Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity isn’t just about LGBTQ+ identities – it’s about all of us understanding who we are and how we relate to these concepts. As well as this exploration though it’s crucial we unpack some of the assumptions we will inevitably hold. Often core therapy books can be outdated on these issues and the media doesn’t help with lack of representation of identities outside the norm. So, in this blogpost we’ll unpack eight commonly held misconceptions around GSRD – and what the reality actually is.
Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity (GSRD): 8 Misconceptions Therapists Need to Know
Remember, if you’ve held any of the beliefs outlined below – that’s ok. There’s no judgements here. It can feel uncomfortable to realise you’ve made missteps but there’s no need to feel ashamed – it’s all about the next steps. Once we know better we can do better.
1. As therapists we can find a psychological cause for gender, sexuality and relationship variance
This is the biggest misconception that therapists need to be aware of. There is a risk of outwardly accepting people of varying sexualities and gender identities while seeking an underlying cause and origin story. Alternatively, if the intention isn’t there to seek causation, finding out about early experiences may lead to a feeling of “oh, so that’s why” – as if a puzzle piece has just fitted into place. Research shows that people just are who they are – it is not about developmental disruption or issues with a particular caregiver.
We don’t all begin life on the same normative path (cisgender and heterosexual) then stray from it when coming out. We’re all on different paths with our identities – they just often become clearer later down the line.
GSRD is not about solving a problem or a mystery. We can help people explore their identity if they wish to but ultimately we need to accept people for who they are.
We’ll come back to this point with a few more specific examples within this blogpost.
2. People have mental health issues because of their identity
Okay so we know that people from the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to struggle with mental health issues – however, this is not linked intrinsically to having an identity outside the norm. The biggest predictor of mental wellbeing is parental and community support. When those from marginalised communities lack this support, and/or experience traumatic alienation and discrimination, this is where issues will arise. It’s not about who they are but about how the world receives them.
Linked to this, therapists may assume that a client’s current presenting issues are all to do with their identity – such as connecting all the issues a client is dealing with back to their being trans when this is not the case. We can know how identity and mental health can correspond while embracing the client’s capacity to lead and not making assumptions.
3. These new GSRD identities are a fad
With new language coming into public awareness (most recently around being non-binary, with those in the public eye such as Sam Smith coming out and sharing their pronouns), there can be a feeling of struggling to keep up with terminology and a belief that the identities being discussed are new. Largely, this is not the case.
Across all periods of time, and across all cultures, there has been gender, sexual and relationship diversity. This is not a fad: people have always felt the way they do now, but finally there is a language that expresses who they are – if they wish to claim it.
There is also a risk of assuming that identities being talked about are something that just young people are embracing. To believe this is the case erases the many older people who are non-binary, for example.
4. Polyamorous relationships occur due to a problem in a relationship or commitment issues
In Western society the norm is to be with one partner and to stay faithful to eachother. This will suit many but there are many others for whom this relationship set-up doesn’t work or feel natural. Consensual non-monogamy includes polyamory – having multiple relationships. This does not necessarily come from a place of one relationship not working. Being polyamorous can be about having your varying needs (whether sexual/romantic/platonic) met by varying partners.
As therapists we’re trained to understand patterns – and the instinct may be to see this relationship preference as an issue with self-worth or commitment. The reality is that individuals in CNM relationships can have healthy self-worth, be committed and living a happy life. If anything we can learn a lot from those in polyamorous relationships – they often have healthier communication styles with more honesty, clearer boundaries and greater capacity for conflict resolution.
If you’re interested in learning more about consensual non-monogamy we recommend the following books:
- The Modern Clinician’s Guide to Working with LGBTQ+ Clients: The Inclusive Psychotherapist
- The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love
- Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy
5. People who are asexual or aromantic just haven’t met the right person yet
If someone hasn’t experienced romantic attraction yet, it might be that this is the case – rather than them necessarily being aromantic. What we need to understand though is that being asexual (not being sexually attracted to others, or having low or no interest in sexual activity; abbreviated to ace) or aromantic (not experiencing romantic attraction or not being interested in romantic relationships; abbreviated to aro) are valid identities and not indicators that something is wrong.
Clients who identify as ace and/or aro may well have tried romantic relationships and/or sex and not felt right in those situations, or they might just instinctively know it’s not for them. It is not for us to instill hope that this is possible for them and to push this narrative can be harmful.
Knowing about these identities also means if we have a client we may believe is ace or aro, we can help alleviate often held shame around not living life in the way society expects them to by sharing knowledge that there is a word that may fit their experience. This can be a huge relief and can also help in communicating to others, for example when dating (people who are aromantic may still enjoy platonic or sexual relationships, and people who are asexual may be happy in a romantic relationship).
This article is an informative read busting more myths around asexuality and aromanticism.
6. Non-binary people look androgynous and trans women love make-up
There is a difference between gender identity and gender presentation: the two do not always correspond. There can be an assumption that non-binary people will look androgynous, when this is not necessarily the case. Non-binary people will look however they choose to look. You can’t “tell” if someone is non-binary.
There can also be expectations that trans women are going to love all things feminine (whatever that means) and always have on-point hair, make-up etc. Being a woman isn’t just about aesthetics, to presume this does all women a disservice but the idea weighs heavily as a pressure on trans women – as if they are expected to present in a certain way or have their identity questioned.
7. Interests in BDSM come from a history of early-life abuse
There has been plenty of research into BDSM (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/submission, and Sadism/Masochism) which has looked into whether there is any correlation between the practice and having a history of early life trauma and abuse. The verdict is clear: this is not the case. As a society and as therapists we need to move away from stigmatising and pathologising BDSM and kink interests and practice – it is not deviant nor evidence of emotional disturbance.
For many of us sex is something that happens without being talked about – we can learn from the BDSM community in this way. Conversations around consent, preferences and boundaries are more often discussed within a BDSM relationship, with openness and acceptance.
8. Therapists don’t need GSRD training unless they specialise in LGBTQ+ client work
There are aspects of gender, sexual and relationship diversity we can all engage in as we consider what these concepts mean to us. What does it mean to be a woman? Have we ever questioned our sexuality? What values do we have in our relationships? This isn’t about problem-seeking, or othering, it’s about bringing these often taken-for-granted concepts into our awareness to enable us to process anything that comes up through that, and ultimately to live more intentionally. This work starts with us, and can benefit all clients.
As you can see from these misconceptions though, there are sadly still many outdated and harmful beliefs around many marginalised communities. As therapists we need to be a safe space for all clients and that means educating ourselves where we have gaps in our knowledge. For more sources of learning check out our blogpost LGBTQ+ & GSRD Resources for Therapists.
All therapists can benefit from exploring Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity
We hope you’ve learned something new from this blogpost, and seen why it’s crucial we all ensure and expand our understanding of gender, sexual and relationship diversity. If you’ve found the article helpful please consider sharing the link with colleagues.
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