Supporting the LGBTQ Community

As part of Nick Finnegan Counseling Center’s mission of supporting mental health throughout our community, we’re joining the conversation on how we can create safer and healthier environments for friends, family members and colleagues within the LGBTQ community.

NFCC’s Community Relations Specialist, Jacel Dickson, recently sat down with NFCC counselor, Sherry Yingling, LMFT-S, LPC, to get her expert advice on how we can support this community. Sherry is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist with many years of experience, who has worked extensively with the LGBTQ population.

Jacel Dickson: Just to start, when we say LGBTQ community, who are we talking about?

Sherry Yingling: Anyone whose sexual orientation or gender identity does not fall into a socially constructed binary system of only heterosexual/homosexual or male/female. Historically the acronym LGBT refers to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (not Transgendered, check your past vs. present tense here, people!) The Q was added for Questioning, which more recently became Queer. Since queer includes everyone who is non-binary, many people now choose to drop the rest and simply say queer community. Still, some folks prefer gay community but queer community is increasingly replacing this as the norm.  Others prefer to identify as gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. As with anyone, call people what they want to be called. Just like we teach children to ask people what name they prefer to be called, the same rule applies here. It is better to ask how someone identifies than risk insulting them with a poor assumption and it shows that you care.

Jacel: I try to be actively attentive to social issues. Growing up, I was constantly reminded by my parents of what it means to be socially aware and try my best not to offend anyone or hurt their feelings. Recently, I’ve been made aware of a term that is new (to me) called microagressions. I can think of a few examples of microaggressions that I’ve encountered or said myself, and I’m curious about how they affect the LGBTQ community.

Sherry: Well, most people understand that members of the LGBTQ community face direct discrimination and harassment, but many are unaware of the microagressions experienced routinely by this community. First, you should know that microaggressions towards LGBTQ people are unintentional hurts that typically come from language assuming that male/female couples are the norm (also known as heteronormative language). When friends and family [unknowingly] use insulting or offensive language when speaking to gay/queer family members, it can feel even more hurtful because it comes from someone who loves them. Some examples of microaggressions include showing a home to a same sex couple and pointing out the “his and hers” sinks. Also referring to couples as “he and she”-assuming someone’s partner/spouse is of the opposite sex. Side note: sAnother hurt people make is when they imply gay relationships have a lesser level of commitment compared to heterosexual ones. Comments about lifestyle and preference are significant (and common) microagressions. These examples may seem minor, but they can cause individuals within the LGBTQ community lots of pain.

Jacel: After hearing your examples, I’m pretty sure I am guilty of this. So, what do I do?

Sherry: That’s easy. Now that you know, try practicing self-awareness and notice when you make a comment. A simple shift in language can be one way to create a safer and healthier space.

Jacel: Okay, but I’m also going to need an example of that shift in language…

Sherry: (laughs) Instead of referring to a double sink as a “his and hers” vanity, call it what it is: a double sink! Instead of minimalizing the commitment of gay relationships, wish them well and recognize their marriage/partnership as real and legal.

Jacel: How can someone offer support to someone who is coming out as gay or queer?

Sherry:  Listen and learn. Other unintentional harm can occur from the direct support of well-meaning, queer-affirming people who do not understand existing discrimination laws or prejudices.  Sometimes queer embracing (gay friendly) people urge members of the LGBTQ community to “come out” (inform a loved one or employer that they are LGBTQ) without first understanding the risks involved and helping the person feel safe in doing so. Some queer affirming people can’t imagine someone being disowned from family or fired from a job for being queer and thus fail to factor this in when insisting (enthusiastically supporting) the person to come out. There are real and devastating consequences to coming out if a person has not identified potential risks and losses and what is needed to cope with them.

Jacel:  What are some examples of what it looks like to be gay/queer friendly?

Sherry: Friends, families, and professionals who self-identify as a friend or ally to the LGBTQ community can better affirm queer individuals by reflecting on their use of language, checking their own assumptions regarding the queer community, and taking time to understand current and proposed anti-LGBTQ legal policies. Most importantly, listening to their loved one’s perspective, experience, and challenges is a powerful way of ensuring one is providing safe support for the mental and emotional health of a friend or family member within the LGBTQ community.

When we practice self-reflection and awareness of our actions, we can better care for and support the mental health of the entire Houston community. Nick Finnegan Counseling Center values reducing stigma around mental health and providing high quality, affordable counseling services to the Houston community regardless of age, gender identity, religious background, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation.

To learn more about Sherry and our other counselors, click here. To schedule an appointment call our office at 713-402-5046.