Trauma doesn’t always look like we expect it to: its origins aren’t always clear-cut and tangible, nor its symptoms obvious.
So if you’re an LGBTQ+ individual seeking support for yourself or a loved one who identifies as queer, understanding the nuances of trauma in the queer community is an incredibly powerful starting point in the path to healing.
Here are three helpful things to know about trauma in the LGBTQ+ community: where trauma habitually originates, how it tends to present, and the proven treatment options.
1. Trauma in the LGBTQ+ community can stem from both overt and insidious mistreatment
While some traumatic events – e.g., assault, physical bullying – are clear, others have less obvious impacts. It is these same, smaller sources that are also often ongoing, and may accumulate into trauma.
Some of the potential sources of trauma for queer and trans* individuals include such things as:
- Mental, emotional, or physical violence: At home, on the street, or in school.
- Discrimination based on gender expression: At school or the workplace.
- Being forced to use a restroom that does not align with their gender identity or presentation: And in which they experience increased risk of violence.
- Inadequate or lack of appropriate sex education.
- Homelessness after being forced out of their home: Once in the shelter system, queer and trans* youth and adults can experience the same discrimination and increased risk of violence and abuse in their homes or schools.
- Knowing other people like you are targeted with deadly violence: Incidences of hate based homicides of queer and trans* people has increased over the past five years, demonstrating that this form of consistent terror and trauma.
- Having lost a loved one to hate violence.
- Constantly having pronouns disregarded, whether in everyday conversation with friends or with an authority figure.
2. Trauma symptoms may be more complex, due to the ongoing nature of the trauma
All of the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that a straight, cisgender person may experience, a queer and/or trans* person will also experience. Classic symptoms of PTSD can affect all people, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.
With queer and trans* people, PTSD symptoms may be prolonged because of Complex PTSD, a diagnosis in the ICD 11 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 11th Edition). Complex PTSD recognizes the ongoing nature of some forms of trauma, and is distinct from PTSD as it is the result of repetitive or ongoing exposure to the threat of violence.
Common symptoms of trauma, both complex and otherwise, may include:
- Increased or prolonged anxiety and/or depression.
- Increased negative self-talk, since many LGBTQ+ clients internalize the cissexism and heterosexism they're exposed to.
- Re-experiencing traumatic experiences, through intrusive memories, flashbacks or nightmares.
- Persistent fear of threat or violence.
- Gender dysphoria, which may be present due to the incongruence with how a trans or gender-nonconforming person knows themselves, and how they are treated by the world around them
- Thoughts of harming themselves or thoughts of suicide.
- Dissociative experiences, which may present as minimally as missing parts or whole conversations to feeling like they are not connected to or “in” their body
- Increased relationship-based conflicts.
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol, frequently used to numb other symptoms.
- Low self-esteem.
- Isolation, which may be self-induced.
If you notice these symptoms in your loved one, you can be a positive force of change in their life by encouraging them to get help.
3. Various therapy types can help LGBTQ+ clients find relief; what’s most important is non-judgmental care
Based on my research of therapeutic practices with trans and gender-nonconforming clients, the most effective – and yet basic – treatment is the provision of a non-judgmental space.
To that effect, person-centered approach (such as the approach developed by Carl Rogers), is the best place to start treatment with a trans or gender-nonconforming client, and by extension queer people as well.
This can look like:
- Psychodynamic practices, which can help clients understand how their early childhood experiences of heterosexism and cissexism have impacted their current relationships.
- Narrative therapy, which has been helpful for many folks in developing more ownership over their identities, bodies, and experiences, particularly for trans and gender-nonconforming clients.
- Cognitive Behavioral tools, used to help clients suss out their negative self-talk and identify some of the sources of those ideas.
- Using somatic or other body-based mindfulness practices. These can help clients tap into their physical sensations which hold so much information about our experiences and history
- Support and therapy groups, which help normalize experiences and reduce isolation
- Allowing clients to self-identify their sexual identity and their gender identity, as opposed to presuming based on therapist observations
- Exploring their individual meaning for the terms they use for themselves. These terms may shift and change over time, and client’s understanding of the evolution of these terms is also worth exploring and perhaps an evolution of those terms that they may have experienced.
If you or someone you know has experienced trauma, or any of the symptoms described above, don’t let them get worse. Isolation intensifies these symptoms, and can make it harder to heal.
Healing needs to happen not just in clinical settings, but also in our homes and communities. If you recognize these symptoms in a loved one or yourself, know that therapy can help – and become a vital part of the journey to healing and support.
*"Trans" here refers to all gender identities under the transgender umbrella.