Across time and place, people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queer, questioning and intersex have faced an almost universal history of exclusion, discrimination, and violence. The foundations of western civilization – including family, education, religion, medicine and justice – rest upon the assumption of, preference toward, and expectation for heterosexual union and cisgender expression.
These are communicated through formal structures such as curriculum, policies, funding decisions and laws, as well as informal social practices such as the way a school has always cast the annual musical or a physician’s assumption that a female who says she’s sexually active requires birth control.
Experiences with social service organizations, including individual, family and group counselling, have too often mirrored the ignorance and insensitivity of the wider world. In the face of hostile surroundings within home, work, neighbourhood and community, queer people have demonstrated profound psychological and social resilience as well as political resistance.
If we are conscious of this context, our work is to broaden out our approaches beyond those that simply focus on what the individual should do to better their own life or work on their issues. Indeed, we begin with the understanding that there are not inherent issues and illnesses related to being queer that lead people to come for services, supports and counselling. Queer folk seek out services, supports and counselling as a result of living in a society that privileges heterosexuality and cisgender identity, and excludes and pathologizes ways of being and living that do not subscribe to these.
This approach focuses less on how queer people can be supported to change, and more on how we, as the helpers, need to integrate analyses of heterosexism and cisnormativity into our skills and strategies. By doing so we can be allies in shifting the conditions that oppress the lives and potentials of queer people.
Here are a few things we can do:
1. Do our own work first
We need to dig deep to explore what values and assumptions underpin our ways of seeing the world and being in the world. We need to take time to do our own unpacking and unlearning first. In this context, it means working to understand the social construction of our gender identity and our sexual orientation and the ways that social systems maintain cisgender normativity and heteronormativity.
Further, we need to think about the relationship of sexual orientation and gender identity with the other identity markers that we know shape a person: for example, racialization, socio-economic status and ability. We need to read, go to workshops and draw on resources from which we can learn and unlearn. This is not value-neutral work. Since we are aiming for congruence among what we think, who we are and what we do, we need to sort out that alignment first, and not be figuring ourselves out on the backs of people in need who come to us for support.
2. Recognize the power of language
Language is regularly evolving with changes in meaning and application. As a central tool of our trade we need to be vigilant to the impact of what we say, how we say it and, most of all, how it lands.
Become in the habit of introducing yourself with your name as well as your pronoun; this sets the stage for asking for the same from others. Cast aside the grammar lessons of your elementary school, and embrace use of the use of they for a singular person who identifies outside the gender binary. You’re in good company in doing so: the American Dialect Society’s word of the year in 2015 was the singular they. The singular they provides us with an accepted alternative to making an assumption and reinforcing the gender binary of “he or she” when referring to an otherwise unidentified person.
This is active work with our colleagues as well: do we take a stand when we hear derogatory comments and assumptions among our co-workers? Once we have come to a new level of consciousness ourselves, we need to consider what it would take to become a leader in shifting the workplace culture and actively challenge stereotypes and prejudices that we hear around us.
3. Focus on the messaging of your workplace
In your agency or in your private practice, examine the unspoken messaging about who “belongs” there. What images are on the walls? Who and what do they prioritize? Who works at the agency or with you? What identities do they represent and reflect? Is your office located in an area known for being queer friendly? Might you be located in a place that is not queer friendly? What are the implications?
Queer people talk with one another about their experiences with professionalized settings and services – including social service organizations – because of the wealth of examples where the very people who ought to have been helpful and supportive have instead reacted based on assumptions and myth. Subsequently all counsellors, therapists and social support persons are considered suspect until and unless demonstrated otherwise. And for good reason: in order to survive, queer people have highly developed antennae for homophobia and transphobia.
We need to attend to these things in order for us to bring our sharpest skills to the helping encounter. The social context for queer people must be attended to first, to clear the way for responsive work. The reach of heterosexism, homophobia and transphobia extends through all societal institutions and social practices, right into our heads. Examination of our values and assumptions, of language and organizational practices, is required even before we sit to do the work.
 Cisgender is the term used when a person’s gender identity and expression corresponds with their biological sex.
 Heterosexism is the prevailing ideology and culturally sanctioned systems which together institutionalize a preference for and assumption of heterosexuality. It is often manifested through homophobia – the fear or hatred of gay, lesbian and bisexual people – and transphobia – the fear or hatred of transgender and non–binary gender people.
 Cisnormativity is a combination of the assumption that people are cisgender and all the cultural practices that uphold this assumption. Heteronormativity is a combination of the assumption that people are heterosexual plus all the cultural practices that uphold this assumption.