Well, no. In a perfect world it wouldn’t matter. It should be the case that despite how a person identifies, they feel safe to work with any counsellor. Yet time and again I hear clients tell me that it makes a huge difference to know they are working with a gay person or someone who knows something about the challenges that are common within different elements of the LGBTQ+ community.
One thing that is important to emphasise is that the value does not lie in shared experience. I am not convinced that it is always helpful to work with a counsellor who has been through experiences too similar to your own. From a professional perspective over-identification can be problematic in therapy. There is also no guarantee that a counsellor and a client will have any shared experience, despite both being members of the LGBTQ+ community. It may be the case that a cis gay counsellor and a cis gay client have some similar life experiences and therefore share an understanding of certain cultural norms but there is a huge gulf of inexperience between, say, a cis gay male and any other part of the queer community.
The value of LGBTQ+ Counselling lies in the unique therapeutic space that is offered. A space where empathy, respect and safety is offered and experienced. There are many wonderful straight counsellors who can work empathically with LGBTQ+ people. Sadly, many queer people just do not feel safe to express themselves openly and for good reason. Attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people in the UK are changing, but not all spaces are safe. Prejudice is experienced by all elements of the LGBTQ+ community, but it is particularly devastating to witness how openly trans people are regularly disrespected or abused. When training to be a counsellor, my school delivered excellent diversity education; it was always something to be considered when working with each client. Despite this, I was shocked by some of the attitudes and prejudices that were expressed by a small number of peers towards LGBTQ+ people. I remember feeling angry and later being told by both a peer and a tutor that I was ‘too angry’ when expressing my shock. Rather than diminishing this anger, it inspired me to ensure that I offered a therapeutic space that was welcoming to all queer people.
Not all LGBTQ+ people are the same, but in my experience of working with LGBTQ+ clients there is one anchor to which we seem to return again and again; that is shame. There are hundreds of excellent books written on the topic of shame. Although London Pride is now under public scrutiny for allegations of bullying and exclusivity, when Pride events were first conceived they were intended to be political protests and celebrations. The purpose was to be the antithesis of shame: the celebration of acceptance of self. For many LGBTQ+ people, shame is something that they are encouraged to feel from a very early age. People who live ‘out and proud’ still sometimes feel ashamed of their identity or even feel proud for others but not themselves. Queer clients often apologise to me when talking about their sex lives. Why?! Perhaps because it is offensive to others or has been labelled so in the past.
For LGBTQ+ people, exploring common, everyday experiences in therapy is often tentative; the counsellor’s responses are carefully observed as clients look for those familiar, judgemental facial expressions. Knowing that it is safe to talk is vital for effective therapy. This safety, in itself has therapeutic value.
When meeting a client from the LGBTQ+ community for the first time, I know that we are not the same. What we do share is the knowledge that we are both members of the same community. Hopefully, we have respect for each other and prize one another. This is fertile ground for challenging many of the hurtful and damaging experiences carried from the past.