I found my therapist the same way I found the person I’m going to marry this summer: through my friend Hannah. I met Hannah on a November night in 2015, when I showed up to New York City’s Cubbyhole for my first meet-up with a queer social media group, wearing my (only) gay-looking Uniqlo button-down, a beanie, and a whole bunch of residual pain and angst following a bad breakup. Yes, the breakup had occurred several months before, but she’d been my first girlfriend and I was still having a hard time — a really hard time. And, Hannah noticed.
“You have anxiety and depression, you’re still getting over a breakup, and you don’t have a therapist?” she said to me, with a kindness that I’ll never forget. It was the first time I’d heard someone say the word “therapy” without using a hushed, secretive tone. My Midwestern upbringing had taught me that therapy is for people who are too weak to solve their problems on their own. In addition to that, being queer was certainly not something to be talked about in public — especially with a stranger. I’d internalized both sentiments for years, but I was finally ready to move past them.
Six years later, I still see the queer, non-binary therapist Hannah recommended to me that night. The fact that, two years later, Hannah also introduced me to my fiancé seems pretty appropriate because queerness is about community. We look out for each other — in all aspects of our lives. And often, it’s only through each other that we’re able to find reliable, queer-friendly, and gender-affirming therapy.
While it’s easy enough for a therapist to add “queer-friendly” to their Psychology Today bio, it can be more difficult to tell if they, themselves, are queer. But many queer people only want to see a queer therapist — my past self included. I figured it was the only way to know if they were a safe person to whom I could voice my gender questions. That’s why so many queer people reply on word-of-mouth referrals. Having a queer friend swoop in with a recommendation was a game-changer for me, as it meant that I could trust that this person could competently help me. This is also why some queer therapists simply self-disclose their relevant identities to clients early on.
Not too long before I met my therapist, Adina Rudin, a single mom in New Jersey, was beginning her own mental health journey. She was going through a divorce while also coming out, and her friend, a mental health professional, offered to refer her to a therapist whenever she was ready. “I was very wary of therapy. I was not convinced that it was something that was going to work for me,” Rudin recalls. “I was like, I don’t know how I’m going to talk to someone that I don’t know from a hole in the wall about my problems, and how they're going to help me.” But one day Rudin, who is a teacher, felt like she was going to break down while at work. She found an opportunity to excuse herself, and immediately called her friend. “I walked out of the classroom and I said, ‘Okay, I think it’s time; I need to talk to someone,’” she says.
Rudin says she had specific ideas about what she needed in a therapist. First and foremost, she wanted someone queer-friendly. Her friend recommended her to a therapist in the area, who, during their initial meeting, disclosed her sexuality to Rudin almost immediately. “I guess she needed me to know 1,000 percent off the bat that she was queer-friendly, and she told me about her wife in that first session. I immediately felt better and I was like, Okay, at least I know I can trust her, and she’s not gonna be weird about bringing things up.” The therapist also disclosed to Rudin, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community, that she’d had a similarly devout religious childhood. Rudin is still seeing this therapist, and credits her for helping her find the language for how she identifies, embrace that sexuality is a spectrum, and process her religious upbringing.
This is exactly the kind of story Genna Ayres likes to hear. Ayres, a licensed master social worker (LMSW) in New York City, identifies as non-binary and says 100 percent of their private clients happen to be queer. Ayres found their own therapists (a private therapist and a couples therapist) through the site Manhattan Alternative, for “kink, poly, trans, and LGBTQ-affirmative providers,” and knows how important it is to be able to talk to someone who understands their identity.
“Being able to talk to both of those people about my identity and the things coming up in my relationship, the things coming up for my gender, and all of that without having to explain anything has been so valuable and it makes me feel so safe,” they say. “That’s all I ever want for my clients, to make them feel safe enough to be themselves.”
But Ayres admitted that “self-disclosure is a hotly debated topic in the therapy world.” The ethics of a mental health professional sharing details from their personal life is an ever-evolving area of discussion and consideration. A training video created by the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students stresses the importance of therapists carefully considering their motives before telling a patient about their identity. There is a risk that, as the video says, “the therapist may over-identify with the client, or find their own issues spilling over into the session.” That said, with the proper boundaries, many people see the value in a therapist self-disclosing sexual orientation and gender identity in particular. Ayres, for instance, says they find that being open about their own identity helps make many clients more comfortable, especially if they’re processing any aspect of their identity.
None of this means that queer folks can’t be helped by a therapist who doesn’t identify as queer, or that just because your therapist is queer or states on their website that they offer LGBTQ+ affirming therapy, they are definitely equipped to treat you. It’s important to make sure that any mental health professional you see is the right fit for you and your needs, which is why Ayres suggests having an initial call with a therapist to ask them all the questions you need to feel comfortable before beginning care. And it’s okay to stop seeing a therapist at any point, even after you’ve begun working with them. “If you feel like you don’t connect with the therapist, the therapist doesn’t connect with you, and that’s not a good fit,” Ayres says. “If you don’t get along with your therapist, why would you listen to anything they say to you?”
But for queer folks, going to a therapist who’s not at least familiar with queer issues can be downright harmful. “I’ve just heard so many horror stories of trans friends who are with a therapist who is continuously misgendering them when their sole reason for being in therapy is to talk about their transness,” notes Jace Covert. They’ve experienced it themselves: After being misgendered several times in their own doctor’s office last summer, Covert started a site called Grapevine. The site allows people in any U.S. city to anonymously leave reviews for health care providers in every field. The genius part? There’s a space in the referral form where the reviewer submits how they identify. That way, a Black transgender woman, for example, will have a safe, trustworthy review of a provider from another person with the same identity.
“I wanted it to be more thoughtful and intentional,” Covert says, adding that they wanted their site to feel like a safe community to its visitors. About one-third of the submissions Covert has on the site right now are referrals for mental healthcare providers, but they hope to create a more robust rolodex as they build out the site — because, they say, it works.
“The surprising part was, I did put my therapist as a person on there, and it’s not robust by any means, but she said she got so many people reaching out to her through Grapevine,” Covert says. ”So there is a deep need for queer people who are seeking safe spaces for mental health.”
In addition to sites like Manhattan Alternative and Grapevine, social media has also become a resource for queer people seeking therapy. Ayres says that during quarantine, TikTok in particular has given queer folks access to a community of people who talk about and normalize therapy, and can even offer a way in for folks who are considering finding a therapist. The creators who make up TherapyTok’s content include licensed mental health care providers and folks who simply offer tips about their own experience in therapy. Those who are therapy-curious might feel comfortable connecting with these people in the comments or DMs. Queer people are also turning to these communities for advice on finding affordable therapy — and many queer-friendly therapists find ways to make therapy more accessible for their patients. Ayres, for instance, offers a pay-it-forward option on their site.
Covert has hope for the future and this “queer renaissance” of grassroots organizing and community effort we’ve seen in the LGBTQIA+ community during this past dreadful year. Providers, like Ayres, want to see their community cared for, now and always.
For everyone out there who doesn’t have a Hannah of their own, ready with a therapist reference on hand, there’s hope: Your queer community loves you and wants to provide you with the resources you need, whether it’s through social media, online networks, or recommendations that are shouted over the too-loud music playing at an in-person meetup. It’s just what we do.