Open Minds: Psychotherapists Affirming Sexual & Gender Diversity
I get a lot of email inquiries from people looking for sex-positive therapists who understand that sexual and gender diversity isn’t a sign of pathology. That there’s a difference between open relationships and cheating (hint: look for communication and honesty, rather than secrecy and lies), that BDSM and abuse aren’t the same thing (hint: look for communication and consent), and that being queer, trans*, genderqueer, or anything else not on the gender binary isn’t a sign of sickness (hint: the problem is with the haters).
I’ve taught courses at universities for people who want to become therapists and I think that part of the problem is that many schools have difficulty even bringing the topic up. And when it does happen, the classes often focus on giving students information about gender & sexual minorities, rather than helping them unpack their own triggers and barriers to empathy and compassion.
So I was really happy to discover Open Minds, a website for San Francisco Bay Area psychotherapists and psychotherapy students who affirm that sexual and gender diversity are natural expressions of the human experience. Yes, even here in the supposedly accepting Bay Area, many therapists are just as judgmental and ill-informed as some of their colleagues elsewhere. I got in touch with Keely Kolmes, one of the folks behind the site, and asked her about the project.
1) Tell us a little about Open Minds. What do you want to accomplish?
Our group formed in the fall of 2009. The impetus was that a psychology graduate student reached out to me because she had come out as kinky and poly in a class focused on developing multicultural competence and sensitivity. She felt a lack of support and mentorship from her school.
Her experience reminded me of the isolation and discomfort I experienced when I did my graduate research on mental health practitioners’ bias towards BDSM clients in the late 1990’s. My dissertation chair was supportive, but in many situations, I vicariously experienced the same stigma from students and professors that my research participants were reporting. It was very stressful.
I thought, if so little has changed, why not create a support, networking, and advocacy group for students and licensed clinicians who identify with or provide services to sexually diverse clients beyond just the LGBT community?
Mental health communities have come a long way in terms of addressing LGBT concerns and trying to minimize the harms that have been done to LGBT populations, but they still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting and understanding other forms of diverse sexuality.
Graduate programs have visible student groups and mentors for a variety of diversity issues, including ethnicity, religion, LGBT identity, and disabilities. But they continue to come up short when it comes to supporting other sexual minorities and students have legitimate concerns about self-disclosing to classmates.
Our goals are to help students and clinicians feel less isolated, to help us find one another, and to help clients searching for mental health professionals who are knowledgable and accepting of who they are to find us.
2) Is there a screening process for therapists who want to join? What kind of training do people need? How does that work?
We don’t have a formal screening process. We do limit membership specifically to mental health professionals. We ask that people join our group because they are committed to serving these communities and we ask them not to join specifically to learn from us if they don’t already have a working knowledge of poly and kink. Some of us are members of the communities we serve and others of us are proud allies.
All members agree to abide by their respective ethics codes since we are a multidisciplinary group (students and trainees along with licensed social workers, marriage and family therapists, and psychologists).
We have an annual membership fee of $25 to make this accessible to student members and cover our costs.
3) What resources do you have/plan to have for the public? Can people find therapists through your group?
We do offer a member directory for those who choose to have a listing on our website. Some members have chosen not to be public about their membership, and some student members aren’t yet practicing, so they don’t have a listing on our site.
We also are developing our speaker’s bureau so that we can go into schools and training programs and help educate other professionals.
4) Given the ongoing stigma around gender and sexual diversity, are you planning or supporting any political or legal advocacy?
We have a very small (and recently formed) Board and we haven’t yet put this on our agenda. But it’s something we might discuss in the future.
5) What should people know if they’re looking for a therapist who’s aware of their experiences or concerns around gender and/or sexuality? Got any tips?
Finding a psychotherapist who is knowledgable and aware of your lifestyle, your identity and the specific issues you’re seeking therapy for is important. Add to that, the importance of finding someone who is a good fit with you in terms of personality and quality of your connection. The quality of the relationship between you and your therapist is one of the most important factors in a good therapeutic outcome.
Many people look for a therapist when they’re already distressed about something, so they may not feel they have the time or money to shop around. But, it is a big investment and it can be helpful to take time and interview clinicians on the phone and develop a list of questions to ask about things that are important to you. Some sample questions might include:
1) What is your license?
2) How long have you been practicing?
3) What theoretical model do you use?
4) Can you describe your style?
5) Do you do short or long”term treatment? How frequently do you meet with your clients?
6) Do you have an area of expertise or specialty?
7) Is your practice LGBT friendly?
8 ) Are you familiar with BDSM or polyamory? What are your beliefs about it?
9) How many kinky or poly or gender variant clients have you seen?
Pay attention to how you feel when the therapist answers. Are you feeling calmed and reassured? Uneasy? I do encourage people to call or meet with a few different clinicians, if they are able to do that, to make sure they feel comfortable with the person they choose.
Asking friends for referrals if they have a therapist they like can be good. But if you’re seeking therapy for issues you have in a relationship with a particular person, it may be better to find a therapist who isn’t also working with that person. You can still call that therapist and ask if they can recommend someone who is kink-aware or poly-aware though. They may have names of people they trust and recommend.
6) What are your plans for the project? What’s the next step?
After two years of slowly growing, our Board was formed this winter and we are currently developing our web presence. We will share a booth with Gaylesta this year at Pride and we also hope to be at Folsom Street Fair to do outreach to potential members and to let people know how to find us if they need to find a mental health professional or a speaker.
We’d really like to work with NCSF to try to help other clinicians create sister groups in other cities. The Kink-Aware Professionals list and Poly-Friendly Professionals have been great resources over the years for clients to locate us, but we want to encourage more networking, consultation, and advocacy among professionals. We think this can help other communities, particularly trainees who may be seeking mentors and consultation.
7) How can people find out about you?
They can visit our website!