By Emory Oakley. Emory is a writer and LGBTQ+ educator who regularly discusses the intersections of queer identities and mental health.
The Learning Process
“You aren’t supposed to do anything for Valentine’s Day, it’s your boyfriends’ job to buy you flowers and take you out for dinner!”
This was the first piece of advice I was given about Valentine’s Day at fifteen years old. It was my first Valentine’s Day in a relationship. And as a bit of a late bloomer, I was nervous and excited in anticipation. But, of course, I was unsure and not confident. Even though this happened prior to coming out, being given that advice, I already knew Valentine’s Day was not designed for me.
I was assigned female at birth but never fit into the traditional expectations of what a girl was ‘supposed’ to be. As a young child, it was acceptable to be a tomboy. So, I wasn’t directly confronted with my gender until I hit puberty and was at the age where people start dating. Even then, I didn’t know gender was the issue – I just knew I didn’t fit into people’s expectations. And that made me realize how uncomfortable I felt in my body.
Not surprisingly, Valentine’s Day never got easier for me. I never understood why boys didn’t want me to buy them flowers and write them poetry.
I’ve always been a ‘love with my entire existence’ kind of boy. But when I was pretransition and in relationships with straight boys, this was entirely misunderstood. These boys almost always wanted to be the ones to ‘take care of me’ in the traditional heternormative sense. So, it was continually reinforced that Valentine’s Day was not made for me.
As I embraced my queerness and started to engage in less traditional styles of relationships. It became glaringly obvious that the reason I never felt like Valentine’s Day was made for me was that my identity was never represented. The focus of Valentine’s Day is heterosexual, monogamous, sexual and traditional romantic relationships. But not only was my relationships and identity not represented, neither were so many others.
So, coming out as queer gave me the context as to why I never like Valentine’s Day. And for me, clearly, it was never about being single. But my queer identity gave me permission to look at it differently.
Valentine’s Day Today: Why I don’t celebrate it.Now, out as a queer trans man, I can happily say I choose not to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But I do love getting the cheap candy the following day. This doesn’t mean I don’t celebrate the multiple ways love comes into my life.
Valentine’s Day reinforces heteronormativity. And it does this through consumerism rather than actually focusing on healthy and happy relationships. These are things I personally have no interest in supporting. To me, love is about so much more than romance and that’s a common experience among those in the queer community. Many of us are rejected by or estranged from our families so we create our own chosen families.
These relationships are different from close friendships among heterosexual people. They have a different level of intimacy and love that cannot easily be defined. Even our romantic relationships don’t always fit into the traditional outline of what a relationship ‘should’ look like by heteronormative standards.
I don’t really want to get too much into consumerism here, but the way Valentine’s Day has been structured around gift-giving and fancy date nights is problematic and classist. There are so many ways to show a person you love them – other than spending money or fancy dates.
If you want to celebrate Valentine’s Day with your loved one(s) consider some other options. A hand made gift or card, write a poem or a song, make a homemade dinner, have a queer movie night or do something else creative to celebrate your love in a way that makes sense in the context of your relationship.
So, rather than celebrating Valentine’s Day, I choose to celebrate my queer love every day of the year.
By Dr. Joti Samra, CEO & Founder of the Psychological Health & Safety (PH&S) Clinic and MyWorkplaceHealth
I’ve been in a relationship for many years with the same guy. I love him, but I’ve recently discovered I might be more attracted to members of the same sex. Should I tell him? Should I end it? Is there something psychologically wrong with me?
First and foremost, there is absolutely nothing that is psychologically wrong with you for having questions about your sexual orientation.
Sexual orientation refers to one’s sense of personal and social identity based on emotional, romantic or sexual attraction (to one or both sexes), the behaviours that are expressed as a result, and membership in a community of those who share that orientation (according to the American Psychological Association, 2008).
One’s true sense of sexual orientation is not a choice – and can occur on a range, falling in one of three main categorizations: heterosexual (attracted to members of the opposite sex), homosexual (attracted to members of the same sex), and bisexual (attracted to members of the both sexes).
Population survey data suggest that approximately 1 per cent of Canadians identify themselves as homosexual, and approximately 1 per cent identify themselves as bisexual.
It certainly is not uncommon to love someone in a heterosexual relationship, yet find yourself attracted to members of the same sex. Questions about your orientation do not negate your love for your partner – but may impact the direction of your current and future relationships take.
It would be important for you to explore issues around your sexual orientation further before you make any impulsive decisions about your relationship. If you feel that your partner is someone you could talk to openly, and without judgment, you could certainly gently raise the issue with him.
You could assure him that you love him, and that you want to be completely open and honest with him so want to let him know that you have started to question whether you are more attracted to females. It is also perfectly appropriate for you to start to get some clarity on your own before you decide how to approach speaking with him, as this may be a difficult and emotional conversation to have.
Confiding in a close friend may be a way to start talking about it and navigate your feelings. There are also a range of community agencies and professionals that specialize in issues around sexual orientation. You may want to explore some of these resources.
Questioning your sexual orientation and making changes in your life (and communicating to loved ones about this) may be a difficult journey, and so I would encourage you to try to take care of yourself emotionally, and ensure that you have a strong community and support network to help you navigate through the coming weeks, months, and years.
Excerpted from Dr. Joti Samra’s “Ask the Psychologist” weekly column in The Globe and Mail.
By Dr. Lior Ben- Avraham, MSW, DSW, RCSW
This week we mark Trans Awareness Week, which ends with the Trans Day of Remembrance. Here at the Psychological Health & Safety Clinic, we remember and honour those trans individuals who have faced transphobia or lost their lives due to hate and discrimination. As a therapist who has worked extensively with the trans community, I know many trans folks still don’t have access to good mental health services. In honour of this week, and of my trans friends and clients, I will share some personal stories about the journey that brought me to specialize in trans-affirmative therapy. As well as some thoughts about fostering trans-inclusive practice.
A word about terminology (because language is important). Although many terms exist in the literature, I will use the word transgender, or trans, as an umbrella term for any individual whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the gender they were assigned at birth (including but not limited to trans women, trans men, and non-binary people).
Why is trans-affirmative therapy necessary?
Transgender individuals still face enormous threats to their dignity and safety. Despite efforts to improve their security and welfare, throughout their lives they continue to face discrimination, microaggressions, and victimization. Manifestations of such behaviours occur everywhere, from the workplace to restrooms.
Many studies establish that transgender individuals in Canada are significantly more likely to experience violence than their cisgender counterparts. Another study speculated transgender individuals are “the most targeted hate crime victim group in Canada” (Perry et al., 2014).
The risk of violence is even greater for transgender people who are part of ethnic minorities. One study surveyed Indigenous transgender individuals in Ontario and found 73% of respondents suffered “violence due to being trans” (Scheim et al., 2013).
Unsurprisingly, then, these harms contribute to disparate rates of suicide, anxiety, trauma, and depression among transgender individuals. The data is clear: trans people across all demographics and ranges of experience have high levels of attempted suicide. A 2014 study by the Williams Institute reported that 46% of trans men and 42% of trans women had attempted suicide (Herman et al., 2014).
Yet, mental health services have not fully responded to the needs of transgender people.
Unfortunately, growing evidence shows that trans people experience more concerns about engaging in therapy than their cisgender counterparts. This is due to a lack of providers who are trained in providing services to LGBTQ2+ individuals, and the limited availability of trans-inclusive counselling services.
In light of this disturbing data, it’s imperative that professional counsellors who work with trans folks serve as social-change agents by developing specific competencies, attitudes, and skills to help this population. I hope sharing my personal narrative and my work experience will encourage some therapists to learn more about affirmative therapy, and some trans folks to seek the help they need with skilled professionals.
How did I start my work with trans folks?
My personal experience
As with most people, my personal experiences are the foundation of my passion for the work I do. My commitment to the practice and research of clinical social work originated from my relatively unique background and life experiences. A son of parents in an uncustomary intrareligious marriage, my ‘coming-out moment’ was not a single event but a continuous journey of rejection, survival, resilience, and acceptance. Indeed, sharing my sexual orientation with my parents was a traumatic and emotionally devastating experience.
However, this background, and living with overlapping identities, has given me a keen understanding of the lived experience and barriers facing LGBTQ2+ people, including trans individuals. While I identify as cisgender, and do not purport to have experienced the difficulties that trans folks face, I’ve connected with many trans people because we all suffered as a result of transgressing gender norms.
Over time, it became clear that I must transform my lived experiences into a strength to engage, empower, and mentor populations that endure vulnerability.
My work experience
My path led me to focus my clinical practice on groups who have multilayered social identities and complex psychosocial conditions. That’s why I completed my practicum training at the Ali Forney Center in New York, the largest provider dedicated to homeless LGBTQ2+ youth in the U.S. A significant number of my clients there were trans individuals, and I learned a great deal from them. They were often kicked out of their homes and shunned by their families. They faced considerable discrimination, often compounded by racism and poverty.
Almost a decade later, I worked at Three Bridges in Vancouver, in the Trans Specialty Care clinic, providing gender-affirming counselling to transgender individuals from Metro Vancouver.
Although my work in these places was different, in both I felt honoured and privileged to help these clients in their journey to better lives. I got to witness the resilience and courage of my clients as they endeavour to live fully despite and beyond the limitations and challenges of their lives.
I turned my barriers into an advantage, and I am deeply committed to using my experience and knowledge to help others to fulfill their human potential and build satisfying lives.
What is trans-affirmative therapy?
Trans-affirmative clinical practice refers to a non-pathologizing approach to clinical practice that accepts, respects, and validates all experiences and expressions of gender (Austin & Craig, 2015). Trans-affirmative practice rejects the male-female binary and instead fosters a trans-inclusive culture at the onset of the therapeutic relationship. Good trans-affirmative therapy requires constant learning on trans literacy. That means staying up to date on changes in terminology and about trans-affirming health care. Sometimes, it requires the clinic, or website, to change its forms; for example, making sure there is a place to include pronouns.
As a trans-affirmative therapist, I focus on creating a trusting environment for my clients to safely share, understand, and explore their experiences. At the same time, I understand that trans people experience a host of issues beyond those related to gender identity and expression.
A person-centred approach—emphasizing empathy and unconditional positive regard for the client—allows clients to feel secure in the client-therapist relationship and comfortable to explore their sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. I use strength-based and empowering trans-affirmative language while speaking with clients, and never make assumptions about any aspect of their lives.
Trans-affirmative practice must acknowledge and facilitate conversation about the oppressive contexts that transgender clients often experience in our society and the healthcare system. We identify clients’ unique resiliencies, such as embracing self-worth and self-esteem, connection with a supportive community, cultivating hope for the future, and being a positive role model for others.
How we move forward
I believe the “next frontier” is to help the counselling field integrate transgender-affirmative training for healthcare providers. The transgender community still faces challenges in access to all-inclusive mental health services. I’ve often seen good counselling services make a significant positive change in clients’ lives.
Trans Awareness Week is a good time for clients to start their journey toward better lives and for therapists to think about how to better integrate services for transgender communities.
Austin, A., & Craig, S. L. (2015). Transgender affirmative cognitive behavioral therapy: Clinical considerations and applications. Professional Psychology, Research and Practice, 46(1), 21-29. doi:10.1037/a0038642
Herman, J., Haas, A., & Rodgers, P. (2014). Suicide Attempts Among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults. UCLA: The Williams Institute. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8xg806
Perry, B., Perry, B., Dyck, D. R., & Dyck, D. R. (2014). “I Don’t know where it is safe”: Trans Women’s experiences of violence. Critical Criminology (Richmond, B.C.), 22(1), 49-63. doi:10.1007/s10612-013-9225-0
Scheim, A. I., Jackson, R., James, L., Sharp Dopler, T., Pyne, J., & Bauer, G. R. (2013). Barriers to well-being for Aboriginal gender-diverse people: Results from the Trans PULSE Project in Ontario, Canada. Ethnicity and Inequalities in Health and Social Care, 6(4), 108–120. http://doi.org/10.1108/EIHSC-08-2013-0010
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