the women defended themselves. Patreese, who carried a small knife for protection at the plea of her brother Anthony, stabbed him.

Black, Female, Gay: Marginalized to The Edge of The Margins

Black. Female. Gay. Three demographics that in this country have been marginalized for years, all rolled into one. Even in New York City, many people still don’t get it.

“Lesbian Gang-Stab Shocker” screamed one tabloid headline. “Hated by Lez Gang” read another. “Killer Lesbians” yet another.

But the headline that really ticked off filmmaker Dorosh-Walther? “Man is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger” read an inside page of The New York Times.

To borrow a phrase from one of my dearest departed gay friends, the headline blew up her skirt. It wreaked of ignorance, and added insult to injury by appearing in a newspaper of authority such as The New York Times. That’s when Dorosh-Walther knew she wanted to tell these women’s story.

But as a white woman, she wanted to make sure she could tell it right. “You want to make sure you tell the story accurately through the lens of the person or people who experienced it,” she told me.

I spoke with Dorosh-Walther, Patreese, Renata, Venice Brown and Terrain Dandridge (the other two women who went to prison) on a conference call for about 45 minutes. Dorosh-Walther was excited to have the movie reviewed on a health website.

Some of the key takeaways from the film ought to be an understanding of what years of harassment and trauma can do to someone, or to a group of people. It’s also important to remember that being locked up in a penitentiary forever changes a person. Indeed, it leaves many prisoners with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

And then, what happens when the convicted gets out?

“When people are released from prison, they give you a bus pass to get on the bus, or the subway,” Dorosh-Walther said. “They have no support, no family, a one-way ticket … you’re going to put them on public transportation? You’re putting everybody else in jeopardy. This is a public health issue.”

Nuns Take in ‘Damaged Goods’ Ex-Felon

“After going through all of this, and you’re done with your time … you’re damaged goods, and you’re being thrown back into a brand-new world,” explained Renata. “You’re thrown into a cage. You’re separated from those you love and care about. You have no support system. You’re paid a few cents per hour. They control you, belittle you, verbally abuse you, some physically abuse you.”

When Renata was released, she was taken to a shelter in New York City run by Catholic nuns.

“I had to stay in New York, and I’m not from New York. I never went to New York unless it was to go to the village,” she explained. “I had no family support.”

Renata said she was grateful for the transitional housing provided by the nuns, because some people don’t get any housing support at all upon their release. On the other hand, being black and being a lesbian – a lesbian who speaks earlier in the film about wearing a dildo when she goes out into the Village – it’s not difficult to understand the discomfort she felt.

“Simple things, like going to the corner store … I couldn’t do that,” Renata said. “In some ways, I still felt stuck in the same place. I had to go to parole. I had to enlist in a drug program, even though I never did drugs. I had to pee in a cup while they watched me.”

When asked how she got past feelings of anger and self-pity that must have been going through her mind, not only in prison but afterward, too, Renata’s answer was simple: “What kept me going was knowing I had to get my son back.”

Renata missed several years of her young son’s life while she was a locked-up single mother. When she was released, she learned she had lost custody of T.J., who had been put into the hands of the state of New Jersey.

“I had to look for a job, and when I looked for a job with a felony … I never even was given a chance to explain my situation,” Renata said. “When you get out of prison, where is the help? Where is the toolbox?”

A Frightening Experience for a Femme

“In prison, you have to develop a certain type of thinking to survive,” Patreese said.

“Everything there works different.”

Tiny, femme and poetic, Patreese served more time than any of the women – almost eight years. She looks about as threatening as a church mouse, and she readily admits that being in prison messed with her head.

“I said, ‘Am I going to take these meds?’ Some of these people deserve to be in a mental health hospital,” Patreese recalled of being medicated in the prison. “But as I found out, they were giving the meds to me anyway, and I didn’t know it. They gave them to me because I couldn’t stop crying. I just wanted to talk to somebody. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should take the meds just to get through day to day.’”

Almost two years after her release, she still struggles to put the pieces of her life back together. “Our mental health should be a priority when we get out. It’s really hard when you’re trying to transition back to society. When I’m lost, I’m even scared to ask for directions. There are no resources for us.”

Dorosh-Walther agreed. “This is a public-health issue. Mental health is something we’ve never put enough resources into. Mental health, far down the line after release, is a lasting issue.”

When Patreese and the others were convicted, one headline read, “Guilty Gal Gang Weepy Women,” while another proclaimed, “Lesbian Wolf Pack Guilty.”

How to get Past Injustice? Baby Steps

“When you come out, you come out with ‘Institutionalized thinking,’” Patreese said. “It’s something similar to PTSD. You end up getting changed by the system.”

The fact that people in that condition often end up being sent out the door with no support network at all is “absurd,” Dorosh-Walther said. “If there is nothing to transition you to live in the outside world … or only a tiny fraction of services … how are you even supposed to get housing?”

As a journalist, I often get caught up whenever I see injustice.

How do you get past it, I asked the women again and again?

Finally, Dorosh-Walther answered for them.

“You don’t really have time to comprehend the injustice and the pain,” she said. “There are hoops to jump through over and over and over again. You’re court-ordered to a shelter, for example. They are not going to make anything easy. It’s just piled on, piled on and piled on, and at some level you’re in survival mode and you’ve got to keep moving forward.”

The women said being able to tell their story via the film has helped them heal a great deal.

“It’s baby steps,” Terrain said. “There are moments it feels good, like we can celebrate. Other moments, we’re still struggling.”

Medical establishment argues for gun control: DavidHeitz.com longform report

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Second Amendment rights advocates can finally rest assured that Hillary Clinton won’t be coming for their guns anytime soon.

But the medical establishment may be.

In a massive, unprecedented report on gun safety research, JAMA Internal Medicine this morning published some exhaustive commentary, analysis and research about gun safety. They posed questions including:

Should the medical community have a right to counsel patients about gun safety?

With access to guns a proven driver of suicide, why aren’t we doing more to stop it, and how can we get laws changed to make it easier for us to do that?

What has been the result of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law?

“Firearm violence in the United States has continued unabated,” JAMA writes in an editorial leading off the series.  “In June 2016, a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. killed 49 people and wounded 53 others. As of October 15, 2016, Chicago had recorded more than 570 homicides this year, levels not seen since the 1990s. Shootings in which four or more people are injured or killed (including shooters) occur almost daily.”

Yet after reviewing their research, the oft-heard argument, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” still holds true. That’s not to say some of their findings regarding suicide prevention don’t make for solid arguments for physicians being able to counsel those at risk of hurting themselves.

“This series follows from the belief that if the United States were to implement a coordinated and sustained public health, research, and law enforcement commitment to prevent firearm violence, many lives would be saved,” JAMA writes in the editorial. “In 2014, firearm injuries were responsible for about the same number of deaths in the United States as motor vehicle crashes. Although deaths from motor vehicle crashes have substantially decreased since 2000, deaths from firearm injuries have substantially increased, mostly from suicides.”

Accounting for 33,599 U.S. gun deaths in 2014

The grisly death-by-firearm breakdown goes like this:

Suicide: 21,334

Homicide: 19,945

Unintentional: 586

Legal intervention: 464

Undetermined: 270

For a total of 33,599 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2014.

“In a research letter, Alcorn documents the reasons and consequences of the low number of studies about firearm injuries and gun violence in the United States,” the editorial argues. “From 1985 to 1999, publications increased markedly. Soon after the 1996 ban on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s funding for such research, publications plateaued at about 90 articles annually through 2012. In 2013 and 2014, publications increased again after the mass shooting of school children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. In December 2012.”

Federal funding of ‘gun control advocacy’ research banned

In a systematic review of firearm laws and firearm homicides published as part of today’s JAMA report, Dr. Lois Lee and colleagues from Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan of Public Health essentially find inconclusive data regarding whether stricter gun controls stop people from killing one another. Essentially, there is no “magic bullet” for stopping the bloodshed.

“In the aggregate, stronger gun policies were associated with decreased rates of firearm homicides, even after adjusting for demographic and sociologic factors,” the authors concluded after evaluating 34 articles published from 1970 to the present in PubMed, the nation’s medical research database. “Laws that strengthen background checks and permit-to-purchased seemed to decrease firearm homicide rates. Specific laws directed at firearm trafficking, improving child safety, or the banning of military-style assault weapons were not associated with changes in firearm homicide rates. The evidence for laws restricting guns in public places and leniency in gun carrying was mixed.”

The authors called for better research and more funding for such research, as did the accompanying JAMA editorial. “Given the 19,000 deaths from firearm homicide each year, many of which are preventable, it continues to be a national shame that the United States does not fund sufficient robust research to inform this public health imperative and establish which types of firearm laws work. Since 2012, federal law has banned all Department of Health and Human Services agencies, not just the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using funds ‘in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.’ This vague language continues to have a negative effect on federal funding of firearm injury and gun violence research. Some states, local governments, and private philanthropists try to fill the void.”

An analysis of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ self-defense law

In an original investigation published as part of the firearm series, researchers from University of Oxford, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, examined whether Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law had an impact on homicides

I’m curious whether the study’s conclusions take into consideration that homicide is a legal term. If so, then its claim that firearm-related homicides went up by 31.6 percent monthly (homicides in general went up 24.4 percent monthly) implies that the shooters all were convicted of murder, as opposed to some of them being found not guilty under the self-defense clause. That was not immediately clear to me.

While I do not want to trivialize any loss of life, it is important to know whether self-defense was legitimately used. Only the court system decides that, and the court system was not specifically referenced in the piece.

“Throughout the United States, the application of lethal force as a means of self-defense is governed by criminal law,” the authors wrote. “Since the colonial era, it has been an individual’s ‘duty to retreat’ from perceived threats before resorting to any use of force.”

Florida’s law removed that “duty of retreat” when a threat is made on a person’s property, as almost half the states have. Florida’s law went further and removed “duty of retreat” when threats are made in public places.

“Advocates of the laws suggest that the increased threat over retaliatory violence deters would-be burglars, resulting in fewer intruder encounters,” the authors wrote. “Critics are concerned that weakening the punitive consequences of using force may serve to escalate aggressive encounters. They also argue that these laws may exacerbate racial disparities in homicide where threats motivated by racial stereotypes produce unnecessary fatalities.”

The authors admitted their study has several limitations. “Circumstances unique to Florida may have contributed to our findings, including those that we could not identify … Finally, there has been considerable debate over the potential of the Florida law to deter crime and improve public safety. Our study examined the effect of the Florida law on homicide and homicide by firearm, not on crime and public safety.”

The role of physicians in preventing firearm suicides

Perhaps the strongest arguments made in the JAMA firearm series are for finding ways to better prevent firearm owners from committing suicide. Ironically, states with some of the strictest gun control laws have created a situation whereby it is difficult to transfer ownership from a suicidal person to someone else, even temporarily.

In a “Special Communication” in the JAMA series published by Alexander D. McCourt of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and colleagues, policies in Maryland, Colorado, and California are examined. All take different approaches to firearm transfers.

“In the United States, suicides account for 63 percent of firearm deaths, and self-inflicted firearm injury is responsible for half of all suicides,” the authors write. “Firearm suicide affects nearly all age groups. In 2014, there were 929 suicides by firearm among person aged 10 to 24 years, 9,612 for those aged 25 to 54 years, and 9,277 for those aged 55 and older.”

The letter makes the case that some individuals experiencing psychological distress can be talked into giving up their guns, at least temporarily, although the public health experts admit no data is available to back up this claim.

“Reducing access to firearms and other lethal items is a recommended, evidence-based practice to prevent suicide,” claim the authors. “In the case of a firearm owner at elevated risk of self-harm, the recommendation would be to temporarily store the gun away from home or store it locked in such a way that the at-risk person does not have access at least until the mental health crisis has resolved.”

While many doctors’ organizations have encouraged their members to talk to patients about gun control when appropriate, many admit they choose not to.

“Universal background checks before firearm purchase are effective public health measures, but should be supplemented with specific protocols for temporary transfer of firearms from the home and for storage,” the authors recommend. “Protocols for temporary transfer may help to reduce the risk of other forms of firearm violence, including intimate partner violence situations where the firearm owner can be persuaded to voluntarily remove a firearm from the home.”

The authors recommend “incorporating and improving on aspects of Colorado’s exemptions to background checks” to include:

  1. “Clear statutory provisions that allow for temporary storage by federally license firearm dealers, law enforcement, officials, family members and friends.”
  2. Allow period of transfer to last at least 14 days or longer if recommended by a physician or mental health professional. Make sure children or any other unauthorized user cannot access where the firearm is being held.
  3. “Limit the liability related to these temporary transfers to instances of gross negligence or reckless behavior by the person who transfers the firearms.

“Efforts to educate physicians and the public should carefully explain these provisions to allay fears about potential liability associated with the temporary transfer of firearms from the home and to encourage transfers for suicide prevention,” the authors conclude. “Public health professionals and firearm organizations should collaborate to develop tailored and effective messaging that is acceptable to physicians, mental health professionals, and the public. Policy changes should also be evaluated to assess whether they have the intended effect of reducing firearm suicides.”

Reducing gun violence: Compromises that have worked

In yet another JAMA viewpoint in the series titled, “Reducing Suicides Through Partnerships Between Health Professionals and Gun Owner Groups – Beyond Docs vs. Glocks,” the authors from Harvard Injury Control Research Center says that in some states firearm retailers have been part of the solution.

“In New Hampshire, where over 85 percent of firearm deaths are by suicide, a group of firearm retailers, gun rights advocates, public health and mental health professionals began meeting in 2009 to examine the role gun shops might play in reducing suicide,” according to the piece. “The New Hampshire Firearm Safety Coalition’s first products were posters and brochures aimed at gun shop customers that promoted the ‘11th Commandment of Firearm Safety:’ Be alert to signs of suicide in friends and family and help keep firearms from them until they have recovered. Materials suggested options like temporarily storing guns away from home (i.e. with a friend, if local law allows, at a self-storage unit or at a gun shop), or keeping the guns at home under new lock and key that the vulnerable person has no access to until they have recovered. Unannounced visits at all 65 independent gun shops in the state found that 48 percent were displaying at least one of the materials, a good uptake for information on a topic as difficult as suicide.”

For the record, I never have been a fan of guns and I do not own one. In fact, I can’t even imagine owning one, even though I have been the victim of violent crime more than once.

But I have come to understand in recent years why people should have the right to bear them in matters of self-defense. And it is a fundamental right granted to us by our forefathers, so any attempt to restrict it in even the slightest of ways should be made with great caution, particularly in an uncertain nation    and an uncertain world.

First year without dad: When it’s down to just you, you better like you. Thank God I do.

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Dad died a year ago today. For sure it has been the fastest year of my life.

But as I sat at the cemetery bawling yesterday, only then did it really hit me – it’s just me now.

And I mean that in every sense of the word. My dad was my entire life for so long – since the day I moved back to the Quad-Cities in 2002. I made several trips a day to his apartment for many years before moving in with him. And of course I also made several trips per day to the assorted substandard facilities he lived in in his final years, except for 108 days when one of them locked me out.

The void in my life is even bigger than I could have guessed. When you surround yourself with alcoholics and addicts, nobody cares when hard times come. They don’t. They really don’t. If you’re an alcoholic or an addict, you’ll find that out eventually. If you’re an alcoholic or an addict, you know what really matters is the bump, the shot, the tall boy.

“Yeah, yeah, so-and-so’s dad’s died. Hey, let’s get some ding-ding!”

I used to say it myself.

The bar people were gone pretty much from the day I moved in with dad. When he went into a facility, that’s all she wrote.

Thank God they left. It made sobriety easier. I remember once, my friend Scott’s grandma died. She was 100 years old, maybe older. He loved her so much.

We went out that night, to the bar. None of his “friends” showed him any compassion at all. It was as if they were incapable. I’ll never forget the look on his face, or the feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Monsters,” I thought. But I still hung around them for free drugs and alcohol. I was an alcoholic and a drug addict.

And of course, when you’re nearly murdered, that tends to make you pretty much not trust anyone anymore. And that turns people away in droves. And I thought about that, too, as I sat at the cemetery, crying to dad as I had so many times before.

When it’s your family who tries to hurt you? That’s the worst hurt there is, I think.

I told dad at least I had raised hell about the substandard elder care in our community, and at least I educated a whole lot of people about his disease. And hey, I got to report undercover from the Rock Island County Jail, held there on no charges at all!

That truly was a blessing, and I’m being completely serious. I remember, when I heard someone cock a gun, and start shooting blanks “click, click, click” … I remember praising God for helping me become sober, for going back to work and helping people with my writing, and for showing my dad that I could be the man he always knew I was.

Most of all, I thanked God for giving me my self-respect back.

And I prepared for the bullet to the head I was certain I was going to take.

“They were f***ing with you,” one healthcare provider told me. “That’s what they do in the Rock Island County Jail. They’re known for it.”

Well, yeah.

But the reason I really thought they were going to kill me was this: I heard one guard, I’ll call him “J.,” say in his classic foghorn voice, “(Blankety Blank) tried to kill him last year, but he woke up on his couch.”

Who did he say that to? A high-ranking politician who was hanging out in the jail. I did not hear her utter a response. But I’ll tell you this: The silence alone was chilling.

I knew the politician and Blankety Blank were an acquaintance, because Blankety Blank boasted to me once or twice that he knew her. But this?

And “J.” feeling chummy enough with her to tell her what “Blankety Blank” allegedly had done? (Through the hands of my cousin and his friends, obviously, if in fact Blankety Blank really did have anything to do with it at all, or if that was just more s@#t talk for me to hear and get upset about)

It was one year prior to that day, at least to the same week, that my cousin and his friends assaulted me, pinned me down, and injected me with a needle. When I woke up, there was a nebulizer in my pocket. Classic (attempted) homicide disguised like an overdose. At least that’s exactly what it looks like to me.

And so very curious that other people who traveled in the same circles I did have indeed died in similar, mysterious ways. “Overdose.” “Suicide.” “Unknown.” “Under investigation.”

I showed my AA sponsor the marks on my arms. He said, “You had the shit beat out of you. Have you had enough?”

Apparently I had because it was the last time I ever took a drink.

And that person “J.” mentioned? Well, he has since been in the news himself for something rather shocking. So now it’s just doubly-triply chilling.

Did I imagine these things? Did I just “hear wrong?” because I was in distress in the jail?

I did dance around naked after all in an attempt to amuse myself. But I remember that. No, that wasn’t “a trip,” that was me using humor to keep going and “stay positive.”

If they find any jail footage at all I’m sure it will be that. The rest will be “missing.”

I suppose I could have imagined the things I heard, but I absolutely don’t believe  for one second that I did. Much of what I heard has since been independently verified. Believe me, I have a big ol’ file.

And it being “all in my head” doesn’t add up by the sheer fact of what history has taught us since, and the fact that I’ve known these people for years and years and knew their voices like the back of my hand. There’s too much detail, too much evidence, too much motive. I think the ones who try to paint me as bonkers are beginning to look guilty themselves, quite frankly.

Somebody knows what happened in there. At least a few people. It only takes one to snitch. I’m counting on that one.

The moral of my story today? I truly believed they were going to kill me in that jail, and the motive (my big mouth) was quite clear and had been for some time. Yet as I prepared and fully expected one of them to walk in and shoot me in the head, I thanked God for having my self-respect back.

That, my friends, is priceless. And for now, worth every lonely moment.