Want to Help LGBTQ+ People? Don’t Be Glenda the Psychologist

Teenager looks happy during session with counselorI was 8 years old when I started to contemplate the idea of one day becoming a therapist. This developed into a strong desire that intensified as the years passed and more challenges came my way. By more challenges, I refer to noticing I was different and trying to manage the negative ways the world responded to this. My desire to become a therapist was deeply rooted in my assumption that being a therapist meant I could figure out why I wasn’t normal and perhaps fix it.

As I look back, I understand there is no such thing as “normal.” I also recognize that thinking I could “fix” myself was based on misguided notions of what therapists do. I now know, of course, that becoming a therapist doesn’t lead to “fixing” anyone. But the hopeful dreamer child I once was told himself that life would be perfect once he got fixed, and that this would lead to a much happier relationship with the world around him.

Back then, I didn’t understand that the problem didn’t reside within me. You see, I was unavoidably effeminate as a kid. Looking back, I was so fiercely gay that it terrified my conservative Catholic community; experiencing these responses is what gave rise to shame and pain, not my gay fierceness. I was really social, but all of my friends were girls. I loved spending time with my friends doing each other’s hair, decorating the quinta (a narrow passageway with townhouses on each side that face one another) when there was a community event, and playing la cocinita (a less sexualized version of “house”). I liked to tell and listen to stories—okay, I loved gossiping. I also liked playing out stories, as I would do at night when the lights would go out and I would play with the Barbie dolls I’d hid under my bed.

As I write about this part of my childhood, I am inundated with joy and a sense of innocence. But another part of me remembers the fear and shame that made me feel like my gay fierceness was wrong and needed to be corrected. Like when I had to meet with my school’s psychologist, who had me draw my family on a piece of paper over and over again and was alarmed at the consistent depiction of a family without a male figure. I grew up without a father, a dog, or brothers and sisters, but my psychologist, named Glenda, was not concerned about the absence of these characters from my illustrations. Rather, Glenda concluded that being bullied by other boys and leaving out a male stick figure (representing myself) in my family drawings meant I was gay and therefore needed to be treated by a professional.

I wondered why Glenda didn’t see it appropriate to treat the boys who spent day and night teasing me about the tone of my voice and the way I walked. I knew there was something fundamentally wrong with all of this and I refused to participate. Although I knew there was a serious issue with this whole setup, I concluded my experience was similar to refusing to complete my math homework; I was being “bad” or, as they say these days, “noncompliant.” At the time, I didn’t understand that Glenda’s assessment was a violent attack to my person.

Twenty-two years later, I am a fully licensed, certified sex therapist and trained narrative therapist. I am able to see the problem for what it is and locate it where it’s always been—and that is not within me. I am capable of naming the problem more accurately: ignorance, hatred, fear of differentness. For much of my life, I just wanted my story to mean more than shame, to not have to apologize for not being heteronormative. But what I wanted above all was to be free of the way others made me feel by the way they treated me. I didn’t necessarily want to feel affirmed, but I also didn’t want to feel ostracized.

As a narrative therapist, I’ve been able to see and tell my story from several different angles, some of which I hadn’t previously been aware of. Let’s make one thing very clear: I’m no longer interested in figuring out myself, the people I work with in therapy, nor anyone else, for that matter. Because of that, I am liberated.

I wish Glenda had fought for justice. I wish Glenda went to my classroom and educated us all about respecting and accepting differences. I wish Glenda had been able to see that the problem affecting me had nothing to do with me, and that it lived in her office, in my classroom, in the cafeteria, in my neighborhood, in our community, in our media, in our culture. If all Glenda had been able to do was see this, she would have helped, but she didn’t.

I recognize that living my story may not have been as difficult and traumatizing as some people’s experiences. I had a family who perhaps didn’t celebrate my queerness, but definitely tolerated it—I know, not great, but it did and does mean something to me. I also had some friends who were genuinely curious about me and asked questions, which offered me an opportunity to have agency to tell my story on my own terms. Having been a teenager as recently as 2006, I likely had it somewhat easier than young gay people in previous generations. I also had many other privileges that protected me—I was not homeless, had a bed to sleep on, and didn’t experience abuse at home. Nevertheless, the hardships I experienced left invisible scars that frequently remind me of the pain I was forced to learn to live with.

I am writing about my experience here because I want to encourage therapists to respond to LGBTQ+ people more compassionately and appropriately than Glenda responded to me. Drop the agenda. Each LGBTQ+ person has a unique narrative. Even if you went to school for seven or more years, your expertise can’t determine what’s right for a person seeking your help.

All I got from all those psychological tests Glenda administered was shame, anger, and a terrible feeling I can only describe as confusion. Those drawings meant nothing.

I wish Glenda had fought for justice. I wish Glenda went to my classroom and educated us all about respecting and accepting differences. I wish Glenda had been able to see that the problem affecting me had nothing to do with me, and that it lived in her office, in my classroom, in the cafeteria, in my neighborhood, in our community, in our media, in our culture. If all Glenda had been able to do was see this, she would have helped, but she didn’t.

Please don’t assume you know how to help an LGBTQ+ person. Instead, ask how you can help. Please don’t say you are “LGBTQ+ affirmative”—I get the sentiment and the positive intention behind it, but this statement can and is often misused or misinterpreted, and truthfully, many LGBTQ+ people aren’t looking for affirmation by their therapist.

When you put a sticker on your door that says “safe zone,” please know what that means. Are you willing to put down your textbook or manual, be present for that person sitting across from you, and help them based on what they tell you they need? Are you willing to consider that the “help” you may be offering is based on something you read that may have been authored by a cisgender, middle-aged white male?

Don’t be another Glenda. Instead, listen, advocate, and educate. When a LGBTQ+ person comes to you for help, work with and for them.

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

  • 15 comments
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  • Glyn

    Glyn

    October 20th, 2016 at 8:38 AM

    Doesn’t it feel like those of us who least need a Glenda somewhere along the way we are gonna have someone like this in our life?

  • Gene

    Gene

    October 20th, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    I never felt like I needed “help” per se with coming out as gay. I didn’t think of it as a problem. Now I’m not saying that there were not other people who didn’t see it as a big deal because I still have family who won’t speak to me.
    But I’m so over that. If this is who they choose to be then why do I even need that kind of negativity in my life>

  • Randy

    Randy

    October 21st, 2016 at 10:28 AM

    Why are we even talking like LGBTQ people are going to automatically need some sort of help? They are people and deserve to be treated as others are, and if we are doing that from the get go then there is no need for anything extra.

    They should be accepted just like anyone else should be.

  • Ellen

    Ellen

    October 21st, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    So my brother is gay and we all kind of always knew it so I guess for us it wasn’t ever this big secret or even a big deal. This is just who he is and we love him and that should be enough. It is for us.

  • Todd

    Todd

    October 24th, 2016 at 8:52 AM

    Pretty validating when someone can look at an issue and think about the way that they are contributing to the problem and not being a part of the solution

  • ron

    ron

    October 24th, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    My one hope is that no matter who my kids turn out to be, that they know that they can always come to me and I will be there for them whether I agree with them or not.
    There are way too many kids who never know just what their parents would do in a situation like this so they are forced to carry too many secrets and lies around with them,

  • Hale

    Hale

    October 26th, 2016 at 2:29 PM

    just a thought to ruminate on
    we now, more than ever, need the kind of leadership in our country that is not going to set the rights of so many back 50 or more years
    please think about that when you place your vote on Nov 8th

  • jUlIaN

    jUlIaN

    October 27th, 2016 at 10:57 AM

    I am proud to be an out and gay man and I have never made any apologies for that nor do I intend to. Nor do I need apologies from those of you who are straight. Seems silly to think that I would even have to do something like that when you flip it around doesn’t it?

  • Merry

    Merry

    October 28th, 2016 at 11:53 AM

    It has never been easy for me to admit that I am gay but there it is. I can say it on here rather anonymously but I don’t know that I will ever be able to tell my mom and dad.

  • Frances

    Frances

    October 29th, 2016 at 10:44 AM

    Yes it does always seem like the people that we think of as “different” are the ones that we try so hard to change when in reality we should be paying more attention to those who are making them feel so terrible about themselves.

  • Sharon G.

    Sharon G.

    October 29th, 2016 at 11:52 AM

    Queer narrative therapist solidarity fist bump. Thank you for sharing this powerful story.

  • helena

    helena

    October 30th, 2016 at 9:00 AM

    Don’t you hate the idea that we have made others feel like oh you are not like me so you have to be “fixed”?

  • Dakota

    Dakota

    October 30th, 2016 at 12:45 PM

    I sometimes think that the only thing that is wrong is that we are far too unaccepting of the things we might not understand.
    But this might not be for us to understand
    just to do unto others as we would hope that they would do unto us

  • Mary Bradley

    Mary Bradley

    June 17th, 2017 at 10:58 AM

    I love your narrative, Mauricio. I hate that you went through this but the lessons you describe . . . so helpful for therapists and anyone really, who imagines they know what someone else needs. Thank you so much for writing this. I feel your distress when I read this and it kills me that kids can be so cruel and a therapist so disconnected. I’m glad you’re a therapist. We need you in this profession. Best to you.

  • Janeen

    Janeen

    June 17th, 2017 at 2:12 PM

    Thank you for sharing such a personal story. As a therapist who serves many LGBTQ clients, in the southeastern part of the US, I still hear about kids seeing therapists who are trying to “make them straight.” (Usually pastoral clinicians ) I’ve treated many clients for PTSD as a result of being misunderstood, bullied and misgendered. So your article was a breath of fresh air and an excellent reminder.

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