Gerard Grigsby, PhD, LCPC, LPC
Mental Health Tips for LGBTQ People of Color
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
If you are an LGBTQ person of color, I imagine that, like me, you haven't had the easiest walk through life. Perhaps, you've struggled to make sense of who you are, or you haven't quite figured out where you belong in the world. Maybe you've found yourself torn between two or more different communities, desperately hoping for one of them to fully embrace and make space for you. To further complicate things, as you try to cope with life on the margins, you may be growing fatigued by the physical, mental, and emotional toll of fighting (and surviving) violent homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and racism.
Given these challenges, I wanted to share some tips that have helped me not only survive, but also thrive as a queer person of color. While these tips won't eradicate any of the -isms that make our lives more difficult than they need to be, I hope they will be helpful in some way!
1. Define yourself
We form our identities based on how we see ourselves, as well as how people see and interact with us. Given this reality, it can be really challenging when people, especially those closest to us, refuse to acknowledge and validate who we are. Sometimes, the weight of dealing with this invalidation can negatively impact your mental health. Although people in your life may try to categorize you in ways that are incongruent with how you see yourself, know that you have permission to define who you are. You get to choose how you identify, and you don't have to sacrifice one identity to embrace another. That's right -- your race can be just as salient for you as your gender and sexuality, and none of those identities have to be at odds with each other. Even if you're still figuring things out, no one gets to define you or strip you of the identities that matter to you.
2. Affirm yourself
Too often, LGBTQ people of color are told, in one way or another, something is "wrong" with us.
Unfortunately, many of us subconsciously internalize these messages and carry around deep-seated shame and stigma that can take years to uproot. While it may be difficult to reverse its effects, it's important to remember that this internalized shame didn't start with you -- it was injected into your system. Therefore, it's necessary to counteract it. You can do this by affirming yourself. As often as you can, remind yourself that there's nothing wrong with you. Despite what your father, pastor, or grandparents may have told you, there is nothing wrong with you. Despite what potential dating partners may have said or posted online, you are beautiful and valuable just as you are. Each and every day, write these affirmations down, say them aloud, and repeat them to yourself until you start to believe them.
3. Connect with others who affirm you
Finding your tribe and connecting with other LGBTQ people of color can be life-giving. If you live somewhere that has a visible, thriving LGBTQ community, join meet-ups and try to connect with other LGBTQ people of color in person. If you can't find any LGBTQ people of color who live near you, you might need to get more creative and venture online. Try joining forums, chat rooms, and Facebook groups, or subscribing to listservs for LGBTQ people of color. Whether you connect face-to-face or online, the goal is to find friends who not only validate your identities, but also affirm you as a person. Hopefully, as it starts to feel safe over time, you can really put in the effort to form deep meaningful relationships with these people. With any luck, they may become your chosen family -- the folks on whom you can depend if your family of origin ever becomes less accessible.
4. Go at your own pace
Depending on where you are in your journey, you might be feeling a little angsty about exploring your LGBTQ identity. You also might be dealing with influences from friends, family, and even other therapists that have made it hard for you to decide what feels right for you. Maybe you've felt pressured to embrace an identity that doesn't quite fit. Perhaps a friend or your significant other has been encouraging you to come out. No matter the situation, you are absolutely allowed to have reservations about doing things that make you uncomfortable. If you aren't ready to take these or other steps, that's totally okay. You have permission to go at your own pace. The reality is, the choice to come out, explore sex, transition, etc. can be risky, especially for LGBTQ people of color. Only you can decide if you're ready to deal with the outcomes of these decisions.
5. Join activist groups
Activist spaces tend to attract open-minded, forward-thinking people who are passionate about social change and eager to make a difference in the world. Activist spaces also tend to attract folks who have been exposed to different walks of life. Of course, these groups aren't always "danger free" zones (the -isms that plague our society can be found everywhere), but they can be safer than many other spaces. If you join an activist group, you might connect with other LGBTQ people or allies of color. Also, you might feel more empowered as you get involved and see the positive impact of your efforts. This empowerment can relieve feelings of helplessness and strengthen your sense of personal agency in your life.
6. Start planning for the life you want
Maybe your circumstances are such that it is too risky to come out, transition socially, or even acknowledge to yourself that you might identify differently than those around you. The thought of having to go through life indefinitely burdened by these constraints might be really weighing on you. To cope with these challenges, it can be helpful to start planning for the future you envision. Maybe you can't come out or transition now, but you can start deciding for yourself when you'd feel ready take these steps. There's a difference between thinking I can never transition vs. I will transition once I'm financially independent and living on my own. When you see the potential for your situation to change at some point, some of the hopelessness you feel may give way to relief. However, if your circumstances won't change for a while, and the challenges of being where you are are starting to negatively impact your mental health, you might want to...
7. Seek help from a professional
In counseling, you can gain insight and develop skills that may help you better understand, navigate, and, ideally, improve your situation. Use directories like Psychology Today, Therapy for Black Girls, Melanin and Mental Health, and the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network to find therapists in your area. As a word of caution, though, you should remember that therapists are not infallible. We all have different levels of awareness and sensitivity to LGBTQ issues. With this in mind, make sure you ask the right questions to assess whether your therapist will be a good fit. Ask them about their experience working with LGBTQ clients and people of color. Also, ask them about the types of issues they have helped folks address. A competent, trustworthy therapist should have answers to these questions. Ideally, you would find someone who "gets it," but you may end up working with someone who needs to develop more competence in this area. Even therapists who are genuinely trying may still have work to do. If you end up getting matched with someone who isn't meeting your needs, don't be afraid to find someone else. Ultimately, you get to be selective in your search for the right therapist.
So, that's it folks -- a short, but hopefully helpful, list of mental health tips for LGBTQ people of color. I know this isn't the most comprehensive list, but these are some of the practices that have helped me maintain wellness and balance in my life. Some of these tips may resonate with you, while others might not, and that's fine! As long as you're trying to find ways to keep yourself well, that's all that matters. At the end of the day, just as you get to decide how you want to identify your race, gender, and sexuality, you also get to decide what you do and don't want to do for self-care.