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LGBTQ People of Color and Therapy

I recently talked with Daniel Quintana, LMFT, one of several Gay Therapy Center therapists who specialize in work with LGBTQ clients of color.

Here are some highlights of our conversation about being an LGBTQ person of color, how race informs LGBTQ therapy, and how white folks can support their friends of color.

Adam Blum: Are there some of the common themes you see in working with clients who are people of color and also identify as LGBTQ?

Daniel Quintana: I often see a core theme around belonging. All humans want to feel seen and heard for who they are among the different intersections of their identity. It can be challenging for LGBTQ people of color to find spaces where they can feel safe to be fully themselves, while also being heard and seen. LGBTQ folks can gather in various pockets like the drag scene or the bear scene. LGBTQ people of color often struggle to find places where they feel like they are fully accepted as part of the group, even within the diverse expressions of the LGBTQ community.

I notice my clients of color are longing for representation. They hunger for empathy that can mirror to them their unique experiences and identities.

I also see a good deal of depression and anxiety among my clients. Many feel constantly on guard, with worry that they will be harmed. Many if not all of these sessions are focused on healing trauma and creating a safe space just to exist.

Adam: What are some challenges that LGBTQ clients of color can experience inside of the therapist’s office?

Daniel: To answer that question I can share my own experience as a client in therapy. Each of my therapists have identified as LGBTQ and that’s been quite affirming. However I did have the experience of working with white therapists where my experiences as a person of color were dismissed. The therapist tried to justify why the person I was involved with would act in a way that felt racist to me. It took me a while to realize that I was shutting down in the therapy room for fear of being invalidated.

It wasn’t until I started working with an LGBTQ therapist of color that I realized that the shutting down I experienced with my previous therapists was directly linked to experiences of racism when I was a child. I was essentially being retraumatized.

If you see defensiveness in a therapist that is a big red flag. Sadly, some clients may experience this with a therapist and may be turned off to therapy forever.

Adam: What’s your advice to white allies, whether they are therapists, friends, or colleagues of a person of color?

Daniel: When supporting a person of color I like to stress impact versus intention. Most people, when they offend someone say, “But my intention was xyz.” But before you try to explain your intention, the impact needs to be addressed. If you start with your intention, that dismisses the person even more, and creates a divide that can harm again the individual.

In any situation where someone you care about feels hurt, focus on the impact first. Start with an authentic “I am sorry,” and actively listen to what the individual is expressing and needing. Then, maybe there will be an opening for further discussion and explanation of the intention but with an awareness to not dismiss the individual’s experience.

To reduce our own defensiveness, it’s important to recognize that we will fumble when talking about experiences like race, sexuality, or gender identify. I identify as a gay cis-gender man of color and I know I am going to make mistakes. Recognizing this helps me not go into shock when I get something wrong about race. Instead I can immediately lean into repair by acknowledging my misstep, listening intently, and then take appropriate action.

My advice is to just show up. Just showing up is enough. Showing up, for me, requires action and it’s important to also follow through. Empathically listening and being present is also enough. When we do, we never know how we are impacting someone.

Ultimately learning is the key to growth. There are so many great books. The two that come up for me right away are Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Joy DeDruy and Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience by Shelia Wise Row. Both do a great job at discussing the realities and effects of racial trauma that is passed down through the generations, and gives voice and makes space for the discussion of how we can begin to heal.

Adam: What do you think are some of the benefits of being a LGBTQ person of color?

Daniel: I’m noticing a higher level of resilience among these clients. When you deal with a variety of experiences of oppression prejudice over a lifetime, it can make you stronger.

And once clients have learned to create space for themselves and feel safe and heard, they create spaces for others. I see a high level of creativity in my clients often expressed in art but also simply in how they show up for their chosen career and personal lives. It becomes integrated into their world.

Adam: And why do you love this work?

Daniel: “When sitting with my clients I also like to remind myself of the words of Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I know the importance of what it feels like to be heard and seen in the beautiful multifaceted complexity that makes us all human. I want to give to others what wasn’t given to me. I see the importance of creating intentional space to build trust and safety. That is my intention every single day when I sit with a client. It also reminds me to make space for myself as well. It’s a cycle that keeps me nourished in all parts of my wholeness in who I am and what my purpose is.

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