Out On The Couch
Deconstructing Compulsory Heterosexuality in Psychotherapy
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.
Learn more about working with LGBTQIA+ Clients
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
Black Gay Men and Crystal Meth: My Story
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
Why LGBTQIA+-Affirmative Primary Care Matters
With the global COVID-19 pandemic continuing into its second year, the conversation around access to healthcare has never been more relevant. For many people, going to a doctor for an annual physical was not feasible before the pandemic, whether due to lack of insurance coverage, financial cost, taking time off from work, transportation issues, or anxiety around healthcare-related trauma. On top of this, the added stress of COVID-19 exposure risk has led many to postpone necessary care. LGBTQIA+ people often face an additional barrier: whether the provider they see will be affirming, supportive–or even safe.
Primary Care as a “Medical Home”
Primary care is founded on a “medical home” model, meaning that patients will return periodically to the same practice, developing a relationship with their provider or medical team to ensure high-quality, comprehensive healthcare (Rosenthal, 2008). This can include physicians, nurses, social workers, and non-medical staff in the office. In an article for the Journal of American Board of Family Medicine, physician Thomas Rosenthal writes that “When people get sick, they use stories to describe their experience,” and goes on to say that “patient-oriented care is bound up in a physician’s ability to accurately perceive the essence of a patient’s story” (2008, p. 428).
This is a fundamental principle of the medical home model, and it speaks to the importance of primary care providers demonstrating expertise in LGBTQIA+-affirmative care. By gaining an understanding of how LGBTQIA+ people live and experience the world, providers build an essential framework for interpreting their stories and addressing their concerns. In this way, LGBTQIA+-affirmative primary care becomes a partnership, with patients and providers allying together to promote good health.
Social Determinants of Health in Primary Care
Furthermore, there has been a push in recent years for primary care practices to focus on the impact of social determinants of health–the factors that impact a patient’s well-being outside of their physical traits. Emerging from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy People 2020 campaign, social determinants of health include elements like poverty, depression, alcohol or drug use, social isolation, and exposure to violence in one’s home or neighborhood (CDC, 2020). To incorporate this into the flow of the office visit, patients may answer a paper or digital questionnaire about their experiences, or may be interviewed by a medical professional. In their medical homes, patients would ideally feel comfortable answering questions about such sensitive topics, as they have a relationship with their team.
However, without expertise in LGBTQIA+-affirming care, this is not always the case. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that LGBTQIA+ people are more likely to be impacted by one or more of these elements due to the social stigma of being out in their communities (Knight et al., 2014). In a 2014 study of LGBTQIA+ youth in primary care, researchers examined the impact of “a set of social conditions that influence [the] health-related outcomes [of LGBTQIA+ people], including heteronormative and cisnormative assumptons, stigma, and social exclusion” (Knight et al., p. 662). In addition, queer and trans people comprise a large percentage of the gig economy and part-time workforce. As such, they are less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance coverage, and are less likely to be able to afford out-of-pocket insurance costs (National LGBTQ Workers Center, 2018). This means that members of the LGBTQIA+ population may not make it to the doctor’s office at all when they are sick. As our understanding of health changes, primary care must be responsive to it.
With so many barriers to accessing healthcare, skipping appointments or going long times in between them is a reality for many LGBTQIA+ patients. Particularly during a global pandemic, this has become commonplace, and even necessary, for many people. But foregoing essential healthcare can have significant and long-lasting impacts on patients’ physical and mental health. A 2019 study in BMC Medicine concluded that missed appointments comprise a significant risk factor for increased comorbidities and overall mortality (McQueenie et al.). This means that patients who skip necessary appointments are likely to only get sicker. LGBTQIA+ people are at unique risk for various health problems as well, including higher rates of depression and substance abuse, as opposed to the general population (Ng & McNamara, 2016).
The need for affirmative care surfaces in the long-term treatment of HIV, for which LGBTQIA+ people–particularly gay men and transgender women of color–face a disproportionate risk (Feldman et al., 2014). HIV is a chronic illness that is often managed by a patient’s primary care provider. With daily medication and regular follow-up, patients can live healthy lives. However, this depends greatly on a patient’s retention in care, i.e. their ability to stay connected to their provider and maintain adherence to their medication regimen. When we factor in the influences previously mentioned, this becomes an increasingly challenging task.
Trans-Affirming Medical and Mental Healthcare
As the patients’ medical homes, primary care providers serve as liaisons to other specialties (Rosenthal, 2008). We know about the negative impact of postponing necessary health maintenance, but to make matters worse, LGBTQIA+ people without primary care providers are cut off from necessary specialist care. For transgender and gender non-conforming people, medical transition may be inaccessible without documentation of treatment by a primary care provider. While some clinics have adopted an informed-consent model for cross-gender hormone therapy, the majority of gender-affirming surgeons require that patients have a working relationship with not only a primary care provider, but a mental healthcare provider as well.
Depression and anxiety are 1.5 times higher in lesbian, bisexual, and gay adults than in the general population (Ng & McNamara, 2016). In a 2017 study of over 400 transgender adults in primary care, foregoing or postponing medical care due to fear of discrimination was associated with poor mental health, including increased incidence of depression and suicide attempts (Seelman et al). This suggests that the impression of discriminatory or stigmatizing healthcare practices is out there, and is acting as a barrier to care for many transgender patients before they even get in the door. When trans people are denied medical transition care, whether due to lack of access to healthcare services or to medical gatekeeping, the impact on their mental health can be devastating. In a population already at disproportionate risk of poor mental health and increased substance abuse, this is not a risk we can afford to take.
By developing a continuous relationship with their patients, primary care providers can foster trust with them to address health inequities. Many patients feel uncomfortable discussing their sexual and reproductive health with providers, and providers who are not trained in LGBTQIA+-affirming care may fumble or avoid these conversations altogether. Assumptions around patients’ sexual behaviors can lead to missed opportunities for STI screening and reproductive health counseling. For example, providers may believe that women who identify as lesbian or bisexual do not need the HPV vaccine or routine Pap smears, and may forego inquiring further about sexual behavior or partners. A 2018 qualitative study included interviews with 39 assigned-female-at-birth patients about their experiences with reproductive healthcare, revealing discrepancies in treatment but indicating similar needs between cisgender, heterosexual patients and LGBTQIA+ patients (Wingo et al.). This suggests that reproductive healthcare providers must be both well-versed in LGBTQIA+-affirming practices and also practice from what Ng & McNamara (2016) refer to as an anatomical inventory, or “screen what you have” model.
The authors suggest that providers “screening for breast, cervical, and prostate cancer…should consider an individual patient’s surgical history and hormonal status” (2016, p. 535). This means that, for example, transgender men or gender non-conforming people who have had a mastectomy may not need breast cancer screening. By “screening what you have,” physicians can individualize care to the needs of a specific patient, and further avoid making gendered assumptions or using exclusionary language like “women’s health screenings.”
The Imperative of Becoming an Affirmative Healthcare Provider
Bearing this in mind, there are a number of practices that primary care offices can adopt to create LGBTQIA+-affirming environments and retain their patients in care. For employees at every level, this can include practical or administrative changes, like changing documentation and medical records to reflect a patient’s sexual orientation or gender identity, or designating gender-neutral restrooms in an office setting (Ng & McNamara, 2016). For medical providers, adopting screening for mental health and substance use disorders is critical when working with LGBTQIA+ patients, as well as shifting cis- and heteronormative assumptions around patients’ responses (Ng & McNamara, 2016; Knight et al., 2014). Increasing education of all staff around LGBTQIA+-affirming care, social determinants of health, and their intersections can improve patients’ experiences in primary care and prevent negative health outcomes.
One final note to consider is that in many studies, recommendations are made for improving primary care practices for providers who are “interested” in LGBTQIA+ populations. This view is outdated and simply no longer reflects the reality of the patients coming into our offices. According to the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, an estimated 4.5 percent of all Americans identify as LGBTQ+ (2019). These data are several years old, and do not include the responses of adults in Generation Z, who are predicted to identify as LGBTQ+ at higher rates. The message here is clear: whether or not providers have a special “interest” in working with LGBTQIA+ patients, those patients are here in our practices. To serve these community members and promote better health overall, our care must reflect an understanding of their unique needs and experiences, and affirm their LGBTQIA+ identities.
Affirmative Organizational Development Consulting
The Affirmative Couch offers affirmative organizational development consulting for mental and medical healthcare clinics who want to create a safe, welcoming environment for all patients who walk through their doors.
Our consulting team joins your clinic and gathers information to identify all the ways in which you can improve your services for LGBTQIA+ community members. We utilize the community narration approach to begin exploring the mission and values of your organization, and the gaps in service delivery to these communities. Our tailored needs assessment will review our findings from these interactions, offer next steps, and provide the foundation for your ongoing training with The Affirmative Couch.
Through this empowered approach, you will have all the information and support you need to make systemic change in your paperwork, administrative procedures, staff training, and organizational culture. We are here to answer every question in a non-judgmental, non-shaming way to help you become a more affirmative provider.
If you want to learn more, schedule a call with us to discuss your needs!
Learn more from our continuing education courses
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020, August 19). About Social Determinants of Health (SDOH). https://www.cdc.gov/socialdeterminants/about.html
Feldman, J., Romine, R. S., & Bockting, W. O. (2014). HIV risk behaviors in the U.S. transgender population: prevalence and predictors in a large internet sample. Journal of homosexuality, 61(11), 1558–1588. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00918369.2014.944048
Knight, R. E., Shoveller, J. A., Carson, A. M., & Contreras-Whitney, J. G. (2014). Examining clinicians’ experiences providing sexual health services for LGBTQ youth: considering social and structural determinants of health in clinical practice. Health Education Research, 29(4), 662-670.
Movement Advancement Project & The National LGBTQ Workers Center. (2018). LGBT People in the workplace: Demographics, Experiences and pathways to equity. [Infographic]. lgbtmap.org. https://www.lgbtmap.org/file/LGBT-Workers-3-Pager-FINAL.pdf
Ng & McNamara (2016). Best practices in LGBT care: a guide for primary care physicians. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 83(7), 531.
Rosenthal, T. C. (2008). The medical home: growing evidence to support a new approach to primary care. The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, 21(5), 427-440.
Seelman, K. L., Colón-Diaz, M. J., LeCroix, R. H., Xavier-Brier, M., & Kattari, L. (2017). Transgender noninclusive healthcare and delaying care because of fear: connections to general health and mental health among transgender adults. Transgender health, 2(1), 17-28.
The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law. (January 2019). LGBT Demographic Data Interactive. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/visualization/lgbt-stats/?topic=LGBT#density
Wingo, E., Ingraham, N., & Roberts, S. (2018). Reproductive Health Care Priorities and Barriers to Effective Care for LGBTQ People Assigned Female at Birth: A Qualitative Study. Women’s health issues : official publication of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, 28(4), 350–357. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1049386717305996
Affirmative Therapy: Crystal Meth in the Black Gay Community
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/.
Why LGBTQIA+ Affirmative Therapy is Critical During the Pandemic
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.
Learn more about working with LGBTQIA+ Clients
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
How to Help Clients with Queer Impostor Syndrome
Keywords: queer, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA, impostor syndrome, impostor, cognitive behavioral therapy, CBT, core beliefs
I thought I identified one way, but now I’m not sure. What if this really was just a phase?
I’m afraid I won’t like all of the changes medical transition will cause to my body. What if I’m not really trans?
Can I still be bisexual if I’ve never dated someone of the same gender?
Our clients seek therapy for a variety of reasons, but commonly, they are struggling to mitigate their own core beliefs with external influences. These may include family, friends, partners, or society at large–for LGBTQIA+-identified folks, how we see ourselves can often conflict with how the world interprets us. This type of invalidation can lead to self-doubt for many people, even making them question whether they are frauds or impostors. As therapists, our goal is to help clients identify and challenge their negative core beliefs, to challenge these external influences and find internal validation.
The theory of Impostor Syndrome originates from a 1978 paper from Georgia State University that examined the phenomenon in more than 150 “high-achieving women” (Clance & Imes). The authors found that in their psychotherapy practices, women often presented with “scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities,” yet did not report “an internal feeling of success” (Clance & Imes, 1978). Rather, these clients felt like “impostors,” as though they were given undue praise or accolades they did not deserve.
In recent years, Impostor Syndrome has entered the lexicon as a common experience among millennials. A 2013 article by Weir at the American Psychological Association examined the experiences of graduate students and suggested that for many, there is “‘confusion between approval and love and worthiness. Self-worth becomes contingent on achieving.” This attitude is compounded by factors like gender, sexuality, disability, class, and race, with impostor feelings being a strong predictor of future mental health problems among college students of color (Cokley et al., 2013).
Similarly, impostor feelings often pop up in psychotherapy with millennial clients, particularly those with one or more marginalized identities. In our culture, certain roles or industries are often referred to as a “boys’ club”–as these spaces were built by and designed for white, heterosexual, cisgender men, anyone who varies from this norm can feel like they don’t belong. Higher education is just one example of a much more global dynamic.
For LGBTQIA+-identified people, impostor feelings are often less about achievement and more about community. Many people find comfort in the use of labels or identity words–such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, gender non-binary, and more–to describe themselves and their sexuality and gender. For someone who is just starting to explore their identity, finding a community of people who have been where they are can be healing and fulfilling. But what if none of the labels fit quite right? Or what if your experience differs from that of your friend, or even of your partner?
Though it is often said that “comparison is the thief of joy,” human beings are prone to noticing the similarities and differences between themselves and others. It can feel isolating to know that how you identify differs greatly from someone else. But this is where we as therapists can employ cognitive behavioral therapy to help our clients change their thinking and develop their senses of internal validation.
One example might be a therapist working with a client who identifies as a cisgender woman and a lesbian. At the first appointment, the client shares, “I’ve only dated women since coming out in college. Lately I’ve noticed myself looking at men differently than before, and it’s confusing. If I’m attracted to guys, am I still a lesbian?”
From what this client is saying, she sees the problem as confusion about her identity. It is worth exploring with the client what being a lesbian means to her, and furthermore, what it would mean if she were to identify differently. Often, this is where impostor feelings start to surface: if I’m not this, then what? I must have been faking. I don’t really belong here.
Using the framework of cognitive behavioral therapy, clarifying the client’s core beliefs about herself can be helpful. These are deeply held feelings that are central to our being, and that influence how we see and interact with the world. Core beliefs can be positive or negative, such as “I am worthy” or “I am unworthy,” “I am safe” or “I am unsafe,” “I am good enough” or “I am not good enough.” For this client, the core belief underlying her impostor feelings may be related to belonging, or feeling like she does not belong in her community of friends–or safety, from feeling like she is on the outside.
After isolating a client’s core beliefs, one CBT intervention that can be utilized would be fact-finding, asking the client to provide as many pieces of evidence as they can why their belief is true or untrue. Using our same example, if this client’s impostor feelings trigger the core belief that she does not belong in her community because she is questioning her identity, the therapist and client can list a number of examples of evidence to the contrary.
“Well, my friends will still be my friends no matter what. They have always supported me. That wouldn’t change,” the client offers. “And even if I did have a boyfriend someday, that wouldn’t make me straight. I wouldn’t think that about somebody else in my position.” By talking through this fact-finding process, the client is starting to challenge and reconstruct her core belief of belongingness. It may also be helpful to have a client write down thoughts, beliefs, and evidence in a journal between sessions. This can be a helpful reflective exercise and also encourage clients to use their coping skills outside of therapy.
Core belief work is not always easy, nor is it a quick fix for impostor feelings. Therapy sometimes makes things worse before they get better, and clients can sometimes unearth deep-seated issues in therapy that take time, effort, and dedication to work through. That does not make their effort any less valuable, however, and small changes in the client’s self-perception should be noticed and praised. There may be certain situations or stages of life in which a client feels old impostor feelings starting to emerge again. When they do, it is important for the client to remember that they have control over their own thoughts and feelings, and that they can reconnect with their positive core beliefs.
Learn more about working with LGBTQIA+ Clients
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247.
Cokley, K., Mcclain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M. (2013). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development,41(2), 82-95. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x
Weir, K. (2013). Feel like a fraud? GradPSYCH, 11, 24. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/e636522013-001
Maintaining Hope & Self-Compassion for LGBTQIA+ Clients During Covid-19
By now, we are all experiencing the impact of the ubiquitous trauma and stress surrounding COVID-19 in some way. What might have started with a distal awareness of the problem quickly snapped to a reality that the world will forever be changed by this virus. You might have also noticed the varying “stages of grief” through which our clients and we ourselves are shifting, the unfortunate stage of denial being the one that has caused the most irrevocable damage to the world.
On the one hand, many may find the universality of this experience comforting–it is rare that everyone on the planet understands the same thing to some degree. The current situation presents a valuable opportunity for emotional validation and a sense of common humanity (i.e., increased self-compassion due to awareness of the common human experience of suffering). It often takes personal experience and connection to a situation to increase empathy and compassion, and we are seeing a lot of that right now.
On the other hand, I wish there was this strong of an empathic connection and worldwide response to problems like climate change, the murder of black and brown bodies, and the impact of capitalism on class disparities. Interestingly, each of these intersects with the effects of COVID-19, especially the disparity of the impact on (and deaths of) black folks in our country.
No matter how we process and move through this situation, many feel its impact as a trauma. While we work to validate our clients’ experiences and help them make sense of something entirely unprecedented, it is also important to remember that this situation impacts different people very differently. The disparities affecting various marginalized populations are amplified during this time. It is crucial to acknowledge the potentially devastating impact on the LGBTQIA+ community, especially on transgender and gender nonbinary (TGNB) individuals, many of whom are no strangers to trauma and grief. More background on this can be found in The Affirmative Couch’s course Gender Minority Stress and Resilience in Transgender and Gender Nonbinary Clients.
How our LGBTQIA+ clients might experience a compounded impact of grief and/or trauma related to COVID-19:
Physical distancing in unsafe and/or unaffirming living situations due to quarantine
- College students who were suddenly asked to leave campus
- Those in domestic violence or other abusive home environments
- People who have not disclosed or come out to their families/housemates
Social isolation due to the pandemic
- Being physically distant from one’s chosen family or an affirming environment (e.g., at a university)
- Being unable to explore communities or experiences that might be affirming, such as closed, limited, or postponed LGBTQIA+ centers and Pride month activities
Lack of resources to access safe space and online support for LGBTQIA+ Clients
- Limited resources to pay for stronger Internet connection, or lack of multiple devices
- Lack of privacy or safe space to seek online support or therapeutic help
- Food, housing, or job insecurity during this time
COVID-19 factors specific to TGNB people
- Canceled or postponed lifesaving gender-affirming surgeries
- Barriers to beginning gender-affirming hormones, monitoring bloodwork, and receiving preventative affirming healthcare
- Risk of misgendering via phone/video and distress/dysphoria of seeing one’s face via video conference
- Inability to affirm one’s gender expression due to lack of support and/or awareness of other household members
- Limited or no access to gender-affirming haircuts (i.e., hair can make or break someone’s experience of dysphoria on a given day)
- Increased body insecurity and disordered eating in response to the fatphobia strengthened by this crisis; you can read more about this in my article At the Intersection of Fat & Trans
How therapists can help our LGBTQIA+ clients during the coronavirus crisis:
The impact of each of these concerns is amplified for those with intersecting marginalized identities related to, for instance, race, class, ability, and mental/physical health status. To make matters worse, many of our clients experience anticipatory grief for the continued losses ahead as well as for the uncertainty of when things will “return to normal.” Here are some ways in which we might help our LGBTQIA+ clients, especially members of the TGNB community, to navigate this situation and find ways to practice self-compassion, gratitude, and hope.
Supporting LGBTQIA+ Clients with boundaries during the pandemic
This is not an “opportunity” for people to do the things for which they don’t usually have time. “Productivity porn” is shame-inducing for many who are experiencing this situation as a trauma. It is okay to limit time spent on consuming the news and social media. To paraphrase an important sentiment, this is not just remote work. You are at home during a pandemic crisis and attempting to work.
Providing validation for LGBTQIA+ clients
Acknowledge to your clients that employing all self-care strategies possible still may not help beyond simply keeping them afloat during this time. Surviving a traumatic experience takes an extreme emotional and physical toll, and it’s okay if clients’ eating habits and bodies change, if they sleep more than usual, and if they struggle to get work done.
Helping LGBTQIA+ Clients Develop Self-compassion
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for our clients to be mindful and self-compassionate. Whatever thoughts, feelings, and behaviors emerge during this time make sense given the impact of collective traumas. Even if someone acts in a way that is inconsistent with their values, they are still worthy of self-nurturance and connection. You can learn more about these concepts through The Affirmative Couch’s course Helping Transgender and Gender Nonbinary Young Adults Develop Self-Compassion.
Finding and Celebrating little moments of joy and gratitude with LGBTQIA+ clients
- Ask clients to reflect on a vulnerable moment where they were able to nurture themselves or others
- What was one show/movie/podcast/song that made them smile or laugh?
- What is one thing they’re looking forward to in the upcoming week?
- What are three things about the past week for which they felt most grateful?
- Direct them to some of the many inspirational, hopeful, and positive ways in which people have been expressing themselves and creating via social media.
Finding meaning and connection
- Can clients volunteer virtually? Reach out to someone who is more isolated? Offer to drop off groceries for an elderly neighbor?
- What creative talents might be employed to help others?
- Engage clients in storytelling and/or writing–expressive writing exercises like these can be particularly useful–to help work through their feelings
- If they have financial resources, what organizations might benefit from their support?
- Connect virtually with supportive others, especially in spaces that are queer- and trans-affirming. Balance their socializing with meaningful conversation and moments of fun
- Help your clients explore whether local or statewide LGBTQIA+ organizations are running online groups and support spaces, and/or offering other forms of connection
Looking for Hope for the future (i.e., not focused on a specific time when things return to “normal”)
- Who is the first person a client can’t wait to hug again?
- What restaurant are they excited to go to first?
- For students, how will it feel to step back onto campus again?
- What is the first event/trip/appointment they’re looking forward to rescheduling?
A final note: These points are important for clinicians to keep in mind as well. We need these reminders now more than ever. Most of us are not at our best right now, and it is foolish to pretend to our clients that we are. This is a time for us to hold that we are all human, and that authenticity models for our clients why it is important to be less hard on themselves for struggling. At the very least, consider reading this “Dear Therapists” blog post.
Berinato, S. (2020, Mar 23). That discomfort you’re feeling is grief. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief
Thebault, R., Tran, A.B., & Williams, V. (2020, Apr 7). The coronavirus is infecting and killing black Americans at an alarmingly high rate. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/07/coronavirus-is-infecting-killing-black-americans-an-alarmingly-high-rate-post-analysis-shows/?arc404=true
Patton, S. (2020, Apr 11). The pathology of American racism is making the pathology of the coronavirus worse. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/04/11/coronavirus-black-america-racism/
Tucker, M. (2019). Gender minority stress & resilience in TGNB clients. Retrieved from: https://affirmativecouch.com/product/gender-minority-stress-and-resilience-in-transgender-and-gender-nonbinary-clients/
Tucker, M. (2019) At the intersection of fat & trans. The Affirmative Couch. Retrieved from: https://affirmativecouch.com/at-the-intersection-of-fat-trans/
Ahmad, A. (2020, Mar 27). Why you should ignore coronavirus-inspired productivity pressure. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-You-Should-Ignore-All-That/248366
Tucker, M. (2019) Helping TGNB young adults develop self-compassion. The Affirmative Couch. Retrieved from: https://affirmativecouch.com/product/helping-transgender-and-gender-nonbinary-young-adults-develop-self-compassion/
Pennebaker, J.W., Blackburn, K., Ashokkumar, A., Vergani, L., & Seraj, S. (2020). Feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic: Expressive writing can help. The Pandemic Project. Retrieved from: http://exw.utpsyc.org/#tests
Katy (2020, Mar 21). Dear therapists. Navigating Uncertainty Blog. Retrieved from: https://navigatinguncertaintyblog.wordpress.com/2020/03/21/dear-therapists/
Learn more about affirmative therapy with addyson tucker, PsyD (they/them)
Helping Queer and Trans Clients Navigate Fatphobia During the Holidays
As we approach winter and prepare for “hibernation,” diet culture and fatphobia often kicks into high gear. Family meals, holiday parties, and New Year’s resolutions surround us, regardless of whether we celebrate, and become fertile ground for fat shaming. The “holiday season” is already hard enough for many LGBTQIA+ folx*. It can also be an exceptionally dangerous time of year for fat folx, as well as those who experience disordered eating. (Note: See my previous article, At The Intersection of Fat & Trans, for further descriptions of fatphobia and weight stigma).
*Folx is an alternative spelling of folks, meant to represent inclusivity in a way similar to terms such as womxn and latinx.
Did she just say fat?
Yes, you read that correctly. “Fat” is not a bad word, though it’s often wrapped in a framework of shame. How often do those with larger bodies get unsolicited weight management or weight loss advice? When a person says, “Ugh, I’m so fat,” how quickly do we jump in to dismiss their experience and try to make them feel “better”? Our response to a friend who has lost a significant amount of weight (e.g., “wow, you look great!”) differs significantly from the response to a friend who has gained weight (e.g., “I’m concerned about your health”). The messages we get from diet culture, the media, and most other humans is that fat=lazy, bad, ugly, and unhealthy, versus thin=fit, good, desirable/attractive, and healthy.
But surely queer and trans communities are less fatphobic?
Unfortunately, members of LGBTQIA+ communities have not quite embraced fat liberation yet. Many activists and theorists have spoken to fatness as a queer and feminist issue, as well as discussing fatphobia in the queer and trans community (e.g., Mollow, 2013). For example, consider trans and nonbinary folx who feel pressure to shrink their bodies to avoid being misgendered, gay men who indicate “no fats, no femmes” on their dating profiles (Conte, 2018), and queer women who are called fat bitches or fat dykes when they turn down someone’s advances.
As in most intersectional social justice work, the impact is often worse for people of color (Strings, 2019). For further reading, please see Fearing the Black Body by Sabrina Strings (2019). Mollow writes, “Anti-racist, feminist, and queer activists must make fat liberation central to our work; we need to explicitly and unequivocally reject the notion that body size is a ‘lifestyle choice’ that can or should be changed” (for further reading, please see The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI; Your Fat Friend, 2019).
What should I keep in mind for my clinical work?
During the holidays, people are bombarded with messages on how to avoid weight gain, ways to “eat smart” during holiday meals, and what workouts are most effective to keep one’s body at its “best” (read: smallest). If all else fails, resolution season arrives with plenty of reduced-fee gym memberships, exercise programs, and diet plans. Many gatherings with family and friends are centered around food. Unfortunately, those in our immediate circles often believe our food intake and how our bodies have changed since they last saw us are fair game for dinner conversation. This behavior is almost always a wolf in sheep’s clothing–fat shaming and food policing thinly veiled by “I care about your health.” It also often connects to the commenter’s insecurity and their own internalized fatphobia or beliefs about what their body should look like, what they should be eating, etc.
While these experiences happen to people of all shapes and sizes, this kind of commentary is more frequent and insidious for fat folx, as most people are conditioned to believe that we are less worthy if we are fat or at risk of becoming fat. LGBTQIA+ people, who already approach the holidays feeling worried about various family dynamics, lack of acceptance, and/or outright homophobia/transphobia, might need support to develop a game plan. (Note: Please also check out earlier pieces written about this topic by Chastain, 2014a; 2014b; Mollow, 2013; Murphy, unknown; Raven, 2018; and Rutledge & Hunani, 2018.)
Here are some possible topics to address fatphobia with your clients:
1) Make a choice about attending, if optional
With my LGBTQIA+ clients, we first consider whether going to visit certain family members and/or attending various holiday events is physically and emotionally safe. If not, could they spend the holiday with chosen family? If there is no ideal alternative or the person is sure they want to go, I empower their decision and encourage them to approach the situation with a grounded sense of self, giving themselves permission to step back and engage in self-care as needed; see #6 below.
2) Define boundaries and potential consequences
This part is crucial. Boundaries are as simple as what is okay and what is not okay. Help your client identify their boundaries and the potential consequences if those boundaries are crossed. Make sure they feel comfortable following through with these (e.g., don’t threaten to leave if it’s not a feasible option). For example, “What I’m eating is fine. Please stop commenting on my food choices. If it happens again, I’m going to excuse myself from the table.” Encourage them to practice the boundary setting in advance, preparing for best versus worst case scenario with particularly difficult individuals. Finding the humor, even if they’re the only one in on the joke, can sometimes help. You might check out Oh, Boundaries (Oh, Christmas Tree) Song Adaptation (Chastain, 2016).
3) Pregame conversations
Once the client knows what their boundaries are, they might consider reaching out to trusted family, friends, or the event host in advance. For example, they could send a text or blind copy email that says, “Hi family, just a reminder that I am working on loving my body at all sizes and practicing intuitive eating. My body has also changed slightly since I started taking hormones, so please do not make any comments about my food choices, my body, or my weight when I am home next week. Appreciate your understanding – see you soon!” This gives those individuals an opportunity to prepare and learn more rather than responding defensively in the moment. If this approach may not be well received by everyone in attendance, could the client identify one or two trusted folx who will have their back if the conversation turns to weight and body talk?
4) Address internalized fatphobia
One of the toughest parts of resisting fatphobia and diet culture is our cultural internalized stigma and belief that fat is bad. Help your clients see the roots of fatphobia in racism, misogyny, and oppression (that is, while remaining attentive and attuned to their experiences of internalized body shame). Firstly, remind your clients that no one has the right to comment on their body or food choices. If they struggle to comfort and care for themselves, you might ask them to imagine those external comments and internal shame narratives impacting a close friend or a young sibling.
Above all, food is not good or bad. That is to say, being fat is not bad, and body size is not a determinant of health, worth, or desirability. We can feel uncomfortable with certain parts and features of our body (hello, dysphoria) without harming or hating the parts of our body that help us to survive. Bodies experience natural fluctuations in weight throughout the year. People can make whatever choices they want about their bodies and food. That includes making decisions for themselves about whether to engage in diet behavior or body modification, as well as whether to embrace fat liberation, health at every size, and intuitive eating philosophies. It also might include examining their social media consumption to critically examine which accounts activate internalized self-judgment and shame while shifting toward those that engage in transformational and affirming conversations about bodies, fashion, and food.
5) Prepare ways to respond
Helping our clients advocate for themselves is an important component of recovering from diet culture and internalized fatphobia. LGBTQIA+ people have often been expected to perform in certain placating ways when interacting with hurtful others. “Too often we get the message that as [LGBTQIA+ people], it’s our responsibility to always be ‘on’–to always advocate for the cause, or to behave ‘properly,’ or to keep the peace. We’re told that it’s our job to endure demonizing sermons and degrading misgendering in the name of ‘dialogue’ or whatever. But we don’t have to.” (Murphy, unknown).
Therefore, when responding to fatphobic comments and questions such as, “Should you really have a second serving?” each person needs to think about what might work best for them depending on whether they’d like to shut the conversation down or potentially open it up for further dialogue.
Here are some examples of responses:
- Short & sweet, then continue to eat (e.g., “Yes, I should.”)
- Humor & sarcasm (e.g., “If I want to talk to the food police, I’ll call Pie-1-1”; Chastain, 2014)
- Firm boundaries (e.g., “I get to make my own food choices – it’s not okay for you to comment on them. Please stop, or I will leave the table.”)
- Authentic curiosity (e.g., “What made you decide to comment on what I eat?”)
- Reflect on diet culture (e.g., “Isn’t it interesting how shaming it is when we comment on others’ bodies and food choices?”)
- Self-reflection (e.g., “Those types of comments are really hurtful, and I know there are times I’ve commented on your food choices as well–I’d like us to stop doing that.”)
- Reframe and shift (e.g., “I wonder if you think those types of comments come from a place of caring. They actually make me feel shame and the desire to pull away from you. Let’s focus on catching up and enjoying our time together.”)
- Ignore and move through discomfort – It is always an option to decide not to respond, not to speak up, and to instead move through and take care of yourself in other ways. Sometimes this is the safest option emotionally and/or physically.
- A potential dilemma – It can be hard to meet family and friends where they are, especially when the conversations are painful. Making the decision to educate someone is always optional, as the other person should take responsibility for educating themselves (and this goes for various other social justice matters, such as racism). At some point, many of us have made value judgments and comments about others’ food choices or body size based on our internalized shame around diet culture and fatphobia. It can take some time and energy to adjust those patterns of thinking. Bottom line: there is a difference between healthy, respectful, and curious discourse versus harmful and fatphobic comments, questions, and behaviors. Hence, the need for boundaries.
6) Have an exit strategy (i.e. self-care plan)
In many cases, setting a firm boundary and following through with the consequence should be quite effective. However, sometimes these responses may do little or nothing to stop others from perpetrating harmful microaggressions and fatphobic judgments. In those cases, it is good for your client to have a plan for self-care, considering the following:
- Permission giving – If things don’t feel good, can they give themselves permission to be prepared to leave if necessary?
- Take space – go for a walk, play with the kids or pets, watch a movie, listen to music, etc.
- Get support – Does the client have a friend who “gets it” and can be available to call or text? Or can the client log onto social media and check out some of the dietitians, bloggers, clinicians, and influencers who focus on fat liberation and intuitive eating (see resource list at the end of this article)?
- Practice validation & self-compassion:
- Duality: It’s okay to care about someone while also being disappointed or hurt by their behaviors and comments.
- Remember: Setting boundaries is a healthy way to show our expectations of love and respect for people who matter.
- Forgive themselves: It makes sense that they are tempted to go along with the comments–it is hard to speak up against diet culture and fatphobia.
- Validation: Many LGBTQIA+ people struggle around this time of year with difficult family interactions; they are not alone.
- Self-nurturance: Clients can use affirmations such as, “I am worthy. I am enough. My body is worthy at all sizes. I deserve to be treated with respect and common human dignity. It’s okay to protect myself from fatphobic comments.”
How can I continue to learn about fat liberation and radical self-love to support my clients?
- Practice radical body love and fat acceptance–for yourself and others! It doesn’t mean you will successfully love all parts of your body all the time, but it sure will help.
- Consider anti-diet and intuitive eating practices all year round–they can be life changing.
- Actively reduce and aim to eliminate diet talk, which often serves to shame people and essentially teaches us to avoid at all costs becoming a “bad fat person.”
- Rather than praising bodies that have thin privilege or seem to have lost weight, consider finding other ways to let people know we appreciate them.
- Instead of using descriptors that are pathologizing (“overweight” suggests there is a lower weight that is normal/better/good), stick with actual descriptors that help us to understand (such as “fat”). When possible, check in with others about the descriptors that work for them and what words they prefer.
- Surround yourself with social media and images of fat people of all races and abilities, appreciating the beauty and diversity of the human body.
- “If previously you have ruled out fat people as potential sexual partners, rule them back in, and rule out ‘fatphobes’ instead” (Mollow, 2013).
- Make choices for your body that feel good for you, and only you. Give your body size permission to vary with time, hormones, and many other factors.
- Be mindful of where your clients are in terms of their readiness for discussions related to diet culture and internalized fatphobia; as with any other intervention, gauge helpfulness as well as observing their body language as you move through.
A final note for those of you who are already anti-diet and practicing fat acceptance: It takes so much courage to move through these conversations with our clients, friends, and family members who don’t quite understand (yet!). Keep doing this work, because it matters. You matter. Thank you for persisting.
Online & Social Media (Note: @ = Instagram handle):
@ragenchastain & https://danceswithfat.org/blog; @chr1styharrison & Food Psych podcast; @yrfatfriend; @recipesforselflove & book; @bodyposipanda; @mynameisjessamyn; @jazzmynejay; @livinginthisqueerbody; @mermaidqueenjude; @ihartericka; @thefatsextherapist; @decolonizingtherapy
NOLOSE – Originally the National Organization for Lesbians of Size – later expanded to include all genders. Has a queer fat-positive ideology. http://nolose.org
Strings, S. (2019). Fearing the black body: The racial origins of fat phobia. New York University Press. New York, NY.
Taylor, S. R. (2018). The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc: Oakland, CA.
Your Fat Friend. (2019). The bizarre and racist history of the BMI. Medium – Elemental. Retrieved from: https://elemental.medium.com/the-bizarre-and-racist-history-of-the-bmi-7d8dc2aa33bb
Learn more from addyson tucker‘s continuing education courses
Baker, Jes. (2015). How to stay body positive during the holidays: Master list. The Militant Baker. Retrieved from:http://www.themilitantbaker.com/2015/12/the-how-to-stay-body-positive-during.html
Conte, M. T. (2018). More fats, more femmes: A critical examination of fatphobia and femmephobia on Grindr. Feral Feminisms: Queer Feminine Affinities, 7.https://feralfeminisms.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/3-Matthew-Conte.pdf
Chastain, R. Blog – Dances with fat: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are for all sizes.
- Combating holiday weight shame. (2014a).https://danceswithfat.org/2014/11/20/combating-holiday-weight-shame/
- Dealing with family and friends food police. (2014b)https://danceswithfat.org/2014/11/24/dealing-with-family-and-friends-food-police/
- Setting holiday boundaries – in song! (2016).https://danceswithfat.org/2016/12/14/setting-holiday-boundaries-in-song/
- Dealing with diet season. (2018a).https://danceswithfat.org/2018/01/05/dealing-with-diet-season/
- Resources for surviving fatphobia at the holidays. (2018b).https://danceswithfat.org/2018/12/24/resources-for-surviving-fatphobia-at-the-holidays/
McKelle, E. (2014). Cutting fatphobic language out of your life. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from:https://everydayfeminism.com/2014/04/cutting-fatphobic-language/
Mollow, A. (2013). Why fat is a queer and feminist issue. Bitch Media. Retrieved from:https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/sized-up-fat-feminist-queer-disability
Murphy, B. (unknown). 8 queer tips to get through the holidays. Queer Theology. Retrieved from: https://www.queertheology.com/queer-holiday-tips/
Raven, R. (2018). 6 ways to deal with fat-shaming during the holidays, from someone who knows what it’s like. Hello Giggles. Retrieved from:https://hellogiggles.com/lifestyle/health-fitness/6-ways-to-deal-fat-shaming-during-holidays/
Rutledge, L., & Hunani, N. (2018). Take it from dietitians: Holiday diet advice shouldn’t be fatphobic. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/lisa-rutledge/holiday-diet-advice-weight-loss_a_23621979/
Tucker, M. (2019). At the intersection of fat and trans. The Affirmative Couch Out on the Couch. https://affirmativecouch.com/at-the-intersection-of-fat-trans/
Listening to our Transgender Clients: The Fear is Real
November 20th has been known since 1999 as the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). On this date, across the world, ceremonies and vigils are held to remember transgender individuals we lost to murder and suicide in the past year. Often somber and emotionally triggering, TDOR allows the community to gather and honor individuals whose stories are often ignored or incorrectly told. As this day approaches, I often think of Marsha P. Johnson.
Johnson, a transgender black woman, has long been credited within the queer and trans community for being the person who threw that first brick at Stonewall (Feinberg, 1996) and the creator of STAR, an LGBTQ+ youth shelter. Many don’t know that Johnson was an activist from early on in her life, fighting for gay rights and visibility instead of assimilation (Chan, 2018). After high school, she spent her days on the streets of New York, learning to survive and being repeatedly sexually assaulted and harassed (Chan, 2018). But the assault, harassment, and oppression she experienced due to her sexuality, gender identity, and skin color didn’t stop her for standing up for what she believed in. Knowing firsthand the discrimination the often-ignored transgender community suffered, she took an active role in ACT UP (https://actupny.org/), helping to speak out for HIV+ individuals and give a voice to people of color who were dying from the disease (Jacobs, 2016). Johnson was an inspiration to transgender individuals, especially to those of color. Her tragic death is frequently regarded as the first “notable” and documented murder of a transgender person in the United States.
In 1992, shortly after the New York City Pride Parade, Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River (Feinberg, 1996). The cops ruled it a suicide, despite many people’s protests that Johnson was anything but suicidal and eyewitness reports that she was being harassed earlier during the day they believed she had died (Feinberg, 1996). The case was limitedly investigated and never solved. The media portrayed Johnson as a trans woman who was a sex worker and a drug user, leaving out the truths of her activism and every other aspect of her life (Feinberg, 1996); it is likely that had she been a cisgender white woman, media coverage would have been vastly different and much wider. Johnson’s voice, something she worked so hard to give herself while navigating major oppression in her lifetime, was taken away. Even worse, her killers were never found; to this day, minimal effort has been put into solving her murder.
You may be wondering what this has to do with psychology, and how Johnson’s death can show up for you, as a clinician, in the therapy room with your transgender clients. Well, it’s simple: the reaction of the public to Johnson’s death parallels how many transgender individuals feel about what their lives are worth to the rest of the world. It also relates to transgender people’s sense of whether others care about their safety. As a clinician who has worked in the community in varying capacities, I can attest to the fact that transgender people feel that their lives don’t matter. There is a constant threat of insufficient safety and feelings of protection, especially under the Trump administration when it seems as if transgender rights are under attack daily.
Almost every week I hear about another transgender individual, usually a trans woman of color, who has been murdered or found dead under mysterious circumstances. In many of these cases the killer is never found, or if they are, they are not named. The media often misgenders the victim, and very little coverage is given in the first place. My trans clients come to me with fear in their voices, wondering if they will be next just because they are living their authentic truths. Worse, and heartbreakingly, clients sometimes find that this fear is accompanied by wondering whether or not anyone would even care if they were gone, and if they deserve being killed due to being transgender.
Furthermore, clients have to navigate safety in many other aspects of life. Transgender clients have told me that they often don’t feel safe in their jobs and have a fear of being fired; what’s worse, nobody in their workplace will do anything to help when they are feeling threatened. I have heard about clients being assisted when buying shoes or clothing, and fearing that a salesperson will “find them out” and make a scene. Clients can fear for their safety in terms of secure housing and access to other social welfare services, the loss of which threaten their ability to survive.
So how can we, as clinicians, help with these fears? Certainly, the wrong thing to do is to try to make excuses for others or diminish the situation, because these fears are real. Also, if you are a cisgender therapist, there is no way to fully understand what your client is going through. It is best not to try to relate or use comparisons to other marginalized communities. I have heard of individuals telling their therapists about the fear of shopping, and the therapists suggesting in response to “shop online,” unsolicited advice that comes across as invalidating.
But then what is the right thing to do? First, validate the fear, which is constantly present. Ask questions. What does this fear look like to them? How does it show up in their lives? Secondly, address the fear and help empower your client to find ways to protect themselves. While we do not teach our clients physical self-defense techniques, we can certainly teach them mental defenses. Find positive self-talk and coping techniques when encountering non-life threatening yet mentally damaging situations. Third, help your client devise safety plans and locate resources. Is there someone they can call any time of the day, or put on alert when they are encountering any new or potentially triggering situation? Is there an emergency line they can reach that they know they can trust? Having access and knowledge to trans-affirmative resources can be life saving.
With all of that said, November is always a difficult month for the transgender community. Whether or not your client is aware of this fear on a daily basis, we cannot deny that the number of deaths we recognize during TDOR and the number of clients facing fear seem to increase annually. November is filled with a constant reminder to be vigilant and that the fight is far from over. As clinicians, we must recognize this and do everything we can to support our clients in the most affirming way possible.
Learn More about working with Transgender and Nonbinary Clients
Chan, S. (2018). A transgender pioneer and activist who was a fixture of Greenwich Village street life. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/obituaries/overlooked-marsha-p-johnson.html
Feinberg, Leslie (1996). Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis. Boston, MA. Beacon Press
Jacobs, S. (2012). DA reopens unsolved 1992 case involving ‘saint of gay life’. New York Daily News. Retrieved from: https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/da-reopens-unsolved-1992-case-involving-saint-gay-life-article-1.1221742
Caring for LGBTQ+ Caregivers of Older Adults
LGBTQ+ caregivers of older adults (generally people age 60+) are a special population in need of support and affirmative care. These family members and friends provide unpaid physical and/or emotional assistance to spouses and partners, parents, friends–some of whom were former partners–siblings, and neighbors. While temporary caregiving for others, when one is recovering from surgery, injury, or illness, can take place at any stage of life and is challenging in many ways, caregiving for older adults can last for many years. This article will explore the issues that some LGBTQ+ caregivers experience in the course of caring for elders.
My own experiences with working with caregivers
I have had the privilege, during my years of practice in the field of aging, of facilitating support groups for caregivers seeking out assistance. The members of my groups have openly shared their innermost thoughts and feelings about giving care with me and with each other. They have expressed feeling that there is no end in sight as more and more of their time and energy becomes consumed with caring for a loved one who will never get better–only worse. Some members have participated in these groups for years on end as they witness the gradual decline of their care recipients due to dementia, medical frailty, cancer, or Parkinson’s disease.
All of these caregivers find that their friends and acquaintances just don’t understand what they are going through and the toll that giving care takes on them. They have relied on each other, and on a trained social worker who holds space in the group setting, to help them navigate the increasingly challenging situations they encounter. When providers become more well-versed in understanding experiences of unpaid caregiving in LGBTQ+ communities, people like these can get better care and more support outside of a group setting. So here are a few things to bear in mind about these generous, caring, and often severely stressed-out individuals.
Unique considerations with LGBTQ+ caregivers
First, it is common for queer and trans people who are not related by blood or marriage to care for each other. In fact, former romantic partners will sometimes become caregivers. Mainstream service providers may not be accustomed to this, and community members have reported encountering a lack of understanding about why an ex-partner would remain closely connected. But the formation of familial relationships among our loving LGBTQ+ communities is commonplace; a number of my LGBT older adult clients have considered their exes to be family members. It is important that providers include anyone an older adult has designated as a caregiver in health care decision making processes–and also that providers recognize the significant strain such caregivers may experience.
That strain can manifest in a number of different ways and lead to negative social and health outcomes. Providing physical, emotional, and financial support for a loved one while putting one’s own needs on the back burner time and again leads to exhaustion and isolation. And LGBTQ+ caregivers face risk factors beyond those commonly experienced by non-LGBTQ+ caregivers. For instance, LGBTQ+ adults who are childless are often expected to take on all of the responsibility of caring for aging cisgender and heterosexual parents. But they may also have faced a historic lack of acceptance, potentially entailing verbal and/or physical abuse, from those parents. And same-sex partners and spouses may still face significant discrimination in the medical, senior services, and institutional settings in which their loved ones receive care.
Supporting LGBTQ+ caregivers
Without adequate support and without anyone to help share the care, caregivers risk burning out. While LGBTQ+-specific groups can be difficult to find outside of SAGE: Advocacy and Services for LGBT Elders’ NYC headquarters, caregiver support programs are available in every state. The National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP), a federal initiative, provides grants to fund not only support groups but case management and some respite and supplemental services. This means that local resources–from assistance with information, benefits and entitlements, and referrals to limited financial help paying for home care and medical supplies–are available to all unpaid caregivers.
Further, an important piece of legislation affecting caregivers has been enacted in roughly 40 states so far. The CARE (Caregiver Advice, Record, and Enable) Act, known by a different name in some states, requires hospitals to ask patients, at the time of their admission, if they would like to designate someone as their caregiver. Whatever the relationship of the caregiver to the patient, the hospital must then record the caregiver’s name in the medical record, notify the caregiver of patient discharge, and provide training for performing medical tasks once the patient is home. This is an important legal consideration for LGBTQ+ caregivers without a formal or documented relationship to their care recipients.
For further reading on this topic, check out the selection of caregivers’ resources at the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging.
Learn more from Teresa Theophano, LCSW
Stewart, D. B., & Kent, A. (2017). Caregiving in the LGBT Community: A Guide to Engaging and Supporting LGBT Caregivers through Programming. Retrieved September 29, 2019, from https://www.lgbtagingcenter.org/resources/resource.cfm?r=883.
LGBT Aging: Tips for Terminology
For about six years, I have relished my experiences as a queer social worker providing services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) older adults–often defined as people ages 60+. I am committed to the idea of taking care of our own community members who rarely see their lives and needs reflected in mainstream senior services programming. Older adults are wildly underrepresented in both mass and LGBTQ+-specific media, facing ageism as well as homo-, bi- and transphobia. I have been honored to connect with clients who include Stonewall veterans, pioneering scholars in the field of LGBTQ+ studies, artists, and activists. Many of them grew up having to conceal their identities and live in society’s shadows in order to stay safe; they have seen and survived it all!
So, if you are working with members of this community, you will want to ensure that you approach them with sensitivity and competence. That entails consciously using respectful and inclusive terminology. It also means asking people open-ended questions about how they identify their sexual orientations and gender identities, and reflecting back to them what they tell you.
I’ve learned about some important considerations regarding language during my years in the field of LGBT aging. For instance, you may know that being a “homosexual” was stigmatized as a DSM diagnosis until 1973, but you may not be aware that this term was reclaimed by some before the word “queer” became more socially acceptable. I sometimes encounter gay men in their 80s or 90s who will describe themselves as “homosexual,” never as “queer,” while just the opposite tends to apply to younger folks. “Queer” remains a slur in the minds of many–although, of course, not necessarily all–older people, and may be best avoided in the context of working with aging clients.
Similarly, some older adults of trans experience will refer to themselves or other community members as “transsexual,” an unpopular word among subsequent generations. That being said, none of my clients have ever taken offense at the more widely accepted term “transgender,” although they may not prefer to use it to describe themselves. Several African-American men among my client base describe themselves as same-gender loving, others as gay or bisexual. Meantime, I have found that many older women in the community strongly identify with the word lesbian, while others refer to themselves as gay. As with working among any specific population, one size does not fit all when serving sexual and gender minority clients.
So don’t be afraid to ask about the words clients use to describe themselves, and know that it is safe to stick with “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” or LGBT when working with older adults. You can rest assured that these words convey respect. When I conduct trainings on culturally competent work with LGBT older adults, I always include a mention of related terms, including pansexual, asexual, intersex, ally, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary. I also talk about the terms “transgender” and “cisgender,” and the Latin origin of the prefixes “trans” and cis.” While some elders might identify with these terms, many to whom I have provided services are unfamiliar with them. Concepts such as non-binary gender pronouns like “they/them” or “ze/hir” may also be new, which is especially important to bear in mind if these are the pronouns you yourself use.
For further reading on inclusive and sensitive terminology, check out GLAAD’s An Ally’s Guide to Terminology, which is applicable across age groups. And per my previous article on LGBT older adults, the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging is an excellent online resource.
Learn more from Teresa Theophano, LCSW
Dame, A. (2017, May 22). Tracing Terminology: Researching Early Uses of “Cisgender”. Retrieved from https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/may-2017/tracing-terminology-researching-early-uses-of-cisgender
(n.d.). LGBTQ+ Definitions. Retrieved from http://www.transstudent.org/definitions/