Cultural Competencies for Counseling Latinx LGBTQ+ Clients
By: Peter Heatley
Latinx LGBTQ+ individuals have to navigate a complex set of cultural identities, which
requires counselors of this population to be proficient in a range of multicultural and social justice competencies. The intersection between Latinx and LGBTQ+ identities is complex, with many factors to consider. Latinx Americans are a diverse group of people with heritage coming from many different countries, including Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Spain, Central and South America. (Sager et al., 2001). They represent a range of racial identities as well. As such, they face many stressors, including racism, discrimination, acculturation stress, unemployment, inadequate education, and lack of healthcare, among others. (Gunnings, 1997) LGBTQ+ is an umbrella term that refers to many different identities related to gender and sexual orientation, including persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, plus non-binary, asexual and more. Members of this population face discrimination, identity stress, vocational issues, and adjustment to a heterosexist society (Sager et al., 2001)
LatinX LGBTQ+ persons living in America need to navigate three worlds that overlap but are often mutually exclusive. This includes being a member of the larger Latinx community as well as a local subgroup that may be based on country of origin and/or immigration status, being part of the LGBTQ+ community, all set in the framework of the dominant European American society. Those with Latinx LGBTQ+ identities face double discrimination based on the intersection of their identities, on top of a lack of support within their own communities that can lead to further alienation and mental health problems. As Sager et al. explains, “Latin Americans face the difficult choice of remaining closeted in the heterosexist Latin American community or dealing with racism in the LGB and European American communities.” (2001, p. 26) Of course, women experience sexism on all three fronts, adding more levels of oppression and marginalization that are experienced simultaneously.
Little training exists that directly helps counselors to navigate such complex identities, but a good place to start is for counselors to continually enhance their Multicultural and Social Justice Competencies (MSJCCs). According to the Multicultural Counseling Competencies (P. Arredondo et al., 1996; D. W. Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992), “To be culturally responsive, counselors must know themselves, their values and assumptions about others, and the worldview that informs their assessment of others’ behavior as well as their own.” To add more depth, Sager et al. provide 6 additional suggestions for counselors to keep in mind when counseling members of the Latinx LGBTQ+ population, as follows (extracted from Sager et. al, 2001 p.40):
- Personal Awareness: Counselors must be aware of their own possible multicultural and
heterosexist bias when working with all clients. This will involve a deep interpersonal
exploration of the self, which may require the assistance of colleagues, professional
supervision, or psychotherapy.
- Societal awareness: Counselors must be aware of the social prejudices in the dominant
European American culture, Latin American culture, and the LGBTQ+ community.
- Accurate assessment: Counselors must be conscious of clients’ issues rather than
assume that problems result from a Latinx American LGBTQ+ orientation. At the same
time, counselors should not ignore the influence of Latinx American culture and sexual
identity on the pre- senting issues.
- Empowering both identities: Counselors must assist clients in the development of an
integrated self, as changing ethnic identity or sexual orientation is implausible.
Counselors must validate both Latinx and LGBTQ+ identities.
- Education Training: Counselors should be trained in other related issues, such as
relationships, career issues, and be aware of how these issues relate to this population.
To remain ethical, counselors must continue to seek out new information, training, and
supervision in this area.
- Advocacy: Last, it is our duty to educate our colleagues and supervise this population. We must counter misinformation and bias on all fronts. Anything less would contribute to a racist, heterosexist, or null environment.
Since the articles mentioned above about multicultural competencies were written, the ACA has expanded the counseling competencies to include actions related to social justice and advocacy. According to the latest version of the MSJCCs, “Privileged and marginalized counselors intervene with, and on behalf, of clients at the intra-personal, interpersonal, institutional, community, public policy, and international/global levels.” (Hays, 20170214, p. 591) This means that even more than just understanding our clients’ complicated identities, competent counselors need to advocate on behalf of their clients on many levels. There is no shortage of opportunities to assist members of the Latinx and LGBTQ+ communities who are still under constant attack in many parts of this country, and it will be up to each individual counselor to determine how they can take actions toward social justice.
Narrative Approaches for Latinx Women who have Sex with Women (WSW).
Speaking in generalities can only go so far, so it’s helpful to look more closely at an example of dual identities, specifically Latinx women who sleep with women (WSW). Many women in this community do not take on the lesbian or bisexual identity because of the stigma of these labels within the Latinx community; nevertheless, they do have sex with other women. This group faces many levels of marginalization, so it’s important for counselors to make sure the therapeutic environment isn’t reinforcing further disenfranchisement. For this reason and others, Galarza recommends using Narrative Therapy with this population. As she points out, Latinx WSW have a common theme of silence and invisibility as part of their dual identity. There is a need for counseling with these clients that is an “affirmative, strengths-based approach that recognizes the individual struggles of balancing identity and community while utilizing inclusive language.” (Galarza, 2013, p. 275) Narrative approaches do just that and allow clients to have power in the therapeutic relationship and have a voice to express their unique perspective. Galarza adds that the “most appropriate intervention must emphasize empowerment, collaboration, awareness of cultural considerations, and advocacy. Narrative approaches contain all key components.” (Galarza, 2013, p. 280)
The value of language and storytelling are common themes in the Latinx community. Comas-Diaz wrote, “Many Latinos[/Latinas] answer questions by telling a story, allowing the answer to emerge out of their narrative. Consequently, the spoken transmission of knowledge helps to preserve collective memory by maintaining history and mythology” (2006, p. 443). In this way, narrative approaches are a natural fit for Latinx clients. Narrative therapy moves through three main phases “(a) externalizing the problem, (b) searching for unique outcomes, and (c) revising the individual’s relationship with the problem” (Phipps & Vorster, 2009, p. 40). At each step, clients’ experiences are validated, problems are seen in their cultural context, strengths are emphasized to help overcome insecurities, and new perspectives are offered to help in the development of alternative outcomes. While well suited for many situations with Latinx WSW clients, Galarza notes that Narrative Therapy is not appropriate for people who are experiencing acute crises in their lives. (Galarza, 2013 p. 288) In such cases, advocacy on behalf of locating services and support may be the appropriate course of action to take on behalf of a client.
This example shows that understanding the complexity of dual identities for Latinx WSW and the struggles that individuals face can help inform which therapeutic approach may be best suited for treatment. Further research is needed to help better understand the many subgroups within the larger Latinx LGBTQ+ community, and counselors will need to continually be refining their multicultural and social justice competencies in order to best meet the needs of this underserved population.
Arredondo, P., Toporek, R., Brown, S. P., Jones, J., Locke, D. C., Sanchez, J., & Stadler, H. (1996). Operationalization of the multicultural counseling competencies. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 24, 42-78.
Comas-Diaz, L. (2006). Latino healing: The integration of ethnic psychology into psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 43(4), 436–453. doi:10.1037/0033-322.214.171.1246
Galarza, J. (2013, July). Borderland Queer: Narrative Approaches in Clinical Work with Latina Women Who Have Sex with Women (WSW). Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 7(3), 274–291. https://doi.org/10.1080/15538605.2013.812931
Gunnings, T. S. (1997).Editorial. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 25, 3. Hays, D. G., Erford, B. T. (20170214). Developing Multicultural Counseling Competence, 3rd Edition. [VitalSource Bookshelf 10.0.1]. Retrieved from vbk://9780134523736
Phipps, W. D., & Vorster, C. (2009). Narrative therapy: A return to the intrapsychic perspective South African Journal of Psychology, 39(1), 32–45.
Sager, J. B., Schlimmer, E. A., & Hellmann, J. A. (2001, March). Latin American Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients: Implications for Counseling. The Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, 40(1), 21–33. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2164-490x.2001.tb00099.
“Peter Heatley is a graduate student in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch University and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Peter holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of Mary Washington and graduated from the Sarva Yoga Academy teacher training program. He also studied Tibetan Buddhism for many years through the Three Jewels Dharma Center in New York City. Peter looks forward to working as a mental health counselor, using ideas from all of his studies to help clients of all backgrounds to overcome challenges and get in touch with their inner strengths.”