Labeled and Unlabeled Identities: Therapy for Queer Lives

Pensive young person on the high edge of river bank sitting on bench and looking out at tranquil waterPeople look for words that describe their experience, but sometimes the available language is not adequate to capture our place in the complex web of gender and sexuality. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer: these are all words that people have at times found useful to describe important aspects of their lives.

These words don’t work for everyone, though. For many people, concepts such as sexual orientation and gender identity bring together more complexity than any of these words can fully describe.

LGBTQ+ people—with these labeled and unlabeled identities—have not always had affirming therapy experiences. This is unfortunate, as it has stopped many people from obtaining the help they need and deserve. Unfortunately, some therapists have been quick to pathologize and label as “disordered” that which does not fit the dominant social norms.

The negative experiences LGBTQ+ people have had in therapy involve not just a lack of cultural competence from individual therapists, but institutionally sanctioned homophobia and transphobia among our professions. Homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder until 1973; the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in use today, includes “gender dysphoria” as a diagnosis.

People who identify as LGBTQ+, nonbinary, two-spirit, genderqueer, pansexual, or with other experiences of sexual and gender diversity often seek therapists who understand queer culture and will not pathologize diversity and difference.

Queer people, like heterosexual people, come to therapy for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes LGBTQ+ people come to therapy for reasons anyone would—to work on alleviating depression or anxiety, to have better relationships, or to better understand their goals and values. LGBTQ+ people may also seek therapy for reasons specific to queer experience: navigating a homophobic and transphobic society, living with the threats of discrimination and violence, coming out, dating, and more. Transgender people may seek support for transition, including how to navigate when and where to disclose their trans status, transitioning in the workplace, and accessing trans-competent medical care.

When seeking therapy, it is often important to find a therapist who will be open to understanding your identities and who will not make assumptions. In my work, I often meet people for whom predefined labels don’t apply. For example, the fact you have a partner of the same gender as yourself does not necessarily mean you identify as gay—perhaps you are bisexual, pansexual, or queer, or perhaps none of these words adequately describes your experience. Further, you may not want your therapist to assume you or your partner is cisgender (identifying with the gender assigned at birth). You may want someone to see you as you, rather than trying to fit you into a category.

Sometimes the pressures of heteronormativity or societal homophobia lead people to wish their sexual orientation were different. It is important to know that treatments aimed at changing sexual orientation have been found to be not only ineffective but destructive and have been deemed unethical by all reputable forces in the major mental health professions. On the brighter side, there are more therapists than ever with appropriate knowledge and training to work with people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

Reading a therapist’s online profile and asking what experience the therapist has in working with queer people is a good start in seeing if a therapist is a good fit for your experience. Hopefully you will know quickly—through signs such as language on intake forms, questions asked, and an open, nonassuming stance—if your therapist has the skills and knowledge to be helpful and inclusive of queer people. Finding a space where you can authentically be yourself can be an important step toward creating the life you want and celebrating who you are.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy Schwartz, LCSW, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Terrence

    February 18th, 2015 at 9:21 AM

    A label is not going to make things right. there may be some questions that this will answer but rarely for the person who actually needs them

  • Carson

    February 18th, 2015 at 12:45 PM

    I disagree with you Terrence. I think that there are actually many young people who are looking for a descriptor for what they are feeling and I think that this can very much help many kind of find their own unique way of fitting and belonging with other people. It might not be the perfect solution but I think that it helps them readily understand that there is not anything that is wrong with them, and that there are probably many other people out there who identify just like they are. Kind of gives them the feeling that they are not as alone as they might feel.

  • sherry

    February 18th, 2015 at 2:00 PM

    check with friends and see who has had the best experience with which person

  • Kendall l

    February 19th, 2015 at 5:06 AM

    Therapy should be the one thing that you can depend on to help you feel better, not worse, about yourself

  • Mark

    February 19th, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    I have always just assumed the people who are gay go to therapy for mostly the same reasons that all of us go to therapy for. Of course some of the issues may be a little different but in the end we are all human and have mostly the same thoughts and needs.

  • Teller

    February 20th, 2015 at 10:25 AM

    I grew up a heterosexual male, white no doubt, and so to say that I had it pretty easy compared to what others go through is a bit of an understatement. With that being said, it is hard for any of us to go through those teen years so I can only imagine how hard it has to be when you don’;t know quite where you fit in and who will even be there to support you and be your friends and loved ones when you finish figuring all of that out. I really hope that there are those people out there who can help point these teens who are struggling with coming to terms with their identity in the right direction and who can help them to see that this is just who they are. They should be able to be proud of their identity, whatever that may be, same as the rest of us.

  • donald

    February 21st, 2015 at 5:30 AM

    I presume that there are some therapists who are specially trained to work with this demographic?

  • Mills

    February 21st, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    THe biggest reason that most of us would turn away from therapy would be because who we really are is not being addressed nor is it being confirmed.
    I have even talked to friends who said that it actually made them feel worse about themselves because they felt so much responsibility for what they were dealing with but were not given any tips for how to bring some of that back in control.
    I don’t always think that this will be true especially if you find the best person with whom you can work and trust but I know that it can take a little effort to ensure that this is the person that you end up with.

  • bea

    February 23rd, 2015 at 3:45 AM

    why not just live and let live?
    how about that as a life lesson to teach our kids?

  • sara

    February 24th, 2015 at 3:51 AM

    I always kind of thought of therapists as one of the most open minded professions, but I guess there is the possibility of fear and homophobia no matter where we turn.

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