Certain Basic Truths
When an LGBTQ teenager walks into a therapist’s office, the therapist needs to keep certain basic truths in mind. Even though things are getting better for LGBTQ adults in our culture, they are not necessarily better for teens or children before they come out.
No Gay Planet: Why Coming Out Is the Key
LGBTQ teens didn’t land here from some gay planet when they reached puberty. They were here all along—they were babies, they were toddlers, they were little kids, they were tweens—but they were invisible, and things were happening around them that nobody was helping them make sense of. Nobody was talking to them about sexual identity and homophobia because nobody knew they were LGBTQ. And so the LGBTQ children make their own sense of it, and the sense they make is, “I’m not safe.”
LGBTQ kids are traumatized by having something so emotionally charged inside them with no way to express it. There is no downloading it. So they are living in fear and are hypervigilant. Like a sexual abuse survivor, they’re living with a horrible sexual secret. This is the fundamental unavoidable trauma of growing up LGBTQ in a homophobic society. You have had to hide who you really were growing up, even from your own family. Now you’re grown. You have an adult’s more balanced perspective, but the effects of the trauma remain.
Children and teens feel this sense of threat, but after they come out, it can be partly lifted. Therapy can address the trauma, while positive reactions to their coming out can help them begin to feel safer in their families and their communities.
Loneliness and Social Isolation
We’re all socialized only to be heterosexual and cisgender, so LGBTQ teens miss the experience of a sense of belonging. Belonging is an important developmental task for teens, and most teens are able to have some version of it at school. They have their cliques. They have their niches. LGBTQ teens do not have a sense of belonging at school unless there is a gay- straight alliance or some other such organization. The loneliness and isolation can be crushing.
Even in the very best situation—the teen is out at school and to his or her family, people know and they’re accepting, the teen has friends—the question we have to think about is: How many other people in school are LGBTQ? And of those others, how many are out and would the teen even get along with or want to hang out with? The numbers are going to be small, even if the kid is out. So it’s unlikely that he or she would have the same social experience that a straight teen would have: a large pool of fellow teens to be friends with and to date. The opposite gender is available to a straight teen to date—generally about 50% of the school population—where it is not for the LGBTQ teen. So for an LGBTQ teen, lifting social isolation would require the school to go out of its way, or the parents to go out of their way, or someone to go out of their way to get that kid with other LGBTQ teens.
Excerpted from LGBTQ Clients in Therapy: Clinical Issues and Treatment Strategies by Joe Kort. Copyright 2018.
Joe Kort, PhD, MA, MSW, ACSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in LGBTQ issues. He lives in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. You can learn more about his work at JoeKort.com