What Does "Queering Psychology" Mean?

LGBTQ+ psychology, mental health, and well-being.

Posted Feb 03, 2020

Author's own.
I'm Whit, the author behind this blog.
Source: Author's own.

One of my visions for 2020 was to begin to column and author a blog named "Queering Psychology," a place where LGBTQ+ folks and their family, friends, clinicians, and allies could come together to learn about queer mental health, identity, psychological well-being, and needs of the LGBTQ+ community.

Just last year, the American Psychological Association (APA) officially embraced and encouraged the use of the singular "they" as the gender-inclusive alternative to "he" and "she" (more on that in future posts).

The last decade saw great strides for diversity in regard to sexual orientation and gender. Today, I will briefly overview where we've come in terms of LGBTQ+ psychology and the road we have yet to travel.

Defining "Queer Psychology" 

"Queering," in this context, means to look at the field of psychology, common terms, definitions, and concepts through the lens of queerness—outside the framework of heteronormativity, which is the cultural assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and that everyone fits the gender binary. It means looking at psychology through a culturally sensitive lens, responding in affirming ways to minority gender and sexual identities.

The name came inspired to me by the APA, which released an important book in 2017, Teaching LGBTQ Psychology: Queering Innovative Pedagogy. The APA's vision in releasing this book was to approach "sexual and gender diversity from a resilience, wellness-focused framework, with the overall goal of furthering social justice for LGBTQ individuals." It's a beautiful (and much needed) vision if you ask me.

The idea behind this book is to begin to train therapists to competently address the unique needs of our community, from coming-out issues to affirmative language and terminology, to the "impact of history, identity, culture, and community on various aspects of functioning for LGBTQ individuals," amongst other themes. The APA acknowledges that this is an area where many graduate training programs of therapists fall short; one belonging to a minority group identity such as gay or transgender doesn't mean they automatically possess the skills to treat the mental health needs of our community. (And yes, I do identify as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in a few different and intersecting ways.)

Why Does Queer Psychology Matter?

With the dawning of a new decade (OK, if we're getting technical, some say the new decade doesn't start until 2021, but for simplicity's sake, stick with me), I want to take a moment and recognize the progress our psychological community has made with the treatment of (and affirmation of) lesbian, transgender, gay, bisexual, queer (and more) folks.

The psychological community has a contentious history with the LGBTQ+ community, but we've begun a process of amends. It wasn't that long ago that the DSM, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, deemed homosexuality as a "psychiatric disorder." In 1973, the APA ruled in a historic moment that being gay was no longer a psychiatric illness, stating, "Clearly homosexuality per se does not meet these requirements: Many homosexuals are satisfied with their sexual orientation and demonstrate no generalized impairment." It wouldn't be until 1987 that it was fully removed from the DSM, and one Psychology Today author describes the history of this quite succinctly.

In 1998, the APA issued a firm statement: "The APA opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as 'reparative' or 'conversion' therapy." Thank goodness. The Trevor Project, an organization focused on suicide prevention for the LGBTQ community, notes that conversion therapy amplifies the shame, self-hatred, and stigma so many LGBTQ people already experience, leading to increased rates of depression, attempted suicide, and self-destructive behavior. 

In 2001, United States Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report stating, "There is no valid scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed." This was significant progress, undeniably paving the way for a society that would allow important civil rights to follow.

But, there is a distinction between not seeing gayness as a mental disorder and treating and tending to the mental health needs of the LGBTQ+ community with skill and grace. The APA has affirmed the need to tend to the LGBTQ communities' mental health needs in a more nuanced way. In 2000, the APA issued its first set of guidelines specific to our community.

Progress Starts With Education 

Despite being a trained therapist from a social justice-oriented psychology program, most of what I know about gender and sexual identity has been self-taught through my own research and engagement with my community. For many therapist training programs, sexual and gender minorities' needs are often treated as an afterthought rather than an integral part of our curriculum.

And therapist or not, it can be hard to keep up with the plethora of terms around LGBTQ+ folks' identity (this list includes nearly 90 terms). Our community is ever-evolving and expanding; even as a gay person myself, it can be hard to keep up! (Have you ever heard of skoliosexual?)

We're in an era of increasing gender fluidity, social acceptance of LGBTQ+ folks, and expanding civil rights. Still, though, public knowledge and education lag behind. We've come so far, and yet we have a ways to go. 

When laws are passed, or influential organizations like the American Psychological Association recognize a need for more culturally sensitive services, that doesn't mean society as a whole jumps on board. While the APA is down with "they" as a singular pronoun, I'd guess most of society doesn't understand it. I've had dear friends within the LGBT community ask me to explain my non-binary gender identity to them. 

But fear not. Progress starts with education—and that is my hope here. Whether you are here for your own personal development or to better understand a family member, client, or friend, I hope you will follow along as I answer common questions and write about mental health issues (and needs) within the LGBTQ+ community. 

In upcoming posts, I hope to explore: 

And until next time, I invite you to explore the many resources linked throughout this post!