Out On The Couch
In recent years, both the ethics and efficacy of affirmative mental healthcare have been debated on a national stage. In 2022 alone, Florida state legislators have proposed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Alabama passed a law outlawing gender-affirming medical or mental healthcare for teens, and more than a dozen states like Ohio have followed in their wake. Conservative lawmakers feel that things have “gone too far” by allowing transgender and gender nonbinary (TGNB) people access to care that validates their identity, especially youth, and are using their power and influence to limit that access.
While these dog whistles may be daunting, it is important for mental health providers to have all the evidence when making decisions about clinical care. To be clear: the literature of the field strongly reflects that providing gender-affirming care is associated with positive outcomes for TGNB clients. In this article, we will address arguments against providing affirmative care and summarize recent evidentiary support and best practices.
Criticisms of gender-affirming care
A common criticism of gender-affirming care is that children and adolescents are not mature enough to self-identify their gender. Any psychotherapist with an understanding of human development can easily debunk this claim. According to the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, a foundational theorist in the field of psychology, children develop a sense of gender identity as early as preschool (Sravanti & Sagar K, 2019). Many gender-expansive youth opt to socially transition long before entering puberty, though the standard approach in our field is that of “watchful waiting,” in which the child’s medical team closely observe their exploration of gender until puberty (Ehrensaft et al., 2018). In contrast, a gender-affirmative approach stresses the importance of self-identification by allowing the child to socially transition at any age, access puberty blocking medication if desired, and pursue medical transition after the onset of puberty (Ehrensaft, 2017). Both of these approaches have been heavily researched in recent years, yet the public consensus remains that we don’t (or can’t) know enough to establish gender-affirming care as a best practice.
One reason is that concerns about regret and detransition abound — though there is a paucity of research to support this. One study of adults who identify as transgender in the United Kingdom found that out of 175 individuals, only 12 reported detransitioning in the 16 months after receiving cross-gender hormone treatment (Hall et al., 2021). Out of that already small sample, only two patients reported feeling regret (Hall et al., 2021, p. 7). However, many clinicians actually recommend against further research on detransition or “desistance” rates, stating that it contributes to public mistrust and skepticism without serving youth. Academics have raised concerns about the methodology of desistance studies, as well as the working definition of “gender identity” that is used by other researchers, as lacking consensus may muddy the waters (Brooks, 2018).
Research in support of gender-affirming care
So how do we reach this consensus? Emerging research strongly indicates that affirmative care improves the mental health of transgender and gender nonbinary clients. A 2021 study of 104 TGNB youth at Seattle Children’s Hospital found that receiving gender-affirming interventions such as puberty blockers or gender-affirming hormones was associated with 60 percent lower odds of moderate to severe depression and 73 percent lower odds of self-harm or suicidal thoughts during their first year of involvement in gender care (Tordoff et al., 2022). A recently published secondary analysis of the 2015 United States Transgender Survey found that out of over 3,500 respondents reporting gender-affirming surgeries in the prior two years, undergoing surgery was associated with lower past-month psychological distress and was not associated with greater lifetime risk of suicidality (Almazan & Keuroghlian, 2021). The authors of this analysis answer earlier concerns about the methodology of “desistance” studies by controlling for baseline mental health status in their work (Almazan & Keuroghlian, 2021).
Similarly, a 2018 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that out of 68 trans masculine patients undergoing chest reconstruction (top surgery), only one reported experiencing regret “sometimes” (Olson-Kennedy et al.). This study found no statistically significant differences between participants who underwent top surgery before age 18 and those who had surgery as adults (Olson-Kennedy et al.). The inverse effect can be observed when taking the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic into consideration — an international survey of 964 TGNB people conducted between April and August 2020 found that 55 percent of respondents experienced reduced access to gender-affirming resources, and this was correlated with higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation (Jarrett et al., 2020).
The literature of the field reflects clear conclusions: increasing access to gender-affirming care improves mental health outcomes, and limiting access negatively impacts them. Our profession’s division over best practices for the mental healthcare of TGNB clients has laid the groundwork for public uncertainty, as well as legislative harm. It is crucial that we continue to pursue research into mental health outcomes for TGNB clients and publish these findings in ways that are accessible outside of academia — not hidden behind a paywall or requiring institutional access. For cisgender psychotherapists, we need leverage our privilege and be generous with our labor, sharing this information with friends, family, colleagues, and writing to our elected representatives. It is an issue worth the extra time and effort, and can have life-altering consequences.
Learn More about working with Transgender and Nonbinary Clients
Almazan, A. N., and Keroughlian, A. S. (2021, April 28). Association between gender-affirming surgeries and mental health outcomes. JAMA Surgery 156 (7), 611-618.
Brooks, J. (2018, May 23). The controversial research on ‘desistance’ in transgender youth.
Ehrensaft, D. (2017). Gender nonconforming youth: current perspectives. Adolescent Health, Medicine, and Therapeutics (8)1, 57-67.
Hall, R., Mitchell, L., and Sachdeva, J. (2021, October 1). Access to care and frequency of detransition among a cohort discharged by a UK national adult gender identity clinic: retrospective case-note review. British Journal of Psychiatry 7(6), 1-8.
Jarrett, B. A., Peitzmeier, S. M., Restar, A., Adamson, T., Howell, S., Baral, S., and Beckham, S. W. (2020, November 4). Gender-affirming care, mental health, and economic stability in the time of COVID-19: a global cross-sectional study of transgender and non-binary people. medRxiv: the preprint server for health sciences (2), 1-32.
Olson-Kennedy, J., Warus, J., Okonta, V., Belzer, M., and Clark, L. F. (2018, May). Chest reconstruction and chest dysphoria in transmasculine minors and young adults: Comparisons of nonsurgical and postsurgical cohorts. JAMA Pediatrics 172(5), 431-436.
Sravanti, L., and Sagar K, J. V. (2019). Gender Identity: Emergence in Preschoolers. Journal of Psychosexual Health I(3-4), 286-287.
Tordoff, D. M., Wanta, J. W., Collin, A., Stepney, C., Inwards-Breland, D. J., and Ahrens, K. (2022, February 25). Mental health outcomes in transgender and nonbinary youths receiving gender-affirming care. JAMA Pediatrics (5)2, 1-13.
Over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, community relationships have shifted to a location primarily online. The centrality and importance of technology-mediated relationships is now an established interest within the fields of social work and psychology (Trepte et al., 2017, Okdie et al., 2018) along with social and relational conflicts like cancel culture. Technologies such as dating apps, social networking platforms, collective chat channels and mutual aid networks became primary tools for connection during months of quarantine.
Cancel Culture & Digital Relationships
The prevalence of online communities as sites for disclosure and support is a call for therapists to consider new ways of assessing and engaging clients about digital community social norms. Therapists also transitioned our work to online platforms. We experienced our lives in quarantine parallel with our clients’, growing more reliant on technology to mediate resources and professional community.
Relationships mediated by technology have been shown to decrease isolation, loneliness, and anxiety (Juvonen et al., 2021) and to satisfy unmet needs for belonging (Iannone, 2017). Best practices for evaluating the impact of online social interactions and relationships on client mental health are quickly emerging for providers. Specifically, we are tasked with engaging clients in conversations about harmful experiences with online social presence and connection.
As I have continued to use telehealth with my clients this year, a few key questions have emerged. As therapists, how do we position ourselves within a larger understanding of digital community membership and online social relationships? How do we hold space for the experience of losing online community? Do online relationships hold the same value, quality, and importance as in-person relationships? How do our personal views and values impact our capacity to engage with clients who are experiencing relational trauma from the loss of online community?
Digital Community and Belonging
As you read this, I am curious if you can recall experiences of the last few years in which clients (or maybe your own community) experienced a fragmentation due to a public call to cancel someone. How did your community hold this experience? Did this impact your client’s sense of connection to their community? What was your response? Therapists are currently tasked with both understanding the nature and meaning of online relationships, while also supporting individuals impacted by online community fractures. Here, I will suggest strategies for strengthening our digital literacies to meet these unique challenges. I will define digital literacy as well as a few key tools to affirm our knowledge about digital communications. I will also suggest best practices for trauma-informed approaches, specifically through use of Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory (Gómez, 2019) to develop clearer understanding and response to harm and experiences of online cancel culture.
Digital literacies are “the various skills, competencies and knowledge about information communication technology (ICT) and our capacity to apply this knowledge within our work and personal spheres” (Iordache et al., 2017,p.6). Essentially, digital literacy is our ability to engage with technologies and to understand the complex dynamic present between technology and human behavior.
As LGBTQ2S+ therapists, we have a unique imperative to join our clients in session with strong knowledge about the impact of online relationships. We understand the power that can come from “finding our people” and not feeling alone. Because of this, we have a crucial need to develop our capacity to understand the potential of ICTs to positively transform or situate harm within clients’ lives. What forms of digital communication do your clients engage with? Are they using online dating apps? Social media chats? Do they share joyful or upsetting text message threads in session?
Digital relationships have their own intimacies. In fact, social scientists studying online intimacies have found “a number of factors may influence the way in which intimacy is expressed and perceived by users in interpersonal exchanges online” (Lomanowska, 2016, p.139). These factors include the type of online platform being used, prior familiarity with the people being engaged, and the social parameters of the platform (Lomanowska, 2016). Therapists might consider: are their clients meeting an online acquaintance for the first time, or have they met in-person before? Will this be a 1-to-1 conversation, or publicly available on a platform with a large audience?
You may already be thinking about a particular client or set of clients who have disclosed about their relationships built online. This may also bring to mind the intense emotional and psychological connection they have felt to online support networks. You may also be thinking about your clients’ anxiety or grief regarding community conflicts or social media call-outs. This year I supported multiple clients in coping with both the rapid development of online romantic connection and the devastation of distancing from individuals who they never met in person. Digital intimacies are subjective, but without a baseline understanding of ICTs, therapists can miss opportunities to attune to their clients’ socioemotional needs in these relationships.
You may want to consider the addition of some of the following questions in your assessment of client’s social connections, sense of belonging, or sources of stress.
Engaging with Clients about their Online Relationships May Sound like:
Understanding Cancel Culture and Online Social Belonging
In the past two years there has been a rise in writing and attention placed on cancel culture. As a trauma therapist, I had multiple clients engaged with political organizing communities share with me their anxieties about being “canceled” in their online communities. Navigating vulnerability, discernment about disclosure online, and the nuances of activist projects became a central theme in much of my work. With the increase in popularity of social media, the relationship between online self-disclosure and social support has emerged as a relevant topic (Trepte, 2017, Valkenburg & Peter, 2007) for clinicians as well.
So what is cancel culture? Hervé Saint-Louis (2021) writes that “…cancel culture’s origin stems from many online and off-line forms of public discourse in the public sphere. Cancel culture refers to the cancellation of individuals through online denunciations which results in the ostracisation and shaming of people” (para.22). Online cancel culture utilizes tactics of shaming that may be triggering to bystanders who come from family environments in which shame was used to control and take power over others. I have found it useful to use a trauma-focused lens when clients are disclosing or processing about witnessing an attempt to cancel a community member. In her book “we will not cancel us: and other dreams of transformative justice” (2020) adrienne maree brown speaks to the dynamics of intragroup cancellation, specifically to how cancel culture is a reification of systems of punishment. Later, brown illuminates that acts of public shaming do not transform, but rather reinstate harm within marginalized communities (2020).
In parallel, Cultural Betrayal Trauma Theory (CBTT) provides a “contexualized framework for examining how within-group trauma in minority populations (e.g ethnic, sexual, gender, religious minorities) may be harmful because of the societal context of inequality” (Gomez, 2019, p. 238). CBTT is a useful frame for unpacking the experiences of Queer, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming , Black, Indigenous, Mixed, People of Color clients who have shared about disappointment, hurt and harm within QTGNC online communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is important to note that “betrayal trauma refers to relational trauma independent of post traumatic stress reactions” (Freyd,1996 in Gomez et al., 2015, p.167). Relational-cultural approaches that emphasize connection and healing through the therapeutic alliance offer a QTGNC-affirming frame for holding these traumas.
A CBTT-focused perspective utilizes the language of betrayal to understand how breaches of intracultural trust impact marginalized communities. For example, QTGNC BIPOC communities and other activist communities that use online platforms as primary tools for intimacy and trust building may be especially susceptible to this loss of trust. One incidence of such a breach might include a client who is experiencing intimate partner violence turning to a member of their community for support and being met with disbelief in their experience or minimization of its impact. Breaches of intracultural trust may stem from not being supported by key bystanders who share a client’s identity, or culturally-based responses that minimize the impact of such experiences. Additional examples of cultural betrayal include seeking mental or physical health support from a provider of a shared cultural background, and experiencing stigmatizing or shaming behaviors from the provider; or experiencing a breach in confidentiality within a shared cultural community.
Questions for Mental Heath Providers
- As therapists how do we position ourselves within a larger understanding of digital community membership, online social relationships, and the subsequent loss of these?
- Do we value online relationships and hold them as containing the same quality and importance as in-person relationships?
- How might our own views and values then impact our capacity to engage with clients who are experiencing emotional trauma due to the loss of online community due to cancel culture or call out culture?
Cancel Culture and our clients: A Brief Case Example
In 2020, I had multiple queer and trans BIPOC clients share their fears about not attending street-based protests. Large-scale Black Lives Matter protests and healthcare workers demonstrating in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were happening throughout the world. My clients with chronic illness, previous arrests and protest traumas, as well as those who were family caregivers, assessed that their voices would be best used within online organizing, mutual aid network leadership, and direct donation. I heard from multiple clients that they feared they would be judged or directly canceled regarding their choice to not attend direct actions.
We explored the fear, noting that it was rooted in a concern about no longer belonging, or being perceived as “not committed” enough. Through a trauma-informed lens, we were able to identify that witnessing call-outs of community leaders and out-group experiences due to trans or queer identity informed their anxieties about how they may be perceived. Memories about “being left behind,” “not being included,” or “not being seen as a real activist” surfaced. Together we were able to work through these past experiences and better understand the cognitive and somatic messaging they were carrying.
In particular, it was useful to note clients’ fears about being perceived as betraying their community by not attending, and how frequently social media played a role in this. Some sessions, we would talk about Instagram images of protest, Facebook photo banners, and online performances of activism as a method for “ensuring that people know I’m committed.”
Often questions about shame emerged as clients recognized how much they were working to not be publicly shamed for their choices. In his work on shame and the social bond, Thomas Scheff (2021) posits that “shame is a result of threat to the bond” (p. 97) and explores how shame is the most social of our basic emotions. Cancel culture, it seems, has the potential to unlock deep wounds of socially located childhood shame for many BIPOC QTGNC individuals. It can threaten social bonds that developed as a means of survival and belonging – a particularly heightened need in times of crisis,such as a global pandemic. While mutual support, sense of belonging, and cultural community can come from online relationships, the digital literacy required to navigate social media and build resilient responses to harm is key to sustaining these communities through community breaches and potential experiences of cancel culture. Therapists must draw from trauma-informed approaches to healing when clients perceived to have stepped outside the social norms of online culture are experiencing shaming and community isolation. Online social norms may include expectations about the depth and forms of personal disclosure considered acceptable on personal social media pages, norms regarding the content of personal images shared visually, or acceptance of use of the block feature now available on many social media platforms.
Building our Capacity
Debriefing the experience of witnessing community cancellation can illuminate behavioral and attitudinal patterns regarding conflict, punishment, shame, and coping with strong emotions. adrienne maree brown writes “we won’t end the systemic patterns of harm by isolating and picking off individuals” (2021, pg.8). The author, brown, offers a nuanced understanding of the emotionality of betrayal and response. As QTGNC providers, we can strengthen our practice through asking more about the experiences of clients within online social communities.
Online relationships offer both the potential for intracultural social intimacy, increased vulnerability, and personal disclosure during crisis (Blose et al., 2021), as well as the potential for intracultural betrayal trauma. It has become clearer to me that this poses a twofold need for LGBTQA2S+ therapists: firstly, to develop digital literacies to better attune to clients who use online communities as primary spaces for social engagement, as well as to also locate supportive frameworks for trauma-informed approaches to cancel culture within online spaces. Therapists have a unique capacity to engage with digital culture and to develop best practices for supporting a larger vision of healing community incidences of violence and harm. If you are working to strengthen your digital literacies and to locate a framework that feels right for your practice, please consider some of the resources below.
- Reflection Questions for Digital Literacy in Social Work
- Digital Capabilities Statement for Social Work
- The Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture
- We Will Not Cancel Us: and other dreams of transformative justice
Blose, T., Umar, P., Squicciarini, A., & Rajtmajer, S. (2021). A study of self-disclosure during the Coronavirus pandemic. First Monday. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i7.11555
brown, adrienne maree. (2020). We will not cancel us: Breaking the cycle of harm. AK Press.
Gómez, J. M. (2019). What’s the harm? Internalized prejudice and cultural betrayal trauma in ethnic minorities. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 89(2), 237–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000367
Gómez, J. M., Lewis, J. K., Noll, L. K., Smidt, A. M., & Birrell, P. J. (2016). Shifting the focus: Nonpathologizing approaches to healing from betrayal trauma through an emphasis on relational care. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 17(2), 165–185. https://doi.org/10/gg5ndn
Juvonen, J., Schacter, H. L., & Lessard, L. M. (2021). Connecting electronically with friends to cope with isolation during COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(6), 1782–1799. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407521998459
Iannone, N. E., McCarty, M. K., Branch, S. E., & Kelly, J. R. (2018). Connecting in the Twitterverse: Using Twitter to satisfy unmet belonging needs. The Journal of Social Psychology, 158(4), 491–495. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2017.1385445
Iordache, C., Mariën, I., & Baelden, D. (2017). Developing digital skills and competences: A quick-scan analysis of 13 digital literacy models. Italian Journal of Sociology of Education, 9(1).
Lomanowska, A. M., & Guitton, M. J. (2016). Online intimacy and well-being in the digital age. Internet Interventions, 4, 138–144. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.invent.2016.06.005
Okdie, B. M., & Ewoldsen, D. R. (2018). To boldly go where no relationship has gone before: Commentary on interpersonal relationships in the digital age. The Journal of Social Psychology, 158(4), 508–513. https://doi.org/10/ghdx75
Saint-Louis, H. (2021). Understanding cancel culture: Normative and unequal sanctioning. First Monday. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i7.10891
Trepte, S., Masur, P. K., & Scharkow, M. (2018). Mutual friends’ social support and self-disclosure in face-to-face and instant messenger communication. The Journal of
Social Psychology, 158(4), 430–445. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.2017.1398707
A key aspect for therapists practicing affirmative psychotherapy is deconstructing heteronormativity. Defined by the American Psychological Association as “the assumption that heterosexuality is the standard for defining normal sexual behavior,” heteronormativity stems from a long-standing, embedded cultural belief that traditional gender roles are unchanging and omnipotent. (2022) Taken a step further, heteronormativity becomes compulsory heterosexuality – the belief that every person must be straight, even if they have attraction to people of the same gender. Angeli Luz writes in the “Lesbian Masterdoc,” “compulsory heterosexuality easily ties in with the misogyny that causes women’s sexualit[y] and…identities to be defined by our relationships with men.” (2021) Sometimes abbreviated as comphet, compulsory heterosexuality pervades even benign interactions between therapists and clients.
As affirmative therapists, our work with LGBTQIA+ clients must break down the immutable belief in compulsory heterosexuality both for their clients and themselves. It impacts every stage of psychotherapy, from engagement to termination. In this article, we will explore the ways in which comphet erodes the therapeutic alliance, the challenges this poses to treatment, and how to begin deconstruction in your therapy practice.
Defining Compulsory Heterosexuality
The concept of compulsory heterosexuality was introduced in 1980 by the lesbian feminist writer Adrienne Rich in her groundbreaking essay, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Her article describes compulsory heterosexuality as a “bias,” an automatic assumption that all women are heterosexual, and that “lesbian experience is perceived on a scale from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible” (Rich, 1980, p. 1).
Queer theorist Michael Warner expanded on Rich’s work in his 1991 publication “Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet,” in which the author introduces the concept of heteronormativity. Warner writes, “the task of queer social theory…must be to confront the default heteronormativity of modern culture with its worst nightmare, a queer planet” (1991, p. 17). Theoretically speaking, heteronormativity represents the status quo: a culture where everyone is presumed straight, enacted by compulsory heterosexuality.
In the decades since these words were published, our understanding of gender and sexuality has changed a lot. We can pay homage to the radical nature of Rich and Warner’s work in context while also acknowledging that they are further reaching than originally thought. For example, comphet does not only affect lesbians – bisexual, pansexual, and omnisexual people often experience a combination of erasure and stigmatization. With increasing visibility and representation of queer people in our modern era, we are closer to Warner’s idea of a “queer planet” than ever before, but still with further to go.
Armed with an understanding of the etiology and meaning of compulsory heterosexuality, it is easy to see how this mindset persists in psychotherapy. Although this article will focus on heterosexism, it is important to note that endosexism, cissexism, racism, and other biases also impact treatment. To begin the work of unlearning this unconscious bias, we must first learn to identify it.
How Compulsory Heterosexuality Erodes Psychotherapy
1. The therapist assumes that their clients are straight.
Many therapists might even believe that to suggest a client is LGBTQIA+ is impolite or inappropriate, and avoid addressing the topic in therapy sessions. Others might simply assume that a client is straight because they are themselves, because they don’t “look gay,” or they are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with queer identity. But the root of this issue is just as Rich wrote back in 1980 — that there is something “deviant” about queerness, or that someone would not want to be thought of in this way (p. 1).
Instead of allowing our clients to be “straight until proven otherwise,” therapists can invite conversation about sexuality and identity early in treatment. We become better therapists by treating our clients as the experts on their own experience, and letting them teach us about their sexual identities. It is well-established that a person-centered approach and strong alliance between therapist and client are reliable predictors for positive outcomes in psychotherapy, especially when paired with an affirmative approach for LGBTQIA+ clients (Davis et al, 2021). We can build the therapeutic alliance with our clients by creating a safe space for discussion of sexuality and identity. And overall, we can challenge our assumptions about sexuality and gender presentation through education, consultation, and rigorous self-reflection.
2. The client believes that they “should” be straight.
Similar to how a therapist might assume a client is straight based on their own internalized comphet, a client may have been socialized the same way. Our culture sends strong messages about what sexuality looks and feels like, which can be hard to parse through alone. Clients may have been taught to view their experiences with sexuality and identity through a lens of straightness.
In 2005, the New York Times published a piece by Stephanie Rosenbloom describing the phenomenon of a “girl crush.” Rosenbloom posited that “women, especially young women, have always had…feelings of adoration for each other,” differentiating a girl crush as “romantic but not sexual” (2005). Critics pointed out that many people experience romantic and sexual attraction separately, including those who are queer-identified. Another example would be straight women using the term “girlfriend” to describe their friends and peers – while this refers to the close and intimate nature of their relationship, it also dilutes the meaning of “girlfriend” as a romantic identifier. This is comphet in action: erasing the experiences of queer women by creating a new term to reassure straight women of their heterosexuality. As affirmative therapists, we can reframe this experience with our clients, and encourage them to adopt a more complex view. We can explore the meaning of sexual identity with our clients, and start to construct a new lens through which to view attraction.
3. The therapist interprets a client’s identity as pathology.
Affirmative psychotherapy firmly centers the belief that LGBTQIA+ identities are valid, and acknowledges their experiences of homophobia and oppression (Hinrichs & Donaldson, 2017). We acknowledge the harmful legacy of our profession’s work with the queer community, and how institutional oppression persists today. The DSM only removed homosexuality from its pages in 1973 – until this point, professionals were trained to believe that LGBTQIA+ identity was a disease state to be treated (Drescher, 2015).
Compulsory heterosexuality frames any experience of sexuality outside of straightness as “deviant,” as Adrienne Rich wrote. While the literature of the field reflects a shift in attitude in the years since this DSM update, there are still practitioners who were trained under this belief. There are may be others, too, who hold a personal bias that queerness is wrong or immoral. According to the Family Equality Council, conversion therapy is still legal in 25 states and 4 territories (2019). Affirmative psychotherapy believes that clients’ mental health symptoms may be due to such stigma and discrimination, but are not caused by their queerness.
4. The client intellectualizes their desire.
Intellectualizing is a defense mechanism in which clients create distance from their emotions through excessive overthinking (Bowins, 2021, p. 1). When clients intellectualize their problems, they are defending against the negative emotion by focusing instead on logical or rational explanations… even when their emotions are telling them otherwise. Some might argue that Rosenbloom’s description of a “girl crush” is intellectualizing by creating new terminology to describe romantic attraction between women (2005). A client who intellectualizes questioning their identity might search for an alternate explanation for their emotions that aligns with the belief that they must be heterosexual.
It is important to remember that we cannot equivocate desire or attraction with identity, and some people may identify as straight while experiencing romantic attraction to the same sex. Psychotherapists should help clients to move towards the belief that identity is far more expansive than simply “straight” or “not” – combating compulsory heterosexuality by encouraging non-judgmental exploration and expression of their sexuality.
Deconstructing Compulsory Heterosexuality in Your Practice
Once you have an understanding of compulsory heterosexuality, it can be overwhelming to think about how to implement a change to your therapy practice. As in much of affirmative psychotherapy, a good place to start is with yourself. Hinrichs and Donaldson define affirmative therapy as “a set of attitudes or approaches rather than specific techniques” (2017, p. 947). Reflect on the ways comphet shows up in your own practice. Do you default to gendered terminology for clients’ partners or dating interests? Are you comfortable sitting in ambiguity with a client who is questioning their sexuality without prematurely applying labels?
While much of the work of unpacking comphet happens at intake, you can deconstruct its influence throughout treatment. Taking an affirmative and client-centered approach, focus on what they see as the problem. Think of yourself as an advocate and collaborator with your client as you identify compulsory heterosexuality and experiences of homophobia or discrimination together. After all, meeting your client where they are at does not stop after the first session – therapists walk alongside our clients throughout the journey.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Compulsory Heterosexuality. American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/heteronormativity.
Bowins, B. (2021). Psychological defense Mechanisms. In B. Bowins (Ed.), States and Processes for Mental Health: Advancing Psychotherapy Effectiveness (1st ed., Vol. 1, pp. 23–40). essay, Academic Press. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780323850490000039?via%3Dihub#!.
Davis, A.W., Lyons, A. & Pepping, C.A. Inclusive Psychotherapy for Sexual Minority Adults: the Role of the Therapeutic Alliance. Sex Res Soc Policy (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-021-00654-y
Drescher J. (2015). Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 5(4), 565–575. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs5040565.
Family Equality Project. (2019, December 18). Conversion therapy laws. Movement Advancement Project. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from https://www.familyequality.org/resources/conversion-therapy-laws/.
Hinrichs, K., & Donaldson, W. (2017). Recommendations for Use of Affirmative Psychotherapy With LGBT Older Adults. Journal of clinical psychology, 73(8), 945–953. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22505.
Luz, A. (2021). Copy of am I A Lesbian_ masterdoc.pdf. Am I A Lesbian_Masterdoc.pdf. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from https://www.docdroid.net/N46Ea3o/copy-of-am-i-a-lesbian-masterdoc-pdf#page=2.
Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Signs, 5(4), 631–660. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173834.
Rosenbloom, S. (2005, August 11). She’s So Cool, So Smart, So Beautiful: Must Be A Girl Crush. The New York Times. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/11/fashion/thursdaystyles/shes-so-cool-so-smart-so-beautiful-must-be-a-girl-crush.html.
Warner, M. (1991). Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet. Social Text, 29, 3–17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/466295
Before getting into this article, I would like to locate myself. I am a white, bisexual, able-bodied, ambiamorous, cisgender woman with anxiety and a chronic illness who has been in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships. As someone who identifies as bisexual, has navigated both polyamorous and monogamous relationships, and specializes in working with these communities, I believe that it is important for clinicians to understand the unique experiences of bisexual polyamorous individuals.
As an affirmative therapist throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have worked with clients with marginalized identities who have been experiencing higher-than-baseline levels of anxiety and depression due to the pandemic. This has filtered into much of our work, even if their primary presenting problem was originally to navigate their sexual orientation or relationship orientation, or to navigate concerns within their relationships. COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that, as clinicians, it is important to recognize that our clients’ identities do not exist in a vacuum – just as our own identities do not exist in a vacuum. Therefore, it is always important to take into account the impact of both internal and external factors in clients’ lives while working with them – as well as how our own experiences may or may not come into the therapy room.
Potential Benefits of Polyamory for Bisexual Clients
Bisexuality has been defined as “the potential to be attracted – romantically and/or sexually – to people of more than one gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree” (Ochs, n.d.). Studies show that bisexual people prefer polyamorous or open relationships in greater frequency than people of other sexual orientations (Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1994). One benefit of polyamory for bisexual people is: “polyamory and bisexuality propose a plurality of loves, both in the number of partners and genders thereof” (Anderlini-D’Onofrio, 2004). Polyamory can be a beautiful thing for many bisexual individuals who want to add diversity to their sexual and romantic lives with people of more than one gender.
However, they don’t always have a “preference” in their partner’s gender; it is more about the people they are dating and how polyamory enhances their lives. In fact, 70% of bisexual polyamorous participants in one study did not care whether their partners were of the same or different genders at any one time (Weitzman, 2006). Their preference for polyamory, therefore, may come from the fact that more bi-identified men and women tend to believe that monogamy in relationships is less enhancing and more sacrificing than gay-identified or straight-identified individuals (Mark, Rosenkrantz, & Kerner, 2014).
Bisexual Erasure and Strategic Identities
Polyamory offers an exceptional way to provide a buffer against bi erasure or invisibility and challenges the risk of falling into heteronormativity (Robinson, 2013). In fact, non-monogamy has been identified as a “strategic identity” to maintain bisexual visibility in the world (Klesse, 2011; Moss, 2012; Robinson, 2013; Weitzman, 2006). A strategic identity is an identity that serves a political, social, or interpersonal function. In this case, the function of polyamory could be visibility and support of bisexuality as an authentic identity. When bisexual individuals can express their identity more fully and be visibly bisexual, especially in the context of a polyamorous relationship, they also tend to have more:
- Freedom to have partner choices of all genders,
- Freedom to speak openly about the full range of their attractions and fantasies,
- Opportunities for group sex, and
- Sexual and romantic enjoyment of different genders.
Therefore, if bisexual individuals engage in polyamorous relationships, they can express their sexuality more freely – both for themselves and within the larger world.
Potential Disadvantages of Polyamory for Bisexual Clients
There are also unique disadvantages to being both bisexual and polyamorous. These individuals may be doubly stigmatized as “confused” or “promiscuous” (McLean, 2011; Weitzman, 2006). They may experience prejudice and discrimination from both the gay and straight communities (e.g., prejudice from gay partners about other-gender partners; prejudice from straight partners about same-gender partners). This internalized stigma and biphobia from partners (either monosexual or bisexual partners) can also lead to potential increased rates of intimate partner violence. Turell, Brown, and Herrmann (2017) found that bi-negativity and the oversexualization of bisexual individuals was a risk factor for higher rates of jealousy and IPV. This risk was highlighted by bisexual participants who are also polyamorous.
On an individual level, bisexual people may experience guilt about reinforcing the stereotype that “bisexual people aren’t/can’t be monogamous.” And, they may also experience their own or others’ misperceptions that same-gender relationships are somehow less important than other-gender relationships (Weitsman, 2006).
As clinicians, it is our duty to challenge these cognitions if we have any of them; by reinforcing these stereotypes, we would be harming our bisexual clients as well. We can challenge our own thoughts and feelings through:
- Being curious about clients’ lived experiences
- Identifying and being curious about our own reactions and expectations for our clients’ lives
- Reading, following, and engaging with media created by bisexual polyamorous folx
- Educating ourselves about the reality of bisexuality and polyamory
- Seeking supervision or consultation with another polyamory-affirmative clinician
Clinical Work with Bisexual Polyamorous Clients
Having explored the potential advantages and disadvantages of polyamory for bisexual individuals, clinicians will hopefully be better positioned to provide a safe space for their bisexual polyamorous clients. Helping bisexual polyamorous clients with their relationships may include talking about safer sex practices with many genders, assessing for biphobia, assessing and creating safety plans for IPV, as well as addressing any other clinical issues.
Clinical work may include an exploration of how competition shows up in their relationships (if it does at all). Some partners of bisexual individuals may take comfort in knowing that they are currently the only person of a particular gender that the person is dating; therefore, they may feel as though there is less of a risk of their bisexual partner leaving them. For others, they may be acutely aware that their body is different from that of their metamours’; therefore, they may be concerned about never being able to fulfill a particular role or sexual desire for their partner (Armstrong & Reissing, 2014).
In doing this work, affirmative clinicians should also be on the lookout for any potential biphobia or IPV within a relationship. Couples’ therapy or multi-partner relationship therapy is not recommended in cases where IPV is prevalent.
Unique Stressor: A “Choice”
Bisexual polyamorous people also often are asked to make a choice between a partner and their relationship orientation. This is because potential other-sex partners of bisexual individuals tend to have expectations of monogamy (Armstrong & Reissing, 2014). This decision is a frequent reason couples end up in my office: one person craves non-monogamy, while the other can only envision a monogamous relationship for themselves. This is not always related to one person having a bisexual identity, but it can be one aspect of mono-poly relationship experiences. When faced with a monogamous-minded partner, some bisexual individuals do end up feeling like they have to make a choice, and may explore their options in our office. Some questions a bisexual client may be struggling with are:
- Do I stay in a monogamous relationship, or do I go?
- What does this say about my identity?
- Am I being true to myself?
- What will my community think?
- Will I be rejected from bisexual spaces or polyamorous spaces?
- Would I be a “sell-out” for choosing a partner of one gender or choosing a monogamous relationship?
Bisexual erasure happens to bisexual folx all the time; it is a weight we often feel, even if we aren’t expressing it. Therefore, an affirmative clinician should try to be aware of both the explicit and implicit choices that a client may be making when they are exploring the pros and cons of their relationship structures and how they are designing their relationships. While polyamory may help some bisexual folx combat bi erasure and be more visible, it also brings other difficulties with it. There is no one “correct” way to structure relationships, but exploring the various options, benefits, and disadvantages with bisexual individuals may help clients find the best choice for themselves and live more authentically in their life.
Anderlini-D’Onofrio, S. (2004). Plural loves: Bi and poly utopias for a new millennium. Journal of Bisexuality, 4, 1-6, doi:10.1300/J159v04n03_01
Armstrong, H. L. & Reissing, E. D. (2014). Attitudes toward casual sex, dating, and committed relationship with bisexual partners. Journal of Bisexuality, 14, 236-264. doi:10.1080/15299716.2014.902784
Klesse, C. (2011). Shady characters, untrustworthy partners, and promiscuous sluts: Creating bisexual intimacies in the face of heteronormativity and biphobia. Journal of Bisexuality, 11, 227-244. doi:10.1080/15299716.2011.571987
Mark, K., Rosenkrantz, D., and Kerner, I. (2014). “Bi”ing into monogamy: Attitudes toward monogamy in a sample of bisexual-identified adults. Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, 1(3), 263-269. doi:10.1037/sgd0000051
McLean, K. (2011). Bisexuality and nonmonogamy: A reflection. Journal of Bisexuality, 11, 513-517. doi:10.1080/15299716.2011.620857
Moss, A. R. (2012). Alternative families, alternative lives: Married women doing bisexuality. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 8(5), 405-427. doi:10.1080/1550428X.2012.729946
Ochs, R. (n.d.). Bisexual: A few quotes from Robyn Ochs. Retrieved from https://robynochs.com/bisexual/
Robinson, M. (2013). Polyamory and monogamy as strategic identities. Journal of Bisexuality, 13(1), 21-38. doi:10.1080/15299716.2013.755731
Turell, S. C., Brown, M., & Hermann, M. (2017). Disproportionately high: An exploration of intimate partner violence prevalence rates for bisexual people. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 33, 113-131. doi:10.1080/14681994.2017.1347614
Weinberg, M., Williams, C., & Pryor, D. (1994). Dual attraction: Understanding bisexuality. New York, NY: Oxford Press.
Weitsman, G. (2006). Therapy with clients who are bisexual and polyamorous. Journal of Bisexuality, 6, 137-164. doi:10.1300/J159v06n01_08
Check Out Stephanie’s CE Courses on working with polyamorous clients
I am Black, gay, and a social worker. I work in a recovery center where I help individuals attain and maintain their sobriety. I have had experience on both sides of the “social service” table, and my personal and professional experience has given me access to the elusive community of crystal meth users.
A friend of mine who experienced addiction once asked me to accompany him to a Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) meeting. Upon our arrival, the room buzzing with conversation, I noticed that my friend and I were two of only three people of color in the space of about 25 people. When the meeting opened up the floor to share, the only other person of color present shared about a tough time he was going through and broke into tears. He was raw in the moment, and as much as I wanted to walk over and console him, I froze. No one approached him.
I didn’t know what to do at that moment. So I waited until after the meeting and then I pulled him aside. He shared that this wasn’t the first time he had a breakdown or breakthrough in a CMA meeting, and that he didn’t expect comfort because no one had ever comforted him before. He went on to say that even in a room filled with people who share the same pain, he still felt alone.
Racism: the elephant in the room
This is not unusual: within the larger gay community, I often hear stories of cultural difference–that in these spaces of “inclusion,” there is an elephant in the room that many refuse to acknowledge or address. Many of the white men in this room were on dating and hookup sites advertising their attraction to men of color; they plastered their desire for “BBC” (big black cocks) all over these apps, accompanied by the capital letter T as a silent signal to meth users. Why is it so difficult for these same individuals to console someone in an emotional state of need? Is it because they don’t see our value outside of the bedrooms? Wealthy white men’s fetishizing and desire of Black men‘s bodies while using is not uncommon, and they dangle crystal meth like a carrot hoping for a treat from their trick.
I remember being in these rooms and feeling afraid, embarrassed and mostly alone. These dark emotions fueled my desire to use so that I could lower my inhibitions and allow myself to engage in these humiliating experiences. All for Tina. These sex rooms were eerily similar to that CMA meeting room, but here, the white men couldn’t keep their hands off me, nor anyone who looked like me. When I finally crossed paths with those who shared my same hue and were also users, I discovered that we shared that same experience. That’s when I decided to look for help, which wasn’t easy.
Addiction as a disease of isolation for Black gay men
It can be difficult as a Black gay man who has suffered from addiction, whether current or in the past, to find community support. Black crystal meth users have a harder time because it is widely seen as a “white man’s drug.” The Black gay men with whom I have worked often express their fears of sharing about their struggle with addiction even with their friends. With the fear and shame of their addiction, most of these men succumb to one of the most dangerous symptoms of crystal meth addiction: isolation.
Connection is a pillar in the Black community. Connection informs how we give and receive love, how we communicate, and also how we feel valued. Connection bonds the value and friendships that we create with our chosen families. Chosen families are an essential part of the LGBTQIA+ community; they enable us to find the support and love that our biological families might not provide. Crystal meth addiction can be detrimental to these connections, forcing the men who use it to suffer in silence. They may not share about their addiction because of how they will be viewed, or for fear of becoming the subject of the latest gossip.
Unfortunately, that fear became my reality. I had reached out for help from someone I thought was part of my circle of support, only to end up being grist for the rumor mill. These experiences severed my trust in people, scaring me from looking for help. I was afraid of sharing more with old friends, for fear that they would repeat the same behavior. I also struggled with making new connections, afraid that they would somehow find out about my addiction and want nothing to do with me.
On being both client and service provider
It took some time, but I was able to connect myself with services; I credit my professional experience with helping me locate resources. My background in linking consumers to community supports like Medicaid and substance abuse programs became my reality. I was on the other side of the table, having been in the position of both client and provider.
I am confident that many out there can maneuver beyond their addiction and locate the necessary support to begin their own journeys to sobriety. However, there are so many others who are unable or are too discouraged by the daunting process.
Applying for Medicaid and enrolling in substance abuse treatment programs can be tasks within themselves. Fortunately, organizations like the D.C.-based Us Helping Us and Whitman-Walker Clinic offer streamlined services for MSM with crystal meth addiction, help with applying for health benefits, and much more. In New York, there is the Ike & Tina meeting, which centers the experiences of Black queer and trans folx seeking recovery.
But there is a tremendous need for culturally sensitive program models offered on a national level, along with greater accessibility of culturally cognizant therapists. Affirmative therapy provides safer spaces in which to unpack one’s life experiences, which is essential for anyone in or seeking recovery. My love for my profession plays an instrumental role in my search for the best way to support those with addiction. However, beyond this passion for the work that I do, my reach as an individual is limited.
It is time to tailor, on a larger scale, recovery services to our clients’ cultural experiences and needs. Community and mental health providers must seek training specifically designed to address the intersections of addiction and culture. Continuing education is vital for any and all of us providing services to clients whose multiplicity of identities and experiences we recognize and respect. In addition to pursuing ongoing training to create a workforce rich in cultural humility, providers should engage in advocacy efforts to ensure the creation and funding for recovery programs that will meet our clients where they are and propel them forward. There is much work ahead for affirmative providers!
In my third and final article in this series, I will explore the resources available to help practicing clinicians address the intersections of culture and addiction.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin
Lee, C., Oliffe, J. L., Kelly, M. T., & Ferlatte, O. (2017). Depression and suicidality in gay men: Implications for health care providers. American Journal of Men’s Health, 11(4), 910–919. https://doi.org/10.1177/1557988316685492
(Re)imagining gender through stories
In my first article in this two-part series, I explored and reviewed works created by queer and trans clinicians who approached internalized transphobia from a clinical perspective, and offered actionable steps to dismantle it in the therapeutic space with clients. In this second and final installment, I explore memoirs from TGNB authors–including clinicians, artists, writers, and activists–who offer deep learning about the ways in which the intersections of identity, race, class, sexuality, and gender impact how TGNB people navigate the world.
The beauty of these books lay in their illustration of both the pains and joys of growing into TGNB identities. Their authors reimagine trans stories to be more fluid and person-centered. They reject notions of the classical trans narratives, mostly created by cis folx in positions of power who showcase trans folx’ trauma timeline. These tell a story until a trans person fully transitions to fit back into the binary structure, so that man becomes woman or woman becomes man and is then “self actualized.”
These memoirs provide alternative narratives of trans stories, celebrating trans folx’ experience and speaking to the truth of internalized transphobia. Furthermore, these resources shed light on how TGNB folx are treated as a monolith in clinical training and academic articles. They bring greater awareness to the many ways of being and expressing one’s TGNB identity by sharing with us how there is no one way to do or express gender.
The authors of the books I reviewed dispel constant media reports that are often overwhelmingly negative and contain invalidating messages about the trans community that serve to feed into and spread internalized transphobia (Rood et al., 2017). The mainstream media’s focus on only one type of story about TGNB people is an example of what Tobia (2019) calls “the limits of cisgender imagination.”
Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon–a gender non-conforming writer who uses they/them pronouns–provides a prime example of how the personal is political when it comes to TGNB folx living in our Western context. The book brings to light the everyday experiences of non-binary folx, from going to the grocery store to spending time with friends. Vaid-Menon explores the pain of having to censor their beauty- and fashion-related identities, due to the fear that transgressing gender may elicit a violent reaction from individuals outside of LGBTQIA+ community. Non-binary folx have to be on alert to everyday microaggressions we can attribute to a system that rewards conformity rather than creativity (Vaid-Menon, 2020).
Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia, a non-binary writer and actor who also uses they/them pronouns, approaches gender trauma from an intersectional and social justice lens. Tobia brings awareness to the reader of the harsh punishment faced by TGNB youth until they conform to society’s standards of male and female, and of how TGNB youth are policed by parents, family members, teachers, and other children to ensure their alignment with the gender binary. Tobia’s humorous approach to the book creates a sense of ease in learning about both the challenges they confronted and their success in their non-binary journey from childhood to early adulthood at Duke College. They also illustrate their internalized transphobia, which manifested as self-hatred. The book explores how there are many ways to be queer, and through their commitment to social justice causes, Tobia is passionate about ensuring other TGNB folx have the chance to live their most authentic lives.
Tobia and Vaid-Menon as non-binary/genderfluid folx have been what gender therapist and writer Dara Hoffman-Fox (2017) may define as “hands-off mentors” to me: TGNB folx to whom I look up and consider role models in learning and understanding my own experiences as a non-binary artist, clinician, and person. They provide insight into, and describe similar pain in reckoning with, the sadness of being forced into binary systems. We and our clients face situations that range from invalidating to dangerous–from choosing between gendered restrooms to lacking adequate identification markers on our driver’s licenses. Our capitalist health insurance systems force both clinicians and clients into checking off binary boxes, furthering the notion that being TGNB is some kind of preference. This is illustrated by the GOP’s outrageous and repeated transphobic attacks on youth, entailing attempts to pass bills in numerous states across the country that would interfere with the rights of young people and their families to make their own medical decisions in conjunction with their providers.
Intersectional perspectives in TGNB stories
It is crucial for clinicians to consider how intersectional experiences of gender, race, and class shape violence against the TGNB folx with whom we work (Babine et al., 2019). These memoirs remind us to recognize the specific threats faced by QTBIPOC (queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), specifically Black trans women, who are disproportionately targeted by white supremacist and transphobic violence.
Fairest by trans writer Merideth Tulsan (she/they pronouns) speaks directly to an intersectional experience of being trans, Filipino, immigrant, and albino, and to the privilege of being white-passing. Tulsan’s trans memoir illustrates the limits of the imagination of Western society’s perceptions of gender, and of the constant trauma inflicted upon TGNB folx in America inflamed by internalized transphobia in our society. They speak to their pre-colonial two-spirited indigenous ancestors Bakla, who in their culture are male-bodied people who live as women and who are pillars of their society. This aspect of the text speaks powerfully to the historical roots of TGNB folx, who have long existed, and to the negative impact colonization–which to this day continues to attempt to erase TGNB folx from the fabric of society–has had on our communities.
In Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir, trans womxn social worker Kai Cheng Thom takes the idea of a trans narrative and completely reshapes it into a fictionalized coming of age memoir filled with mermaids, magic, zombies, and collective trans love. Through the lens of a fairytale, Thom portrays a radical trans Asian girl protagonist who runs away from an abusive city of gloom and joins a vigilante girl gang called the Lipstick Lacerators, who become her chosen family. The story speaks to the many TGNB youths who have to leave their abusive homes out of safety concerns and to be able to live their authentic genders. The memoir brings to light the tragic reality of the violence trans womxn of color face in our society as a result of internalized transphobia, transmisogyny, police brutality, white supremacy, racism, abuse, and sexual exploitation.
Both Tulsan and Cheng, through their intersectional perspectives, offer clinicians the opportunity to learn more about their clients who hold multiple identities; they remind us that there is no “one size fits all” approach to working with TGNB community members. These books can serve as important tools for clinicians to deepen their understanding of intersectionality. Their authors, with their formidable presence on social media, may themselves become hands-off mentors to readers seeking connection and inspiration.
Take-Aways for queer clinicians
Internalized transphobia is inextricably linked to oppression, white supremacy, and power. With this information from the workbooks, stories, and memoirs reviewed in this article series, we are presented with the opportunity to cultivate a greater awareness of internalized transphobia. We are given more tools and language that can help us stand up against transphobia, ending our (perhaps unwitting) complicity in a system of oppression that harms TGNB folx. A through-line in all of these memoirs is how transphobic and racist policies are being greenlighted by bias and discrimination authorized at the local, state, and federal levels. Our previous administration’s flow of constant disinformation about TGNB folx fanned the flames of transphobia. I ask my fellow clinicians to hold our new Biden and Harris administration accountable for rolling back the hate-filled policies affecting our TGNB community, and to demand inclusion and equity in all aspects of society.
To combat transphobia in mental health care, we must demand that other clinicians recognize transphobia, even if others are unaware of their engagement in it (Levy, 2020). This means no more dead TGNB folx as a result of inequitable access to basic human rights created by a transphobic society. Clinicians must be cognizant of how transphobia, whether internalized or not, prevents progress in therapeutic relationships with our TGNB clients. When we confront transphobia head-on, we create a shift in perspective and progress toward a more inclusive mental health care system for our TGNB clients (Morrison, 2019).
As a non-binary clinician, I am aware that there are many aspects of TGNB community to which I cannot relate–but I must act as a radical ally for trans folx by owning my mistakes, examining my privileges, advocating for the community, and always grounding my mental health care practice in empathy. All of the workbooks and memoirs I reviewed offer clinicians more expansive and creative ways in which to offer affirmative care to our TGNB clients. In our efforts to stay updated with best practices in working with LGBTQIA+ community members, it is imperative for clinicians to continue learning and creating safe and affirmative spaces for our queer and trans clients. With our knowledge, we can move forward in continuing to dismantle heterosexist and cissexist practices in mental health care.
Homie by Danez Smith
Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity by Micah Rajunov and A. Scott Duane
I HOPE WE CHOOSE LOVE: A Trans Girl’s Notes From the End of the World by Kai Cheng Thom
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
I Wish You All The Best by Mason Deaver
PET by Akwaeke Emez
The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta
Trans Teen Survival Guide by Owl and Fox Fisher
Trans + Love, Sex, Romance, and Being You by Kathryn Gonzales, MBA, and Karen Rayne, PhD
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Babine, A., Torho, S. S., Fizpatrick, O., Kolodkin, S. R., & Daly, L. (March 2019). Dismantling Stigma in the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community. The New York Transgender Advocacy Group.
Hoffman-Fox, D. (2017). You and your gender identity: A guide to discovery. Skyhorse Publishing.
Levy, V. (2020). Exploring my Identity(ies): Interactive. Self Published.
Morrison, L. (2019). Facing Fragility: The Burden of Cisgender Fragility.
Talusan, M. (2020). Fairest: A memoir. Viking.
Tobia, J. (2019). Sissy: A coming-of-gender story. G.P. Putnam’s Son.
Vaid-Menon, A. (2020). Beyond the gender binary: Penguin Workshop.
Check out Mikey Anderson’s Course
Check out other courses about Transgender Affirmative Therapy
Decolonizing Your Practice with Trans Clients:
Actions Steps and Resources
As a reminder, my goal in writing this two-part series is to reflect on the ways in which TGNB-affirming* clinicians contribute to colonization (Part 1), while also offering, in this article, actionable ways of moving toward decolonization and gender liberation.
You may be familiar with what is now called the Multicultural & Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC; Ratts et al., 2016). The original elements of knowledge, attitudes and beliefs, and skills originated in 1992 (Sue et al.), and the most recent expansion added the emphasis of taking action.
This model emphasizes that our work needs to transcend the clinical skills and interventions we have been taught. We need to engage in our own self-reflection, navigate the power dynamics that are inherent in every session, and better understand and advocate for change within the very systems that perpetuate the problems our clients are facing.
As mentioned in Part 1, I believe that a clinician’s ability to wholeheartedly and effectively serve the TGNB population requires ongoing critical awareness, examination, and acknowledgment of the following:
- A likely skewed lens of the world
- Your approach to treatment
- How you operate around privilege and oppression (both personally and professionally)
- The history of colonization and enslavement, as well as white supremacy
- The ways in which you have benefited from various systems and/or internalized the intergenerational harmful impact of those systems
If you are unsure of how to transform your clinical work with TGNB people to work toward gender liberation with a lens of decolonization, here are some action steps and values you might find helpful:
“History has its eyes.” Actively educate yourself, acknowledge, raise awareness, and work to change historical systems of oppression related to ability, race, gender, and body diversity. Aim to move beyond affirmation and “multicultural competence” to better understand your own colonized behaviors, as well as each client’s internalized transphobia and racism, and help clients move toward liberation. Antiracism Daily can be a helpful resource in this regard.
OWN YOUR ROLE AND RESPONSIBILITY. SAY THE THING.
We have a responsibility to acknowledge the impact of our racial and gender identities, the actions of our ancestors, our mistakes, our humanness, and our own innate strength and power; I recommend checking out Nora Alwah’s Ted Talk. We also have a responsibility to be authentic and transparent, and to believe what our clients tell us is their lived experience.
Validate client experiences rather than attempting to empathize with an experience of oppression for someone with a marginalized identity you do not hold. Bear in mind that sometimes our clients may not feel able to tell us or ask for what they need, especially if they’re accustomed to making those in positions of power feel more comfortable.
VALUE LIVED EXPERIENCE AS EXPERTISE OF THE SELF.
Decenter your privilege of the expectation of comfort from others. For those of us in positions of power/privilege, we become accustomed to systems and interactions being shaped around our needs, so it creates a dynamic in which those in marginalized bodies spend their lives making us comfortable (e.g., when Black people “code switch” in white spaces). Center your client’s feelings and experiences. Clinically, trust your clients’ awareness and knowledge about what they need and want.
Professionally, seek opportunities to learn from those who have lived experiences with their own BIPOC and/or TGNB identities. Honor their lived experience without questioning their training, education, and competence. And pay them for their time! For example, Sonny Jane talks more about this.
PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION AND CULTURAL HUMILITY.
Check your shame at the door. We improve with openness to being wrong, trying, failing, and doing better the next time. Following a mistake, shame can lead to inaction and avoidance due to thoughts of being “not enough” and fear of judgment.
On the other hand, guilt allows us to accept responsibility, act to address the hurt our behaviors have caused, and learn from our mistakes for future interactions. You are imperfect, and that’s okay. You can still strive for excellence in TGNB care. Learn more about TGNB self-compassion.
USE A TRAUMA-INFORMED LENS TO HEAL, REST, AND SEEK JOY.
To effectively support TGNB clients, pay attention to both your and your clients’ minds and bodies using a trauma-informed lens. Bodies of all races carry the intergenerational trauma of our ancestors, and it is much more difficult to create a culture of liberation and internalized antiracism without first healing and resting our bodies. I recommend Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands; you might also check out The Nap Ministry on Instagram.
Also, part of healing is uncovering moments of joy and pleasure, both for yourself as well as your clients. For example, encourage your clients to be on the lookout for gender euphoria, which entails experiencing a strong sense of comfort and/or joy during an imagined or actual moment of connection and authenticity in one’s gender identity, body, and/or expression. There’s more about this in Laura Kate Dale’s forthcoming book Gender Euphoria. Make sure to celebrate all of the tiny victories in addition to holding space for dysphoria and marginalization. For more information about this, I recommend Adrienne Maree Brown’s Pleasure Activism and Anneliese Singh’s The Queer & Transgender Resilience Workbook.
“UNSCHOOL” AND ANTICIPATE A LACK OF CLOSURE.
We may never achieve some predetermined maximum level of knowledge, awareness, and language expertise. But we can work to expand ourselves beyond the “schoolishness” of doing what we’ve been taught in Western and colonized systems of education and psychology. For example, Akilah Richards’ work examines unschooling as a path to liberation (2020).
BE PATIENT. TRUST AND VULNERABILITY ARE EARNED OVER TIME.
White supremacy, racism, anti-Blackness, transphobia, and colonialism have impacted the world for centuries. It is a naïve privilege to believe that the work of one person alone can break down the barriers. Safety is not universal. Trust has to be earned.
Clinically, we cannot rush connection, courage, trust, affirmation goals, or growth without a cost to ourselves and/or our clients. It is not surprising that our clients distrust us at first; only if and when it starts to feel safer, they may slowly open themselves up to becoming more vulnerable.
CONNECT AND NURTURE YOURSELF.
Connect with other social justice-minded professionals who espouse the values of anti-racism and anti-oppression, such as Inclusive Therapists and Joy and Justice Collaborative. Follow and support the work of healers who actively engage in the work, such as Alisha McCullough, Sonalee Rashatwar, and Haley Jones.
Communities that work together toward these shared goals create a sense of belonging and healing together. We also need to set and maintain boundaries to ensure we are appropriately recharging, checking in about our needs and wants, and creating an environment that best allows us to do effective work.
CHECK YOUR VALUES.
Examine how true racial and gender liberation would serve you, rather than worrying about what it might “take away.” When this work feels hard, do you pull back or move through? Do your words, behavior, commitment, and expenditures stand in line with what you say you value? For example, consider the impact of supporting organizations such as Psychology Today that have problematic histories related to race, gender, and bodies.
You might reimagine your practice policies, fees, structure, and paperwork when reflecting on the ways in which you are reinforcing colonization. For example, please see here and here for a discussion of sliding scales as a tool for economic justice. Also, I highly recommend considering the GALAP Pledge, in which mental health providers commit to offer free or insurance-based access to gender-affirming surgery assessments from an informed consent lens.
Finally, consider whose voices are missing from your education, training, and ongoing work to improve your competence with marginalized populations. Are you centering yourself and/or those in positions of power, or pulling back to make space for marginalized voices?
LEAN INTO DISCOMFORT.
If you’re doing this work, chances are that you will often feel uncomfortable. Discomfort is not bad just because we experience relief when we move away from it. It is not others’ responsibility to make us comfortable, to lead us down the “right” path, etc. View discomfort as an opportunity to get curious (you might check out this radical anger podcast episode)!
Consider that many people experience discomfort when first exploring the sexist and racist history of fatphobia, the harmful impact of diet culture, and the ableism inherent in much of our society. (For more information, see this writer’s related articles here and here; I highly recommend reading The Body is Not An Apology and Fearing the Black Body.) But the joy and grounding that comes from liberating ourselves and our clients from those harmful systems is worth the work!
Though most of my early knowledge and training comes from white Western ideas and people, I have grown the most from queer, fat, TGNB, and BIPOC intersectional mentors, thought leaders, educators, clinicians, and other healers. I am a radically different (and better) version of myself when I am in community with others who hold similar values of anti-racism, body, race, and gender liberation, and restorative/reparative justice. So I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to expand upon this article with the intense heart and body work that comes with decolonization, restorative justice, and liberation.
*Note: For the purpose of this article, TGNB indicates transgender and gender nonbinary populations, though you may come across other “umbrella” acronyms. No acronym will fully represent all experiences of gender diversity, so when referring to individuals, you should always use whatever language feels best for your client. The use of BIPOC sometimes represents Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (i.e., non-white people), and at other times it represents Black and Indigenous people of color primarily (Code Switch episode, Meraji & Escobar, 2020). When discussing BIPOC communities in this article, I am referring to the Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color who experience ongoing marginalization and oppression in relation to the colonized history of the Western world, including the intergenerational impact from their ancestors.
As a reminder, there are approximately two dozen recommendations and resources listed in Part 1 in addition to the ones below. These constitute just a sampling of the vast amount of information available, and my recommendations are based on my personal experience, growth, and perception of their helpfulness. Lean into what resonates, and know that there are alternatives for anything that doesn’t.
- GALAP Pledge (A group of mental health providers in the US who have committed to offering free or insurance-based accessible referral letters for gender affirming surgery). https://thegalap.org/
- Inclusive Therapists (A mental health professional directory, community, & justice movement). [@inclusivetherapists]. https://www.inclusivetherapists.com/
- Joy & Justice Collaborative (A healing and mental health professional community, education events, & justice movement). [@joyandjusticecollab]. https://www.joyandjusticecollab.org/
- The Blacker the Brain (Thea Monyee´ of MarleyAyo LLC is building a community of multidisciplinary practitioners & creatives to decolonize mental health/healing/wellness work). [@TheBlackerTheBrain]. https://marleyayo.com/unlearning
Media & Web Resources:
- Alwah, N. (clinician, she/her). (n.d.). Nora Alwah. [@noraalwah]. [Website, Instagram profile]. www.noraalwah.com
- Breland-Noble, A. (clinician/vlogger, she/her). (n.d.). Couched in Color with Dr. Alfiee. [@dralfiee]. [Instagram profile, YouTube channel]. https://www.youtube.com/c/CouchedinColorwithDrAlfiee
- Cardoza, N. (editor). (2020 – present). Anti-Racism Daily. [@antiracismdaily]. [Online newsletter, Instagram profile]. https://www.antiracismdaily.com/
- Feder, S, & Scholder, A. (Director & Producers). (2020). Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen [Documentary]. Field of Vision.
- Finch, S.D. (coach & writer, he/they). (n.d.). Sam Dylan Finch. [@SamDylanFinch] [Website, Instagram profile]. www.samdylanfinch.com
- Hersey, T. (founder/blogger/coach). (n.d.). The nap ministry. [@thenapministry]. [Instagram profile; Blog]. https://thenapministry.wordpress.com/
- Jane, S. (peer support/lived experience counselor, they/them). (n.d.). Lived Experience Studio[@LivedExperienceCounsellor]. [Website, Instagram profile]. www.livedexperiencestudio.com
- Jones, H. (LPC-intern & content creator, they/them). (n.d.). [@the_queer_counselor]. [Instagram profile]. https://www.instagram.com/the_queer_counselor/
- McCullough, A. (clinician, she/her). (n.d.). Black and Embodied. [@blackandembodied]. [Instagram profile, Website]. www.blackandembodied.com
- McNeil, Toliver, M., Grinnell, M., & Wiltey, J. (Hosts). (2019 – Present). The melanated social work podcast. [Audio podcast]. Producer unknown. https://melanatedsocialwork.buzzsprout.com/
- Melanated Social Work (clinicians/podcasters). (n.d.). [@MelanatedSocialWork]. [Instagram profile, Website]. https://melanatedsocialwork.buzzsprout.com/
- Menakem, R. (clinician/author, he/him). (n.d.). Resmaa Menakem. [@ResmaaMenakem] [Website, Instagram profile]. www.resmaa.com
- Mullan, J. (clinician/author, she/her). (n.d.). Jennifer Mullan – Decolonizing Therapy. [@decolonizingtherapy] [Instagram profile, Website]. https://www.drjennifermullan.com/
- Rashatwar, S. (clinician/lecturer/organizer, she/they). (n.d.). Sonalee Rashatwar. [@TheFatSexTherapist]. [Website, Instagram profile]. www.sonaleer.com
- Richards, A. (writer/coach/podcaster, she/her). (n.d.). Raising Free People. [@fareofthefreechild]. [Instagram profile, Website]. https://raisingfreepeople.com/
- Taylor, S.R. (writer/poet/thought leader, she/they). (n.d.). The Body is not an Apology. [@SonyaReneeTaylor, @TheBodyIsNotAnApology]. [Website, Instagram profile]. https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/
- Toler, M. (Host). (2020 – Present). Hearing our own voice. [Audio podcast]. Producer unknown. https://www.melissatoler.com/podcast
Learn more about transgender and gender nonbinary affirmative therapy
Alwah, Nora. (2020, October 26). Reclaiming our power: Making ourselves seen [Video]. TEDxCU. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYi42ydUe7Q&feature=emb_logo
binaohan, b (2014). decolonizing trans/gender 101. biyuti publishing.
Brown, A. M. (2019). Pleasure activism: The politics of feeling good. AK Press.
Cunningfolk, A. (2015, Aug. 11). The sliding scale: A tool of economic justice. Worts + Cunning Apothecary. http://www.wortsandcunning.com/blog/sliding-scale?rq=sliding%20scale
Cunningfolk, A. (2018, Apr. 23). How to make the sliding scale better for you & your clients. Worts + Cunning Apothecary. http://www.wortsandcunning.com/blog/a-better-sliding-scale
Dale, L. K. (anticipated, 2021). Gender euphoria: Stories of joy from trans, non binary and intersex writers. [Book preparing for print]. Unbound: United Authors Publishing Ltd.
Gender euphoria. (n.d.). In Gender Wikia. https://gender.wikia.org/wiki/Gender_Euphoria
Guenther, J. (2018, October 21). Psychology Today magazine loves white people: Especially beautiful and thin white women. Therapy Den. https://www.therapyden.com/blog/psychology-today-magazine-loves-beautiful-thin-white-women
Hemphill, P. (Host). (2020 – Present). Finding our way. [Audio podcast]. Producer unknown. https://prentishemphill.com/new-page-4
jackson, k. & Shanks, M. (2017). Decolonizing gender: A curriculum. [Zine] https://www.decolonizinggender.com/
Menakem, R. (2017). My grandmother’s hands. Racialized trauma and the pathways to mending our hearts and bodies. Central Recovery Press.
Meraji, S.M. & Escobar, N. (Hosts). (2020, September 30). Is it time to say R.I.P. to POC? [Audio podcast episode]. In Code Switch. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/29/918418825/is-it-time-to-say-r-i-p-to-p-o-c
Ratts, M. J., Singh, A. A., Nassar-McMillan, S. N., Butler, S. K., & Rafferty McCullough, J. (2016). Multicultural and social justice counseling competencies: Guidelines for the counseling profession. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 44(1), 28-48. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jmcd.12035
Richards, A. (2020, Oct. 20). Raising free people: Unschooling our way to intergenerational healing. In Joy & Justice Collab: Empowered Learning Summit. [Presentation].
Singh, A. S. (2018). The queer & transgender resilience workbook: Skills for navigating sexual orientation & gender expression. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Strings, S. (2019). Fearing the Black body: The racial origins of fat phobia. New York University Press.
Sue, D. W., Arrendondo, P., & McDavis, R. J. (1992). Multicultural counseling competencies and standards: A call to the profession. Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 20, 64-88. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.2161-1912.1992.tb00563.x
Taylor, S. R. (2021). The body is not an apology: The power of radical self-love. (2nd ed.). Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Tucker, M. (2019, June 19). At the intersection of fat and trans. The Affirmative Couch. https://affirmativecouch.com/at-the-intersection-of-fat-trans/
The Allied Minds Collective (2020, July 31). Psychologist’s stance on the “vilification of Karens” exposes the inequities embedded within mental health care. Medium. https://firstname.lastname@example.org/psychiatrists-stance-on-the-vilification-of-karens-exposes-the-inequities-embedded-within-c76a35622aee
Tucker, M. (2019, November 22). Helping TGNB young adults build self-compassion. [Webinar Training]. The Affirmative Couch. https://affirmativecouch.com/product/helping-transgender-and-gender-nonbinary-young-adults-develop-self-compassion/
Tucker, M. (2019, November 27). Helping queer and trans clients navigate fatphobia during the holidays. The Affirmative Couch. https://affirmativecouch.com/helping-queer-and-trans-clients-navigate-fatphobia-during-the-holidays/
Tucker, M. (2020, Aug 4). Deactivating psychology today and moving forward. https://www.wholeheartedpsych.com/post/deactivating-psychology-today-moving-forward
Crystal Meth & the Gay Community
Crystal meth has had a devastating effect on the gay community. Over the last 20 years, meth has grown into a catastrophic force, contributing to about 15% of all drug death overdoses (NIDA, 2019). Gay and bisexual men use methamphetamines at a higher rate than heterosexual men (Lea et al., 2017). As a result, it is safe to assume that a high percentage of crystal meth overdoses come from within the LGBTQIA+ community.
Crystal Meth & HIV
Further, crystal meth has played an instrumental role in the increase of HIV infection rates. “Crystal methamphetamine use is a large contributing factor to a substantial increase in risky sex behaviors and higher rates of HIV infection among MSM” (Molitor et al., 1998 p. 3). During use, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods parts of the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway in the brain, which regulates feelings of pleasure (CSAT, 2009).
Considered a club or party drug, crystal meth is often used by young adults and teenagers to stay awake (Dowshen, 2018). In addition, a common effect shared by gay and bisexual men during crystal meth use is an insatiable sexual appetite. Drug use can result in feeling sexually adventurous and experiencing a heightened sense of pleasure, stamina, and endurance that can last for days even without the user taking proper rest. In other words, crystal meth can produce feelings of confidence, power, and invulnerability on a psychological level. Subsequently, the aforementioned increased sexual desire can overpower necessary activities of daily living like bathing and going to work.
Crystal Meth & Chemsex
While in this state, men who have sex with men (MSM) may engage in chemsex–taking any combination of drugs including crystal meth, mephedrone, and/or GHB/GBL while engaging in sex. Since the use of crystal meth lowers one’s inhibitions, meth is often associated with multiple partners, who may contact each other via hookup apps.
Crystal meth users may also engage in what is called “tinkle tweaking,” in which they store their own urine and try to recover un-metabolized methamphetamine from it to fuel another high (Wakefield et al., 2019). Another version of this is called a “booty bump.” One way to receive a booty bump is to dissolve a shard of crystal in water and put it into a syringe without the needle, then “bump” this solution of crystal into one’s anus. A version of this may be practiced during chemsex as well, but what users may not realize is that booty bumps can result in hepatitis, parasites, and other diseases (Frankis et al., 2018).
Crystal Meth & Black Men
In the gay world, crystal meth has been known as a rural white men’s drug. However, Black men’s use of crystal meth has increased significantly. A study conducted by MSM in New York demonstrated that Black men reported use of methamphetamines at a higher rate than white men (Halkitis et al., 2008). Filter, a New York City magazine, shared that Black men experienced more hospitalizations for amphetamine poisoning, dependence, and “nondependent abuse” in the city’s public hospitals than did all white people (Blanchard, 2019). For example, Black men reported a higher rate of usage of methamphetamines than white men and less enrollment in treatment (Saloner & Le Cook, 2013).
Moreover, research shows that those who enroll in treatment programs for substance misuse demonstrate a higher success rate in their journey of sobriety; obviously, treatment provides access to necessary behavioral supports such as counseling, and is linked to improvement in social and psychological functioning (NIDA, 2020). Statistically, if Black men are not seeking or receiving treatment, then they are at higher risk of long-term use or succumbing to addiction. Positive responses to treatment outcomes are, of course, dependent upon the appropriateness of the intervention, as both affirmative care and client involvement are essential.
Affirmative Treatment Facilities for Gay Black Men
Meanwhile, there are not enough affirmative treatment facilities for substance use treatment of Black Gay men. For example, of the eight crystal meth treatment facilities in New York designed for gay and bisexual male patients, seven of them are located in Manhattan. Therefore, this imposes severe geographical demographic limitations. Substance abuse is significantly more prevalent among those living in poverty, as are most of the risk factors for drug abuse (Nakashian, 2019). For instance, residents of Black neighborhoods are 7.3 times more likely to live in high poverty with limited to no access to mental health services, according to the CDC (Denton & Anderson, 2005). As a result, this forces those who are seeking help to search outside of their neighborhoods for treatment and services. Furthermore, traveling outside of one’s neighborhood can be intimidating and present a culture shock. Certainly, culture can play a dynamic role in patient and provider engagement.
Need for more accessible mental health care
There is a great need for knowledgeable and accessible mental health care and substance abuse service providers who can treat Black gay and bi men using crystal meth. Culturally cognizant psychotherapists can help to increase awareness of use of illicit drugs amongst African American communities, and can also provide culturally appropriate services targeted to consumers’ needs (Harawa, 2008). Above all, providers who understand the cultural intricacies and experiences of Black men who use crystal meth can be instrumental in their recovery.
Being client centered
In order to keep treatment for crystal meth and other substance use client-focused, affirmative therapists can draw on Rogers’ approach to treatment. Therapists must allow clients to use the therapeutic relationship in their own way (Client-centered therapy, 2006). Certainly, this means taking into consideration the client’s cultural background and personal experiences in creating an effective treatment plan for them. Crystal meth addiction clearly transcends racial and ethnic lines, making evident the need for further outreach and support to Black gay and bisexual men who are using. Further, specific assessment and risk reduction measures to address crystal meth use and sexual behaviors and roles among these community members are warranted. In short, crystal meth addiction is a disease that shows no cultural biases. As a result, mental health providers must ensure that our services reflect that.
Blanchard, S. K. (2019, August 8). Black New Yorkers Hospitalized for Amphetamines at Alarming Rates. Filter. https://filtermag.org/black-new-york-amphetamines-hospital/
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT). Substance Abuse Treatment: Addressing the Specific Needs of Women. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2009. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 51.) Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK83252/
Client-centered therapy. (January 2006). Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Client-centered_therapy
Denton, N. A., & Anderson, B. J. (2005). Poverty and Race Research Action Council analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. The Opportunity Agenda. Retrieved from http://www.opportunityagenda.org.
Dowshen, S. (Ed.). (2018, May). Methamphetamine (Meth) (for Teens) – Nemours KidsHealth. https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/meth.html.
Frankis, J., Flowers, P., McDaid, L., & Bourne, A. (2018). Low levels of chemsex among men who have sex with men, but high levels of risk among men who engage in chemsex: analysis of a cross-sectional online survey across four countries. Sexual health, 15(2), 144–150. https://www.publish.csiro.au/sh/SH17159
Halkitis, P. N., & Jerome, R. C. (2008). A comparative analysis of methamphetamine use: black gay and bisexual men in relation to men of other races. Addictive behaviors, 33(1), 83–93. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0306460307002122
Harawa, N. T., Williams, J. K., Ramamurthi, H. C., Manago, C., Avina, S., & Jones, M. (2008, October). Sexual behavior, sexual identity, and substance abuse among low-income bisexual and non-gay-identifying African American men who have sex with men. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2574823/.
Lea, T., Kolstee, J., Lambert, S., Ness, R., Hannan, S., & Holt, M. (2017). Methamphetamine treatment outcomes among gay men attending a LGBTI-specific treatment service in Sydney, Australia. PloS one, 12(2), e0172560. https://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0172560
Molitor, F., Truax, S. R., Ruiz, J. D., & Sun, R. K. (1998). Association of methamphetamine use during sex with risky sexual behaviors and HIV infection among non-injection drug users. The Western journal of medicine, 168(2), 93–97.
Nakashian, M. (2019, July 26). Substance Abuse Policy Research Program. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/research/2012/01/substance-abuse-policy-research-program.html
NIDA. 2019, May 16. Methamphetamine DrugFacts. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/methamphetamine on 2020, December 28
NIDA. 2020, September 18. Principles of Effective Treatment. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/principles-effective-treatment on 2020, December 31
Saloner, B., & Lê Cook, B. (2013). Blacks and Hispanics are less likely than whites to complete addiction treatment, largely due to socioeconomic factors. Health affairs (Project Hope), 32(1), 135–145. http://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2011.0983
Wakefield, L., Maurice, E. P., Parsons, V., & Smith, R. (2019, June 26). This is why people drink their own urine after taking drugs. PinkNews. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/04/30/urine-drugs/.
Moving Towards Trans and Nonbinary-Affirmative Therapy Practice
As psychotherapists, we know that transphobia’s pervasive social impact affects our clients and our own internal worlds. This results in transgender and gender nonbinary (TGNB) folx internalizing society’s gender-normative attitudes and lays the groundwork for them to develop negative attitudes about themselves and their communities, which can ultimately lead to poor mental health outcomes (Babine et al., 2019).
I reviewed these resources for clinicians to help them address internalized transphobia; this term is used, for the purposes of this article, to mean phobia toward and discrimination against trans binary and non-binary individuals. In doing so, I encourage all of us to use our positions of power to educate community members including educators, employers, health care providers, and other support service staff who work with TGNB folx. It is incumbent upon us to help ensure that our clients are offered LGBTQIA+ affirmative care in every aspect of their lives (Babine et al., 2019). The resources listed in this article are a call to action to all providers offering care to the TGNB community; my hope is that we can consider these readings to create a more inclusive and gender-just world in which TGNB folx can live fully.
This review comes from my perspective as a white, able-bodied, licensed clinical therapist and nonbinary art therapist. I encountered some difficulties in reading through these books because they hit close to home for me and in relation to the everyday trauma my TGNB clients face. I recommend that other TGNB therapists and clients working through these books take breaks and engage in self-care practices when needed. Fortunately, Hoffman-Fox has included a Self-Care Checklist on page xxxi in their workbook, reviewed in this article.
Interactively Challenging Internalized Transphobia Through Workbooks
Transphobia is deeply rooted in a cis-hetero, capitalist, western settler-colonial political system, and it will take a much more organized response to address than filling out a workbook. But we can start by addressing internalized transphobia in ourselves, thus moving towards challenging it on a larger scale.
Exploring my Identity(ies): Interactive by Van Ethan Levy, LMFT
Written by a queer, non-binary, trans, AFAB (assigned female at birth), NBPOC (Not Black Person of Color) who uses the pronouns Van/they, Exploring my Identity(ies): Interactive asks clinicians to address their privileges, power, biases, and the stereotypes they have absorbed, and how these are intrinsically linked to internalized transphobia. Van engages the reader immediately by asking the reader “Who am I?” as a starting point to encourage vulnerability. This helps readers reduce shame and examine all the ways in which they have internalized negative messages about the TGNB community.
The workbook offers clinicians actionable steps to confront and address their internalized transphobia by breaking down language in an interactive format. This allows them to deepen their understanding of the ways in which internalized transphobia impacts us and our clients on both individual and systemic levels (Soto & Garman, 2018). The book names how internalized transphobia takes hold of us via unconscious bias by absorbing messages from our cis-focused society that shames, criticizes, and dehumanizes TGNB people. These messages, some overt and some subtle, serve to exclude trans people from full participation in life and are especially harmful to TGNB people trying to live freely in our world (Lighthouse Inc., 2020).
Levy (2020) closes the book by offering clinicians ways to be better allies. They challenge how our inflated academic egos are informed by the experiences of mostly white cis-hetero folx, rather than through the lens of the many marginalized TGNB folx fighting for their lives. The author recognizes that this is a lifelong practice for clinicians, and recommends approaching social issues with an intersectional lens.
You and Your Gender Identity: A Guide to Discovery by Dara Hoffman-Fox, LPC
Written by a white, queer, nonbinary mental health counselor who uses the pronouns Dara/they/them, You and Your Gender Identity: A Guide to Discovery offers affirmation to readers in a person-centered way, wherever they are in their own gender journeys. Hoffman-Fox breaks down the journey into three accessible stages: 1) Preparation, 2) Reflection, and 3) Exploration. In stage one, Hoffman-Fox (2017) speaks directly to removing the stigma of putting labels or diagnoses on ourselves, which one may find a healing experience due to the historical precedent of the DSM labeling TGNB folx with a “mental illness.”
Using this workbook, I felt as if I was creating my gender memoir, inspired by what Hoffman-Fox would consider “hands-off mentors”; this type of mentor is someone with whom you won’t be interacting on an individual or personal basis (Hoffman-Fox, 2017). I was excited to learn about this concept, as my own experience with hands-off mentors has led me to discover TGNB folx to whom I look up and relate. These mentors have assisted me in understanding my own nonbinary identity as well as my TGNB clients’ experiences.
Stage two speaks directly to how internalized transphobia manifests in our internal world beginning in childhood, when the adults around us began to censor and police our genders. The section breaks down such experiences by ages including childhood (ages 3 to 11) and adolescence (ages 12-17), with a reflection piece describing how some TGNB people experienced their gender at each age. Hoffman-Fox touches on the impact puberty has on young TGNB folx, and how this feeds into gender dysphoria and affects both their development and mental health. For cis-hetero clinicians who may not have questioned their gender and who, unlike many TGNB young folx, experienced puberty simply as a rite of passage, this section of the workbook may be very eye-opening.
In stage three, Hoffman-Fox encourages readers to reflect on how they feel about their gender in the present; the reader may take on an explorer role to deepen their understanding of their gender and gain agency in defining their gender identity through various questions. Hoffman-Fox notes the many barriers one may face in their gender exploration in terms of financial stability, relationships, resources, and health care, noting that no exploration process is right or better than another. It’s about tapping into the reader’s unique strengths and abilities (Hoffman-Fox, 2017). In this section, Hoffman-Fox offers the reader actionable ways to combat internalized transphobia by journaling and recognizing when one engages in internalized transphobia, reframing it to positive self-talk about one’s gender. At times I struggle with the idea that, by the end of this chapter, readers will unearth, gather, and digest enough information about themselves to gain a deeper understanding of how to define their gender identity (Hoffman-Fox, 2017). The author’s recognition of how one’s experience with their gender as a life-long multifaceted and complex exploration resonates more deeply with me.
The Queer & Trans Resilience Workbook: Skills for Navigating Sexual Orientation & Gender Expression by Anneliese Singh, Ph.D., LPC
The third workbook I reviewed is The Queer & Trans Resilience Workbook: Skills for Navigating Sexual Orientation & Gender Expression by Anneliese Singh, Ph.D., LPC, a South Asian multiracial Sikh queer and genderqueer femme clinician who uses she/they pronouns. Singh’s workbook speaks to the crucial skills TGNB folx need to build resiliency skills to thrive in a trans- and queerphobic world that demands conformity (Singh, 2018). Singh’s workbook centers intersectionality with TGNB folx and speaks to myriad LGBTQIA+ identities such as same-gender-loving, asexual, omnisexual, monosexual, polysexual, and pansexual, many of which may get overlooked by clinicians as well as by the general population. Further, Singh discusses the importance of developing a sense of body positivity, which the other workbooks do not address. Singh describes actively valuing one’s body and with whom one decides to share their body (Singh, 2018).
Singh’s workbook describes ten resilience skills for LGBTQIA+ folx to develop. A few of these skills include You Are More Than Your Gender and Sexual Orientation, Knowing Your Self Worth, Affirming and Enjoying Your Body, and Building Relationships and Creating Community. Each section offers a resilience exercise to encourage the reader to practice these skills, and many of the practices borrow from cognitive behavioral therapy with an added queer lens. One example is how to use positive self-talk to affirm one’s gender, and as a way to reframe negative thoughts about it.
Too often we focus on the ideas of self-care with TGNB clients to heal and manage pain inflicted on them via micro- and macroaggressions from our heterosexist and transnegative society. But we may fail to offer actionable ways to build up resiliency, like assertiveness skills, to empower our clients to survive and thrive. When discussing self-care with our TGNB clients, we must talk about cultivating resilience and how to develop skills to build up their confidence, communication, and self-esteem to navigate life in the face of discrimination and adversity (Singh, 2018). This workbook speaks to gender liberation to celebrate, respect, affirm, love, and recognize the value TGNB folx across the lifespan bring to our society, along with the power of enacting mutual aid efforts, as a way to develop resilience and create stronger communities.
Final Thoughts about Workbooks Addressing Internalized Transphobia in Clinicians
I found these workbooks to be engaging and useful, and I appreciate that they were created by clinicians who are themselves a part of our TGNB community. They share their own pain from having to navigate a cis-heteronormative society and the joy of experiencing gender liberation. Too often, books about LGBTQIA+ clients are authored by cis and/or heterosexual folx who are white/white-passing, of middle to higher socioeconomic status, neurotypical, and able-bodied. They come up with their own biased conclusions about our TGNB community members.
At the same time, I do reflect critically on who creates these books. I recognize how the language used in these workbooks about affirming queer experiences comes from queer folx in positions of power. They may, at times, use too much vocabulary from academic circles, a stark contrast to the reality of trans, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming folx who are fighting to survive (Levy, 2020). I wonder who gets to engage in these books, and who even knows they exist. Too often, TGNB folx–especially TGNB folx of color–are in constant survival mode, facing housing and food insecurity, compared to cis and hetero folx. Black trans womxn are being murdered at alarming rates each year. Are clinicians expecting TGNB folx to use workbooks in therapy, homeless shelters, or community mental health settings amid a deadly pandemic, one disportionately impacting BIPOC?
I note how my own position of privilege has exposed has me to the wonders of queer theory; I can see the benefits of these works in clinical practice with clients exploring their gender and internalized transphobia, which too often holds our TGNB clients back from embracing all the ways of being in our world. Each workbook speaks to the role that shame and guilt play in shaping one’s experience with internalized transphobia. Hoffman-Fox takes it one step further to break down shame and guilt and explore how each negatively impacts TGNB folx’ existence. Furthermore, shame and guilt together form a powerful force that perpetuates gender trauma in our society and leads our TGNB clients to isolation, censorship, and submission into a binary. Clinicians must work through shame and guilt with their clients across the gender spectrum because of the relentless grip this combined force can have on one’s gender identity.
At the core of these workbooks is their commitment to combat transphobia and their demand for others to recognize transphobia–even if unaware of their engagement in it–which will get us closer to ending it (Levy, 2020). This means no more dead TGNB folx as a result of inequitable access to basic human rights created by a transphobic society. The workbooks can serve as a set of armor for our TGNB clients to learn how to experience positive self-growth (Singh, 2018) that helps them thrive and affirms their identity.
To fully grasp and address internalized transphobia, mental health professionals need continuing education that includes listening to the stories created by TGNB community members outside of the academic sphere of clinical practice. This will help providers continue to develop more TGNB-affirmative therapy practices. In my next article, I will review memoirs from TGNB artists who speak to their lived experience of navigating a cis-normative society and recount the ways in which they have developed resilience strategies to address both socially imposed and internalized transphobia. Additionally, I will offer takeaways, resources, and further recommendations to address internalized transphobia.
A Therapist’s Guide to Navigating & Overcoming Internalized Transphobia. Lighthouse. (2018). https://blog.lighthouse.lgbt/overcoming-internalized-transphobia/
American Psychological Association. (2015). Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People. American Psychologist, 70 (9), 832-864. DOI: 10.1037/a0039906
Babine, A., Torho, S. S., Fizpatrick, O., Kolodkin, S. R., & Daly, L. (March 2019). Dismantling Stigma in the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community. The New York Transgender Advocacy Group.
Hoffman-Fox, D. (2017). You and your gender identity: A guide to discovery. Skyhorse Publishing.
Levy, V. (2020). Exploring my Identity(ies): Interactive. Self Published.
Singh, A. (2018). The Queer and Transgender Resilience Workbook Skills for Navigating Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression. New Harbinger Publications.
Garman, S. & Soto, M. (Hosts.) (2018-present) Transform: Beyond the transition. [Audio Podcast]. Stitcher. https://www.stitcher.com/show/transform-beyond-the-transition
Check out our Continuing Education Courses on Transgender Affirmative Therapy
13 Signs You Need to Decolonize Your Practice with Trans Clients:
Paying Attention to Your Colonization-Connected Behaviors
This two-part series is intended to first reflect on the ways in which transgender and gender nonbinary (TGNB)-affirming clinicians perpetuate harm connected to colonization, then to present actionable ways of moving toward decolonization and gender liberation. I am a queer, white, able-bodied, and “cis-ish” person (i.e., I do not feel discomfort in my body or with she/her pronouns, though I struggle with the construct of “womanhood”). I am an uninvited guest occupying the land of the Narragansett & Wampanoag people in what is now called Rhode Island in North America (note: I strongly recommend learning more about Indigenous culture, e.g. the All My Relations podcast).
While social justice movements tend to focus on addressing the oppression of marginalized communities, decolonization involves a discrete and critical understanding of settler colonization and the movement toward reparation of land and resources (Tuck & Yang, 2012). I cannot discuss decolonization without acknowledging that I benefit from stolen land and resources as well as oppressive systems that are violent toward Indigenous and Black communities, including that of mental health care. MarleyAyo LLC (2020) defines decolonization as the “intentional repairing and reclaiming of ancestry, traditions, and values lost or violently disrupted by colonization and the transatlantic slave trade.”
“…colonization was a direct attack to our physical AND spiritual beings…they cut off a line to that ancestral knowledge and almost guaranteed that history would be lost.” – Decolonizing Gender (jackson & Shanks, 2020)
The history of settler colonization has deep roots connected to white supremacy and racism, anti-blackness, transphobia, fatphobia, and essentially any system, community, or person that vilifies, criminalizes, punishes, rejects, and erases those who at first glance seem “different” (Morgensen, 2012). For additional context, you can learn more about the 4 I’s of oppression in this Healing While Black podcast episode. Also, consider learning about the characteristics of white supremacy culture, which can show up in any group or organization as a reflection of the attitudes and behaviors of all people (regardless of race)–for example, believing there is only one right way to do something.
The construct of gender liberation expanded on the work of Ignacio Martín-Baró, a social psychologist who lost his life because of his revolutionary work; see Helping Queer Clients Become Their Own Liberators (Spector, 2020) for more details. Gender liberation involves shifting our focus from basic gender affirmation with the TGNB community toward liberation by addressing power dynamics, advocating for systemic and social change, and freeing ourselves and our clients from the systems of gender oppression (Singh, 2016; note: Anneliese Singh is a phenomenal speaker, writer, and researcher in this area–see also her TedX talk). This includes an awareness that the concept of “transness” itself is a historically white construct, meaning that gender fluidity and diversity existed and were accepted for centuries prior to settler colonization (e.g. A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures; see also The Platypus Poem by J Mase III).
I have chosen not to explore these constructs more deeply because a) individuals who have experienced that history and live it every day do not need an explanation, b) it’s not my place to tell their stories, and c) there are many other appropriate sources that do so (e.g. Adrienne Maree Brown, Rachel Cargle, & Alok V Menon). It is my responsibility to listen, learn, and do better to honor the voices, bodies, and land that have been telling the story for years and continue to do so.
“Cisheteropatriarchy holds its roots in colonialism, and dismantling and unlearning these Western agendas forced upon us is a necessary action in the liberation of all oppressed peoples. If we are to obliterate white supremacy, a key component of that necessary project is recognizing and dismantling transphobia as an ongoing destructive phenomenon directly rooted in colonialism.” (Paramo, 2018)
Some clinicians may be completely new to these concepts and what this work looks like. Other clinicians may already be doing this work more intentionally. Still other clinicians may have no choice but to do this work because of their own personal experiences of marginalization, oppression, and intergenerational trauma.
13 common forms of colonization-connected behaviors in your clinical work with TGNB people
To be clear, it would be toxic allyship to consider completing a ‘checklist’ as the way to do this work, given the need for decolonization to be a long-term commitment. Decolonization work is ongoing with the intention of returning land, resources, and opportunities to the populations from which they were taken, as well as supporting Indigenous and Black communities as they continue to navigate intergenerational and present-day trauma.
Regardless, it may be helpful to reflect on possible warning signs of colonization-connected behaviors in your clinical work with TGNB people, including the following:
1. Limited historical knowledge
(e.g. relying on mostly white and/or cisgender people and systems to teach you what you need to know about settler colonization, antiracism and gender; understanding a lot about trans identities but less about working with BIPOC clients; having little understanding of how colonization, white supremacy, and fatphobia intersect with gender)
2. Exploitation of BIPOC and/or TGNB people
(e.g. expecting BIPOC and/or TGNB experts to train/consult with you for free; asking TGNB and/or BIPOC clients to explain things to us; using before-and-after photos of TGNB bodies without considering the potential felt objectification and dehumanization)
3. Relying on diagnosis and “the written word”
(e.g. doubting someone’s knowledge of their gender because of their developmental stage or another diagnosis like autism; noticing yourself getting bogged down by what is written in the DSM, WPATH manual, or trans guidelines; focusing on whether or not someone meets the criteria for gender dysphoria to accept their TGNB identity)
4. Performative/toxic allyship
(e.g, telling yourself that you are anti-racist while rarely engaging in action steps that help you to learn, grow, and change in movement toward anti-racism; privileged ‘allies” jumping to judge others who make a mistake when talking about race/gender without inviting them into a conversation; expressing how important this work is but not being willing to pay for consultation/supervision/training to improve competence).
Deborah Plummer’s work talks more about how to take anti-racist allyship to the next level.
“Achieving a healthy white-identity resolution and feeling racially secure enough not to exhibit racial superiority does more for eradicating racism than just being an enlightened ally.” ~Plummer, 2020
5. Shame and shutting down
(e.g. feeling frustrated about how hard it is to to “keep up” with the movements and language; defensiveness and/or shame reaction when you make a mistake; dismissing or challenging a perspective shared by a BIPOC and/or TGNB colleague or client about their experience; feeling offended/hurt by a client’s decision to see a “lived experience” clinician)
6. Treatment barriers
(e.g. limited treatment access; high cost of full fee; not taking insurance or having an inaccessible sliding scale range; and/or requiring multiple sessions for a surgery assessment without transparency and collaboration)
7. Saviorism and lack of humility
(e.g. believing that if you don’t do this work, no one will; not seeking training/consultation/supervision when you have a growth edge, i.e. room for improvement; frequent signaling to your TGNB and BIPOC clients, colleagues, and friends the extent of your allyship)
8. Poor boundaries
(e.g. taking on additional clients for extra money; not saying no to people because we feel guilty; not prioritizing our own self-care and work-life balance)
“…it should not be forgotten that one of the privileges of whiteness is having a gender that is defacto more legitimate and more coherent because of the binary framework in which it necessarily exists.” -binaohan, 2014
9. Colonized gender norms
(e.g. making an assumption about a client’s desired gender destination; encouraging forms of social/physical expression that someone hasn’t asked for; using any language/identifiers for gender/body part/surgery etc. that the client hasn’t already expressed or without checking that the language feels okay for them)
10. Colonized race-related norms
(e.g. failing to acknowledge the impact of colonization; assuming that all clients desire and feel safe coming out in all spaces; being unaware of resources that are specific to BIPOC TGNB people; using research and clinical interventions that have not been normed on BIPOC people)
11. Colonized body and ability norms
(e.g. reinforcing the racist history of fatphobia and diet culture by encouraging a client’s attempts at weight loss via dieting; focusing on client weight as a potential barrier to surgery rather than framing from the perspective of medical fatphobia and helping to advocate for client needs; making an assumption about a client’s health status based on their weight and/or eating habits; using ableist language, making assumptions about someone’s capacity to do something, or limiting communication and processing methods). Please see Fearing the Black Body (Strings, 2019).
12. Time and outcome expectations
(e.g. using language that suggests a “full transition” or “complete surgery”; assuming that trans men want to be masculine; finding yourself thinking that clients are moving too slowly and pushing someone to come out to their family and friends)
13. Insisting on comfort
(e.g. having a shame reaction and apologizing excessively when you make a mistake or client provides feedback; mentioning how hard it is to keep up with the language; not bringing up racism or anti-Blackness unless the client mentions they are struggling with the sociopolitical climate; addressing your privilege in the room the first time and then not bringing it up again)
Decolonizing Mental Health is Hard: Take a Moment of Reflection
Notice what comes up in your body and how it feels as you reflect on the above examples. Did you notice any feelings of shame? Embarrassment? Discomfort? Denial? Guilt? Relief? Irritation? Uncertainty?
After checking in with your body, consider how these examples are connected to your clinical training and approach to treatment, your knowledge of history or lack thereof, and your worldview.
I believe that a clinician’s ability to wholeheartedly and effectively serve the TGNB population requires ongoing critical awareness, examination, and acknowledgment of the following:
- A likely skewed lens of the world: past, present, and future
- Your approach to treatment: personally, professionally, and systemically
- How you operate around privilege and oppression inside and outside of the therapy room
- The history of settler colonization, enslavement, and genocide; white Western education, research, training; and lingering medical and mental health care trauma
- The ways in which you continue to benefit from and engage in the perpetuation of those systems that have caused harm or, for those who belong to historically marginalized communities, the ways in which you have internalized the impact of those systems
As you continue to move through this work, you will uncover the countless ways in which colonization is woven into the fabric of our personal and professional lives, which has a direct and ongoing impact on the oppression of marginalized communities. Those in power may seem to benefit in terms of resources and capitalism. But the psychological, emotional, and intergenerational impact of colonization affects everyone, not just TGNB, BIPOC, and other marginalized communities. We all will benefit by working toward racial, gender, and body liberation, as well as striving for decolonization through supporting Black and Indigenous communities to reclaim their ancestry, values, land, and rights.
“If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” – Taylor, 2017 (in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective)
In the next and final installment of this series, I will further discuss actionable ways to begin transforming your work with TGNB clients. I want to reiterate that this work is multifaceted and is not meant to focus on completing a list of “to-dos.” Rather, it is an opportunity to reflect on your practice and the ways in which you can continue to do better and to help heal the harm caused by our ancestors and our modern-day systems.
Please see below for an extensive list of resources created by TGNB folx and/or BIPOC* who expand on these topics. Another resource list will be provided at the conclusion of my next article as well.
*Note: For the purpose of this article, TGNB indicates transgender and gender nonbinary populations. The use of BIPOC sometimes represents Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (i.e., non-white people), and at other times it represents Black and Indigenous people of color primarily (Code Switch episode, Meraji & Escobar, 2020). When discussing BIPOC communities in this article, I am referring to the Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color who experience ongoing marginalization and oppression in relation to the colonized history of the Western world, including the intergenerational impact from their ancestors.
Resources for decolonizing your clinical work
- binaohan, b (2014). decolonizing trans/gender 101. biyuti publishing.
- Strings, S. (2019). Fearing the Black body: The racial origins of fat phobia. New York University Press.
- Taylor, K-Y. (2017). How we get free: Black feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Haymarket Books.
- Monyee´, T. (Host). (2020 – Present). Shaping the shift. [Audio podcast]. Producer unknown. https://shapingtheshift.com/podcast
- Quiana & Misty. (Hosts). (2020 – Present). Healing while Black podcast. [Audio podcast]. Producer unknown. https://healingwhileblackpodcast.podbean.com/
- Wilbur, M. & Keene, A. (Hosts). (2019 – Present). All my relations. [Audio podcast]. Producer unknown. https://www.allmyrelationspodcast.com/
Electronic print & audiovisual resources:
- Colorado Funders for Inclusiveness and Equity (COFIE). (2010). The four I’s of oppression. Adapted for use by the Chinook Fund. http://www.coloradoinclusivefunders.org/uploads/1/1/5/0/11506731/the_four_is_of_oppression.pdf
- jackson, k. & Shanks, M. (2017). Decolonizing gender: A curriculum. [Zine] https://www.decolonizinggender.com/
- Mase III, J. (2018, Aug 15). Platypus poem: Zone of rarity [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnNguCYwx1U&feature=youtu.be
- Meraji, S.M. & Escobar, N. (Hosts). (2020, September 30). Is it time to say R.I.P. to POC? [Audio podcast episode]. In Code Switch. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/29/918418825/is-it-time-to-say-r-i-p-to-p-o-c
- Okun, T. (n.d.). White supremacy culture. Dismantling Racism. https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf
- PBS. (2015). A map of gender-diverse cultures. https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/
- Plummer, D.L. (2020, June 5). Not a racist? Then let’s be better antiracist. https://www.dlplummer.com/blog/not-a-racist-then-lets-be-better-antiracist
- Spector, M. (2020, Sept. 9). Helping Queer Clients Become Their Own Liberators. The Affirmative Couch. https://affirmativecouch.com/helping-queer-clients-become-their-own-liberators-liberation-psychologys-critical-contribution/
- Tedx Talks. (2015, June 30). Tedx Georgia State – Anneliese Singh – Trans liberation is for everyone. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-onhIoDRMdM
- The Martín-Baró Initiative for Human Rights. (n.d.). About Ignacio Martín-Baró. The Martín-Baró Initiative for Human Rights. http://martinbarofund.org/about/ignacio/
General Websites & Social Media Accounts:
- Brown, A.M. (writer/thought leader/podcaster, she/they) (n.d.). Adrienne Maree Brown. [@adriennemareebrown]. [Instagram profile, Website]. http://adriennemareebrown.net/
- Cargle, R. (public academic & writer, she/her). (n.d.). Rachel Cargle. [@TheGreatUnlearn, @TheLovelandFoundation, @Rachel.Cargle]. [Website, Instagram profile]. www.rachelcargle.com
- Mase III, J. (poet & educator, he/him). (n.d.). J Mase III. [@jmaseiii]. [Instagram profile, Website]. www.jmaseiii.com
- Menon, A.V. (author/speaker/performer, they/them). (n.d.). Alok V Menon. [@alokvmenon]. [Instagram profile, Website]. www.alokvmenon.com
Decolonization. (2020). By MarleyAyo, LLC. [Definition]. In Thea Monyee´ presents: The Blacker the brain – Free to heal – Decolonizing our practices. www.marleyayo.com
Morgensen, S. L. (2012). Theorising gender, sexuality and settler colonialism: An introduction. Settler Colonial Studies, 2(2), 2-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/2201473X.2012.10648839
Peramo, M. (2018, July 17). Transphobia is a white supremacist legacy of colonialism. Medium. https://medium.com/@Michael_Paramo/transphobia-is-a-white-supremacist-legacy-of-colonialism-e50f57240650
Singh, A. (2016). Moving from affirmation to liberation as psychological practice with transgender and gender nonconforming clients. American Psychologist, 71(8), 755-762. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000106
Tuck, E. & Yang, K.W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, 1(1), 1-40. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277992187_Decolonization_Is_Not_a_Metaphor
Learn more about transgender and gender nonbinary affirmative therapy
with M. Tucker, PsyD
Please note that this article contains content related to sexual trauma.
In this article, the first in a three-part series about kink-aware therapy, I will lay the groundwork for practitioners to gain an understanding of BDSM and key concepts such as consent and negotiation. Many may believe that BDSM represents bondage, dominance, and sadomasochism practiced during sex–yet these encompass only a small portion of the practices present in the BDSM and kink communities. After emerging in the late 80s and early 90s, the term BDSM itself has gone through a transformation as of the early 2000s (Taormino, 2012) to become more inclusive.
With the passage of time and availability of content on the Internet, the use of BDSM as an umbrella term has expanded to reflect the history of kink vocabulary and the wide variety of practices it encompasses. These include bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism. While the differences among them may not be immediately clear, these terms are neither mutually inclusive nor exclusive, and kink activity is not limited to sexual experiences.
BDSM has traditionally been pathologized through psychiatric diagnostic manuals such as the DSM (Reiersøl & Skeid, 2006), the effects of which are evidenced by report data. For instance, Kolmes, Stock and Moser (2006) report a concern among consensual BDSM participants that they will receive biased care from mental health professionals. This information was gleaned from a survey administered to both BDSM-involved individuals who have received psychological services and to mental health professionals themselves.
There are a number of reasons why a client might not disclose their participation in kink and BDSM to a provider. Regardless of the context, remaining affirming and empowering combats the classical psychoanalytic and medical traditions of pathologizing BDSM and kink. Because of this, along with evidence suggesting that kinky clients may fear that providers will focus on their “unconventional” sexual desires instead of their concerns, it’s essential that providers become familiar with some basics of kink-affirming therapy.
Moser and Kleinplatz (2004) propose that when therapists accept their clients’ sexuality, clients are empowered to focus on their own concerns rather than defend themselves. The client’s BDSM practices are not “curable,” and any connected distress and dysfunction needs to be understood in the context of discrimination and stigma.
Creating safety in therapy allows clinicians to dispel harmful myths surrounding kink and trauma, and where necessary, to facilitate healing through the basic tenets of kink: consent, empowerment, autonomy, advocacy, and fun. There are two common but contradictory myths, neither more damaging than the other, that prevent many clients from talking about kink with their therapists. Learning about these myths is a way to challenge provider bias, and constitutes a great step toward developing kink awareness. The first is that trauma inherently causes kink, and the other is that you cannot engage in kink if you have a trauma history.
In consideration to the first myth, I refer to a lesson from my undergraduate psychology course regarding a twin sibling study. The study stated that a set of identical twins were separated at birth and both were obsessively clean. When asked why they thought they had this trait, one sibling reported that they had learned it from their adoptive parents. The other stated that their adoptive parents were so dirty that they vowed to never be this way. Perpetuating the connection of experience to meaning not only reinforces shame, but creates a space in which therapists may potentially pathologize a person’s existence. It can be a function of human nature to look back over our lives to find meaning and significance, yet the narratives we choose are not always rooted in a truth of cause and effect. Truthfully, we do not know why individuals develop the fetishes or kinks that they do.
The second myth regarding trauma histories proposes that engaging in kink will cause further harm and will be addressed at length in my next article.
Navigating Kink: The Basics for Kink-Affirmative Therapists
It is important that clients who are first realizing their interest in kink educate themselves before taking action. This is the only safe way to engage in kink. Similarly, therapists require education regarding kink dynamics in order to provide kink-aware therapy and provide a safer space for clients. Consensual kink upholds partner/personal consent, limit setting, and full disclosure of the risks that exist in a kink dynamic, as well as other important considerations that help keep each participant safe.
Let’s explore the extensive communication surrounding consent, limits, safewords, aftercare, and risk awareness that create a foundation for a healthy sexual dynamic.
Here is a terrific guideline to consent that is as easy as FRIESS* from Planned Parenthood (2020). I’ve added an extra S for an important factor you may encourage your clients to take into consideration.
*Sober (C. Cathers, personal communication, November 22, 2020)
Consent is freely given when it does not entail any degree of coercion, threat, or intimidation and it is reversible. This means that consent can be retracted at any time; consenting parties have the right to change their minds. Consent can only be considered informed and specific when every participant is aware of and agrees upon what is going to happen, what would be okay if it happened, what cannot and will not happen, and where, when, and how events are to take place. Think of kink-informed consent like a contract that outlines the expectations and understandings clearly for everyone.
Sober has been added as a reminder that if any participant is under the influence of mind-altering substances, consent cannot be freely given (C. Cathers, personal communication, November 22, 2020).
Within BDSM communities, practices are always understood to be Risk-Aware and Consensual. You may see activities commonly referred to as RACK:
For example, if a client wants to engage in impact play or any other kink activity such as spanking, caning, flogging, etc., that is great! First, it is important to learn some basic human anatomy so they know where it is safe to give and receive impact before they attempt impact play. Education first upholds awareness so that each participant knows how to create an interaction that is safe while still understanding the risks that are involved in any type of BDSM and kink activity.
There are wonderful educational books and Internet-based resources out there. Two of my personal favorites for fun education are SM 101: A Realistic Introduction by Jay Wiseman and videos by Evie Lupine, which you can find on YouTube. Please keep in mind these are not substitutes for completing accredited CE courses or learning from kink educators, but they are a great start. Remember that risk-aware kink practices are meant to keep everyone safe and enjoying themselves.
Negotiation, if done properly, is a collaboration towards a common goal: each partner’s pleasure. Negotiation always comes before a kinky interaction and includes factors like participants’ wants, needs, and soft and hard limits. Soft limits look like activities one is willing to try under the right circumstances, but that must be discussed and agreed upon before trying. Meantime, hard limits are the ones to which a participant says, “No, I am not interested in trying this at all under any circumstances.”
To unpack this a little further, negotiation is multifaceted and will include information such as the logistics of who will be involved, in what capacity, and in which roles. Everyone’s responsibilities must be considered further through the negotiation agreement. A thorough negotiation will also include safety information, including any injuries or illnesses, triggers, psychological limitations, and safewords. If you have further interest in learning about limits or encouraging a client to discover theirs, there are wonderful tools available; my personal favorite is the The Yes, No, Maybe Workbook by Princess Kali.
Discussing and utilizing safewords is another essential aspect of kink safety. Use of a safeword communicates to all participants that a change or complete stoppage of play is needed. A few recommendations include making sure that the word is something easy to remember, but also something that you would not normally utter during kink or sexual activity. Deciding upon a nonverbal gesture is another important consideration, as some activities render a person unable to speak. Gestures can range from a hand signal to a double tap on one’s partner. Working with safewords can be a great exercise in helping clients learn boundary setting and communicating needs.
When kinky play ends, aftercare allows all participants to feel safe, connected, and cared for. This can facilitate a sense of being grounded, an important factor considering the mental and physical “drop” that is described after the rush of endorphins experienced during play. No matter a participant’s role, drop can be experienced and may include aches and pains, feelings of guilt, and sadness or fatigue. This experience is normal and a routine of aftercare can help restore balance. Aftercare looks different for everyone in the same way that drop does, but often includes cuddling, reassurance, praise, a drink of water, or even a warm bath. It can be helpful to elucidate in the therapy room that asking partners what they need after play lays a foundation for stability and connectedness.
While this article does not comprise a definitive list of all things kink, or even all of the basics, I hope it will serve as a starting point as to why kink is healthy and why we should be talking about it in therapy. In the second part of this series I will explore further how having a kink-aware practice reduces stigma, and how we can increase our comfort in working with kinky clients whose past experiences have included trauma.
A Few General Resources for Kink-Affirmative Therapists:
American Sex Podcast with Sunny Megatron
Kolmes, K., Stock, W., & Moser, C. (2006). Investigating Bias in Psychotherapy with BDSM Clients. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2/3), 301–324. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J082v50n02_15
Kleinplatz, P., & Moser, C. (2004). Toward Clinical Guidelines for Working with BDSM Clients. Contemporary Sexuality, 38(6), 1–4.
Reiersøl, O., & Skeid, S. (2006). The ICD diagnoses of fetishism and sadomasochism. In P.J. Kleinplatz & C. Moser (Eds.), Sadomasochism: Powerful pleasures (pp. 243262). Harrington Park Press.
Sexual Consent. (2020). Planned Parenthood. Retrieved November 23, 2020 from https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/relationships/sexual-consent
Taormino, T (2012). The Ultimate Guide to Kink: BDSM, Role Play and other Erotic Edge. Cleis Press Inc.
LGBTQIA+ Affirmative Mental Health During the Pandemic
The stress and anxiety wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic may be universal–so many of us face fears of the virus itself, not to mention job loss, illness striking our loved ones, and myriad missed social, professional, and financial opportunities–but all of us experience these differently. Just as everyone’s mental health needs are unique, therapy is not one size fits all. LGBTQIA+ clients in particular need to work with therapists who can understand and validate the unique experiences impacting their emotional wellbeing. Although no one is immune to the detrimental psychosocial effects of the pandemic, LGBTQIA+ clients can face some identity-specific challenges that make affirmative therapy especially crucial at this time.
Affirmative Psychotherapy & Unsupportive Families During the Lockdowns
These include extended time with family of origin and overall decreased social interaction. Pandemic-induced social isolation can hit LGBTQIA+ individuals harder, as many queer and trans people have strained relationships with their families of origin and thus rely heavily on friendships and chosen families for support. Being stuck in toxic family environments due to the pandemic, and enduring sustained lack of contact with friends, can constitute a dangerous combination for any client. LGBTQIA+ people living with family members who don’t respect their gender identity or sexuality may find their mental health negatively affected. This experience can also contribute to dysphoria and has been linked to substance abuse (Newcomb, 2019).
Affirmative Therapy & Lack of Social Connections During COVID-19
Further, lack of social connection is linked to suicidality, for which LGBTQIA+ populations are already at higher risk (Kaniuka, 2019). Prolonged feelings of loneliness can be self-perpetuating; when we feel disconnected, we might start to doubt our ability to connect with others, and we avoid opportunities for socializing out of fear. Happily, ongoing therapy sessions with a therapist who “gets it” and makes us feel seen can serve as a form of connection and help break the cycle of isolation. As we know well, the therapist’s office should be the one place in which clients don’t have to worry about appearing awkward or facing judgment. It can serve as a safer space in which a client can brush up on rusty social skills and build confidence.
Finally, more free time and solitude can make space for greater self-reflection, which may in turn bring up complex emotions in clients just discovering their sexuality and/or gender identity. It’s important for therapists to welcome discussions of these realizations with curiosity and validating support, whether we fully understand them or not. Other difficult topics that can emerge during extended periods of solitude and self-reflection–the trauma related to minority stress that so many LGBTQIA+ people face, for instance–may be challenging to navigate on one’s own but can provide rich fodder for the virtual therapy room as well.
Training in Affirmative Therapy
Simply put, now more than ever, LGBTQIA+ clients need therapists who can treat them without bias. They may be coming into sessions with a lot of self-doubt about their gender identity and/or sexuality. They may have wanted support before now, but perhaps did not feel confident approaching a provider due to the double stigma of being LGBTQIA+ and having a mental health condition. If you are an affirmative provider who is welcoming a client like this into your practice, congratulations on ensuring a safer space. Taking the time to get training in best practices for working with LGBTQIA+ communities makes you an invaluable resource for clients and a genuine lifeline during this unbelievably challenging time.
Alessi, E. J., Dillon, F. R., & Van Der Horn, R. (2019). The therapeutic relationship mediates the association between affirmative practice and psychological well-being among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer clients. Psychotherapy (Chicago, Ill.), 56(2), 229–240. http://doi.apa.org/getdoi.cfm?doi=10.1037/pst0000210
Feder, S., Isserlin, L., Hammond, N. Norris, M., & Seale, E. (2017). Exploring the association between eating disorders and gender dysphoria in youth, Eating Disorders, The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 25:4, 310-317, DOI: 10.1080/10640266.2017.1297112
Johnson, K., Vilceanu, M. O., & Pontes, M. C. (2017). Use of Online Dating Websites and Dating Apps: Findings and Implications for LGB Populations. Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness, 11(3). Retrieved from https://articlegateway.com/index.php/JMDC/article/view/1623
Kaniuka, A., Pugh, K. C., Jordan, M., Brooks, B., Dodd, J., Mann, A. K., … & Hirsch, J. K. (2019). Stigma and suicide risk among the LGBTQ population: Are anxiety and depression to blame and can connectedness to the LGBTQ community help? Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health, 23(2), 205-220.
Newcomb, M.E., LaSala, M.C., Bouris, A.,Mustanski, B., Prado, G., Schrager, S.M., & Huebner, D.M. (2019). The Influence of Families on LGBTQ Youth Health: A Call to Action for Innovation in Research and Intervention Development. LGBT Health, 6:4, 139-145. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1089/lgbt.2018.0157
All corners of our society are affected by the current global health crisis caused by COVID-19. Beyond the obvious risks of severe illness and mortality, many of our clients are managing the myriad mental health effects of financial insecurity, social isolation or co-quarantine, and general societal uncertainty. LGBTQIA+ communities face unique challenges during this pandemic. By understanding what some of these challenges are, clinicians can be better positioned to treat and empower their LGBTQIA+ clients. These challenges fall into several domains: social and emotional, economic, and physical. Additional training to help mental health professionals understand minority stressors can be helpful, especially in these unprecedented times.
How Psychotherapists Can Help With Social and Emotional Health
Some of the social challenges that may disproportionately affect LGBTQIA+ clients are the loss of perceived social connection due to the closure of many community spaces (Green, Price-Feeney, & Dorison, 2020; Burns, 2020), the necessity to shelter in place in an un-affirming or potentially violent space whether due to familial violence or intimate partner violence (Taub, 2020), and for Asian-American and other BIPOC, the increased likelihood of experiencing racist or xenophobic harassment (Loffman, 2020).
Therapists can support clients through these social and psychological challenges by:
Maintaining continuity of treatment via telehealth, thereby ensuring that the therapeutic relationship can remain consistent through a period of uncertainty and change
Nurturing an awareness of the challenges unique to LGBTQIA+ communities (by seeking out online training and understanding the reasons behind the statistics)
Containing the client’s feelings of despair, frustration, and fear
Brainstorming with clients to identify available venues for social connection and/or connecting clients to additional resources*
*Although telehealth and video conferencing offer ways to stay connected to work, friends, and family, clinicians should be aware that transgender and gender nonbinary clients may experience an increase in gender dysphoria as a result of being on screen so frequently. Having the client hide their own view may work for some clients, but for others it may still be intolerable. Phone therapy may be a better option. Talking to your client about the best way to obtain therapeutic support will help.
How Psychotherapy Can Support Clients with Economic Challenges
As the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds over the coming months and year, LGBTQIA+ communities will be among the most vulnerable populations. LGBTQIA+ clients may be cut off from family financial support, may not qualify for financial assistance due to the nature of their work (as in the case of sex workers or undocumented workers), and may not have emergency savings or cushions due to the barriers to high-paying employment as a result of homo-, bi-, and transphobic discrimination (Green, Price-Feeney, & Dorison, 2020; Kuhr, 2020).
Therapists can support clients through these economic challenges by:
Where possible, negotiating financial arrangements with clients as needed, thus ensuring that clients have the option to continue treatment despite temporary financial hardship or uncertainty
Containing difficult feelings that arise in the face of financial insecurity (fear, anger, and shame)
Strategizing with them to advocate for benefits (if applicable), particularly since some clients may feel too ashamed or unworthy to advocate for their own needs
How Therapy Can Improve Physical Health
When it comes to physical health and its effects on mental health, the COVID-19 crisis has already begun to affect the LGBTQIA+ communities in the form of delayed gender-confirming surgeries and delayed appointments required to access hormones or blockers (Loggins, 2020). LGBTQIA+ clients experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 may be hesitant to seek out testing or medical care due to past negative experiences with the medical system (such as misgendering, use of dead name, discrimination, or lack of access to healthcare) (Blum, 2020; Lang, 2020).
Therapists can help clients manage the physical health challenges clients face by:
Working to minimize the psychological toll that delayed procedures can take
Containing frustration, anger, and despair as normal reactions, which is important to help clients from decompensating
Offering psychoeducation on how to bind safely (Wynne, 2020), while keeping respiratory health in mind
Exploring harm reduction options to help clients reduce stress without contributing to physical vulnerability (via smoking or vaping)
Therapists are navigating this unprecedented and stressful time simultaneously with our clients. One of the most effective things we can do is maintain an authentic, caring, and consistent therapeutic relationship when disconnection and fear are abundant.
The Affirmative Couch will be rolling out several courses that address some specific challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic creates for the LGBTQIA+, consensually non-monogamous, and kinky communities over the next few weeks.