Let’s Talk Therapy: 3 Queer Therapists Share Their Stories
Therapy is just like Pick ‘N’ Mix: it isn’t for everybody, but if it does tickle your pickle, there are plenty of options to choose from.
To get an idea of what’s out there particularly for sparkly UNICORNs who need a helping hand, we spoke to three therapists with a focus in work with the queer community, to hear their stories and get their opinions on some resources to check out.
they / them | Brighton
U – Tell us a bit about how you got into counselling?
AB: I was a volunteer at my local LGBTQ+ youth club, and I really noticed in those sessions that a lot of what the young people wanted was to just have someone listen to them 1-on-1. I decided to do a short course in counselling, and then I just really fell in love with it and started training from there basically.
I found it such an interesting way of relating to people, and that the skills were so useful – and then I just was like, oh,
I love being a therapist
so that’s where I ended up!
U: How did you get into queer-focused counselling?
AB: I think being a queer person drew me towards wanting to support to my own community, and when I was training I was really thinking about what was lacking in the therapeutic world: there actually wasn’t a lot of support out there for queer people generally when I started training.
I think things have gotten better now, but in my own experience of being in therapy and other people I knew, there was a lot of pathologizing of all sexualities and all kinds of gender issues. It seemed like
there was a big kind of lack of people that could support their own community.
I suppose I became the gender and sexuality specialist within the teams I worked in just because I’d already had quite a lot of experience and knew what a lot of issues were, so somewhat fell into it.
U – You’ve already touched on the fact that there are a lot of specific issues for queer people when it comes to therapy. What kind of issues have you noticed specifically with your bi clients?
AB: I think the validity of their identity being questioned quite a lot. It feels like that the monosexual people I work with often feel more solid in their sense of sexual identity, whereas I think with the bi or queer people, there’s much less surety, and whether they can claim it, whether it feels OK to really say ‘I am bisexual’, especially if they’ve only experienced relationships with one gender.
I’ve seen a lot of people struggling with internalised biphobia
as well, and biphobia from the outside world. They then also feel like maybe they don’t fit into a community as much as gay, lesbian, monosexual people and also into a heterosexual community either. Statistics show that bi people experience worse mental health and higher levels of domestic abuse, and so I think those things may bring people to therapy more just because they’re experiencing those issues.
U – In terms of your practice, you focus quite a lot on sex positivity and feminism, and sex education seems to be quite an important topic for you. Do you have any thoughts on sex education as it is for non-monosexuals?
AB: I think my thoughts are it’s quite bad! I think
there is a complete lack of education around bisexuality
– it seems to be improving a little bit in terms of diverse sexualities generally and maybe a bit more education about gay or lesbian identities, but I think bisexuality seems to be not very existent as far as I can tell.
I’ve worked in schools and quite a lot of colleges, and there doesn’t seem to be very much about any of that. I think given that is a particular risk being that bi people are more likely to experience domestic abuse and non-consensual relationships, that the sex education is so poor around those kind of relationships and around consent in sex education generally.
I think there’s a big bit missing about bi people in general, and even acknowledging that they exist and might want to have sex. But also a more general lack of education around consent practices and healthy relationships I think disproportionately affects bi people as well.
U – If someone queer is considering therapy, but they’re not sure it’s right for them or they’ve had a bad experience before so they’re feeling a bit hesitant about it, what would you say to them?
I’d say that all therapists are different, and that a big part of therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client. So I would say even if it didn’t work for you last time, if it didn’t feel like the right type of thing that you wanted or the person didn’t feel right for you, to definitely consider trying it out again.
A lot of people come to me now through word-of-mouth, so that does happen and people give out recommendations. But also
if therapy isn't right for you and you don’t want to do it, that’s OK too.
Also, as well as individual private practice therapists, if you live in a city there’s likely to be LGBT therapy services, so that can also be a way to have low-cost or free bi-friendly counselling.
She / Her | Oxford
U – How did you first get into therapy?
ZR – I live in a very small village. As a mixed-heritage child of a single parent, I didn’t have any idea there was anything other than heteronormativity. In my twenties, I met my husband, who said ‘I think you’ve got some issues, I think you need to see somebody’. And that turned into 5 years of therapy, and it changed my life.
Coming from a caring background I always wanted to do something therapeutically-wise, and I thought ‘do you know what? I’m actually going to take the plunge’.
U – How did you then get into a more queer-focused practice?
ZR: As I developed and I started training, it became obvious that what I was into in my personal life and my identity wasn’t necessarily well catered for, if at all, and mostly pathologized –
embracing all facets of your gender, sex and relationship diversity
should not be fetishised or erased, and having therapy had helped me to get to that point of in my 30s, going, oh yeah I’m bi+.
So I started to train and then I started to get asked to go and talk about it and I organically moved into what I knew. I’m doing the trainer award with Pink Therapy this year to be able to deliver training to other therapists. It just happened, so I do what I like to call ‘all the good stuff’!
U – What kind of issues have you noticed specifically with your bi clients?
This ‘bi passport’ stamping that goes on: if you think you identify as on the bi+ spectrum, how can you be if you’re mono* with somebody who doesn’t identify as a similar gender as yourself?
I’m seeing a lot more about supporting more mature people to come out as bi, who are quite commonly married, get to this junction in life a bit like I did in my 30s. One of those things that people get a lot is that feeling of duty and of
shame and of guilt and concealment.
Two in five bi people aren’t out at work. We’re more likely to have an eating disorder, have felt depressed, and that goes up if you’re a person of colour and bi.
It comes down to authenticity to self, it comes down to knowledge around the subjects to start with, you know, if this stuff is out there, it’s done for TV and it’s not particularly very authentic, or worse still, it’s a joke. It’s those attitudes that we are drip-fed so much by mainstream media.
U: How did you come up with the idea for the Queer PoC (People of Colour) Therapist Network?
I set up a Facebook group and I got some people in it. It was just
to link queer PoC therapists with people who are looking for queer PoC therapists.
I used to have conversations with tutors about them saying ‘I think any therapist can see any client’. I don’t think they can. I feel if you find no sense of belonging in your therapist, then how are you gonna be able to do the work? How are you gonna be able to have that rapport if you are feeling like you’re being pathologized or worse still, erased and ignored?
What it’s difficult to find is people that have this intersection of identifying as PoC and queer, because with being PoC you have all these cultural bits of, ‘well you can’t be queer, we don’t necessarily understand this.’ So I started the Queer PoC Therapist network, and it’s something that I want to develop into listings and writings.
U – Representation and visibility of QTIPoC** still has a long way to go. What kind of effects does that have, and what can we do as a community to tackle that?
ZR – There needs to be a platform to get people out there, and that’s kind of what I’m hoping that the Queer PoC therapists network will help with as well, to get people into conferences to speak, to have a voice.
It’s giving over the platform – you should be posting stuff that comes from a QTIPoC. You know, it shouldn’t be a tokenistic thing. It shouldn’t be a novelty. It should be just everyday, and it’s nowhere near there yet.
As consumers, if you’re going to an event, anybody can ask ‘is the line-up truly diverse?’, with that kind of voting with your feet of saying, I’m not going to support this because this isn’t inclusive.
I just want to encourage people to think outside of the box.
Step out and go, if I came into this room as a PoC, would I feel threatened? Would I feel silenced? And that goes for anywhere. If you are at work, who do you see when you walk into reception? Because if all you can see is a sea of white faces, then PoCs won’t think they can be one of them.
There is this finite level to which we think we can obtain, and for us it’s not a glass ceiling, it’s a concrete one – because we can’t even see us at the top.
U – If someone struggling with being bi is considering therapy but is hesitant or has perhaps had a bad experience before, what would you say to them?
ZR – Trust your instincts. You need to be able to find something in that therapist that you can connect with, because it’s that connection which is how the work is done. So find some sense of belonging in someone – just because you haven’t found it before, doesn’t mean that you’ll never find it.
There is somebody out there who you can find that connection with
who will be able to hold a space for you to be completely open, because if you’re not being completely open, then the process can’t even begin.
Do your research, as well, look around, ask around. Look to see if they’re quoting an accredited body, are adequately insured, all of those really sensible things that we should be looking out for.
We look at these things when we go to get our car serviced, so why are we not looking at these things when we go to get our brain serviced? Come into it with an expectation that you’ll be respected by your therapist, that you will be listened to by your therapist, that you can be yourself.
** Queer, Trans & Intersex People Of Colour
He / Him | London
U – Can you tell us a bit about how you got into counselling?
AB: I think my journey was very similar to a lot of people’s: I had a lot of problems in my life and therapy was a very instrumental tool in change for me.
I could see from my own journey the value that therapy had given to me.
I also understood as a queer person myself, you can have bad experiences in therapy based on people who don’t really get you, and who maybe are looking at you through their lens. I understood as well from that how important it was that I was going to be able to offer a better lens to queer people.
U – How did you get into queer-focused counselling?
AB – When I was training, I could really see that this was another heteronormative space. I also had a bad experience with a therapist in training, where I was like ‘you’re not asking the right questions, you are trying to tell me what things are like from your perspective.’
Those two things together made me think
there’s a real need here for people who can actually understand where queer people are coming from.
I don’t think it’s met enough, and I understood the value I could give to people by doing that.
U – I’d be interested to know your thoughts on specifically bi people and what needs of theirs aren’t being met, or what special needs they might have in a therapy setting?
AB – I have clients who are having to do work that deals with sexuality – I have a male client who initially felt that it wasn’t that important to focus on, and this is something that I think a lot of bi people have: ‘well surely it’s just like being gay or straight?’.
I’ve come to have my own experience of realising it’s not like that, and then when they give themselves that space, they find that there is stuff to talk about, it’s not just irrelevant. I think even
drawing people’s awareness to the fact that it’s something worth discussing
and that it can be different for them, that is a starting point that I think a lot of bi people don’t really get.
U – A lot of your practice focuses on this idea of society’s concept of masculinity and its wider effects. What particular effects do you think this has on men questioning or coming to terms with their sexuality?
Of course, vulnerability, weakness, feelings generally are not things men are praised for or encouraged to explore, even though things are changing – well, they definitely have. The guy that I mentioned, he is the product of that: he’s in his early 20s so he’s had a very different experience trying to explore his sexuality.
I think the problem he has had is actually not people not being understanding that he could be something other than straight, but when he has tried to go into queer spaces or tried to have that conversation with people who are queer themselves, he’s felt a sense of ‘you’re not welcome here, you’re a tourist, you don’t really belong here’. He’s really struggling with that sense of
‘do I fit in here at all?’.
U – What can we do to make those spaces safer for bi and questioning men to explore? How do we tackle the myths that ‘bi men don’t exist’?
I definitely feel that there is this real notion that men are ‘a thing’, and that’s the thing that they are, and they might be in denial or lying about what they are, but they are one thing.
I think there’s the joke that if you’re a guy and you have sex with 100 women, you’re straight, but if you suck one dick…
This is the wall you kind of hit, because you have this sense that things are much more rigid for men. The idea that actually, maybe things might change for you, maybe you could have experiences with some people and they could work and not with other people, or maybe your bisexuality is not completely 50/50, and you’re attracted romantically but not sexually or vice versa.
This is something that’s now starting to be accepted and explored, but it’s taken us quite a while to get here. I think a simple doable thing you can do is if a man says ‘I’m not this’ or ‘I am that’,
believe them and listen to them.
U – If someone queer is considering therapy, but perhaps they’ve had a bad experience before so they’re feeling a bit hesitant about it, what would you say to them?
AB – First of all, be clear who you’re seeing. Always
remember it’s your process
it’s there to help you with what you want: it’s a service between two people who are equals, it’s not an expert who’s there to tell you what’s ‘really going on for you’.
In terms of queer therapy, acknowledge your own right to see someone who you feel comfortable with. If that means someone who is the same sexuality as you, that’s your right – and if it’s someone different, checking in with that person and saying ‘do you feel that’s going to be OK working with me?’.
It’s not a question straight people have to ask, because the assumption is that everything is set up to suit them, and if you’re not that person, it really matters that you check that out. And finally, access queer-focused services, because they’re there for you.
‘Therapy’ is as big a label as ‘queer’ itself – it can take many different forms, with many different people, and no therapist has the same story. Therapy should never be something you’re pressured into, but it’s also nothing to be ashamed of: it’s one tool in a box of things to help you, that you can choose to use if and when it’s right for you.
We asked our therapists to suggest a few resources they either recommend to their clients or read/watch/visit themselves. They’ve each suggested a few, and we’ve thrown them all together into one handy list for you. Take a browse if you’re interested to find out more about therapy, counselling and support services, or even if you just want to do some of your own solo soul-searching and want some inspiration.
Communities & Charities:
Helsa Helps – LGBTQ+ mental health support for during COVID-19/isolation
MindOut – Brighton-based LGBTQ mental health service
Elop – Holistic LGBT health charity in East London
London Friend – LGBT charity, offering counselling (including Antidote – drug & alcohol support)
Homerton Hub – grassroots inclusive therapy centre
No Panic – phoned-based and pen pal support services for anxiety
Life Isn’t Binary – Meg-John Barker
Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution – Shiri Eisner
Love’s Not Color Blind – Kevin A. Patterson
Intersectionality – Patricia Hill Collins & Sirma Bilge
Race, Ethnicity & Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers – Joane Nagel
‘Sexuality Conversation Starters’ – Eric Buck, Holistic Therapy Online
5 Stages of Bisexuality – Courtney-Jai (YouTube)
Purple Prose: Bisexuality In Britain by Kate Harrad
They / Them | Brighton, UK
Amelia is a therapist and educator, with their own practice based in Brighton. They specialise in working with LGBTQ+, non-monogamous, and kinky clients.
She / Her | Oxford, UK
Zayna is an LGBTQIA+ and gender, sex & relationship diversity hypno-psychotherapist. Her practice explores how race, gender, sex and relationship diversity create a prism of intersecting identities.
He / Him | London, UK
Ali is an integrative therapist based in East London. His specialisms include therapy concerning LGBTQ+ and male identity & gender issues.