Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Counselor considerations for disclosing LGBTQ+ identity

By Benjamin Hearn June 2, 2020

The question of what is appropriate to disclose about ourselves to clients is one that all counselors face, whether it be about an upcoming vacation, an emotional reaction to a client or how our own past struggles may parallel those of a client. Beyond these more common self-disclosures, we also may choose to disclose aspects of our identity that are not inherently visible, such as our sexual orientation, gender identity or even religious beliefs.

These invisible aspects of the self differ from others such as race in that there may be incongruence between how these identities are perceived by the client and experienced by the counselor. At times, disclosure of such identities may be beneficial for clients, but we must proceed both with caution and intentionality prior to taking that step. Although I will be discussing LGBTQ+ identity disclosure for the remainder of this article, it is my hope that all counselors will benefit from engaging in the process of deciding when and what is ethical to disclose to our clients.

I first became aware of the utility of disclosing my sexual orientation in practicum, during which time I needed to obtain group hours. The only active group at my site was a women’s anxiety group facilitated by my supervisor, who was also a woman. My supervisor was intent on my gaining group experience and asked the women whether they would be comfortable having a male co-facilitate sessions. Most of the group was hesitant until one of the members spoke up and said, “That’s fine, but only if he’s gay.” Her statement was met with concurrence by the rest of the group, and I was allowed to co-facilitate after sharing that I was indeed gay. My supervisor thought this was a strange contingency, but I was not surprised. I have a long history of seeing people interact differently with me once they learn I am gay.

My initial experiences self-disclosing LGBTQ+ identities demonstrated that it could be used to enhance client trust and perhaps provided greater autonomy to clients by allowing them to find a counselor with whom they “fit.” However, after reflecting, obtaining supervision and exploring the literature on self-disclosure, the concept of appropriately disclosing LGBTQ+ identities became much murkier for me. Compounding the issue was the fact that the literature also described risks to the concealment of an LGBTQ+ identity.

Overall, the consensus from these sources was that disclosure is a choice rather than a rule and needs to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Factors that influence the choice span a wide range and may include characteristics of the client, the counselor and treatment settings. The remainder of this article explores these issues within the context of the counseling profession’s values and ethical principles, professional literature, and theories that my colleague Kelli Hess and I developed and presented at an American Counseling Association Conference.

Professional values and ethical principles

Whenever considering whether a course of action is ethical, counselors should turn first to the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics and the Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making, a white paper developed by Holly Forester-Miller and Thomas Davis in collaboration with ACA. While neither of these documents provides concrete answers to the question “Is it ethical to disclose my LGBTQ+ identity to my clients?” they do offer a good starting point to assess the question. So, let’s begin by outlining applicable ethics standards and professional values and principles so that they can be kept in mind and later applied.

The preamble to the ACA Code of Ethics states that the promotion of social justice is one of the core professional values of the counseling profession. In the glossary of terms for the ACA Code of Ethics, social justice is defined as “the promotion of equity for all people and groups for the purpose of ending oppression and injustice affecting clients [and] counselors …”

The preamble also outlines a number of important principles that inform our topic, including:

  • Beneficence: “Working for the good of the individual and society by promoting mental health and well-being.”
  • Veracity: “Dealing truthfully with individuals with whom counselors come into professional contact.”
  • Autonomy: “Fostering the right to control the direction of one’s life.”

It is worth noting that the ethical decision-making model developed by Forester-Miller and Davis elaborates on these definitions and describes these principles in action in ways that may not be intuitive. For example, helping a client understand how their actions and values are likely to be received in the context of society promotes client autonomy.

The ACA Code of Ethics also provides several standards that are relevant to our discussion:

  • A.4.b. Personal Values: “Counselors are aware of — and avoid imposing — their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.”
  • I.1.b. Ethical Decision Making: “When counselors are faced with an ethical dilemma, they use and document, as appropriate, an ethical decision-making model that may include, but is not limited to, consultation; consideration of relevant ethical standards, principles, and laws; generation of potential courses of action; deliberation of risks and benefits; and selection of an objective decision based on the circumstances and welfare of all involved.”
  • I.2.c. Consultation: “When uncertain about whether a particular situation or course of action may be in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics, counselors consult with other counselors who are knowledgeable about ethics and the ACA Code of Ethics, with colleagues, or with appropriate authorities, such as the ACA Ethics and Professional Standards Department.”

Types of disclosure

Now that we have an understanding of the relevant professional values, principles and ethical standards, we can begin considering how they inform self-disclosure. We typically think of self-disclosure in terms of information that we share verbally with our clients during session. This can be broken up into “intra-” and “extra-” therapy disclosures, with the former being disclosures about the counselor’s own thoughts or feelings in session and the latter being disclosures about the counselor’s life outside of session.

Self-disclosure also takes place through nonverbal means, such as our body language, office layout and dress. The information that we disclose nonverbally is either intentionally or unintentionally shared and can also suggest or confirm an LGBTQ+ identity.

Nonverbal suggestions and confirmations

To understand how nonverbal information may suggest an LGBTQ+ identity, we must first acknowledge that human beings use stereotyping to make sense of and navigate the world. Sexual orientation and gender identity are often spontaneously assumed about an individual based on the nonverbal information they present. Some nonverbal information, such as the counselor’s mannerisms and voice inflection, are not intentionally disclosed but still may inform a client’s assumption of the counselor’s LGBTQ+ identity. A counselor may also intentionally display information, such as choice in dress or a pride flag in their office, that suggests to clients that the counselor is LGBTQ+.

Counselors may also nonverbally share information that confirms their LGBTQ+ identity to clients. This type of disclosure can take several forms and may also be either intentional or unintentional. Intentional nonverbal disclosure of this type occurs through things such as disclosing an LGBTQ+ identity on a professional biography or displaying a picture of a same-gender partner in the office. Unintentional confirmation may take place if the counselor is seen in public with a same-gender partner or if a client discovers the information through social media platforms that are not professionally oriented.

Verbal disclosure with and without prompting

In addition to nonverbal means of disclosure, we can begin to consider how and when counselors may choose to broach the topic verbally in session. In some instances, the client may ask or express something that prompts the counselor to disclose, while at other times, the counselor may disclose without prompting.

Perhaps the two most common instances that could be considered “prompts” are when a client expresses an incorrect assumption about the counselor’s sexual orientation or gender identity or when a client asks about either of these directly. Counselors may be more prone to being questioned directly or to have incorrect assumptions expressed based on the degree to which they “fall into” common LGBTQ+ stereotypes. For instance, I believe that I present few nonverbal suggestions that I am gay, and I wear a wedding ring at work. As a result, clients often ask questions about my “wife.” Another prompt to consider is the unintentional confirmation of an LGBTQ+ identity, such as the counselor being seen in public with a same-gender partner.

When it comes to responding to these questions or assertions, a counselor can always redirect the topic back to the client by asking why this information is important to them or how it would affect their treatment. The counselor may choose to disclose an LGBTQ+ identify when asked directly by a client or when correcting a client’s expressed assumption, provided that a counselor perceives minimal risk to the client and is comfortable with disclosing when prompted.

In these situations, unethical responses would be those that conflict with the principle of veracity. They would include lying about one’s LGBTQ+ identity or providing a response that affirms a client’s incorrect assumption. Such responses might damage the therapeutic relationship in the future should the client discover through other means such as social media or public encounters that the counselor identifies as LGBTQ+.

Counselors who wish for a middle ground between redirection and coming out may choose to use gender-neutral words to answer appropriate questions about themselves or their relationships. For example, “My partner and I have been married three years.”

Counselors may also wish to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity without prompting from the client for a variety of reasons, including:

1) To promote perceived similarity or relatability between counselor and client: Similarity between counselor and client identities, particularly with aspects of identity such as race, has been found to be helpful in developing rapport and with client retainment and engagement. While disclosing similarities may build rapport, counselors should be cautious of using disclosure as a shortcut for rapport or as a stand-in for mastery of LGBTQ+ competencies and expertise.

2) To increase client autonomy or comfort: Disclosure of LGBTQ+ identity may also serve to promote client autonomy. Many clients “shop” for their counselor, and early disclosure, such as on a professional biography, may aid clients in making their selection. In addition, as I described earlier regarding my experience with a women’s group, disclosure of LGBTQ+ identity may serve to promote client comfort. While the situation I described was prompted, counselors may also find that disclosure promotes comfort when clients are reluctant to broach certain issues that may be related to the counselor’s gender identity.

3) To assist in resolution of a client’s internal values struggles.

4) To model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity.

To understand how disclosure might assist a client’s internal values struggles, we’ll return to the professional value of autonomy. Forester-Miller and Davis suggest that disclosure might serve to help clients understand how their actions and values are likely to be received in the context of society. An illustration of this could be a client who is experiencing distress at work due to difficulties with a new LGBTQ+ employee and is unaware that their counselor has an LGBTQ+ identity. The counselor may choose to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity in such an instance should the client not be at risk for self-harm or in crisis and should the therapeutic relationship be strong enough to withstand the disclosure. A counselor taking this approach should consider how they will maintain their focus on the client and manage any significant ruptures to the relationship.

Disclosure of the counselor’s own LGBTQ+ identity may also work to model a healthy identity to clients who have less-developed identities. Models of LGBTQ+ identity development suggest that comfort in disclosing LGBTQ+ identity is indicative of a healthy identity. Given this, counselors may use self-disclosure as a means to explore the reasons behind clients’ own discomfort with disclosure, such as internalized homophobia.

Additionally, instances in which cisgender, heterosexual counselors feel at ease to disclose may also work to model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity and may be viewed as an act promoting social justice. To illustrate this point, consider a community counseling clinic in which some cisgender, heterosexual clinicians display family pictures. An LGBTQ+ counselor who chooses to display similar pictures that illustrate nontraditional family structures promotes equality and raises awareness about such families.

Such seemingly small acts are important to help LGBTQ+ counselors feel comfortable in their work settings because these counselors may also experience fear of client, peer or supervisor judgment and thereby be less effective in their roles. Peer or supervisor judgment may seem unlikely, but I have met many LGBTQ+ counselors who have felt ostracized within their agencies, been told to lie to clients about their sexual orientation or gender identity, or even been fired for their disclosure to clients. Concerns such as these may be indicative of issues related to multiculturalism and diversity within the agency or wider culture but also may be related to the counselor’s unresolved issues regarding internalized homophobia. In such instances, LGBTQ+ counselors may seek their own counseling services.

To illustrate these concepts, consider this vignette: Thomas is a counselor working at a group practice in a moderate-sized city with an established client, Jared. Jared has been voicing increased complaints about his work, particularly concerning a new co-worker who is openly gay and inappropriately discusses his sexual relationships in the workplace. Jared exasperatedly states, “I just can’t stand gay people. They’re all like this. Why can’t they just keep that stuff to themselves?”

As a counselor who displays few nonverbal suggestions about his own sexual orientation, Thomas assumes that Jared believes he is heterosexual. Thomas believes disclosing that he is gay might help Jared, but he first considers the strength of his therapeutic alliance with Jared and what other services would be available to Jared were disclosure to cause irreparable damage.

Thomas decides that Jared would likely be able to process this information in a healthy way and chooses to disclose his sexual orientation in the next session when Jared once again complains about people who are gay. Jared is surprised by Thomas’ disclosure. Jared discusses stereotypes he has about gay people and why he didn’t suspect that Thomas was gay. This process allows Thomas to model a healthy LGBTQ+ identity to Jared while also dismantling unhelpful stereotypes. Jared is now able to see his co-worker’s behavior originating from poor interpersonal boundaries rather than from his sexual orientation.

Choosing not to disclose

Although it appears there may be benefits for clients, counselors and the larger LGBTQ+ population when counselors choose verbally to disclose their LGBTQ+ status, there are also times when counselors should refrain from doing so. In arriving at this decision, counselors should carefully consider:

  • Whether their disclosure is relevant to the client’s issue
  • The purpose of and motivation for disclosure
  • The client’s immediate needs
  • The strength of the therapeutic relationship

In many, if not most, cases, the counselor’s LGBTQ+ identity is irrelevant to the client’s presenting issue, and prompts for disclosing may not arise. Should the counselor still feel an urge to disclose, the counselor should consider their purpose and motivation in disclosing to ensure that disclosure is not used to meet personal needs such as client approval.

Counselors may also refrain from disclosure in instances in which the client has poor interpersonal boundaries, the client is in crisis, or there is a real risk that the therapeutic relationship may not withstand disclosure. Building on this last point, counselors should also consider what additional resources are available to the client should the client refuse to work with an LGBTQ+ counselor. This is particularly important in underserved areas or in agencies that assign counselors to clients or that have long waiting lists.

Here is a vignette to illustrate an instance in which a counselor may choose not to disclose: Janine is a heterosexual trans woman who consistently “passes” in social settings. She is providing mental health counseling services in a rural school-based setting to high school students and receives a referral for a new client, Jamil. Jamil is a junior who has recently been withdrawing from his friends. He has also been experiencing increased conflict with his family after beginning to wear his older sisters’ clothing to dinner and disclosing to them that he often wishes he were a girl.

Jamil presents in the initial session with his mother, who expresses prejudice and disdain toward the LGBTQ+ community. She states, “I was shocked. I’ve seen them in the news, and I won’t have my son being one of them.”

Janine keeps her composure throughout the intake and processes her thoughts and feelings later in supervision. She expresses that the mother’s comments did upset her and caused her to be distracted because of her own family history. She believes that Jamil would benefit from knowing someone else in the LGBTQ+ community. Janine considers this possibility with her supervisor but decides disclosure of her identity as a trans woman to Jamil at this point is too risky. She reasons that Jamil’s mother might pull Jamil from services with Janine, and there are no other readily available providers in the surrounding rural setting.

Janine collaborates with her supervisor to develop ways to bracket her discomfort with respect to the mother’s comments and Janine’s desire to build rapport with Jamil through disclosure. During the treatment planning session, Janine works with the family to develop rapport. She uses her training and education, rather than her personal experience, to explain the myriad difficulties faced by gender-nonconforming individuals and the importance of family support. Janine, Jamil and Jamil’s mother develop a plan aimed at increasing family cohesion by using small, incremental steps that will allow Jamil greater ability to express his gender identity.

Wrapping up

Counselors who identify as LGBTQ+ are faced with the unique challenge of determining whether to disclose this identity to clients and how. Myriad factors influence this decision, making it not unlike many other decisions related to self-disclosure. Counselors can begin considering the issue using an ethical decision-making model and taking into account the professional principles of beneficence, autonomy and veracity alongside relevant ethical standards.

Counselors may find themselves in a position of disclosing more or less often based on their own nonverbal attributes and behaviors, which clients may consider as suggestions that the counselor is LGBTQ+. Clients may use these attributes or behaviors in creating a prompt for the counselor to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity, or counselors may broach the topic themselves when appropriate. 

Counselors should consider verbal disclosure on a case-by-case basis, taking into account knowledge of the client’s presenting issue and needs, the strength of the therapeutic relationship, and other available resources. Counselors should refrain from disclosing when disclosure would pose an immediate risk to clients. LGBTQ+ counselors may look to their heterosexual or cisgender peers for more immediate norms on self-disclosure.

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Benjamin Hearn is a first-year doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is developing approaches for the counseling profession to use psychedelic-assisted therapies for mental health and substance use disorders. He is also interested in the integration of spirituality to counseling and is an active member of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling. He has practiced in a variety of settings, including school-based mental health, private practice and wilderness therapy. Contact him at hearnbg@mail.uc.edu.

 

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

5 Comments

  1. Sarah Hoops

    Benjamin, as a Queer counselor-in-training, I so appreciate your writing about the nuances of this topic. I previously assumed self-disclosure with regard to my sexual identity was much more straightforward (with a strong preference for disclosure). You’ve got me thinking as to why I felt this way. Thank you for your work.

    I wanted to point out one thing I that felt like a discrepancy, though it wasn’t a central focus in your writing. I found the dichotomous comparison of invisible aspects of the self (sexual orientation, gender identity, religious identity) with “visible” aspects of the self oversimplified and not attuned to the racial experiences and identities that many folks have. You write, “these invisible aspects of the self differ from others such as race in that there may be incongruence between how these identities are perceived by the client and experienced by the counselor.” Why assume that race isn’t accompanied by that same incongruence, and often so? I found this especially odd since you explicitly talk about issues of passing and invisibility around gender identity. It seems to me that for many counselors, incongruence of perception and identity and issues of self-disclosure around racial identity are similarly complex–not merely a “visible” difference.

    Sarah

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  2. Caryn Leonard-Wilde

    I appreciate this article and the discussion it will lead to. As a queer counselor I approach disclosure differently. I don’t think that straight counselors have to go through an ethical decision making process or overthink their decisions to disclose their sexual orientation, it is just assumed if not otherwise stated. Therefore I don’t think it’s necessary for me to have to go through an ethical decisions making process to determine if so should hide a part of myself I am not ashamed of and that is salient to who I am as a person and a counselor. Rather, I disclose my sexual identity from the get go, in my introduction along with informed consent. I probably can’t really hide or pass as straight anyway so it’s bound to come up. I appreciate your article and bringing attention to this topic. I just think for me to be an authentic counselor, I need to be open and honest about my sexual identity and then be mindful and address and rifts in the counseling relationship that may or may not ensue.

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  3. Wm Jarema

    I found this article most helpful. I am a supervisor for three Master level counseling programs. One of my interns who wanted to work exclusively with lesbian clients was difficult to work with and supervise. I was concerned that she would not have the opportunity to expand her knowledge of an overall approach to therapeutic issues by limiting her counseling internship too just the lesbian community. She was assigned a new client of unknown sexual preference and on their first session she came out to her new client. I received a request to meet with this new client who was distressed over the fact that her assigned counselor was aggressive about her lesbian life style and the client felt attacked for not being able to identify with her counselor’s advocacy. I gave your article to my intern and it provided a good starting point in exploring the when, why and how to come out to a client. Thank you!

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