LGBTQ+ Sandplay Therapy: Collecting Queer Symbols

Sandplay therapy engages growth and healing through creative self-expression. By having clients represent their process in a sandbox with a diorama of statues, figures, and toys, they engage in symbolic thinking. This imaginative process leads clients to represent and interpret their thoughts, feelings, relationships, and life transitions, allowing for a deeper level of understanding and self-integration.

To become a sandplay therapist, mental health counselors must undergo in-depth training to be certified through organizations like the Sandplay Therapists of America. Starting out with essential archetypes like houses, bridges, animals, heroes, villains, and family figures, sandplay therapists soon become avid collectors, amassing all kinds of cultural symbols to be as inclusive as possible. 

Sandplay therapy has roots in Jungian psychology, which observes the anima (the internal feminine within the masculine) and the animus (the internal masculine within the feminine). Complimentary imagery like Yin and Yang, sun and moon, fire and water can be useful to convey this balance, and yes, one can make their own miniature Drag Kings and Drag Queens with a touch of paint and some doll dresses. 

However, since it can be difficult to find LGBTQ+ representation when shopping for miniatures, let’s explore some recurring themes in LGBTQ+ mental health, and how sandplay therapists can diversify their collection. 

Encapsulation and Gestation

Boxes, boxes, boxes! Treasure chests, garbage cans, fences, prisons, coffins, tombs—and of course, the tell-tale closet! 

Many LGBTQ+ people experience a claustrophobic period of encapsulation, where they may have felt trapped, compartmentalized, or forced into secrecy. Internalizing homophobia and transphobia, they may have hidden their identity from others, or even from themselves. Yet symbols of imprisonment and death are paired with freedom and rebirth, which is why it’s worth keeping a literal lock and a literal key in one’s sandplay collection. Acquire toy birds that fit in toy cages, toy mice that can escape toy traps, blocks to make a labyrinth, Tinkerbell trapped in a lantern, or a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Reconceptualizing this, not all forms of encapsulation are imprisonment. Some may represent periods of internal growth and gestation. A butterfly chrysalis, a seed, an acorn, and an egg all represent inner potential and emergent growth. There are many available toys to represent this, like hatching dragons, or baby sea turtles popping out of the sand. Trees and flowers are also powerful symbols of growth, as are dryads and statues reaching upward.

Threshold and Liminality

Naturally, personal growth can lead a client to many threshold experiences, as they transition from one phase of life to the next.  Doorways, gateways, arches, stage curtains, bridges, tunnels, and of course, the rainbow are all major life crossings. 

These symbols also touch on themes of liminality, as many sexual and gender minorities straddle worlds, with one foot on this side of the door, and one foot on the other. Clients can portray this liminality in many ways, like placing representations of themselves between different social groups or carving deep lines in the sand itself.

Anonymity and Alienation

Humanoid figures who are faceless or featureless engage themes of anonymity and social camouflage. For some, this may represent a disconnect between self and others, or an internal suppression of the self. Masks are a clear example of this social theater, as are wooden mannequins. Yet so, too, are genderless figures, like astronauts in their spacesuits. What makes astronauts so fascinating is that we understand they’re human explorers, without knowing who’s inside the helmet.

Touching on themes of alienation, isolation, and uniqueness, it’s not uncommon for LGBTQ+ clients to associate themselves with nonhuman figures that embody their felt identity, in lieu of a specific sex or gender. Animals are phenomenal archetypes, but make sure to include humanoids like sci-fi aliens and robots, fantasy cryptids or furries, or just artistic statues that are emotive and genderless. 

Multifaceted Identity and Hybridization

Multiple masks may convey a client’s multifaceted identity, so it’s worth having a few around. It’s also worth obtaining figurines that have more than one face, like Hindu deities, chimeras, and hydras. Hybridized creatures like mermaids, minotaurs, satyrs, and centaurs also play an important role here, as do transformational creatures like werewolves and selkies. In essence, these multifaceted legends convey that, “I am more than one.”

When working with clients who are navigating their sexual or gender identity, be mindful of the different figures they use to represent themselves over the course of therapy. These archetypes may emerge and remerge in different sand trays, or show up together or separately, potentially indicating degrees of compartmentalization or integration.

Celebration and Rebellion

Of course, no LGBTQ+ sandplay collection is complete without a splash of pride. Anything rainbow can be celebratory, but consider objects with a subversive use of color, like a hot pink Michelangelo’s David. It’s also worth collecting or making miniature pride flags for the diverse range of LGBTQ+ people there are.

Unicorns became a fabulous mascot for gay men in the 1970s, and for a time, lesbians wielded the labrys, a double-headed ax. Historically, the LGBTQ+ equal rights movement brought an array of positive symbols into our collective consciousness, including bears and otters as gay body types and abstract symbols like the interlocking Mars zodiac and the interlocking Venus zodiac. 

Encounters with oppression also generated powerful symbols reclaimed in defiance, like the use of the Pink Triangle after the holocaust, or the Purple Hand after the San Francisco Examiner dumped printer ink on protestors in 1969. The color purple showed up again in Boston as the Lavender Rhinoceros ad campaign.

Because LGBTQ+ people so often have to reclaim their sense of self, they may repurpose symbolism, so take nothing for granted. Sure, a snake may be the Biblical image of temptation, but it can also be the snake that turned Tiresias into a woman, or a symbol for shedding one’s old skin. 

Recently, the trans community adopted IKEA’s Blåhaj shark plushy as a mascot, and while it’s far too big to be a sandplay toy, don’t be surprised if trans clients view sharks as a guardian instead of predator. Indeed, different LGBTQ+ communities have adopted all kinds of mascots, like frogs, raccoons, possums, and nonbinary bees.

Connection and Disconnection

Clients will group all kinds of figures to represent their friends, family, and romantic relationships, yet it can be nice to include same-sex couples in the collection. There is a diverse array of wedding cake toppers, nongendered creatures like kissing swans, and anthropomorphized frogs holding hands. These delightful displays of affection can also be used to explore themes of loneliness, disconnect, and jealousy when they’re absent in a client’s life, or something they desire.

Going beyond belonging and social connection, it’s also important to include symbols representing connection or disconnection with the self. This can be done via abstract imagery, like broken hearts, puzzle pieces, or figurines of people with holes in their heads or torsos.

To explore the disproportionate rate of body dysphoria and gender dysmorphia in the LGBTQ+ community, it’s worth keeping busts, headless torsos, figures missing genitalia, disembodied penises, vulva, buttocks, and breasts, and characters with cartoonishly exaggerate anatomy. 

These additions to one’s collection may also be used in explorations of sexual desire, self-actualization, and gender euphoria, as well as issues pertaining to objectification and fetishization. Getting creative, one can even make gender-explorative figures by wrapping bandages around a character’s chest to represent binding, using doll hair as wigs, or painting a character half pink and half blue.

Masculinity, Femininity, and Androgyny

While figurines of men and women are common, it’s important to include a range of physical forms from the hyper-masculine, masculine, and hypo-masculine, to the hyper-feminine, feminine, and hypo-feminine. It’s also important to include a range of body types, ages, and diverse archetypes, as both men and women can be rulers, warriors, healers, scientists, academics, builders and so on, of any age, shape, and size.

Yet, consider there is more than one kind of androgyny. For some, androgyny is a nested duality—for others, it’s a blend, or it exceeds the masculine and feminine to create something new. This is where shapeshifters and genderless angels can be quite powerful, as well as androgynous deities like Hermaphrodite and Ardhanarishvara. 

Sacred and Profane

Though there are many LGBTQ+ myths around the world, they’re not always well known, which is why it’s worth including accessible imagery. For example, while a client may not know Hermaphrodite or Ardhanarishvara, their androgyny is self-explanatory. Consider Hellenistic figures like the satyr Pan teaching the boy Daphne how to play the panpipes, or the Three Graces embracing one another. Consider primal totemic gods like Cernunnos, or Gaia figures like the Venus of Willindorf. Consider same-sex figures in passionate embrace, or lone figures in suggestive positions. They all transcend time by connecting to themes of love, empowerment, gratification, acceptance, and libido.  

Because sexuality and gender identity are so core, they’re expressed through both sacred and profane imagery that can be quite serious, spiritual, sensual, and silly. Comical gods like the phallic Priapus, and religious figures like the yonic Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, all have their place in the sand. There are even depictions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary painted in both rainbow and trans-pride colors, which can be interpreted as loving acceptance or irreverent irony, depending on the client’s use of it. 

One must remember how the LGBTQ+ community has been ostracized and excommunicated by many religious institutions, forcing LGBTQ+ people to reconcile the spiritual with the sexual in many unique ways. 

Resonance and Relatability

There are some amazing LGBTQ+ characters on TV these days for clients to resonate with and relate to, yet very few end up with a toy line. That said, there are some easy ones to acquire, including bisexual and pansexual characters like Superboy, Constantine, Kitty Pride, Wonder Woman, and Deadpool; gay characters like Northstar and Ice Man; lesbian characters like the crimson-haired Bat Woman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy; and shapeshifting characters like Loki and Mystique.

Cartoon characters also worth adding include Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen from Adventure Time, Velma from Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny, and most of the cast from Steven Universe and the Crystal Gems. While there are many more LGBTQ+ cartoons, including The Owl House, Dead End: Paranormal Park, She-Ra and the Princess of Power, and online cartoons like Helluva Boss, they were never really picked up for a toy line, leaving fans to create their own with 3D printers.

To this end, it’s worth visiting creators on Etsy and eBay since more and more people are putting their work out there, and there’s nothing more inclusive or relatable in a sandplay collection than LGBTQ+ figures made by LGBTQ+ artists.

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Alex Stitt, LMHC

Writer & Contributing Expert

Alex Stitt is a nonbinary author, queer theorist, and licensed mental health counselor living in Hawaii. As a proud Queer Counselor, they work to educate professionals in the mental health field interested in working with LGBTQ+ populations. Their textbook, ACT for Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide, demonstrates how to apply Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to gender self-actualization.