A month ago, Delvonn Heckard, the man who sued former mayor Ed Murray for sex abuse, was found dead in an Auburn hotel room from an apparent drug overdose. Tonight, at the Langston Hughes Performing Art Institute between 6 and 8 p.m., the Seattle LGBTQ Commission is hosting a one-of-a-kind event calling for community healing over the Murray allegations. I spoke to Dr. Katrina M. Sanford, therapist and co-chair of the LGBTQ Commission, about how the idea for the event came up, and what people might expect if they show up. The interview was lightly edited for clarity.
How did the idea for community healing session regarding the Murray allegations come about?
Our commission has been following the allegations pretty closely, as you might imagine. It was very much an LGBTQ issue that many of us have talked about, and has come up a lot when it comes to sexual assault and feeling like you can be open enough to express it. And then when Delvonn Heckard, who was one of Murray's accusers, passed away a few weeks ago from a drug overdose, it was just kind of a last straw for us. We were just upset by it, upset at the way that our government handled the situation seemingly through the media, which was very victim-blaming as opposed to supportive for the individuals that were saying that Murray had assaulted them. And we just felt like there needed to be some sort of community coming together to help heal each other, and to heal themselves.
In my professional life I'm a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, and I focus on trauma. So this entire thing was just like in my wheelhouse. We wanted to help the community find a way to come together, have resources, and heal, because, you know, the accusers of Murray aren't the only ones who have likely dealt with some sort of issue with sexual assault, whether it's with them or with a family member, we're all affected. I think sometimes it's difficult for us to know how to get better, how to feel better, and I think one of the things that comes with that is having a support system, having people who are there for you, especially when times get rough. Because it is certainly a process throughout your life when you've dealt with that kind of trauma as opposed to an isolated incident or event.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what re-traumatization looks like for people who have experienced some form of sexual assault, and then who were watching the Murray allegations unfold? What were some common experiences that you may have seen in your clients or others in the community?
One of the things that I see often is this comparison of other people's pain with individuals who've dealt with trauma. So, "Yeah, you know, I was sexually assaulted throughout my entire childhood. But the person over there, they had this, so that's worse." I often see that. And then also a lot of blame on themselves for feeling like they didn't do enough to avoid the situation. And a lot of that comes from our society as well, as many of us know when it comes to victims of sexual assault, especially when they're women. There is this mentality of, "You shouldn't have been there. You shouldn't have been walking down that street. You shouldn't have let this person be near you. You shouldn't have been drinking during that incident." So that's another thing, the blame and guilt against themselves, and then this fear of being able to be supported and come out with what's happened for them and heal. Because when individuals do come out and say what's happened to them, people might ignore them, they might not be believed and they may not get the support that they definitely need when they're going through something like this.
How did what was going on with Murray exacerbate these issues?
I think it was the Murray stuff and the Me Too movement. That's been something that has been causing a lot of anxiety, at least for a lot of my clients and a lot of people I talked to in the community. Because it's great: These women are coming out, and standing up, and and letting people know that this was happening to them, and it's not OK. However, right now it's on Facebook all the time, it's on TV all the time, it's the news. That's all we're seeing, is "This woman was assaulted, this man was assaulted." And then looking at the way that the Murray allegations were handled and how the government handled it, and just the lack of transparency sometimes, and the lack of support for the victims, for the survivors of this type of abuse. It just stirred a pot in our community, and because that pot was stirred and boiling, at the commission we wanted to do something to be able to help, not only give resources for those who were struggling with mental health issues because of it, or with addiction issues because of it, but to have a space for everyone to come together to talk and share experiences and ask questions and get answers and know how to move forward in their self healing.
It's interesting the way that queerness has just been another layer of complication over the course of the last year. At the outset, at the beginning of the allegations, Murray framed it as some sort of right-wing political attack. But in the end, Delvonn died, and he was a queer man of color. How do you look back on the Murray allegations through a queer lens? How do you make sense of it?
I can only speak for myself. But you're right. There are layers to it, because there is the queer part of it. I'm sure a lot of people were shocked to see this gay man situation happening with the Murray allegations and everything that went down that. But on top of it if you add the racial part to it, because many of the individuals that came forward were black men, black gay men, and so that is just an added layer. I think many of us are aware of the systemic discrimination and oppression that happens with people of color in our society anyway. You add that on top of the queer issue and it just got really complicated and probably a little convoluted at times. I'm not so sure that looking at those issues is how you can look at it, through like a queer black lens, the added oppression that comes with it. This issue, it's not just a black person issue. It's not just a queer issue. It's all of us. And I think that's the interesting part about it, is that although it was an issue that was centered around these black queer men, it's an issue that I think many of us have dealt with to some degree or another and I think that's probably another reason why it triggered so much within the community because it has affected all of us.
The word "triggered" is often used as a political football in the culture wars on social media, or wherever else. But could you for the record define what you mean by that and what people experience—what people who are survivors of sexual assault experience when they are triggered?
When I'm saying triggered I mean any sort of physiological, physical, mental, emotional, psychological issue that comes up based on seeing this stuff in the media. Often it has to do with things we have dealt with in the past that have been traumatic for ourselves. Even though something has happened in the past, our body still feels it and imprints it and relives it. And so when something happens, when someone is talking about their sexual assault, it can cause some of these types of symptoms. Right now it feels very real for them, seeing all that on the media, hearing differing opinions on it.
What could those symptoms include?
Obviously it's different for each person, but symptoms that may look like anxiety or panic attacks, maybe you start sweating, your heart beating faster, you might start getting a headache. And that's some of the physical stuff. Some of the more mental stuff may be negative thoughts, especially about yourself. Those thoughts may come up again and you might get stuck in a loop with that, which can start making you feel more and more sad or depressed which could lead you to not wanting to not feel that way anymore, and for some people using things such as drugs and alcohol as a way to help support them through that. But with this event that we're throwing, we're trying to help those people who get to that point in their symptoms to find a more positive and less detrimental support so that they can fully move forward and not disguise some of the symptoms that they're having.
What would you say to people who have been experiencing some of this in the city?
I think the primary thing is reaching out for support. I think that's why we're doing this event: knowing that there are people around the community that are supporting you. And then for me, although I do talk therapy, I think there are dozens of other modalities of healing that people can do so that they can try to work themselves to a better place in their lives. And that might include reiki, yoga, and exercise, in my opinion, may be a natural Prozac. And in addition, reaching out to friends and family that you trust to let them know that you're having a rough time and you're feeling bad. And then of course there's therapy. That's what I do. But having someone to talk to in general who can help you work through some of the issues that are popping up for you. And then one of the things I think is super cool and amazing for a lot of people if they can do it is mindfulness. Mindfulness, I think some people picture it as like this meditation where you just sit and think about not thinking. But it's just being in the present moment, focusing on where you're at, what you're seeing, what you're tasting, what your senses are taking in, and also finding a place of relaxation. If we're able to do that more, especially when we're triggered, then it can help us, which is amazing, train our brain to not respond in the same way in the future. It takes time, but we can work with our body to try to move toward a better place.
Earlier, you said Delvonn's death was kind of the last straw. And I'm hearing criticism of the way that the government handled these allegations. What do you think the government could have done differently, and the media, for that matter?
I think often it's the way things are framed in our media. There was a lot of what we'll call victim blaming, just looking for something to discredit them. Specifically, you know, trauma and sexual assault can cause some issues that lead to mental health issues, and can lead to addiction. And because that was an issue for some of the individuals that came forward, our media was very much focused on that and even the government—as opposed to really looking at this topic of sexual assault as being a significant issue that's affecting many of us. And although people were looking for someone to blame, our society and the way that we look at this issue, and the way that we support or don't support individuals that come forward is one of the major problems here. So I think it's on a deeper level. It's more than just some officials not handling it well. It's this mentality that we're in in our society. And it was very clear when these allegations came up that we have a lot of work to do when it comes to supporting individuals who are dealing with this kind of stuff as opposed to blaming them.
Were were you appointed by Mayor Murray?
Yes, I was appointed under the mayor.
What has the last year been like for you? You're someone who is in a position of leadership within the LGBTQ community. And Mayor Murray is someone who has both fought for the rights of that community in some ways, but has also deeply traumatized it in others. I'm wondering whether you've reached a place of personal healing.
You know I have clients coming in often who are survivors of sexual assault. This is my everyday life to listen to these stories and support and help these individuals be empowered enough to heal themselves and feel better. For me, it's just a part of my job, it's a part of my job that I've chosen to take on. And I just do my best to make sure I'm ensuring that I'm taking care of myself and getting my own self-care so I can continue to do this work. There's plenty of it out there and I am not ready to stop yet.
Has the LGBTQ commission ever done an event like this before?
Since I've been there they have not. I don't know. That's a really good question. I would not suggest doing an event like this without individuals who are trained and helping support this kind of stuff, and I happen to work in that field where I do. So I think that's why we're doing it.
Could you describe what the event will actually look like? What could someone expect who shows up?
You can come and expect individuals and community organizations that are working in the area, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ community and people of color, who have resource tables for individuals to interact with practitioners. We're going to have yummy food from That Brown Girl Cooks! So we're looking forward to that. And then we're going to have a community circle of sorts, an informal community circle where we're going to have experts from the field, community experts who are going to be there to help support and answer questions. But really it's a community conversation. We're all going to have some questions. We're going to chat. We're going to talk, we're going to share stories, and come together as a community to know that you are loved and supported.
I think a lot of people are afraid to go to therapy because of the cost barrier. Are there going to be resources there for people who are low income?
Yes. Many of the practitioners who are coming can do pro bono and/or potential sliding scale for individuals in need. And if anything, you connect with someone and they can connect you with someone who can take your insurance or can give you a sliding scale. So that's my hope is that it turns into a networking for holistic health as well.
Is there anything we didn't talk about that you think is important to add?
I think I grew up in an environment where we came together as a community to help support and love each other. And I, you know, grew up on the East Coast, and after coming out here to Seattle, although everyone is very friendly I don't see people getting together to do this type of stuff much. I think I would like to see more of that happen, whether it's with the commission that I'm involved with, or other organizations just showing the support and love and care towards each other, so that people out there know that they're not alone.