In many parts of the black community, therapy is not something that we do. Especially if you’re queer.
After all, deep and pervasive stigma exists when it comes to mental healthcare and people of color, based largely on barriers to access and racial disparities in the field. In 2013, over 83 percent of working psychologists were white, and though African Americans face more mental illness than white people, we tend to seek out mental health treatment at half the rate of whites. LGBTQ people also face mental illness at three times the rate of non-queer people.
As a queer person of color, I can personally see why people might be reluctant to seek treatment. My first three psychologists were all “nice” white women, but I often found that my therapy sessions ended up being hour long onslaughts of racial and heteronormative microaggressions. I was made to constantly defend my sexuality and my way of life, or answer questions about why I preferred to use African American vernacular English when I was so “articulate.” One suggested I was exploring relationships with women simply because I was fed up with men. Another suggested that I “ignore” the racial aggressions I faced at school, as if it’s that simple. I felt like my words were heard but not really understood, and it seemed to me that a vast ocean of cultural differences existed between us that negatively impacted my relationship with therapy.
“When racial and ethnic minority individuals do receive mental health care, it is often of lower quality than that received by their white, non-Latino counterparts,” concluded a recent study published in the Journal of Counseling. And sometimes, that mental health care “includes client experiences of intentional or unintentional discrimination.” For people of color, the experiences I faced with my therapists are all too common. But when I managed to find a black queer therapist who accepted my health insurance after months of searching, she changed my life.
She was able to address my trauma at all of its various intersections, and therapy became an important ritual to me, rather than a medical appointment. She brought spirituality into my mental health experience, something I found lacking in my previous encounters. It was a breath of fresh air—and an experience too few queer people of color find themselves able to share.
These days, we have more resources that are bolstering QTPOC-centered therapy, like the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network and the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, but it’s still not enough. Breaking the stigma that exists for POC around therapy is the first step—and to that end, we asked three queer people of color how they found mental healthcare that worked for them, and their tips for how others can do the same.
I was born in Richmond, Virginia to a white mom and a black dad; I then moved to and grew up in a small town in New Jersey, where I was raised in a homogenous environment. My mom and stepfather put me in therapy in the second grade after noticing how angry I was. Being queer and multiracial with little context of my family of color made life really hard at a young age, and had me acting out in every way possible.
Therapy was always a process of healing for me, even from the beginning. It was the only place I ever felt listened to or cared for, and it’s where I formed most of my reliable relationships with adults throughout my childhood. It allowed me to grow on my own terms—I faced verbal abuse at home, and had no outlet to express my anger and frustration. As I got older my trauma and mental illness shifted, and I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in 2012 after a hospital stay. A couple years of antipsychotics later, it turns out that my doctors had failed and misdiagnosed me. I should have been diagnosed with PTSD. In my head this felt like a process of control and misunderstanding, because I was surrounded by white people who wanted to control me. As soon as I started speaking to doctors of color, I was given more information on how to heal and grow from previous experiences.
It’s hard to navigate psychology as a QTPOC. It’s a process of digging and searching and asking for help to find the right therapist. I only recently found a therapist who is a woman of color and psychiatrist who is a man of color. It wasn’t until I worked with doctors of color that I felt heard and seen—like they actually cared about me. Through them, I have come up with the best coping mechanisms and care plans I’ve had to date. After all, how can someone treat you if they can’t relate to you? Looking for people who looked like me and had a similar life experience changed my life.
I am a bisexual Jamaican-American woman; I currently work at a Boston community health center that specializes in LGBTQ healthcare called Fenway Health. I organize community outreach events, such as workshops, film screenings, and panels, that support the physical, mental, and social health of LGBTQ women.
While this environment supported my intersectional identities, I did not seek therapy myself until earlier this year, after a breakup. I originally sought therapy to mend my first heartbreak, but my therapist has helped me delve into past and present personal issues around body image, activist burnout, childhood trauma, relationships with intimate partners, friends, and family members, and so much more. It’s helped me understand that past trauma, no matter how much we try to suppress it, always affects how we navigate present spaces and relationships. My therapist has given me the awareness to acknowledge them and communicate how they affect me in current relationships.
Like many in the Boston queer and transgender community, I have therapy at the Meeting Point, a collective of independent body workers and mental health practitioners who specialize in meeting the needs of LGBTQ individuals. I love having therapy that it is queer-informed. And while I was unable to find a therapist who was both queer and a person of color, I have a great relationship with my current therapist, a queer white woman. However, I still advocate that queer and trans people of color find therapists of color; as queer people of color, our experiences are informed by our intersecting identities, and a therapist who understands the reality of these identities can help our community heal from intersectional trauma.
I’m an Afro-Boricua, an African American Puerto Rican, and I live with depression and inattentive-type ADHD. I’m also a nonbinary queer boi. My queerness is a statement of identification as well as of political intent. I often say that I’m “good” at therapy, and that’s where I get my wealth of mid-crisis grounding exercises. I’ve always been a gender nonconforming kid, but in 7th grade I came out to my mother and have been in therapy on and off ever since.
When I came out, I was the one who sought out therapy. My mother didn’t speak to me for three days, but she eventually agreed, even though, as she put it, “we don’t do that.” But I think she thought it would “fix” my queerness. So I started seeing my first therapist, an older white straight woman. That’s how I learned I had no rights as a queer minor. She encouraged me to open up about complicated feelings about my mother and suicidal ideation, and then at the end of my sessions would tell it all to my mom.
I’ve seen four other therapists since and five psychiatrists. I’m currently seeing an excellent queer therapist at a practice that centers queer people—it even has trans and POC practitioners. And I’m crying even thinking about that, because that is some revolutionary shit. My therapist has become my guide through this murkiness that I have to accept is forever a part of my life. He provides a level of safety that’s impossible outside that room; it’s somewhere I can go deep into my emotional shadow realm, a place that inspires me to create art but scares the shit out of me. Therapy has saved my life and my relationships.
Having QTPOC represented in therapy is crucial. It can be the difference between someone like me going to therapy or not, between therapeutic practices being harmful or healing. People are often at their most vulnerable when seeking help, and it sucks to have to explain basic aspects of your humanity to educate your therapist. While it should be a requirement, cultural competency is a specialty one must seek out.
Arielle Gray is a Boston-based writer, journalist and artist. Follow her on Twitter.