Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Pride in practice: The journey towards LGBTQ+ counseling competence

By Jonah Friedman and Megan Brophy June 30, 2021

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer+ (LGBTQ+) people are marginalized, often at risk of discrimination due to sexual, gender and affectional minority orientations. While queer people experience heightened prejudice, research from the American Psychiatric Association has indicated a lack of suitable counseling for LGBTQ+ groups that would greatly benefit from increased services.

This need for appropriate queer counseling is amplified by the growing percentage of self-identifying LGBT people. The Washington Post recently published findings from a Gallup Poll revealing a 1.1% increase in LGBT adults from 2017 to 2020 and that 1 in 6 individuals ages 18-23 identify as LGBT. Given a growing queer population and the increased need for counseling, there is a clearly identifiable gap for qualified services.

Queer-competent counselors can help. Unfortunately, there is a lack of queer competence among many practitioners, perhaps because of the small number of available LGBTQ+ courses and training opportunities for counseling graduate students. Even when proactive and eager graduate students seek out dedicated coursework, internships and training experiences in queer settings, viable options are limited. The cycle of limited to nonexistent queer-accessible counseling resources is perpetuated without available training experiences. How can we become LGBTQ-competent counselors when so few opportunities exist for education and practice in this area?

The queer experience

We live in a society that gives preference to white, Christian, male, cisgender, and heterosexual people. To retain power, both intentionally and not, these dominant identities often oppress any divergence. Youth are commonly indoctrinated to believe that departure from societally deemed normative standards, such as same-sex attraction or nonbinary gender, is deviant or wrong. This belief system often intensifies with age and can lead to the discrimination and oppression of queer people throughout the life span. To remain safe in today’s heteronormative and cisnormative society, many queer individuals hide their identities. Doing so is often the only way for them to be treated equally to their straight, cisgender counterparts.

Researchers Laura S. Brown and David Pantalone showed that the nature of constant secrecy, dissonance and struggle to conform adversely affects mental health. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has found that sexual minorities who experience exclusions from society have higher rates of mental health disorders, major depressive episodes and substance abuse. The Trevor Project’s data even indicate that queer youth experience higher rates of suicidal ideation.

Additionally, Darrel Higa et al. from the University of Washington found that when LGBTQ+ people choose to share their identities with parents, guardians, schools and workplaces, they are often met with rejection and discrimination. This is seen through higher rates of homelessness and increased unemployment in comparison with heterosexual individuals. Despite LGBTQ+ people experiencing heightened mental health disparities, queer clients often find unsupportive counseling services. 

Counselor competence 

LGBTQ+ clients benefit from counselors and mental health agencies that provide acceptance and validation through queer counseling competence. The Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex and Gender Expansive Identities (formerly known as the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling), established a task force in 2012 that outlined queer-competent counseling behaviors. The competencies touch on queer human growth and development, social and cultural foundations, helping relationships and more. The same group released competencies for counseling transgender clients in 2009. These resources, while important for agencies to utilize, have not been updated in a decade and would benefit from the inclusion of newer relevant queer research.

Having queer-competent counselors in all mental health settings is crucial to fostering open discussion and disclosure of LGBTQ+ client identities. A survey by the Center for American Progress shows that a lack of trust exists within the LGBTQ+ community for health care systems. It is likely that counselors will need to continually gain the trust of queer clients due to their historically negative health care experiences and traumas. To achieve such trust, counselors should provide appropriate services to LGBTQ+ clients as directed by the queer counseling competencies and the American Counseling Association’s ethical obligations of beneficence and nonmaleficence.

Paper guidance on LGBTQ+ competence exists, but the field is obligated by these same values to provide more than the prevailing “self-teach” approach. When queer competence is effectively implemented, the resulting safe spaces, open dialogue and unconditional positive regard will encourage more LGBTQ+ clients to show up authentically. Findings from Edward Alessi et al. revealed that a queer affirmative approach to counseling resulted in a stronger therapeutic alliance and increased well-being for LGBTQ clients. There is a great need for graduate students and current practitioners to better learn queer counseling competencies.

Missing coursework

To gain LGBTQ+ competence, graduate students and practitioners must engage in coursework and continuing education on queer theory. Furthermore, they must partake in related training experiences. Many students and practitioners face obstacles to finding such offerings. The following details our experiences (Jonah Friedman and Megan Brophy) as we struggled to find appropriate training in this area.

Jonah entered a master’s in counselor education graduate program in August 2020. In an early academic advising session with faculty, he expressed interest in LGBTQ+ counseling. When seeking out classes in gay affirmative therapy and related theories, Jonah was informed there were no related course offerings at the college he attends. An institution that so strongly emphasizes its core tenet of multicultural competency had no classes specifically on LGBTQ+ counseling. While regretful, this is the case at a majority of universities offering master’s in counseling and related degrees. The resulting options were to forgo such classes or to transfer in pertinent elective credits from one of the few programs with queer counseling coursework. Eager to obtain such training, Jonah began the search to find other CACREP-accredited graduate programs offering courses in LGBTQ+ theoretical approaches.

In New Jersey, there are 12 CACREP-accredited universities offering graduate counseling degrees on a variety of tracks. A review of these programs and their course directories revealed only four clinical mental health programs regularly offering electives on sexual issues in counseling or gender issues. None of these courses was explicitly dedicated to the study of working with LGBTQ+ clients. The remaining programs did not list relevant electives or did not offer any form of an LGBTQ+ counseling course. This absence may be attributed to CACREP not requiring the integration of LGBTQ+ counseling education to earn accreditation for clinical mental health programs.

To take appropriate courses, Jonah applied to Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. The school has a counseling program that boasts an affirmative therapy with LGBT clients track. Jonah has since enrolled as a nonmatriculated student in two electives: “Affirmative Therapy with LGBTQ+ Individuals: Advocacy Across the Lifespan” and “Affirmative Therapy with Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Clients.” Although the experiences have been enlightening, allowing for exploration of sexuality and gender through a deeper and more critical lens, it was a difficult and arduous process to obtain this theoretical training. The time, costs and effort of taking these classes at a second institution only adds to the hardships created by the lack of initial course offerings.

Additionally, Jonah was able to take courses online and remotely at SMU only because of COVID-19 guidelines. During regularly structured semesters, such courses are in person and unavailable to out-of-state students. Furthermore, Jonah enrolled in these courses proactively; students not seeking out queer counseling coursework will be minimally exposed to these crucial theories. When such courses are not offered or required, there is an inherent implication that queer theory is not important to CACREP or our practice as counselors.

Lacking clinical experiences

Even if LGBTQ+ courses are secured, counseling students must then engage in queer-relevant training experiences to build practice competency. This approach follows the logic of formative development within the counseling field: first learning the theories through coursework, followed by application during clinical experiences.

Megan Brophy’s experience finding an LGBTQ+ based internship as a graduate student proved challenging. Throughout the states of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, Megan found only four sites offering exclusively LGBTQ+ oriented counseling. To secure competitive internships at such sites, students often begin applications and interviews up to six months prior to the start of a program. At one site in Philadelphia, the application window was open only for a single month. Many other sites accept only one to three interns annually. This highly selective approach for interns greatly increases the already difficult endeavor of finding a relevant training position. The limited funding and logistical roadblocks for hiring interns and licensed practitioners at these sites hinder counseling students from gaining the clinical experiences necessary to become queer-competent counselors. Students struggle to structure their degrees around obtaining these queer-focused internships while working to stay on track to graduate.

In her search for internships, Megan called a variety of LGBTQ+ community centers in New Jersey to assess the availability of internship opportunities. She discovered that among those offering services, most were limited to support groups facilitated by nonlicensed professionals. In part due to a lack of funding and resources, services were more related to social gatherings, legal referrals and Pride celebrations. Resultantly, queer youth have severely limited access to appropriate counseling services. Relatedly, graduate students attending CACREP-accredited programs cannot obtain internships that meet accreditation requirements for supervision without licensed clinicians at such sites.

Even when qualified services are available, they are often niche and unrepresentative of the greater queer community. One such counseling opportunity is offered through a residential living program available to queer, homeless adolescents in Ewing, New Jersey. While homelessness is critical to address, it is an extreme situation for LGBTQ+ youth to find themselves in. We must also consider queer youth not displaced who are still looking for mental health services.

Finally, we must consider how the lack of availability and accessibility to LGBTQ+ sites directly affect our clients. Traveling great distances to the nearest LGBTQ+ counseling center is a privilege that many do not have. We cannot expect or require our queer clients to travel so far to attain mental health services. Queer-identifying youth almost never have this option without the help of a supportive friend or family member. Beyond that, given school and homework obligations and involvement in extracurricular activities, they may not have the time to travel long distances for services.

While the recent influx of online mental health services stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic has made counseling more widely available, online counseling within an unsupportive home environment may be harmful for LGBTQ+ clients. In such situations, queer clients may not be able to safely disclose information regarding their sexual or gender identity. This emphasizes the work that still needs to be done within the counseling field to create more queer-inclusive spaces with queer-competent counselors.

Understanding queer identity

As counselors, we have a duty to be multiculturally competent. The Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies, developed by the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development, detail the layers leading to more inclusive counseling: counselor self-awareness, client worldview, the counseling relationship, and advocacy interventions.

While our field has made strides in the integration of diversity, there is more to be done in helping queer clients. To train and sustain queer-competent counselors, we must make a commitment to better understand the multifaceted aspects of queer culture, identity and relevant terminology. Beyond this, counselors can engage in continued research and relevant literature with the community, including resources provided by leading queer organizations (e.g., The Trevor Project, GLSEN). The understanding of queer identity and worldview is foundational in effectively working with LGBTQ+ clients and empathizing with their unique experiences.

Active advocacy

Rainbow Black/Shutterstock.com

ACA has established a nondiscrimination policy banning all forms of harassment, including protections for transgender, gender nonconforming and LGBTQ+ individuals. We as a profession must move past this passive protection and evolve as active advocates. Practitioners can act with and on behalf of their queer clients on the micro-, meso- and macrolevels of advocacy.

On the microlevel, counselors may work with queer clients to continually affirm their identities. On the mesolevel, advocacy might take the form of working alongside local school systems to organize LGBTQ+ support groups or arranging professional development for staff. On the macrolevel, practitioners can become involved with legislation that is supportive of LGBTQ+ individuals and communities. All three levels of advocacy are required to make a difference in our current climate.

Graduate course offerings

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey recently signed into law LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum legislation, following the states of California, Colorado, Illinois and Oregon. Out of 50 states, only five have recognized the importance of a queer-inclusive approach to education. Across New Jersey, boards of education have begun to integrate the accurate representation of queer individuals and history into curricula.

So many of the accredited institutions of higher education in the same state have yet to adopt similar coursework. These schools, which are training the counselors of the future, need to offer more classes on queer theory. In doing so, all graduate counseling students will be exposed to basic LGBTQ+ terminology and culture. This integration of queer curriculum will take queer counseling skills past the point of specialization.

LGBTQ+ oriented sites

While it would be ideal to open queer-focused counseling sites across every state, a more realistic plan would be for existing agencies to introduce LGBTQ+ services. For example, High Focus Centers in New Jersey, known for their outpatient substance abuse programs, recently added an LGBTQ+ track addressing substance abuse, queer wellness, self-esteem, empowerment and relational skills. Other sites can commit to adding queer tracks within their programs to allow for more internship opportunities and training in queer-competent counseling. In turn, sites will become more welcoming to queer clients.

A better future

By gaining basic queer counseling competence, advocating for all LGBTQ+ people, enhancing counseling curriculum to be queer-inclusive, and integrating queer support services at all agencies, our field can significantly improve the counseling provided to LGBTQ+ people. We must all become queer-competent counselors and the agents of change in our increasingly progressive field.

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today‘s June cover story, “Listening to voices of color in the LGBTQ+ community

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Jonah Friedman is a Master of Arts in clinical mental health counseling candidate at the College of New Jersey. He completed his undergraduate studies at Tulane University, where he first discovered his passion for helping others and the value of counseling. Inspired by his current work with the Trevor Project, Jonah hopes to eventually work as a practitioner utilizing an LGBTQ+ affirmative approach. Contact him at friedj11@tcnj.edu.

Megan Brophy (she/her/hers) is a recent graduate from the College of New Jersey. Her work is guided by a passion for social justice and advocacy for marginalized communities. Contact her at brophym1@tcnj.edu.

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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.

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