On a Tuesday morning in March, Sarah Hobbs was in her Portland apartment talking to her two pet rats, Disco and Mellow. They’re not cuddly but she says they help with her mental health. Disco pushed his nose through the cage so that Hobbs could scratch his chin.
They both seemed happy.
But in the fall of 2005 Hobbs stood on Southwest Jefferson Street in Portland looking up at the tall arches of the city’s iconic Vista Bridge. She was there to take her own life.
She said she convinced herself to keep living, after thinking about the effect her actions would have on others.
“If it were not for a last-minute realization I needed to stick around for my kids we wouldn’t be having this discussion today,” she said.
Hobbs grew up in a conservative Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home. Her family was active in the Coral Ridge Presbyterian church — a megachurch known for its right-wing activism and “gay conversion therapy.”
When Hobbs was 15, she realized she was bisexual.
Hobbs also wanted to join the military. In high school she joined Junior ROTC and 10 days after graduation she joined the Navy. It was 1981 and Hobbs was 18. Conservative, 1970s Florida and the 1980s military weren’t tolerant environments for a young bisexual woman. Hobbs said everything in her life made her feel unsafe.
The veteran suicide rate is about twice that of the general public. Among lesbian, gay and bisexual people, the attempted suicide rate is three to four times higher than the general population and it’s up to 10 times higher for transgender adults.
For LGBTQ people serving in the military, those two factors compound.
Hobbs said living in the closet with the constant fear of being discovered for so long contributed to the anxiety and depression she lives with today. The military wasn’t the sole cause — she also has a rare nerve disorder that causes intense pain in her face — but, she says, the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was a major factor.
“Come out in my church, I’m kicked out of my church. Come out in the military, I’m kicked out of the military,” Hobbs said. “So everything was shut up, don’t talk or you’re going to be disowned, shunned.”
A 2013 study on the mental health of LGBTQ veterans found that almost 15% of all LGBTQ service members attempt suicide. That compares to less than 1% for the entire veteran population.
Read more on OPB.org.