***This blog post contains conversation of topics including sexual assault and invisible illnesses. Please engage in self-care when reading or holding discussions about this post. ***
Every spring at Texas State University, the Communication Studies Department takes a week to celebrate our discipline and its range of reach by bringing in guest speakers and putting on events for the entire university called Communication Week. This year, one of the principal events featured a panel of graduate and undergraduate students called “A Chance to Be Heard.” The panelists spoke about their experiences with marginalized identities and discussed the communication challenges they faced as students both on and off campus. The topics that the panel participants discussed included xenophobia, trans identity, Black and queer identity, DREAMer identity, invisible illness, and sexual assault.
Our names are Lauren Lee and Logan Carpenter, and we both had the honor of being panelists at this event, which was facilitated by Dr. Elizabeth K. Eger and Ms. Marsha Burney. We both identify as white, cisgender females and are graduate students at Texas State University. Along with pursuing our M.A. in Communication Studies, we are also HASTAC scholars. Lauren’s research focuses on the intersection of interpersonal, relational, and health communication in a variety of contexts. She is passionate about the critical study of communication and its potential to help us understand life experiences while fostering meaningful interpersonal relationships with the people around us and was invited to speak on her experiences with invisible illness. Logan’s research takes on critical and interpretive perspectives regarding the discourses around rape and sexual assault and the potential effect those discourses have on the way others understand, enact, and teach others about consent. She was invited to speak on her experiences being a survivor of sexual assault.
On this panel, we discussed when we knew our identities were different than others, how our identities are intersectional, what communication challenges did we face when talking about our identities, and how these identities have impacted our studies. The 80-minute conversation detailed how our identities are intersectional, meaning that they exist not in isolation of one another, but are interconnected with social categorizations like gender, sex, race, and class that are situated in varied experiences of privilege and oppression. In the communication field, we believe that identities are negotiated and reconstituted through our lifelong communication with others and ourselves, and this panel highlighted how our experiences and the way that people communicated with us created spaces that were not always comfortable and did not always feel safe...
While reflecting on this event, we realized how strongly stigma played a role in where, when, and how panelists communicated their identities; thus we are focusing our blog post on the role of stigma in communication of/about identities. Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a person, circumstance, or quality (Byrne, 2000). This “mark” is not always outwardly visible, (e.g., the identity of a survivor of sexual assault, managing an invisible illness) and issues of stigma and privacy influence how, when, or if we communicate about these identities to others (Petronio, 1991). In the following paragraphs of this post, we will each discuss our personal experiences with stigma and how it influences the way we communicate our stories.
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Logan: In high school, I was sexually assaulted and for many years told no one because of the stigma associated with being assaulted, including remarks like: “You should’ve protected yourself better,” “Well maybe if you didn’t go to that party,” or “What were you wearing?” A lot of the conversation around my experience focused on what I did, or rather, did not do, that allowed this to happen to me. And this felt wrong. Why was I responsible for someone else's actions against me? I knew I was not alone in hearing this discourse that blames survivors instead of perpetrators of violence, which is what sparked my research interest and desire to pursue advocacy for other survivors.
During the panel, I spoke about how my identity as a survivor allows me to have a special expertise to share with other survivors that guides my work. There are tensions with talking about sexual assault involving how and when to speaking out because the topic may trigger trauma in audience members. Because I can talk about it and have moved past major triggers, it does not mean that everyone has had the same health care access or therapy as I have, which is my biggest challenge that I face when communicating this identity or talking with others about it. Studies have even shown that survivors are fearful of talking with professionals about sexual assault due to the stigma, like being blamed, denial of the assault, and even discrimination (Crowe & Murray 2015). These stigmas go as far as stopping survivors from coming forward to prosecute their assailants.
Lauren: My experiences living with an invisible identity began in the fourth grade when I broke my left foot playing freeze-tag in gym class. Because of a more extensive systemic illness, my simple-to-fix broken bone quickly became a gateway into a life full of experiences which others often could neither be seen nor understood by others. I developed an invisible yet painful neurological disease, and it took my body years to recover from this condition. Then when my health seemed to be stabilizing, I became sick with meningitis and experienced several serious problems that threatened the health of my brain. Today, I am blessed that many of these complications in my life have subsided. However, I continue to have debilitating migraine headaches (another form of invisible illness) that are difficult for me to treat or control and interfere with my ability to function in my everyday life.
During Communication Week, I spoke about my identity as a student with invisible illness and how learning to effectively communicate with others about my health led me to become passionate about identifying communication strategies that may help others learn to do the same. Because the medical conditions I have had are unseen by others, the stigma associated with my health conditions often left me feeling different and alienated from my peers. Due to the invisibility of my illness history, I have frequently overheard people say things like, “Well she doesn’t look sick.” For invisibly ill people, messages like this may create the sense that they are contextually older than their peers because of their unique life experiences (Kundrat & Nussbaum, 2003). Further, if a sick person hears negative messages about their illness and believes that their condition is stigmatized, this could potentially create the Communicatively Restricted Organizational Stress (Boren & Veskler, 2014). This communication phenomenon occurs when the person feels that they are unable to discuss a specific topic with others, exasperating the initial stress the individual felt and creates the need for even more support.
For invisibly ill people, this may mean that they perceive it is inappropriate or feel that they are unable to discuss their health or illness symptoms with their able-bodied peers. In this case, stigma functions to silence the needs or communication of remarkable experiences that could be contributed by someone living with an invisible identity.
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Although stigma is experienced by many individuals for many different reasons, the members of this panel were surprised to discover that while stigma may vary between our experiences (e.g. based on the visibility of our marginalized identities), its effects were felt between all of us similarly. Ultimately, participating in this panel was a fantastic experience in which six acquaintances were able to stand in front of a room full of strangers and have an open and productive conversation about how our identities shape our worldviews and our communication with others in our daily lives. This was no easy feat! Although our palms were sweating, we allowed ourselves to shed the silence of stigma for a moment to communicate our personal experiences to an audience who was willing to be engaged in this important conversation. The good news is, as readers, you have the opportunity to be a participant in this conversation too! Do you have an invisible identity but are not sure how to communicate about it to others? Do you know someone with an invisible identity, but are not sure how to start a conversation to learn about or be supportive of their experiences?
In the remainder of this post, we pose key questions and takeaways that were discussed during the “A Chance to be Heard” panel created by our moderators, Ms. Burney and Dr. Eger. We believe these questions may help you open the door to considering the possible intersections of your own identity and how these intersections may inform your lived experiences:
- At what time did you remember you experienced difference from others? Did someone tell you? Did you know?
- How do you think about your identities as intersectional?
- How have your identities impacted your experience as a communicator? (This can be positive and negative).
- What challenges do you face when it comes to talking about or exposing your identities (especially for identities that are invisible)?
- How do you thrive in your life with your identities?
When thinking through your identity and questioning your personal intersections, you may begin to notice moments like Lauren and Logan experienced. Moments in which your identity is questioned by others or instances where individuals react to your identity based on stigmatized perceptions can be difficult to navigate. However, having an ally in these cases allows for the exchange of supportive communication that may help individuals make sense of their identity and experiences. An important point of focus between panelist during our conversation was the idea of how to be an effective ally for those who may be in need of support or seeking solidarity. Here are three tips on how to be the best ally you can be:
1. Be an earpiece, not a mouthpiece: If someone is in a marginalized position based on their identities, be sure that you are not further marginalizing them by speaking for them. Being an ally is listening to what you can do and enacting support, not speaking for them, or even worse, over them.
2. Ask the question how?: Rather than offering suggestions or ways to “fix” the problem, ask the person how can I best support you? How can I be an ally to you? Listening is crucial to being an ally. Everyone’s experiences are different. Therefore, there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to be an ally to different people, so asking them how you can allow you to practice being an earpiece and gives recognition and validation to their story and their identity. Also, it is not the marginalized person’s job to educate you, so be prepared for the conversation by reading information and learning more before you offer help.
3. Others identities are not your property, and they do not owe you their story!: It’s important to remember that your identity, whether visible or invisible, is YOURS and yours alone. You do not owe anyone an explanation or justification for the pieces of yourself that you consider a part of your identity. Remember, when electing to talk about your identity, be sure to keep your own health and self-care in mind above anything else.
Logan Carpenter (BA, Arizona State University, 2015) is a graduate student in the Department of Communication Studies at Texas State University. Correspondence: email@example.com. HASTAC: https://www.hastac.org/u/logancarpenter
Lauren Lee (BA, Texas State University, 2016) is a graduate student in the Department of Communication Studies at Texas State University. Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org. HASTAC: https://www.hastac.org/u/laurenlee
Both authors contributed equally to the creation of this post.
Boren, J. P., Veksler, A. E. (2014). Communicatively restricted organizational stress (CROS) I: Conceptualization and overview, Management Communication Quarterly, 29, 28-55. doi:10.1177/0893318914558744
Byrne, P. (2000). Stigma of mental illness and ways of diminishing it. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 6, 65-72.
Kundrat, A. L. & Nussbaum, J. F. (2003). The impact of invisible illness on identity and contextual age across the lifespan. Health Communication, 15, 331–347. doi:10.1207/S15327027HC1503_5
Murray, C. E., Crowe, A., & Overstreet, N. M. (2015). Sources and components of stigma experienced by survivors of intimate partner violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33, 515-536. doi:10.1177/0886260515609565
Petronio, S. (1991). Communication boundary management: A theoretical model of managing disclosure of private information between marital couples. Communication Theory, 1, 311–335. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1991.tb00023.x