“When I look back at my own journey as a gay man, I too can see the many forces that shaped my sense of self, how I related to others, and how I felt about my place in the world. I was greatly impacted by a heterosexist expectation of who I should be and how that would be expressed,” said Thomas Mondragon, affiliate faculty and interim co-director for the MAP program’s LGBT Specialization, when asked to discuss the origins of the Affirmative Psychotherapy course that he teaches.
Research studies show that despite much progress made in civil rights and increased public consideration of LGBTQ+ rights and livelihoods, that as a result of oppression directed at opposing the value and worthiness of varied sexuality and gender expressions, LGBTQ+ individuals still suffer high rates of mental health and substance abuse challenges. These challenges are associated with loss of deeper meaning resulting from living in a culture where discrimination is both overt and buried; and as likely to arise in an individual’s professional, personal, and familial relationships as it is in the wider context of government and social policy, and mainstream media representation. “The presence of unexamined heterosexist bias affects the quality of the work done between a therapist and their LGBTQ+ client,” says Mondragon. “As therapists our goal is to work diligently, ethically, and empathetically to assist our LGBTQ+ clients with their particular experience of the ongoing psychological impact of living in a still fiercely heterosexist society, and the Affirmative Psychotherapy course introduces students to the principles of the school of affirmative psychotherapy that emerged in the 1970s during LGBT liberation and has evolved into its own school of thought.”
Historically, the majority of mental health professionals have been unfamiliar with the deep-seated social and existential challenges surrounding the coming out process and the queer experience, and it’s essential for counselors serving LGBTQ+ clients to have specific training around these issues. De-stigmatizing (through therapy) the LGBTQ+ experience requires an understanding of historical context and the discrimination in its various forms that clients face. Affirmative Psychotherapy is a core course of the LGBTQ+ Specialization. It is an arena for students to connect the idea of LGBT-centered inner work with social change and psychological activism and invites student clinicians to become leaders in the field of affirmative theory and practice. The class operates through reading, discussion and shared experience, which aims to bring together different therapeutic modalities to achieve a “working model” of how to practice affirmative therapy.
Part of this process involves encouraging students to consider the “living presence of the unconscious in themselves and their clients,” and using therapeutic method to find the places in the psyche where internalized homophobia and heterosexism are present, ready to be transformed. “After one class meeting, a young lesbian student came to me after a class discussion on internalized homophobia saying that she had never considered her own experience of this within her, and was now inspired to personally explore this more fully,” said Mondragon.
Central texts for the class are the APA’s “Guidelines for Psychotherapy for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Clients,” and the more recent, “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People.” Additionally, the coursework includes a rich collection of texts and publications curated to further and deepen students’ understanding of the articulation of an affirmative approach for practicing therapists.
Mondragon also speaks to the ancient homosexual, bisexual and gender-expansive wisdom traditions, expressing that their erasure has resulted in great injury and trauma in the collective psyche of LGBTQ+ individuals. As a Japanese-Latino homosexual, his experience was greatly impacted by heterosexist expectations further complicated by the racism prevalent in the predominantly White culture in which he was raised. Because of this phenomenon of lost queer wisdom (so common in post-colonial cultures all over the world), Mondragon realized later that he had been deprived of “a heritage of rich same-sex love and expression in both my cultural backgrounds.” His life was profoundly changed upon entering into psychotherapy with a gay therapist affirming the possibility of great meaning in being gay, which ultimately led him to pursue his own career as an affirmative psychotherapist and educator.
In this unique time of worldwide Pride celebrations juxtaposed with shocking accounts of LGBTQ+ hate crimes, it is crucial to acknowledge the whole range of influence on the experience of gender and sexual identity. “When we look at and feel into LGBTQ+ history and the precious and numinous mythologies of LGBTQ+ figures found in a myriad of world cultures, we are called to advocate and affirm the unique contributory potential waiting to be felt, experienced and uncovered in being LGBTQ+,” said Mondragon.
I hear it and feel it. Go forth, affirmative therapists. The world is waiting for you.