Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Laura Brackett’s specialties include counseling LGBTQ+ individuals. A frequent complaint she hears from her clients is that those outside of the LGBTQ+ community — including some mental health practitioners — see it as one big, happy family that shares all of the same problems and concerns.
This is, of course, not the case. “There can be deep and painful divides between the various groups that make up this community,” says Brackett, an American Counseling Association member who practices and is the director of community engagement at Change Inc. in St. Louis.
That is especially true for marginalized communities within the LGBTQ+ population. For example, American society has made significant progress in accepting differences in sexual or “affectional” identity but remains distinctly uncomfortable with alternate gender expressions such as transgender and nonbinary, says ACA member Christian Chan, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. People can generally grasp (even if in some cases only reluctantly) being gay, lesbian or bisexual as being about whom one chooses to love. However, the idea of someone being assigned the wrong gender at birth or a person rejecting that they must choose the binary of either male or female undermines deeply held notions of what constitutes a person’s identity, explains Chan, whose research interests include intersectionality and issues affecting queer people of color.
Even the LGBTQ+ community tends to prioritize affectional identity over gender identity, says Chan, a member of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling (ALGBTIC), a division of ACA. For too long, there has been a hierarchy of whose needs matter, he asserts, and transgender people — particularly women of color — have been at the bottom.
“Mental health providers are not really culturally responsive to the needs of [diverse] communities — particularly communities that have multiple identities,” he says. Even counselors who are affirming of LGBTQ+ clients don’t always take the time to consider clients’ intersecting identities and how those identities affect their mental health needs, Chan adds.
When transitioning is not an option
LPC Jessica Jarman Hayes says the transgender clients she counsels are often not out and almost “sneaking themselves into therapy.” Hayes, whose Columbia, South Carolina, practice specializes in LGBTQ+ issues, explains that being transgender anywhere in the surrounding area is just not accepted. If anyone in the communities where her clients live learned that these individuals are struggling with their true identity as a transgender woman or man, her clients would lose everything, she says. If married, their spouses would leave them and take their children. Their families, friends and neighbors would reject them, leaving them with no social support. The need for secrecy is so great that it can be challenging for these clients to even schedule appointments with Hayes.
Other of Hayes’ clients live out in isolated areas of South Carolina’s Low Country. They cannot easily get to her office, so their only option is teletherapy, sometimes from a car in the parking lot of a grocery store because they have no safe space available to them at home.
“It reminds me a lot of when I was working in domestic violence,” says Hayes, who is also a volunteer at the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center in Columbia. “You just have to be there to support them, sometimes for years, when they finally reach a place in which it [denying their identity] is no longer acceptable, and then come up with a plan to get out of Dodge.”
Violence is an ever-present threat for people who identify as transgender and gender nonconforming or “nonbinary.” According to the Human Rights Campaign report “Violence Against the Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Community in 2020,” at least 26 individuals who were transgender or gender nonconforming were murdered in 2019. Most of the victims were African American women.
As the report notes, “These victims were killed by acquaintances, partners or strangers, some of whom have been arrested and charged, while others have yet to be identified. Some of these cases involve clear anti-transgender bias. In others, the victim’s transgender status may have put them at risk in other ways, such as forcing them into unemployment, poverty, homelessness and/or survival sex work.”
Hayes says the fear of violent retribution is another reason, in addition to fear of losing family and friends, that her transgender clients feel unable to express their identities in any way. One client hid underwear in a wall in the house, and their spouse gave them a severe beating when they discovered it, Hayes says.
There is no protection for the abused in these cases because the local police do not take such incidents seriously, according to Hayes. This lack of concern is present even when a juvenile is involved, she says, recounting the story of a suicide hotline call from a transgender teen that got routed her way. The teenager was actively suicidal and in danger. The father had found girls’ clothing and had severely beaten the teen. Hayes called the police and made it clear this was a domestic violence incident involving child abuse and a victim who was actively suicidal.
“The police went in there and teamed up with the dad,” Hayes says. “They said, ‘If you would just stop pretending to be a girl, your dad wouldn’t have to do this.’”
For a time, the girl was able to maintain touch with Hayes by using a self-wiping app on her cell phone to avoid being detected. Hayes called the police repeatedly, but they continued to refuse to take action. Eventually, the father discovered the girl was making calls and took her phone, her computer and his computer out of the house so that she had no means of reaching out. Hayes and other volunteers at the Hancock Center have done their best to check on the teen’s welfare since losing contact but have been unsuccessful. Her school has been ordered not to give out any information, and the local police aren’t providing any help. A Columbia-area police officer has agreed to keep his ears open for any news, but thus far the Hancock Center hasn’t heard anything.
In search of support
Closeted transgender women (i.e., people presenting as men, in accordance with their assigned gender at birth, but who secretly self-identify as women) who are discovered are at risk of violence not just from spouses but, potentially, the spouse’s family, Hayes says. “This is seen as an act of great betrayal.”
Hayes recommends that all of her transgender clients use the time after their phone sessions with her (or any other time they have 15-20 minutes of private time) to connect with virtual support groups. She wants clients to find at least one “safety buddy” to whom they can reach out if they just need to talk or if something serious is going on. She also makes sure that all clients have the transgender peer support and crisis hotline number (Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860).
Hayes also uses radical acceptance to help her clients cope with the inability to embrace their true identities. “OK,” she tells clients, “we can radically accept that this situation really sucks and is really uncomfortable, but we have to accept that we are in danger of losing a job or family, even if we never come out but someone else finds out.”
Hayes urges her transgender clients always to have a go-bag packed, but recommending places for refuge is a challenge. A few domestic violence shelters in Georgia are trans-affirming, but they are a significant car ride away. The Columbia area has some homeless shelters that will accept transgender individuals. Still, these are not always great options because some of them are run by religious organizations that require those seeking refuge to read “applicable” Bible verses. Hayes generally encourages clients to think of relatives with whom they could stay. Clients don’t necessarily need to explain the whole story of what is happening — just that they need to get away, Hayes says.
In an environment in which wearing gender-affirming underwear or painting one’s toenails can have devastating consequences, Hayes acknowledges that it is incredibly challenging to help make her clients’ situations more livable. Even so, she has found a few small ways for her transgender and nonbinary clients to explore their identities, including gaming, an environment in which having avatars of different or no fixed gender is common.
Another outlet she suggests — but only if clients believe their phones are safe from scrutiny — is the social media platform Tumblr, which is very graphics-oriented and functions a bit like a cross between Facebook and Twitter. Users can set up an account and post or follow others who share art, graphics, GIFs and other visual content. Crucially for Hayes’ clients, it’s also possible to search content without registering. Why is this an affirming outlet? Because Tumblr is a hive for many kinds of interests, including fashion, design, décor and art. Hayes tells her clients to use the platform to explore what their “aesthetic” (personal style) would look like if they had complete freedom, encompassing not just their appearance but also their surroundings.
Hayes began her career counseling domestic violence survivors in the Miami area, where the shelters are transgender and LGB affirming and intimate partner violence between gay men or a trans woman and cisgender man is taken seriously by the legal system. Although Hayes, who considers herself a member of the LGBTQA+ community, has been in South Carolina for several years, she is still sometimes surprised by the virulence of the hatred many in the area feel toward transgender and other queer people. She echoes Chan in saying that although different affectional orientations are now more tolerated (even if sometimes grudgingly) in some quarters, alternative gender expression is still largely viewed as unacceptable. She believes there also remains significant transphobia within the LGBTQ+ community itself, which leaves her transgender clients with very few resources for social support.
When ACA member Bethany Novotny moved from Pittsburgh to Johnson City, Tennessee, to begin teaching as an assistant professor of human services at Eastern Tennessee State University (ETSU), she wasn’t sure how friendly her new surroundings would be to those identifying as LGBTQ+. Novotny, who went on to start a local lesbian dine-out group, was pleased to find that Johnson City had a robust LGBTQ+ community and that it and the university were a haven among the surrounding Appalachian towns for queer young adults.
Over time, Novotny, who is an LPC in Pennsylvania, found that students viewed her as a safe and sympathetic person to talk to. That rapport, her desire to help transgender and nonbinary students, and Novotny’s friendship with staff at the campus counseling center led to her taking over ETSU’s transgender support group, now called ASPECTS — Aligning Support, Pride, Education and Community for Transgender Students. The group originally included only students who had been referred by the campus counseling center. But Novotny opened it up to all transgender and gender-nonconforming students because she feels they have unique challenges apart from the rest of the queer community. “People are more afraid [discussing alternative gender expression] than they are when we talk about sexual orientation,” she notes.
Novotny supervises while students lead the group, which meets once a week. The students share practical information such as where they can go to receive hormone therapy and find affirmative health care providers. Obtaining these services usually requires traveling to either Knoxville, Tennessee, or Asheville, North Carolina, which is a challenge, especially for those students who don’t have cars. Novotny says the group often works together to make sure members get rides when necessary.
Not surprisingly, acceptance is a constant topic in the group, Novotny says. The students feel safe — many for the first time in their lives — at ETSU, but they still have to navigate family and community attitudes when they go home on breaks.
“We would talk about coping skills [before breaks],” Novotny says. “Sometimes they would choose to stay with a friend or another family member. I would remind them to have a crisis plan — making sure if things got bad, they knew what to do.” A crisis plan resembles a suicide safety plan, with a list of local and campus resources, shelter locations and the number for the national suicide hotline.
Once, a student who had started taking hormones decided that they should come out to their family on break. The group talked it through for several weeks beforehand, Novotny says. The student’s parents did not take the coming out announcement well, and the student was forced to seek shelter with a cousin. The cousin turned out to be very supportive and even helped the student come out to their grandmother, which they never thought possible, Novotny recounts. All too often, however, students would return to school without getting any affirmation from their families.
Although revealing oneself as transgender is particularly challenging, coming out to family and friends isn’t easy for anyone in the LGBTQ+ community. Even among families who want to support and affirm their loved ones, the coming out process can be a difficult transition, Brackett says. Some family members — often parents in particular — grieve letting go of the future they had envisioned for their loved one, she adds. “That’s not to say that they reject their family member’s future as an LGBTQ+ person, simply that they may need to adjust the specifics of what that future may be. Maybe the vision was of a son who [would have] a wife and children, and now that vision needs to be adjusted to [having] a husband instead of a wife,” Brackett says.
In other cases, families fear their loved one will become an entirely different person, she says. Brackett explains to families that although changes in expression and personality are very likely, it isn’t a foregone conclusion that in coming out, their loved one will undergo a complete transformation.
“Even when there are substantial changes, I try to remind families that the person they knew was possibly more of a mask than they want to accept,” she explains. “This person is now trying to discover who they really are, and that process will take time. It’s important to be patient, be curious, be respectful, and [for families to] find their own support.”
Novotny says many of her group members have parents who struggle because they perceive the transition of their child’s gender expression — from the one the student was assigned at birth to their true gender — as an alteration that has transformed their child into someone they don’t recognize. This comes in part from a lack of exposure to and understanding of what being transgender means.
One student’s mother couldn’t even grasp the concept, telling her child, “You have a penis, so you’re a boy,” Novotny recounts. “The student was trying to communicate to [their] mom, ‘I’m still the same person. I’ve actually been this person the whole time, and you don’t see that. I am trying to share something scary and vulnerable with you.’” At the student’s request, Novotny helped them talk to their mother.
“I always respond first with empathy,” Novotny says. “I know that what they [parents] are going through is difficult, and I don’t want to minimize or dismiss their feelings. It’s all about meeting them where they are, even though sometimes I want to shake them and scream at how horrible they are being. I also worked to affirm the love and support that it took for mom to show up in my office that day. The fact that she was there was huge. She was willing to talk even though she didn’t understand, and I wanted both mom and my student to recognize what a big step that was.”
Novotny listened to the mother’s concerns and helped correct misinformation by inserting “tidbits of information that might help mom put the puzzle pieces together. I did this very gently and only where appropriate because I did not want to come off as though I was lecturing her,” Novotny says. “As an educator, I know how important it is to plant seeds. We may not always see that come to fruition, but it is so important to plant those seeds gently. … I also try to communicate to parents that they don’t need to fully understand to provide support, love, affirmation and acceptance.”
In some cases, the family conflict isn’t rooted in a lack of understanding but something more fundamental. Brackett, like Novotny, tackles these struggles with understanding and empathy.
“I seek to understand what their resistance or hostility is connected to and move from there,” she says. “Working with a family that has deeply rooted religious beliefs that condemn sexual or gender minorities is drastically different from working with a family that is afraid of the changes that may occur within their family system. At times it can be necessary to have these discussions without the LGBTQ+ family member present in order to not only protect them from hearing this process in its most raw form, but also to allow the family space to be open about what they are feeling. Additionally, recommending outside support groups or resources can help alleviate some of the misinformation and isolation the family may carry.”
Families also fear the treatment their loved one might experience in the outside world. “Will they be bullied or ignored or even physically hurt or killed?” Brackett says about some of the common concerns families voice. “Will they suffer mental anguish and be at higher risk for addiction or suicide?”
“It’s important for families to remember that a huge protective factor for members of the LGBTQ+ community is the presence of a supportive family,” Brackett asserts. “When working with family members in this place of fear, I try to highlight for them the power they have in creating a safe and loving environment for their loved one. While a mother can’t make the world safe for her gender-nonconforming child, she can at least work to ensure that she is safe for them.”
The process of coming out
In some cultures, such as those Hayes’ clients live in, as well as other racial and ethnic communities, coming out may be dangerous to the LGBTQ+ individual and perhaps to their family. Or an LGBTQ+ person may have some family members who would support their coming out but others who would not be affirmative or accepting. Some individuals choose to honor both their LGBTQ+ identity and their familial or cultural identity by coming out only to certain family members or friends.
“I frame coming out as an ongoing process and remind my clients that the need for a grand unveiling isn’t necessary unless it’s important to them,” Brackett says. “Often, I see my clients come out by degrees, starting with the safest people or environments first to gain support. By identifying safe people and thinking through the possible outcomes of coming out, the client can begin to amass protective factors they need as they go through the process. Deciding not to come out to people they identify as unsafe or unnecessary doesn’t have to be framed as a betrayal to their identity, though it’s an understandable reaction. It can also be framed as a means of protecting themselves. They are not required to disclose information that puts them at risk.”
With any major life change, there is grief at whatever is lost, and this is very true in people who are negotiating the ways in which they want or don’t want to be publicly out, Brackett continues. “Being rejected by a family member or important institution like a religious community or friend group can be devastating,” she says. “Gentleness, empathy and nonjudgmental discussions are important in allowing clients the freedom to connect with the impact coming out is having on them. Holding the grief is important, but so is guiding them toward creation of a new life and support system: ‘Yes, this is horrible and heartbreaking. Is there someone who has acted differently or where you’ve felt acceptance?’”
Counselors can help clients build a new support system by working with them to change their concept of family, says ACA member Leah Polk, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical director at Change Inc. in St. Louis. Clients are not limited to their families of origin; they can assemble ones of their own choosing, she emphasizes. So, even though their families of origin may have set a priority on traditional scripts or rituals, the families they choose can be inclusive and view each member as inherently valuable, says Polk, whose specialties include LGBTQ+ issues.
“The important part here is that the client gets to spend time identifying what is most important and valuable to them as it relates to family,” she explains. “They are able to map out how they establish family and gain reliable reflections that emphasize what they like about themselves.”
Peer support for transgender youth and young adults
Laura Boyd Farmer, an LPC whose specialties include affirmative LGBTQ+ counseling, helped found a peer group for youth and teenagers 10 years ago in the Roanoke, Virginia, area. She and other area professionals saw a need among the area’s LGBTQ+ youth, who were frequently ostracized and bullied and had little family support. “Our intention was to create a safe and supportive space,” says Farmer, a member of ALGBTIC. Farmer and others sat with teens in the area and asked them what they needed and what kind of support would be helpful. The result was Youth SAGA (Sexuality & Gender Alliance) of Roanoke.
“The kids created the name,” Farmer says. “They were very passionate that they wanted this to be a group for queer-identified kids, but also for anyone who was affirming of gender and sexuality diversity.”
SAGA meets twice a month, and there are always two leaders with mental health experience (Farmer and three volunteers take turns serving as the two leads). Meeting times are posted on Facebook, and the group gathers in public spaces such as coffeehouses, libraries and bookstores so that teenagers who are not out to their families will have a ready-made excuse to drop in.
The group follows two basic rules: Respect participants’ chosen identities, names and pronouns, and give everyone time to talk. Group members are also asked not to talk about what goes on at meetings outside of SAGA. All of the participants are so invested in preserving a place where they can find and give support that there has never been an issue with breaking confidentiality, according to Farmer.
The structure of each meeting depends on the size of the group. If only a few teens are present that week, the session is relatively informal, with group members simply discussing what is going on in their lives. With larger groups, leaders pass out pieces of paper so participants can write down any topics they would like the group to cover. The group leaders put all the pieces of paper in a bowl, which is then passed around. Each person removes a piece of paper and reads out the topic for discussion.
Topics range from concerns such as “My parents don’t want me to transition and I don’t know what to do” and “I don’t know how to come out to a family member” to the practicalities of expressing gender identity. The group has covered logistical questions about the physical and hormonal aspects of transition, as well as ways that youth can present themselves in a way that affirms their gender expression when their families are not letting them transition. The teens also ask each other about how to find good chest binders and affordable makeup.
Dealing with bullies and finding allies are also common topics, Farmer says. She recounts an approach to bullying that she thought was particularly effective: “This trans youth shared that he found the best way to deal with bullies was to choose a direct statement to respond with and to use it repeatedly,” Farmer explains. “For example, when a bully would say to this youth that he was really a ‘she’ and just confused, the youth would reply, ‘That sounds like a you problem.’ This kid also had his friends use the same response when they heard anyone say anything unkind about him or toward him. I loved this approach because it puts responsibility back on the bully to educate themselves, like holding up a mirror for them to see that whatever mean things they are saying are actually about them, not the person they are trying to bully.”
Sometimes the group features outside speakers. For example, because the intersection of religion with sexual and gender identity is a common concern in southwest Virginia, Farmer had a pastor lead a discussion on how spirituality and sexuality intersect. The pastor also talked about what the Scriptures actually say (and don’t say) about the topic and gave the group recommendations for discussing the topic with family.
Farmer emphasizes that SAGA is not a therapy group but rather peer-based support. Because discussions about sexual and gender identity sometimes include topics such as trauma that can be triggering for others, she and her co-leaders have developed a signal that group members can use if they are being triggered. If someone puts a hand on their heart, it is a signal for the leaders to gently and respectfully move the discussion away from the current topic. Farmer and the other leaders are careful to check in afterward to see whether the teen who brought up the topic wants to continue the discussion privately.
“The beauty of this group is that I don’t have to know the answers,” Farmer says. “The kids are sharing their wisdom with others. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.”
Providing affirmative counseling
Even professional clinical counselors who have experience with the LGBTQ+ community may have biases and blind spots, say the practitioners Counseling Today interviewed for this article. Brackett and Polk offer some suggestions for counselors who want to make sure they are offering affirmative counseling to LGBTQ+ clients.
“The first thing I recommend is self-reflection on how you are connected to the LGBTQ+ community outside of being a clinician,” Brackett says. “Understanding your own involvement and comfort within the LGBTQ+ community will help you be present with these clients in an authentic way.”
She suggests that counselors ask themselves the following:
- Are you a member of the LGBTQ+ community? If so, what elements do you connect to versus what elements do you find yourself separated from? Are there parts of the queer community that you (consciously or unconsciously) avoid or dislike? If so, why? Do you feel like you “belong,” and how does that impact your willingness to connect with others in the community? How do your opinions change if the race, ethnicity, income, gender or gender presentation of the person changes?
- If you don’t consider yourself part of the LGBTQ+ community, how open and connected are you to people within it? Do you seek out or seek to avoid places or events that are heavily attended by the queer community? How comfortable do you feel when you are in those spaces? How do your opinions change if the race, ethnicity, income, gender or gender presentation of the person changes?
“Remember that there are generalized experiences, and then there are your client’s experiences,” Brackett continues. “Trust your client to tell you their reality. It may align with your own experiences or general narrative you have of the LGBTQ+ community, but it may not. Your goal is to be present with them where they are, as they are.”
Polk has some additional suggestions:
- Allow the client to determine the pace. It is not the counselor’s job to set an agenda for coming out or transitioning.
- Frequently reassess goals in therapy. What the client needs when they enter therapy is often not the same as what they need after eight to 10 sessions have taken place.
- Monitor for clients’ sense of safety and agency. For example, ask them how their relationships are and how they experience safety in an environmental context (e.g., employment, social events, political environment).
- Continue to scan and assess for co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse. Individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ tend to have a disproportionate number of stressors that could lead to comorbid emotional and mental health concerns.
“Additionally, I would suggest some form of participation in LGBTQ+-affirming communities,” Polk says. “For example, attend a support group, view LGBTQ+ art [and] film, or read literature written by queer authors. Ask to interview LGBTQ+ counselors, or seek out LGBTQ+-specific supervision and psychotherapy training. Finally, perform a self-assessment of your own attitudes and biases of LGBTQ+ people to determine your growing edges in counseling.”
Brackett offers a closing thought: “If you find that you are uncomfortable with LGBTQ+ clients or are concerned about your ability to work with this population, seek out clinical supervision, and engage in your own therapy.”
To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
- “Counseling transgender persons and their families” by Al Carlozzi
- “LGBTQ issues across the life span” by Laurie Meyers
- “In search of an affirming faith” by Laurie Meyers
- “Embracing the ongoing push for progress” by Laurie Meyers
- “Supporting LGBTQ+ students’ well-being in high school” by Roberto L. Abreu, Adriana G. McEachern, Jennifer Geddes Hall and Maureen C. Kenny
- “When bias turns into bullying” by Lindsey Phillips
- Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People edited by Misty M. Ginicola, Cheri Smith and Joel M. Filmore
- Casebook for Counseling LGBT Persons and Their Families edited by Sari H. Dworkin and Mark Pope
- Group Counseling With LGBTQI Persons by Kristopher M. Goodrich and Melissa Luke
Continuing Professional Development: LGBTQ (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/specialties/137/view)
- “Transgender — Moving From Awareness to Advocacy” with Becca Smith
- “Affirming Counseling Practice With Queer People of Color: From Margins to Center” with Adrienne N. Erby and Christian D. Chan
- “Resiliency Factors of Trans-College Students: Implications for Professional Counselors and Higher Education Professionals” with Jane E. Rheineck and Matthew Lonski
- “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth: Family Acceptance and Emotional Development” with Julie Basulto
- “The Counseling Experiences of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Clients” by Rafe Julian McCullough, Lindy K. Parker, Cory Viehl, Catharina Chang, Thomas M. Murphy and Franco Dispenza
ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/self-care-resources)
- Grief and loss
Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling (algbtic.org)
- The name of this ACA division will be changing to the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex and Gender Expansive Identities (SAIGE)
Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.