A couple of years ago, I was asked in an interview about my values as a therapist, and I replied that affirmative practice with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity (GSRD) was something that mattered a lot to me.
The interviewer then asked me if this meant I was going about telling my clients it was better for them to be gay and trans than straight and cis.
Normally I tell this story because I find it really funny, but in retrospect that awkward exchange revealed something useful. ‘Affirmative practice’ might be the best and most concise term queer and queer allied therapists have at the moment to express a particular set of therapeutic values, but that doesn’t mean it expresses those values in a way that is clear to everyone.
After a great discussion on this topic with some of my lovely colleagues from Rainbow Therapy in Scotland, I thought I’d use this blog post to share three ideas that sum up what ‘affirmative practice’ means to me, personally.
1. I celebrate the diversity of human sexuality, gender, gender expression, and preferred relationship styles. I don’t believe that there is one way of being that is inherently more natural, more moral, or healthier than the others.
This means that what is right for each client will be individual to that person. When a client is questioning their identity, I don’t have an agenda about what conclusion I want them to reach.
At the same time, I fully acknowledge that the equal value of people of all identities unfortunately doesn’t equate to equal experiences in the world. How you identify and what kinds of relationship you pursue will likely have an impact on your life.
This is the reason that I’m very loud in my belief that being an LGBTQ+ person is a beautiful and wonderful thing. Not because I believe it’s better to be LGBTQ+ than straight and cis, but because being straight and cis have always been seen as the natural, moral and healthy way to be. Because being lesbian, gay, bi, asexual, queer, non-binary and/or trans have been stigmatised and pathologized for so long, and I need you to know that this is not what you will experience in my online therapy room.
2. When you tell me who you are, I believe you.
My job as a therapist is about being curious – about how you experience the world, how you see yourself, what brings you joy, what has been difficult. It is not about me labelling you or telling you what course of action to pursue. It’s about asking more questions rather than making assumptions. I say this a lot, but I really do believe that YOU are the expert on you.
3. I welcome every version of you.
When I was a teenager I thought that I had to wait until I was 100% sure before I came out or even spoke about questioning my identity, because it would be too awful if I was wrong and had to do it all over again. Since then I’ve come out too many times to count (sorry teen Colette, it turns out your announcement was not automatically broadcast by the BBC so you have to tell every important new person in your life, it’s dead annoying). I’ve also tried out a bunch of different identity labels and ways of presenting myself over the years.
I want my clients to know that counselling is a safe space for exploring and experimenting. If you want me to use a different name or pronoun for you, or present yourself differently than you normally would, this is a place where you can try it out without consequence in the ‘real’ world. You can change it up as much as you’d like!
I want to say the same thing to you that I would like to say to my teen self: it’s okay to be unsure. It’s okay to not know the right words for it just yet. It’s okay to change your mind, and then change it again. And if you do change your mind in the future, that doesn’t invalidate the version of you who exists right now. We all evolve, as people, and in our perspectives. You deserve to be respected for who you are in the moment, at each moment.