By Daniel Browne (MHS Accred).
On 11th October each year since the late 1980s, National Coming Out Day has been marked. It’s a day of awareness and celebration that started in America and is now recognised globally.
National Coming Out Day is an opportunity for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT+) community to be loud and proud about their identity, while highlighting why coming out remains important and raising awareness of the reasons why so many LGBT+ people are unable to come out.
In an ideal world there would be no need to come out. People would be able to live freely with no judgement, prejudice, or discrimination. People would be able to live freely without heteronormative or cisnormative ideas been projected on to them. Sadly, we don’t live in that ideal world. LGBT+ people are still subjected to judgement, prejudice, and discrimination. LGBT+ people still have to deal with the heteronormative and cisnormative society we live in.
But what has this got to do with therapy? Why is National Coming Out Day important in the context of therapy?
If you are a therapist, the chances are you will work with an LGBT+ person at some point. With estimations of the LGBT+ population ranging from 1% - 6% of people (I actually think it’s much higher as so many people don’t feel able to be open about their identity), LGBT+ people will arrive in your therapy room sometime during your time as a therapist. While a client’s presenting issue may not be related to their sexual orientation or gender identity, it is important that all clients can be comfortable, open, and bring their whole selves to therapy. It’s important that therapists are comfortable and open too, in addition to being accepting and affirmative of LGBT+ people.
For example, take a gay male client who has come to see you because their marriage is breaking down. You may assume they have a wife rather than a husband. Asking questions about their wife may offend the client and make them feel they can’t be their authentic self in therapy. While their issue isn’t related to their sexuality, they would need to come out as gay to their therapist and say they are married to a man.
The above is an example of the heteronormative world we live in. Heteronormativity is the assumption that everyone is heterosexual and that we all live by the norms of a heterosexual life. Of course, that’s not true. That’s why it is important to let go of what is actually quite a toxic way of thinking (even though it’s ingrained in most people and reinforced in the media, on television, etc). Heteronormativity can lead to LGBT+ people feeling they can’t come out. This means denying themselves the freedom of being open about who they are and living a happier life.
The same can be said for cisnormativity. This is the assumption that everyone is cisgender. A cisgender or cis person is someone whose gender identity matches their biological sex. Sex is physical and gender identity is how a person feels in their mind. So, for example, I was born male. I was assigned male at birth. I identify as a male. Therefore, I am cisgender. However, someone who was assigned male at birth but identifies as female is not cisgender. They would be trans. So, put simply, someone who is cisgender is not trans.
As a therapist, I specialise in working with LGBT+ people. Many of those people are not out to family, friends, work colleagues, or wider society. Some of those people are living a heterosexual life but actually identify as gay or bisexual. Some of those people are living a cisgender life but actually identify as trans or as a different gender identity to the sex they were assigned at birth. I am often the only person that my clients can come out to. For me, that’s an honour and something I take very seriously; to be trusted with that information and to be providing a safe, affirmative space for LGBT+ people.
My firm belief is that all therapists should be LGBT+ affirmative. It ties in with unconditional positive regard – the concept that we should be accepting and support all clients, regardless of what they say or do. I believe we should add however a client identifies to that. Ethically, therapists should be accepting and affirmative of LGBT+ clients and work on gaining knowledge and understanding of LGBT+ terminology, identities and the specific issues faced by LGBT+ people.
Coming out really does still matter, in society and in the therapy room. Not just on National Coming Out Day, but every day. There are a few ways in which you can make it clear you are LGBT+ affirmative and signal that you provide a safe space for LGBT+ clients to come out and be their authentic self.
Firstly, on your consultation or intake form, have a question about pronouns. So, does the client like to be referred to as he/him, she/her, or they/them. It’s a small touch that makes a big difference. That’s often the case – small changes making a big difference. You may also like to wear a rainbow badge or pronoun badge that sends a positive message to LGBT+ people. You could update your advertising to show you welcome LGBT+ clients and that you are an LGBT+ affirmative therapist. It will be worth thinking about what else you could do.
So, to end, I just want to say that my name is Daniel Browne. I am a therapist and a proud gay man, on National Coming Out Day and on every single day of the year.
With thanks to HS Ambassador Daniel Browne (MHS Accred) for providing this blog. You can find out more about Daniel and his work here.