Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Listening to voices of color in the LGBTQ+ community

By Laurie Meyers May 26, 2021

It has been 52 years since the Stonewall uprising — a multiday protest that began when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar located in Greenwich Village in New York City, in the early hours of June 28, 1969, and began arresting patrons and employees. The bar was a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, and the raid — purportedly for liquor license violations — was one more in a pattern of police harassment of queer and transgender establishments. 

Many in the LGBTQ+ community credit Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman and frequent patron, with throwing the first brick that sparked the uprising. However, in interviews in the 1970s, Johnson said she didn’t arrive until the clash was underway. Other stories had Sylvia Rivera, a Black and Latina transgender woman, throwing the first Molotov cocktail. Rivera later said she was in the crowd throwing coins before the cocktails began flying. LGBTQ+ historian Charles Kaiser believes that Stormé DeLarverie, a Black biracial lesbian and drag king, sparked the resistance by throwing the first punch. 

People may not agree on how the uprising began, but one thing is clear: Trans and queer women of color were at the forefront of the gay liberation movement that emerged from Stonewall. Johnson and Rivera also helped found the group STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which offered housing to homeless and transgender youth. 

Their contributions to the LGBTQ+ communities are starting to be recognized. The East River State Park in Brooklyn was renamed Marsha P. Johnson State Park, and in 2019, New York City announced plans to build monuments to honor Johnson and Rivera. They will be the first permanent monuments of transgender women in the state of New York. The monuments are also part of the city’s effort to address the gender gap in public art. 

But the gap stretches beyond gender. Over time, the contributions of Johnson, Rivera, DeLarverie and many other queer and trans people from Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities have been overshadowed by white narratives and priorities. In the eyes of many, the face of the LGBTQ+ community is still too often exclusively that of white, gay, cisgender men. 

Often, nonwhite queer and trans people do not feel included — or necessarily even safe — within the larger LGBTQ+ community. As in other spaces in a system built on white supremacy, racism is all too prevalent. People who are part of communities across the BIPOC spectrum also face increased oppression and unique challenges because of the intersection of their cultural and LGBTQ+ identities. Although the term BIPOC is meant to be inclusive, sometimes it can be used as a catchall term that — intentionally or not — erases individual communities. What follows are professional insights from seven Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian counselors on how racism and oppression affect clients who identify as both ethnic/racial minorities and LGBTQ+.

Creating safe, inclusive spaces

Historically, white people have been the ones to decide where or how people of color fit into their world, observes Adrienne Erby, an assistant professor of counselor education at Ohio University. Her research focuses on intersectionality and racial, cultural and LGBTQ+ issues.

In a wider society that consistently looks to white, cisgender men to lead, LGBTQ+ communities can replicate that same dynamic, Erby says. White, gay, cisgender men may not lead all aspects of the LGBTQ+ movement, but they  have become the face — and the voice — of it, she notes.

“Who gets to have a voice? Who sets the agenda for activism?” Erby asks. Navigating racism and genderism — particularly among Black transgender women — increases the risk of experiencing violence or being killed, she explains. Constantly questioning one’s safety creates different priorities — such as sheer survival, notes Erby, an American Counseling Association member. For BIPOC queer, trans and nonbinary individuals, the interaction of racism and genderism affects even the most basic things, such as the ability to find and keep employment, health care and safe housing.

Trans activists note that the addition of transphobia on top of racism compounds the problems with employment and housing. Transgender women often have no place to go when they need shelter or are in danger because most homeless and domestic violence shelters do not accept trans individuals. 

Disrupted education is also a major issue for LGBTQ+ individuals who are BIPOC. Trans and nonbinary adolescents — particularly those of color — frequently drop out of school to escape race- and gender-based bullying by peers and even teachers, in addition to being pushed out of school through disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect BIPOC students, Erby says. 

Counselors can be crucial advocates by challenging policy and procedure and function as “safe adults” for these students, she emphasizes. At the same time, Erby cautions counselors to resist the desire to “reframe” legitimate issues such as racism, heterosexism, genderism and transprejudice. Rather than helping, these approaches serve as barriers to open communication, especially among queer, trans and nonbinary people of color. BIPOC are more likely to respond to honesty and authenticity, she says. 

“In our homes, most of us have learned to read very quickly if a person is someone [we] can talk to,” Erby says. “Instead of expecting people to come out to us, we need to show that we can be invited in.” Inviting someone in — putting the power with the student or client to share what they choose — is essential to building trust, she stresses.

Counselors are often trained to assess through questions that are information driven rather than narrative driven. “We ask for the information that we need to have, which is not a bad thing — it’s essential — but we also need to be asking broader questions,” Erby says. So, instead of just confirming that a client is living with their family, for example, counselors should invite clients to tell them more about their families, she advises. 

Erby recommends that counselors get a sense of who clients are not just in the moment, but in their lives outside of counseling. Who are their family members? Where did they grow up? What is their relationship to a faith community? “It’s important that we talk about the things that shaped [clients], like family, school, race, faith, spiritual belief and how [they] identify,” she says.

“We [also] have to broach the issues of race, culture and gender from the start and throughout our relationship,” she asserts. “I always make sure to mention race, gender, affectional and spiritual identity. These are things that people may not bring up themselves.”

Pushing past a white-centric narrative

Tameeka Hunter, an assistant professor of counselor education and supervision at the University of Arkansas, believes one of the most consequential elements in understanding and centering the diverse stories of the LGBTQ+ population is to stop using white experiences as a benchmark. For example, coming out of the closet is a white, patriarchal construct, she explains. Western (white) culture is an individualistic one that places more emphasis on individual desires and independence than on collectivist or relational cultures. However, as Hunter points out, most of the cultures across the BIPOC spectrum are relational, so the community is a core part of the person’s identity.

“Coming out is not possible for everyone,” says Hunter, an ACA member whose research focuses on marginalized populations, including LGBTQ+ and disability populations. “It may not be safe to do so. ‘Coming out’ may cause significant losses.”

For example, Black culture is a relational culture that honors its elders, and the community’s support is an essential tool in surviving racism, Hunter says. Coming out may jeopardize the person’s place in the community and threaten their source of social and financial support and safety, she notes. 

Part of being an LGBTQ+ affirming counselor requires examining one’s own biases about issues such as gender, affectional identity and race, and understanding the complexity of being at an intersection, says Hunter, who is a diversity speaker and researcher. 

In addition to making sure their intake forms are inclusive, including categories for racial, affectional and gender identity and pronouns, counselors need to let clients know that they’re open to talking about religion and spirituality, because as Hunter points out, that can be a central part of many Black people’s lives. And if an LGBTQ+ client’s family believes that being a sexual minority is sinful, it could create serious identity issues for them. Letting clients know that they can safely talk about religion/spirituality in session “creates a space for them to tell you, ‘I’m in conflict with my family’ or ‘I might believe that my sexuality is a sin or an abomination,’” she explains.

In situations in which clients are struggling with being gay and fear that their family will reject them, counselors should assess the client’s support system, Hunter says. Is there anyone they can talk to in the family? If not, counselors can help clients expand the way they think about support. For example, LGBTQ+ people frequently have “found” families — nonbiological kinships that provide a supportive environment. Hunter helps clients find supportive networks by asking them about places or people who bring them a sense of peace or joy. They can also choose to whom they want to disclose their LGBTQ+ identity. That may mean being open with some family members but not with others, she adds. 

“People of color who are also LGBTQ+ have a tendency to find community with those who share [their] sexual identity, racial identity or another marginalized identity,” she says. “That’s a way to hold on to … culture. Part of finding community is holding on to the validity of our experiences.”

People with multiple marginalized identities are constantly forced into presenting little bite-sized pieces of themselves. Being among like-minded people is a way of finding relief from the strain of holding back so much of one’s self, she says.

But Hunter also cautions that it’s all too easy for counselors to indulge in what she calls “disparity porn” — stereotypical narratives such as being Black makes someone more prone to substance abuse or that Black families are typically less accepting of LGBTQ+ family members or are more homophobic. “While it is important to acknowledge health and other systemic disparities so that we can educate future counselors and support clients contending with those concerns, many times we disproportionately attend to those disparities,” she says. “Disparities and systemic oppression are important topics, but there needs to be balance in how often these topics are covered.” 

Hunter recommends that counselors also focus on positive affirming concepts such as resilience. “We can celebrate those who are thriving in the community by illuminating their stories,” she says.

Hunter concludes by emphasizing our shared humanity: “I strongly believe that our liberation is bound together — all marginalization from systemic suppression is bound together — even if we do not share the same marginalized identity.” In other words, she thinks that when the most stigmatized among us — such as Black transgender women — are free, then we all, as a society, will be free.

Unfracturing identity

When people engage with the LGBTQ+ community, there is often an initial feeling on the part of those who have been marginalized that this part of their identity has finally been validated, and they feel safe, says Misty Ginicola, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who specializes in counseling LGBTQ+ individuals. Often, however, those who are Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous or other people of color “soon learn that [they] are not completely safe,” she says.

Colonization and the oppressive system it established is everywhere, Ginicola notes, so racism and misogyny are also entrenched in the LGBTQ+ community. “It hurts worse when it comes from a space where you think you are safe,” she observes.

Mirroring may be a developmental psychology concept applied primarily to children, but Ginicola, a professor in the clinical mental health counseling program at Southern Connecticut University, thinks that adults instinctively do it too. “We look for people who mirror and validate [us],” she says. “For those of us who have different marginalized identities, we never get a true mirror. … No matter what — I think I can speak personally from this angle — there won’t be a community where you have all of your marginalized identities [mirrored].” 

It’s not just that no one community can encompass every aspect of a person; it’s that when it comes to marginalized identities, there will always be environments that are not only unwelcoming but also hostile, explains Ginicola, an ACA member and co-editor of the ACA-published book Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People. For safety — and many other reasons — it may be necessary to suppress parts of one’s identity, which may cause a person’s identity to fracture, she says.

To remain whole, the person must cultivate a home and community within themselves, Ginicola notes. Her goal is for clients to be able to say, “If I don’t feel welcome somewhere, I’m not going to go there. I won’t fracture to fit in anymore.” But getting to a point where the client can say that requires examining all of their identities, Ginicola says. 

She helps clients explore the boxes they are trying to fit into by asking them, “What is it that you think people expect you to be? Do you want to be that?” For example, Ginicola has a client who is queer and grew up in a rigid evangelical family. Because the client still has inner critical voices connected to his strict religious upbringing, she works with the client to explore where those voices come from and whether those voices reflect his value system or someone else’s. Counselors have to look at all of those areas that have shaped the client’s identity, even if it makes them uncomfortable, she says. 

“Colonizing beliefs and the value system that we have in place as a culture is a lose-lose for most people — even for people who do seemingly fit,” she says. “We all walk around fractured in some way, whether it’s about your physical experience [or] mental health diagnosis. We’ve been taught to pull those things inward in order to fit in.” 

“I think the other thing we have to tackle as individuals and as a society is binary thinking,” Ginicola adds. “Everything [is] black and white, good and bad. Our society has not prepared us to have complex emotions.” 

Navigating intersections 

An element of cultural misappropriation exists among the white LGBTQ+ community, says Christian Chan, an assistant professor in the counseling and educational development department at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. One sentiment he often hears from clients who have at least one marginalized identity is that “I’m absolved from being microaggressive. I’m absolved from acknowledging that these other forces are at play. I can’t be racist.” But people with marginalized identities can still act in racially aggressive ways, he says.

In some ways, white LGBTQ+ individuals are established as the “norm and ideal,”  notes Chan, an ACA member whose research focuses on intersectionality, social justice and the LGBTQ+ population. Their white privilege helps mitigate some of the oppression they face, despite being queer or trans. 

Chan also points out that those from BIPOC communities often grow up in collectivist cultures. In Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian and other communities of color, there is a sense of kinship and sharing that helps them bear the weight of hatred and injustice, which is always present but has been particularly visible over the past year, he says. But if identifying as LGBTQ+ makes a person unwelcome in their culture or family and their race/culture is not widely accepted in the queer and trans community, where do they turn? What happens when they are disowned not only from their family but also from their culture? Chan says the sense of isolation that can occur from being physically in a community but not feeling a part of it can be profound. “It’s a dance of hypervisibility and invisibility,” he says. 

Race also intersects with genderism and heterosexist norms, Chan points out. Queer men have internalized many of the stereotypes of masculinity prevalent in straight culture. They not only view being “too feminine” as taboo, but also often have an ideal of hypermasculinity, he says.

Stereotyping and fetishization of BIPOC bodies are widespread in clubs and on dating apps, Chan continues. For example, on heterosexual dating apps, Asian men are often perceived as less masculine because of prevailing stereotypes in queer culture, he says. In contrast, Black gay men are fetishized because they are often perceived as hypermasculine. Blatant racist comments are also common on dating apps, he adds.

It is important for counselors not only to acknowledge that a client’s LGBTQ+ and BIPOC identities are connected but also to understand how the client navigates these overlapping forms of oppression, Chan stresses. He advises counselors against assuming that the reason a client is in their office is related to their racial, affectional or gender identity. But he also urges counselors to let clients know that they are in a safe space where they can talk about all of their experiences because internalized oppression is negatively linked to mental and physical well-being. Chan notes that affirming intersections can actually buffer negative encounters and reduce distress. Counselors can help clients see that there is strength in navigating their intersections because it can build resilience and even be lifesaving, he says.

Becoming an accomplice

“One of my favorite sex educators, Ericka Hart, will frequently note that queerness does not absolve racism,” says Alandria Mustafa, an LPC at Sula Counseling in Goose Creek, South Carolina. “White LGBTQ+ folks perform Blackness, especially Black femininity, through a variety of mannerisms and the use of AAVE [African American Vernacular English] and slang terms that were born and bred in the Black queer community, while also invalidating and gaslighting queer and trans Black people, who are attempting to name and seek acknowledgment for harm done within the community.” 

“White LGBTQ+ people tend to believe that because they are also queer, they have a comparable oppressive experience to queer and trans Black people,” continues Mustafa (pronouns they/them/their). “This couldn’t be further from the truth, but attempts to explain and explore how this is false assumption are usually complicated by white fragility.” 

Mustafa stresses that white LGBTQ+ people need to listen to queer and trans Black people when they say that anti-Black attitudes are harming them, and they need to do the work of unlearning anti-Blackness. “Queer and trans Black people would best benefit from mutual aid and true accomplices, not just allies. Accomplices are willing to leverage resources and power in pursuit of true equity and accountability,” they add.

When working with clients who have been rejected by their communities of origin because they identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, Mustafa encourages them to acknowledge the lack of acceptance as an internalization of white supremacy in individual Black communities. 

“The idea that we are disposable is a direct result of being disposed of over many, many years,” Mustafa explains. “This conversation usually supports the externalization of transphobia and queerphobia, so we can recognize that rejection is a product of generational and ancestral trauma.”

Mustafa also encourages clients to challenge their definition of family and the belief that families must be biological. “Queer and trans BIPOC have always been intentional and thoughtful around creating family dynamics amongst one another as a means to keep each other safe and provide support,” they say. “So, I typically invite the development of chosen family and social support systems as safe familial dynamics that can always be created and nurtured outside of those we share a genetic makeup with.”

Racism within the LGBTQ+ community also leads to extreme marginalization of transgender (particularly Black transgender women) and nonbinary people, who are at the greatest risk of violence and murder, Mustafa says. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that this [marginalization] is due to transphobia and anti-Blackness, both of which are a result of white supremacist rhetoric and the harmful nature of the gender binary,” Mustafa emphasizes. They point out that “trans and nonbinary folks are also less likely to engage in support services — whether this be mental/emotional health services or physical and reproductive health services — and are least likely to access a variety of community programs.” The reason for not accessing these services does not stem from a lack of desire or willingness, Mustafa says. It comes from “a variety of systemic barriers that make it incredibly challenging to access care that is safe.”

Mustafa suggests the following ways that counselors can support transgender and nonbinary people:

  • Offer some pro bono or sliding scale services to ensure that transgender and nonbinary people have access to mental health care. 
  • Do not charge for documentation that is required for transgender people to pursue affirming medical care. 
  • Vet providers who claim to provide gender-affirming medical care before referring clients to them. “We are responsible to our clients, and even more so to our clients who are trans, to ensure that the referrals we use are practicing affirming care and are not likely to cause harm to our clients,” Mustafa stresses.
  • Include gender-neutral language on websites, intake documents and signage in the office (on bathroom doors, for example).
  • Continue to learn and self-critique one’s perceptions about gender and sexual identity. Mustafa adds that counselors should challenge how they perceive gender in their personal lives as well. Counselors cannot say that they believe in affirming gender diversity and gender expansiveness in the therapeutic space and then present with rigidity and a lack of flexibility in the personal space, they say.
  • Advocate for clients. “The personal is political,” Mustafa says. “Trans folks of color are highly politicized, solely based on their intersecting identities.” It is virtually impossible to properly and wholeheartedly serve a population at the intersection of a variety of marginalized identities while also claiming neutrality about legislation and policies that cause harm, they point out. Mustafa stresses that counselors cannot stand by while working with a population of people who cannot access proper medical care because of anti-trans legislation and policies or who are murdered and discarded for simply existing.

Being LGBTQ+ and Latinx

One of Roberto L. Abreu’s principal areas of research is with the parents and families of Latinx queer and trans people. What he has found in his research challenges the belief and stereotype that Latinx families are not accepting of their LGBTQ+ family members. The families whose stories he highlights in his research are interpreting Latinx cultural norms in ways that are affirming of their LGBTQ+ children.

“Like in other collectivist cultures, there is a strong emphasis on community and family among Latinx people,” says Abreu, an assistant professor of counseling psychology and director of the Collective Healing and Empowering Voices through Research and Engagement (¡Chévere!) lab at the University of Florida. “Family is central to everything. The idea is that it doesn’t matter what happens; family comes before anything else,” he says. 

Gender norms are also important in Latinx culture, Abreu notes. Specifically, mothers or those in motherly roles are seen as the keepers of the culture. The mothers he spoke to often reported that one of the reasons they accept their LGBTQ+ child is because it’s their duty as a mother, which includes being self-sacrificing and putting the well-being of their children above all. 

Abreu points out that even Latino male gender norms, which are often described in terms of rigid views of masculinity, has layers. Part of Latino male gender norms involves keeping one’s word, being emotionally in touch with one’s family and setting a good example for the family unit — all characteristics associated with caballerismo (the idea of a man as the family provider who respects and cares for his family). For example, some of the fathers Abreu has spoken to describe working on their own feelings and emotions regarding their LGBTQ+ child and coming to a place of acceptance to ensure that their other children and family members also accept the LGBTQ+ child. 

“Latinx culture also places a heavy emphasis on the idea that everyone should be afforded dignity,” Abreu says. He has found that parents of LGBTQ+ children often interpret this as their child’s right to love whomever they wish.

Abreu also studies issues faced by Latinx transgender people and says access to health care is a challenge for this population. “The barriers go beyond simply getting to the doctor’s office. Not having forms in their native language and [experiencing] negative interactions with office staff are just two examples of the types of discrimination and hostile environments that Latinx transgender people face before they even see the doctor,” Abreu says. 

“Health care providers also frequently attribute everything to the patient’s identity as transgender,” Abreu notes. For example, a person might come in with a cold and be asked intrusive questions about being transgender. “Medical staff also tend to hyperfocus on parts of the trans women’s identities, such as making assumptions about what they do for a living,” he says.  

When Abreu asked study members what services they most needed, they named trans-specific health care sources, financial resources, spaces for transgender homeless people, addiction care, and help for the undocumented such as legal and documentation expertise. Abreu also believes there should be a center that offers education for family members to understand what being LGBTQ+ means. And all of these resources need to be offered in Spanish, he adds.

Acknowledging and advocating for BIPOC LGBTQ+ clients

“It is imperative to understand not only LGBTQ+ experiences, but [also] how that intersects with race/ethnicity,” says Tamekia Bell, an assistant professor at Governors State University in Illinois. “We are not monolithic individuals; we have multiple identities. However, sometimes we struggle or ignore the multiple identities that people have.” 

“I do believe some people of color may feel shut out by the larger LGBTQ+ community,” Bell continues. “BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals need the community to not only speak out against hatred around LGBTQ+ issues, but [also] systemic racism and dismantling white supremacy. Again, the focus needs to center on all members of the community, not just the privileged ones.”

Bell, an ACA member whose research interests include multicultural competency surrounding individuals with disabilities and LGBTQ+ individuals, cautions counselors that not all individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ have the same experiences. “It is important for counselors to have our clients guide us in that discussion and not assume [that] because they identified as BIPOC and LGBTQ+, they will have struggles with who they are,” she says.

Society as a whole sends constant and consistent messages to BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals that they are not valuable, notes Bell, chair of the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex and Gender Expansive Identities’ Queer & Trans People of Color Committee. It is society that needs to change, she stresses, yet BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals are expected to adjust to the society they live in. “This is where our work outside the therapeutic spaces is so crucial,” she emphasizes. “We can provide tools, resources and support for our clients, but ultimately, they go back into the world that tells them they are unworthy. In order to truly help our clients, we have to work to dismantle the systems that make our clients feel undervalued and unworthy.”

Bell advises counselors to seek out resources and readings to help them learn how to provide ethical and culturally competent care to BIPOC LGBTQ+ individuals. By doing their own work, counselors avoid placing the burden on BIPOC LGBTQ+ counselors, clients and community members. “The work is not always easy, and I sometimes find myself saying or doing the wrong thing,” Bell admits. “In those instances, I acknowledge my ignorance, apologize for my transgression and commit myself to continuing to do better in the future.” 

When working with LGBTQ+ individuals, Bell acknowledges her privileges and asks that they call her out if she says or does something offensive or inappropriate. “Because I know and understand my worldview is different, I am more intentional,” she says. “I do not mind the work because I want to live in a world, and have future generations live in a world, where they are honored and valued for who they are and being their authentic selves.”

Daniel Samray/Shutterstock.com

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Gretchen Van Blair

    It concerns me that there is a caveat at the end of this article that states it should not be assumed that the voices in this article are commensurate with the voices of the ACA. Why not!? What other perspectives would the ACA hold on these subjects?

    Reply
    1. Counseling Today Post author

      Hi Gretchen, that disclaimer appears with every article published by Counseling Today (both online and in our print magazine). If you have more questions, please send us an email at CT@counseling.org

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