BY MERYL PHAIR ’21
Content warning: this article references suicide.
Beck Gee Cohen, a traveling speaker and licensed counselor for LGBTQ+ and addiction issues, spoke to the Mount Holyoke community on Oct. 26 in Gamble Auditorium about the adverse effects of stigma and discrimination that impact LGBTQ+ lives, recovery and wellbeing. Cohen was brought to the College by the Alcohol and Drug Awareness Program (ADAP), a counseling and information program for students.
At the event, Cohen was introduced by Karen Jacobus, Coordinator of Health Education at Mount Holyoke. She listed Cohen’s accomplishments, which include holding a master’s-level clinician license and a master’s degree in addiction counseling, as well as an undergraduate degree in sociology, specializing in gender and sexuality. Cohen owns BGC Consulting, a company that helps educate businesses on LGBTQ+ issues, with a focus on shifting culture in the workplace.
“Cohen has a dedicated passion for working with the LGBTQ+ community and has years of experience introducing individuals to pathways of recovery,” said Jacobus. “He recognizes that stigma, which is a prevalent roadblock for many seeking help, is even more amplified in this particular population.”
“Some of the things I say today might make you uncomfortable or leave you a little unsettled or questioning, but I think that’s what growth is,” said Cohen. He opened his presentation by discussing the importance of having hard conversations and dialogues.
Cohen dove into his presentation speaking about his own experience with addiction, recovery and the confrontation of his gender identity. Raised by alcoholics in southern California, Cohen had a tough and chaotic childhood.
“From an early age I knew how to check out and disassociate from my reality,” said Cohen, explaining how he used television as a way to escape the disorder and confusion he faced.
Cohen was always more comfortable playing with and dressing like the boys. At the age of three he knew he hated wearing dresses and told his family that they could no longer call him Rebecca. “I knew I didn’t connect with anything that had to do with being female,” said Cohen.
When Cohen started school, he was consistently sent to the principal’s office for going to the boys’ side anytime the class had to separate by gender. It was at that point in time that he seriously developed anxiety and depression. He had no support system and no one to talk to about what was going on in his life.
Cohen started drinking at the age of thirteen. He turned to drugs and alcohol to “check out” of his personal life. At seventeen, he came out as a lesbian. Coming out at that time at a Catholic high school “didn’t flow so well.” He attended a local junior college, playing basketball and continuing to party. After tearing his ACL three games into his first season, Cohen dropped out of school and worked as a bartender to support his habit.
After meeting a friend who had been sober for eight years in a bar one night, he knew he couldn’t keep living the way he was. He moved to Montana to start a new sober life. He went back to college and graduated from Montana State, going on to graduate school in Minnesota.
Even in recovery, Cohen still dealt with significant depression and anxiety, including suicidal thoughts. After a moment of clarity standing on a bridge at an overpass in 2011, Cohen knew he had to be open and honest with himself. He came out as transgender.
For Cohen, staying sober isn’t just for himself. He does it because he believes that addiction is taking over the country. He’s seen the real effects addiction can have on individuals and communities and for him, staying sober is an act of social justice.
“The part of the talk that I found most interesting was his conception of addiction as a social justice issue, as it affects LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities at disproportionate rates,” said Zoe Brown ’21. “This way of framing the recovery process, painting former addicts as rebels against oppression, placing emphasis on recovery for the community — it struck me as not only hopeful, but truthful. His words gave me the bit of courage I needed to start some hard conversations with myself and others.”
The LGBTQ+ community suffers from addiction at much higher rates than the general population, with 30 to 40 percent affected, compared to nine percent of others. LGBTQ+ individuals are eight times more likely to commit suicide, six times more likely to report high levels of depression and three times as likely to be at risk for HIV as the rest of the population, according to Cohen. “It’s so much easier to go to the bar,” said Cohen.
“It’s so much easier to check out than deal with all the stuff that’s happening.”
Cohen also discussed the invisibility of people in recovery, especially on campuses, emphasizing the importance of disrupting with open, honest communication. “[Right now] we’re just stepping over [the issue],” said Cohen. “We’re just saying, ‘Well, she just can’t handle her drugs’ and we’re not talking about the significance of addiction in our communities and we need to.”
“As a psych major and a person who identifies with the LGBTQ+ community, I thought it was a really interesting talk that tied together two of my identities,” said Rin Elwell ’21. “I have seen people in my family struggle with alcohol and substance abuse and hearing it talked about as a social issue was a powerful way for me to look at how those around me are struggling and how to better be there for them when they need me.”
Cohen also stressed the importance of creating campus environments and communities where people feel safe talking about their struggles. He highlighted the importance of taking care of each other and being a part of the lives of people who are dealing with these issues.
“In terms of MHC’s support of trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people at MHC, I think we’re in a pretty good spot, though we’re by no means perfect,” said Emet Marwell ’18. “A large part of the reason I was able to come out as trans was because of the support I felt in this community. I’ve definitely experienced my share of microaggressions based on my trans identity, but I know so many people including faculty, staff and administrators who are pushing to do better,” he said.
Marwell said that the recent reorganization of gender issues training and the recent hire of a new Chief Diversity Officer, Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, are both steps in closing the gap between the community’s intentions and the actual impact on people. “There are plenty of areas in which MHC can improve itself with regard to TGNC issues and one place I really would like to see change is at the Health Center,” said Marwell.
Marwell described a change in the kinds of questions he was asked at the Health Center after going through his transition. “Prior to the start of my transition ‘Are you pregnant?’ was a standard question [at the beginning of appointments]. Once I began my transition and started taking testosterone, I was told ‘and of course you aren’t pregnant’ during the start of an appointment. It was true that I wasn’t pregnant, but that’s not something they would know; trans men can still get pregnant and health care providers should not make assumptions about whether or not a trans man is pregnant, just as they should not make assumptions about whether a cis woman is pregnant,” said Marwell.
Cohen’s talk came at an important moment for the LGBTQ+ community after a proposed effort by the Trump administration that was reported in the New York Times on Oct. 21.
“The Department of Health and Human Services is spearheading an effort to establish a legal definition of sex under Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bans gender discrimination in education programs that receive government financial assistance,” according to the New York Times. “The new definition would essentially eradicate federal recognition of the estimated 1.4 million Americans who have opted to recognize themselves — surgically or otherwise — as a gender other than the one they were born into.”
“I think it’s really important to have more conversations around substance use and particularly how the LGBTQ+ community is impacted by it,” said Marwell. Cohen concluded by talking about the importance of allowing people the space to share their own stories and experiences with others.
“I think that standing up for people in recovery is just as important as standing up for LGBTQ+ people,” said Cohen. “My life is better because I came out and was supported by people in recovery and by people who were not in recovery. That’s why my life got better. I think that if we’re able to do that, that’s the best way we can be allies.”