The Zappalorti Society (ZS) was necessary because a safe space of security and support was needed for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) mental health recipients. The ZS constituency bears a double stigma. Being LGBT they are targeted by heterosexism and homophobia from the straight population. The gay communities ostracize LGBT consumers, shunning anyone with mental health stigma. There are also multiple stigmas of race, class, disability and gender.
Then there is the myth of the "wealthy homosexual." In reality, most of the ZS members subsist on benefits for the needy and disabled, while others eke out an existence on minimum wage temp jobs that have no medical or mental health benefits. The stress of economic demands exacerbates their psychiatric symptoms as they struggle along the poverty level, and below. Members of the ZS have often told me that they couldn't attend the meetings because they didn't have money for public transportation. During ZS meetings, Metrocards are distributed to those who need them.
The ZS was started in February of 1992 when I first approached the city's LGBT Community Center with my request to have a space for a support group for LGBT mental health consumers. Dr. Barbara Warren, at that time the Director of Mental Health and Social Services of the center, served as our patron. The LGBT Community Center has since then provided us, at no charge, a weekly meeting space, a phone, photocopies, faxes and office supplies for our activities. This help has been gratefully accepted as the ZS receives no funding or grants.
In the gay human services communities, LGBT mental health gets the attention of an orphan stepchild locked in a closet. The primary focus seems to be on substance abuse recovery services. It is an uphill battle with many obstacles to develop any awareness of LGBT mental health issues. Let alone receive any funding. The general mental health system is heterosexist and homophobic. And the gay communities have class and disability biases against the LGBT consumer sub-population. Between them, the LGBT mentally ill are an underserved community. More correctly, is a non-served community. Over the past ten years, thousands of LGBT consumers have come to the ZS meetings or have called the ZS hotline. The consumers have represented all the ethnic diversity of New York City and its metro area. The whole range of DSM diagnoses have been represented, but all have endured the multiple stigmas of being gay, mentally ill, poor and, in many cases, HIV positive.
The Zappalorti meetings are loosely structured. We are NOT a 12-step program. There is no manual that we read from. As founder of the ZS and group facilitator I try to maintain a focus on mental health and especially LGBT mental health. Each person who attends the ZS makes a contribution to the group; even those that only listen to the group's conversation, because listening is also participating. ZS members participate on many different levels.
There are some who come weekly, every other week, once a month, every few months, some a few times a year. Some have what I call "cometary pattern." They orbit in closely for a while, then their long elliptical orbit takes them far away for a long time. And then they sometimes return for a brief blaze of activity at the ZS meetings. But all of the people, no matter how many times they attend, give something of value to the ZS and help us fulfill our mission: to provide a safe space for the promotion of LGBT mental health and a place where the LGBT consumers can feel safe and secure in themselves for being accepted for who they are.
Each person who has attended the ZS has brought something to add to the complex dynamics of healing and recovery. And the ZS has given me insight and education into the mental health experience. It has helped me to learn and grow in mental health knowledge and have contributed to my own healing and recovery. I hope that the safe space the ZS has provided for the last twelve years has been an opportunity for LGBT consumers to feel healing and recovery as much as I have.
Through the forum of the ZS, I also hope to continue expanding and extending the inclusive dialog of the client-clinician partnership. The ZS is complementary to clinical services and also promotes compliance with medication and treatment. The meetings of the Zappalorti Society are held every Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the LGBT Community Center on 13th St. in Manhattan. You can also contact us by phone at (917) 286-0616.