How Counseling Can Help In Understanding LGBT Identity
The movement toward accepting and celebrating sexual and gender diversity has been a long, slow journey, but it has picked up speed in the past decade or two as more research and social activism has changed perceptions and beliefs about LGTBQ+ people. Punctuated by prejudicial ideas that sexually and gender-diverse people were mentally ill, morally corrupt, sinful, or a health and safety risk to the community, many dangerous and harmful beliefs were common in cultures around the world.
As a therapist, I still see some of these beliefs arise when I work with people who are coming to terms with the coming-out process of a loved one who identifies as LGTBQ+. It can be a stressful and emotional time for everyone. It is critical for the safety and well-being of all involved that loved ones be as supportive and affirming of those coming out as possible.
COMING TO TERMS WITH YOUR LOVED ONE’S IDENTITY
For many people, fear of the unknown is the biggest hurdle to overcome. If you have not socialized with sexually and gender-diverse people, or you have ingrained prejudicial beliefs as noted above, you may be confused about what an LGBTQ+ identity means. Stereotypes, inaccurate assumptions, and misinformation may increase your fear and worry.
If someone you love comes out, here are some ideas for better understanding what their identity means:
Do some research about what different terms might mean. For example, you may think you know what “gay,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” “queer,” “pansexual,” or “bigender” means, but do you understand what those terms mean to people who identify as LGBTQ+? For common terms, you can look at the Human Rights Campaign’s glossary.
Make a list of questions you want to ask your loved one to understand who they are more clearly. Before you ask these questions, consider how they may be received. Are these questions coming from a place of judgment or from a place of curiosity? Do these questions have a goal of trying to change the person’s mind? You might start with simply asking your loved one how you can support them, what they need from you, and how they want you to treat them in regards to their sexuality and gender.
Check out resources for family and friends of LGBTQ+ people that are affirming and supportive. The organization PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is a great option for finding resources and support from others who have LGTBQ+ loved ones.
It is important to learn and reflect about your feelings, attitudes, and ideas about gender and sexuality so you can be supportive and loving to the person coming out. Sometimes people inadvertently hurt loved ones by using inaccurate language, accepting prejudice from others or making prejudicial jokes, or suggesting their identity is sinful, disordered, or temporary.
IDENTIFYING AND QUESTIONING YOUR FEELINGS
As noted above, many people carry faulty beliefs about sexuality and gender that have been instilled through culture, media, religion, or experience. These beliefs can stir up a great number of difficult feelings when someone you love comes out. Although each of us is entitled to our emotional experience, it is important to question where these feelings come from, and to process and understand them in order to be as supportive as possible. Being supportive to loved ones throughout their coming-out process increases the likelihood they will experience better physical and mental health, as well as increased self-esteem (Travers, et al., 2012).
For some people, the feelings they experience when someone comes out to them are confusing and complicated, and it might be helpful to seek support from a therapist who is knowledgeable and affirming about sexuality and gender.
CHALLENGE MYTHS ABOUT SEXUALITY AND GENDER
Some common myths about gender and sexuality that have been challenged by an ever-growing body of research are:
Myth: Normal people are heterosexual and cisgender.
Reality: There is a large spectrum of sexual and gender identities that are healthy and normal. In fact, some research suggests many people fall on a continuum of sexual orientation (American Psychological Association, 2008).
Myth: People who are LGBTQ+ have a mental health disorder.
Reality: This myth seems to stem from the past classification of homosexuality and gender identity disorder in mental health diagnostic manuals. However, in part because of overwhelming research findings, homosexuality and gender identity disorder are no longer considered mental health disorders. The challenging mental health outcomes that can be experienced by LGBTQ+ people are connected to how they are treated by friends, family, and society, not to their identity or orientation. The more support and encouragement someone has, the less likely they will be to deal with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. One study found that the rate of suicide for transgender youth is reduced 93% when their family supports them (Travers, et al., 2012).
Myth: If my child is gay, bisexual, or transgender, it is because of something I did.
Reality: People are born with a genetic predisposition toward who they will be attracted to, and toward a personality and traits that impact who they are as people, including their sexuality and gender. Gender identity and sexuality is a multifaceted part of someone’s overall identity, and is likely impacted by biological, social, genetic, and psychological factors (American Psychological Association, 2008). Nothing you say or do as a parent will change whether your child is gay, cisgender, or transgender. What it will change is whether they feel supported and happy, how they feel about themselves, and how resilient they are to stigma.
Myth: It would be better for an LGBTQ+ person to keep their identity private; no one else needs to know.
Reality: The coming-out process is not only important for LGTBQ+ people to experience greater happiness, self-esteem, and improved mental and physical health, but to fight pervasive prejudice and stigma about sexuality and gender (Herek, 2017). For their sake, encourage openness and support your loved one to be public with their identity if and when they are ready to do so.
If you or someone you know is wanting to understand LGBT identity, or is having difficulty with a loved one coming out; contact my Portland, Oregon area office for more information.
American Psychological Association. (2008). Answers to your questions: For a better understanding of sexual orientation and homosexuality. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.pdf
Glossary of Terms. (n.d.). Human Rights Campaign. Retrieved from https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms
Herek, G. M. (2017, April 23). Counting hate crimes: A Brief History of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act. Retrieved from https://herek.net/blog/category/sexual-prejudice/
Travers, R., Bauer, G., Pyne, J., Bradley, K., Gale, L., & Papadimitriou, M. (2012). Impacts of strong parental support for trans youth: A report prepared for Children’s Aid Society of Toronto and Delisle Youth Services. Trans PULSE.
© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Laura Turnbull, MC, CPsych, therapist in York, Ontario