When I was in high school, my parents sent me to a straight male therapist in the mostly conservative city of Savannah, GA, and since I was still a closeted gay boy at the time, I didn’t share anything about my same-sex feelings, out of fear of being judged or the therapist telling my parents. Sadly, my struggles with my sexual orientation were probably the crux of my issues, and therapy could ultimately only go so far. I danced around various things during my time there, afraid to really get into the one big thing that was hanging over my head like a scary black cloud.
There are a lot of choices out there when it comes to a therapist. You need to decide between a male and a female, older or younger, more experienced or less experienced, in network or out of network, trans or cis, and of course gay, straight, or somewhere in the middle. Sometimes having so many options can feel overwhelming. In my years working as a therapist, however, I can say with certainty that the clients that benefit the most from our work are those that feel they have a good “match”. By that, I mean they feel I understand them, get them, and fully “see” them, regardless of any age, gender, or other differences. There’s nothing more frustrating than coming to someone for help, only to have to try and explain something about you or your life to them that they really aren’t quite getting. The therapist may even say the right words (“I can see that you feel invisible”, for example), but there’s just something amiss, and although they say they understand you, it just doesn’t “feel” like they full get it.
Being LGBTQ is a very unique experience. Growing up queer in a hetero-normative world, we often feel alone. When younger, we notice that the kids around us in our school classroom are different. They don’t seem to have the same feelings and impulses we have. We get the sense that there is something just ‘off’ about us, because everyone else around us seems to feel comfortable in their own skin and in the norms of the world around them. We begin to put on a “mask”, trying to fit in, act as if, and appear as the other kids do in order to sneak by unscathed or exposed as different. This experience begins to shape us, sometimes blocking our ability to express ourselves, explore our feelings, and become authentically who we are for many years. It can take decades of healing and doing psychological work on ourselves to rediscover our truth, and feel comfortable expressing ourselves fully. Sure, having the right circumstances like accepting parents and families at an early age can make a huge difference, but growing up LGBTQ in a world that is traditionally homophobic is a trauma, no matter how big or small it might be for each person.
Being understood or “seen” is essential to heal this trauma, so that we don’t feel alone or less-than in the world. A competent therapist, male or female, gay or straight, should be able to do that. However, I believe we need to take it one step further. I believe that if a therapist has had the same shared experience as a client, even if it’s shared in a broad way that isn’t identical, there is a healing that takes place like no other. We feel in a deep way that we aren’t alone, that other people understand and get the same feelings we have, and perhaps there’s nothing wrong with us at all. The therapist has a deeper sense of understanding that of what the client has gone through, having gone through a version of it themselves. If the client sees that the therapist also shares their experience, they begin to trust the process of therapy, and allow themselves to put down their walls and be vulnerable in the room. The more safe, comfortable, and open a client feels, the more they will get out of the work. They will be able to share their innermost thoughts and feelings, because they won’t fear being misunderstood, which will only set them back.
As a client, I’ve experienced having many different types of therapists, including both male and female, gay and straight. I’ve gotten something unique and helpful out of all of them. That said, it was in my 20’s when I first saw a gay male therapist at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. During this experience, I finally felt safe enough to talk about things that I might otherwise have felt shame about. I was less inclined to hold back, because there was a greater chance I was going to be understood on a deep level. I also felt, for the first time, that I had someone I could look up to as an example of a healthy gay man. From then on, I had a series of other gay therapists on my journey. Having this deeply shared understanding with one another, I began to slowly realize that not only is being gay not a bad thing, it’s an amazing thing with potential for a wonderful life. I felt seen and understood in some of the struggles I had experienced, and I trusted what was told to me because he had gone through some of those struggles also.
I personally believe that a queer person would benefit immensely from working with a queer therapist at some point in their journey of self-discovery. There’s no substitute for sharing a very distinct and deeply unique journey with your therapist in terms of them being able to understand what shapes you, and also what it feels like to struggle with various things. As LGBTQ people, we wrangle at times with things like identity, family of origin vs. family of choice, navigating the unique waters of an LGBTQ relationship or sex, and the journey to accept oneself fully. Having an ally is important, but having someone who’s walked in your shoes is even better.