Kristy LaRocca, LMHC
Why a Queer Approach to Therapy Matters (Not Only for Queer People)
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
The word queer is one of many meanings, depending on who you ask. While still considered an offensive slur to some, the word has now been largely reclaimed by younger generations as an umbrella term encapsulating the full spectrum of genders and sexualities that exist. And then for some, queer means something even broader, beyond gender and sexuality. In a Huffpost article, contributor Nadia Cho defines queer as "a resistance toward structural rigidity". She goes on to say, "being queer means constantly questioning what’s considered 'normal' and why that norm gets privileged over other ways of being. It means criticizing who sets these norms and recognizing the privilege that comes with being able to identify as 'normal.'"
Queer can be a mindset, a political statement, and/or a philosophical approach to life. Queer can be used as a verb where "to queer" something means to question it, to examine it (and oneself) deeply and critically, so that one can make informed and authentic decisions about how they want to exist in relationship to society. To queer can mean to seek the truth about things and to mindfully evaluate how well they align with our individual values rather than to just accept the default of what we are taught that we should value. To me, the queerness is more about the commitment to this examination work across the board, rather than where one lands in terms of gender and sexuality.
Nadia Cho goes on to say, "being queer means confronting all forms of oppression and bringing as many unheard, minority experiences and stories to light. Being queer means addressing and understanding the intersectionality between race, gender, sexuality and class and how it affects each person’s experience and identity differently". As therapists, regardless of the gender and sexuality of our clients, it is a crucially important part of our jobs to apply this queer, anti-oppressive lens to our work. However, providing a therapeutic environment that really aligns with these values, where safety can be experienced and healing can be possible, takes more than just good intentions. It requires therapists to be as mindful as possible with every decision we make, so not to risk perpetuating the same harmful forces of society that have contributed to the trauma that bring clients into our offices in the first place.
So, what does therapy through a queer, anti-oppressive lens look like?
Therapists must support clients toward examining the ways in which
societal influences might be limiting their conceivable possibilities for expression, and expanding upon these possibilities. For example, a queer-minded anti-oppressive therapist might work with a male client to unpack what he believes it means to be a man, where these beliefs have come from, and then to examine whether these qualities are actually in line with his own personal values. Or for a client struggling with shame about their lack of sexual interest in others, a queer-minded anti-oppressive therapist might provide some information about asexuality. A queer-minded, anti-oppressive therapist will also explore with clients the
many sociocultural factors which have influenced the ways in which they experience, understand, and relate to themselves and the world around them; race, gender, sexuality, religion, class, ability, etc., paying special attention to the unique impacts of intersectionality.
Therapists must recognize the implicit bias within our training, toward working with white, straight, cisgender, heteronormative clients. While most graduate programs and therapist associations do emphasize the importance of cultural competency and continued training throughout our careers, the majority of counseling theories and frameworks that we are taught have been developed by white, straight, cisgender, and heteronormative (and mostly men). What's more, most of the executives of these therapist associations, most of the professors we learn from in graduate school, most of the the professional training facilitators we receive trainings from are also predominantly white, straight, cisgender, and heteronormative. Naturally, these frameworks can fall short and even be harmful when applying them to BIPOC, LGBQIA+, and/or TGNC clients.
Dominant counseling approaches in the mental health field also tend to be very individualist, placing much responsibility upon the client for their suffering and also for their healing. Writer, Performance Artist, and Social Worker Kai Cheng Thom illustrates the issue beautifully in a Twitter post that reads, "Colonial psychology & psychiatry reveal their allegiance to the status quo in their approach to trauma: That resourcing must come from within oneself rather than from the collective. That trauma recovery is feeling safe in society, when in fact society is the source of trauma."
Therapists must be very aware of the pain and trauma caused by the harmful forces of this imperfect world; racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, religious-related-oppression, classism, ableism, etc. We must be deeply committed to the ongoing work of checking ourselves, having the compassion and humility to be constantly observing the ways in which we ourselves may be contributing to any of these forces and then making adjustments accordingly. This requires acknowledging our own privileges and confronting our own biases. Therapists should also keep in mind that being that the counseling field is dominated by white, straight, cisgender, middle class, non-disabled therapists can make the already vulnerable feat of seeking help even more vulnerable, for those whom are not white, straight, cisgender, middle class, and/or non-disabled.
Therapists must be careful not to pathologize and victim-shame clients whom are having natural responses to an unjust society or circumstances. A quote by Jiddu Krishnamurti that I've always loved goes, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until the late 1970's when it was realized that it's not being gay that inherently causes people an increased risk toward anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidality, etc. but rather it's society's overall oppressive and rejecting response toward gay people that was causing their symptoms. If a black trans woman fears for her life each time she gets on the subway, this should not be considered an anxiety disorder, as she is having an appropriate response to actual danger. This reality is something that therapists should validate for clients, that sometimes the problem is society, not them.
Therapists must be active social justice advocates in our lives outside of our work with clients, and to not deny our clients the right to know our values in this regard. How can we stand fully in support of our clients' healing and liberation if we aren't actively standing against the oppressive and problematic societal forces that have and continue to contribute to their suffering? While each of us may have some different ideas about how to move toward these values on the larger scale, the fact that we value them should not be information that is withheld from our clients. It is also our responsibility as anti-oppressive therapists to 'call in' other mental health professionals whom we witness engaging in oppressive behavior.
In addition to these points, there are many other important queer, anti-oppressive decisions for therapists to consider such as offering a sliding scale fee structure in order to make their services accessible to a wider range of people, using inclusive and diversity-welcoming language on their websites and within any other client-facing content. For therapists who really want to help clients reduce their shame, find empowerment through their differences, increase their compassion (toward self and others), and expand into their full potential, working through a queer, anti-oppressive lens is a must.