Celebrating LGBTQ+ Relationships – Coming Out to Intolerant Family Members
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“What I am providing is a role model. Here I am, this ‘out’ guy who is not looking down at the floor and is open and seems kind of happy. I think a lot of the process is the relationship. It’s people connecting on that kind of level.”
David Longmire, Licensed Mental Health Counselor & Psychoanalyst
Prior to the global health crisis, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Americans were already at greater risk of mental health problems, illicit drug-use, and suicide.
Gay and lesbian youth are 3.7 times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers, and transgender teens are almost six times as likely. Even among adults with mental illness, LGBTQ+ adults may experience more serious symptoms than their heterosexual counterparts.
Among LGBTQ+ adults with mental illnesses, 13 percent have a serious mental health diagnosis that substantially interferes with their major life activities. The same is true for only 4 percent of heterosexual adults living with mental illness.
But during the pandemic, many more LGBTQ+ people are struggling with their mental health. Experts are unsure exactly how severe the impact on the LGBTQ+ community. (Data is limited because most state health officials responsible for collecting data on coronavirus cases don’t record details like sexual orientation and gender identity.) Still, the unique impact on the LGBTQ+ community has been reported anecdotally by various sources since the onset of the pandemic.
“Today, because this virus is affecting everyone globally, many LGBTQ+ people have become more isolated from each other and end up alone trying to cope with issues particular to dealing with hostile families, rejecting friends, and/or discrimination at work,” said Lee Zevy, one of the founders of Identity House, a counseling services center for LGBTQ+ people in New York City, in a November article. “These issues coupled with the lack of support can spark intense anxiety, panic, and depression.”
While the lack of social contact has been hard for all of us, for those who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, the effect may be even more intense because of the inability to access usual social outlets and resources like the Identity House that relieve tension and isolation.
For a community whose members often rely on non-family members for support, this is an especially trying situation. “And being forced to live with a family that rejects your life can be especially difficult,” Zevy wrote.
This year, we are honoring National Freedom to Marry Day by interviewing an expert in treating LGBTQ+ clients, David Longmire, to ask him about the challenges that LGBTQ+ individuals are still facing in the 2020s.
Meet the Expert: Licensed Mental Health Counselor & Psychoanalyst David Longmire
David Longmire came out and moved to New York City in his 20s, just after the Stonewall riots of 1969, which launched a new era of resistance and revolution within the LGBTQ+ community in the U.S. He was a longtime member of the Gay Activists Alliance and of Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats. He has been a member of Identity House since the 1970s.
Longmire holds an MA in special education from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree from Yale University’s school of music. He has been in private practice since 1996, treating members of the LGBTQ+ community, providing couple’s counseling, therapy for artists and creatives, life purpose coaching, and therapy for trauma healing and resolution.
Gestalt therapy, Longmire’s main therapeutic influence, is a form of psychotherapy that intends to increase personal responsibility and focuses on the patient’s experience in the present moment. It emphasizes the therapist-client relationship, the environmental and social contexts of a person’s life, and the self-regulating adjustments people make as a result of their overall situations.
Growing up, many LGBTQ+ individuals experience blocks that prevent them from being their true selves, such as having unsupportive families or living in less progressive communities. Gestalt therapy is ideal because it helps them find ways to live more open, spontaneous, fulfilled lives.
“I try to help people get in touch with both their feelings and their thoughts and to integrate them,” Longmire said. “The idea behind Gestalt is that we’re kind of born into the world with the capability of being whole persons, but that people have problems because of bad parenting or society, which causes people to create blocks to being full-functioning.”
“What I am providing is a role model. Here I am, this ‘out’ guy who is not looking down at the floor and is open and seems kind of happy,” Longmire said. “I think a lot of the process is the relationship. It’s people connecting on that kind of level.”
Helping People Come Out With Gestalt Therapy
A person’s decision to “come out” may depend on some of the following factors:
- “If the individual feels comfortable about their sexuality and how happy they are to talk about it.
- How well the person knows their parents and how close they are as a family.
- Whether the timing seems right or not.
- The support available from friends.
- Family issues such as religion.
- How dependent someone is on his or her parents.
- Safety at home.
- How much the person knows about the issue.
- If an individual is uncertain for many years they may choose to wait.”
When it comes to advising clients on whether or not they should come out, Longmire takes a somewhat backseat approach.
“As a therapist, I actually don’t give advice, because I want them to come to their own conclusions. Instead, I question them,” he said. Such questions may include:
- What is it like that you have to hide something very important about yourself and not be able to talk about it?
- What is it like when your family asks you if you have found a heterosexual partner to get married to?
- And what is it like to talk to a professional and be able to speak freely?
“Usually, they are in conflict about wanting to stay involved with a parent or loved one who is difficult, but also wanting to either set boundaries or perhaps break away,” Longmire said. “I just have them talk from all those places and then they come to their own conclusions by leaning into what feels right to them.”
For someone that is having difficulty coming out to their parents, it can be advantageous to take more time in the therapeutic process to unpack their thoughts and feelings instead of pressuring a patient into having the conversation.
“I might get the sense that if I go too fast with them, they’re just going to have a lot of trouble. A lot of coaches get kind of into cheerleading and say, ‘Oh you really should come out. You’re going to be so much happier if you do.’ If someone tells them they have to change, they’ll go underground; they just won’t do it, and then they won’t talk about it. The thing is to go really slow with a client like that.”
Coping with Being LGBTQ+ in Unsupportive Communities
Certain clients may be faced with more difficult circumstances than others. Even in a progressive place like New York City, Longmire comes in contact with individuals that fear discrimination and judgment from the people close to them.
“One of the problems that we still face in New York City in terms of freedom for LGBTQ+ people is among the small communities of, for example, Indian families, Chinese families, and different South American families. Often these people are coming from countries that are traditionally homophobic and people are living in these pockets in Queens or Brooklyn as if they’re back in the old country. It’s very, very hard for some of these LGBTQ+ people to come out,” Dr. Longmire said.
For these individuals, it’s especially important to find support outside of the family. For those that are still grappling with revealing their true identities, it is an especially difficult time, as resources have been limited by the pandemic.
According to research, strong family bonds, safe schools and workplaces and support from caring families can all protect LGBTQ+ individuals from depression and suicide.
In a study published in the Journal of Child and Psychiatric Nursing, LGBTQ+ youth with supportive, affirming families reported higher levels of self-esteem and of overall health. Those with the least accepting families were more than three times as likely to consider and attempt suicide compared to those with highly supportive families.
“It’s important to do your best to have people in your life who are supportive, whether it’s gay people or heterosexual people, family or friendships. Have relationships that support one another,” Longmire said.
But for some, the best option is to consider changing your circumstances rather than trying to change people’s minds.
“Ideally, if you live in a red state, maybe you can find the same kind of job in a blue state and start a new life where you will feel more comfortable,” Longmire said.
However, convincing a client to make life-altering decisions is easier said than done. It can be a long process between the therapist and the client, baby step by baby step.
“Over a long time, they may start making little changes. Unfortunately, some people settle for what their existence is like or they’ll just stop doing therapy. I’m always disappointed when somebody stops. When someone settles for their situation, I try to make sure that they’re aware that this is their choice and it’s none of my business to try to convince you that you should do something else, but they kind of get the idea of what I really want for them. I would like them to come out and be their own person and connect with somebody they really love.”
Teletherapy: A Boon or a Barrier?
One positive aspect about the pandemic has been the rising prevalence of teletherapy. Since the onset of the global health crisis, online services and private practitioners that have begun offering sessions online have seen demand for their services soar. Identity House, the New York-based organization that Longmire has long been affiliated with, is also offering virtual sessions.
However, for those that live at home with family and haven’t come out, at-home, video-based therapy can be difficult or impossible because of a lack of privacy.
“It’s especially hard now with Covid because it used to be that they would take a train to 14th street and come to the walk-in center at Identity House and enter a totally different world from what they experience at home in their tiny neighborhoods in Queens or Brooklyn. But they can’t do that now because they’re stuck at home,” Longmire said.
For those that struggle with a need for privacy, texting or email therapy services, which are offered by BetterHelp, Ginger and Talkspace, can be a good compromise—although perhaps not a cure-all—for the time being. The long-term effects of the damage that the pandemic has caused to the vulnerable community are still yet to be seen.