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Every person, no matter their background or preferences, deserves compassionate mental health care.

Justine Braford, LMSW, CST, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, Grand Rapids Specialty Therapy, said that for those struggling with their identity or sexual orientation, there are many paths forward. Which path is best is highly dependent on where a person is in their journey of exploration.

"Being lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, queer, and practically every other sexual and romantic orientation is not pathological; In fact, these orientations are part of the 'normal' expression of human sexuality," said Braford, stressing it's the shaming culture, both covert and overt, that contributes to mental health concerns of the LGBTQIA community. "Therapy and other forms of mental health care can be helpful in exploring the myriad social, cultural, religious, and familial beliefs that have shaped one's relationship with themselves and others."

A skilled therapist, Braford notes, will support a client in identifying and refining goals for treatment. At a pace set by the client, they work together to understand how patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are formed, and how to utilize their existing strengths and resiliencies—in addition to new coping techniques—to thrive.

"There's a long and ongoing history of marginalization and violence toward the LGBTQIA community happening on interpersonal, institutional, legal and social levels," said Braford. "Heterosexual (straight) privilege essentially teaches that from day one, there's one default romantic orientation and any thoughts, behaviors, or feelings deviating from that norm are undesirable. The consequences of those attitudes can be traumatic and isolating for LGBTQIA folx."

According to the Anti-Violence Project, 60% of hate crimes reported in 2017 were attributed to heterosexist and anti-LGBTQ biases. The Human Rights Campaign also reports that transgender black women are at particular risk of fatal violence.

"Access to care is a huge concern, especially in West Michigan," said Braford. "Finding care providers of any kind who are affirming and well-versed in the special concerns and considerations of the LGBTQIA community can be a challenge—resulting in a lack of or delay in mental health and medical care."

In addition to compassion, Braford says, the LGBTQIA community should have broad access to affirmative clinicians who are both aware of the unique challenges and history of the community and who can competently assist the individual, family, or couple to identify and address relevant issues arising.

"I'm an advocate for specialty care because I believe marginalized populations are best supported when their provider has experience and training in the latest evidence-based supportive interventions available," said Braford. "This community deserves so much more than a provider who 'knows what the letters stand for and doesn't have a problem with LGBTQIA.' Affirmative allies are a MUST."

If you're questioning in any of these areas, know that your journey is valid and there are resources available to help you feel supported and heard.

"At Grand Rapids Specialty Therapy, we have a heart for the LGBTQIA community and are committed to providing the highest level of care for sexual, romantic, and gender minorities."

RESOURCES: Grand Rapids Pride Center | Grand Rapids Specialty Therapy

Written by Sarah Suydam, Staff Writer for West Michigan Woman.

This article originally appeared in the Feb/Mar 2020 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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