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social sciences

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Working through coming out issues with a client means that a counselor will need to deal with preparations for a client's disclosure, as well as difficulties related to this process, such as stress, substance abuse, or depression. Sometimes a client who decides to come out is already in a heterosexual marriage. As this decision will greatly affect spouses and children, it is vital for the counselor to work with family members during the process.

The family of origin is another significant area of concern. Family members may react negatively to homosexuality or transgenderism; indeed, sometimes people experience mental or physical abuse or are kicked out of their homes. Thus, the counselor would need to help the client process feelings of loss and grief.

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People from particular ethnic, racial, or religious backgrounds may encounter additional difficulties. For instance, glbtq people of color who are in the closet may have their family (and cultural community) as a strong source of support in a racist society. By coming out, there is the risk of losing this valuable support system. Moreover, glbtq people of color may experience racism in the glbtq community. These aspects of multiple oppressions are important for counselors to recognize.

The counselor must also be attentive to internalized homophobia and transphobia among clients. Society is constantly sending negative messages about homosexuality and transgenderism. Such messages, often transmitted in families, peer groups, schools, religious institutions, and the media, can lead to self-hatred or depression. Bisexuals may be especially affected by these feelings, as they are typically marginalized by both the straight and gay communities.

It is important for the counselor to understand that many glbtq clients struggle with spiritual issues. Religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity have traditionally fostered negative attitudes towards non-normative genders and sexualities. Yet even while encountering hostility and rejection by institutionalized religions, glbtq people may be drawn to spiritual practice as a way to deal with societal oppression. Thus, for example, a counselor may have to help a client deal with being a member of homophobic or transphobic religious community or help him or her find a more accepting religious space.

A final consideration is the prevalence of substance abuse in the glbtq community. The counselor should be aware that social stresses due to homophobia, transphobia, and may lead to increased levels of substance use. Moreover, dating and socialization opportunities for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered are still often limited to environments that encourage drinking, such as bars and clubs. It is also difficult to find glbtq-friendly substance abuse treatment programs and support groups, particularly in suburban and rural areas.

Recommendations for Counselors

There are a number of ways for counselors, whether schooled in psychodynamic, behavioral, or humanistic therapeutic methods, to serve members of the glbtq community sensitively and effectively.

First of all, sexual and gender diversity need to be viewed as natural variations of the human condition. Next, it is vital to acknowledge that heterosexism, homophobia, and transphobia exist, and to recognize the various impacts that different forms of societal and institutionalized oppression have on people in the glbtq community.

To indicate a glbtq-friendly practice to potential clients, counselors should create an affirming office environment. This can be done with conspicuous glbtq-oriented posters and stickers, as well as books and magazines. Once the session has begun, counselors should not automatically assume that their clients are heterosexual. Thus, to take one example, the word "partner" should be substituted for "husband" or "wife."

Counselors should also refrain from labeling their clients and instead allow them to describe themselves as they wish. In addition, it is important for counselors to be familiar and comfortable with glbtq terminology; it should not be the responsibility of the client to have to educate their counselor.

It is vital for counselors previously to have examined and be comfortable with their own sexual and gender identity. They should also recognize their own biases and be aware of topics that may make them uncomfortable or about which they have negative attitudes. Thus, it is necessary for counselors to acknowledge and deal with their own homo/transphobic feelings.

Counselors should understand how factors such as race, class, gender, disability, age, and religious background intersect with sexual orientation and gender diversity; these are issues that affect everyone's lives and influence the counseling relationship as well.

Furthermore, counselors should be knowledgeable about the biological, social, and psychological variables that influence their clients' development, and be aware of the various stages of identity formation that are unique to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

At the same time, counselors should not focus solely on sexual orientation or gender identity when neither is relevant to the presenting problem of a glbtq client. Therefore, depending on why clients are seeking counseling, counselors should take care not to place either too much or too little emphasis on their glbtq identities.

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