There may be some words that are unfamiliar to you in this blog. Here’s what they mean:
Queer: A term people often use to express fluid identities and orientations. Often used interchangeably with "LGBTQ” as an umbrella term for diverse gender and sexual identities. I will use this word interchangeably with LGBTQ+ in this blog.
Cisgender: A term used to describe a person whose gender identity and gender expressions align with those associated with the sex assigned to them at birth, both physically and socially. For example, when you were born a doctor said you were a boy. You now identify as a man, and act according to male gender stereotypes and social norms. You are cisgender.
Heteronormative: the belief or assumption that all people are heterosexual, or that heterosexuality is the default or "normal" state of human being.
Intimate partner violence: violence by a spouse or partner in an intimate relationship. Can be verbal, physical, emotional, economic, or sexual.
Co- is a prefix we use to imply that whatever word comes next was done together. We co-create, co-chair, co-develop, coauthor, and many other forms of collaborating to create something new. In relationships, we often co-depend, and many times in unhealthy ways—so unhealthy, in fact, that in the late 1980’s there was a push to add co-dependency to the manual of diagnoses followed by most mental health professionals. I believe it is very possible to learn healthy alternatives to codependent relationship behaviors, and the earlier we learn these, the better.
Sarah Hamilton-Dunsmore and I are proud to introduce Co-: A Positive Relationship, Skill-Building Group for Queer Youth
Co- is a skill building and healthy relationship group for LGBTQ+ teens. As I have worked with LGBTQ+ youth over the last several years, I’ve recognized the importance of incorporating and teaching skills around healthy relationships and co-dependency as essential parts of the work. This group will focus on education on healthy relationship dynamics as well as learning and practicing skills to create healthy relationships. The group will be run by me and co-facilitated by my partner and colleague, Sarah Hamilton-Dunsmore, LCSW. We believe these skills are incredibly valuable for any adolescent, but we are being specific to LGBTQ+ youth in this group for some important reasons.
LGBTQ+ teens deal with unique stressors as they attempt to engage in healthy relationships. They are learning to navigate life as a minority identity in this society, have fewer models for healthy relationships, less visibility, and often have gaps in support and safety in their communities. LGBTQ+ youth on the whole have fewer resources available to support their needs and fill these gaps.
Minority stress is a term that is used to describe the stressors unique to minority portions of the population. These stressors are associated with stigma, prejudice, and discrimination within societal structures. These are stressors teens may experience directly, or implicitly in their communities. For LGBTQ+ youth, some examples include experiencing direct prejudice, expecting rejection from families, peers, or strangers, feeling it important to hide and conceal identity at times when authentic expression is deemed to be dangerous, internalized homophobia/transphobia, and the need to develop coping strategies to manage these stressors. Researchers believe these stressors are a root cause of the higher prevalence of mental health issues among queer individuals.
Stressors for LGBTQ+ youth are compounded by a lack of adult models for healthy queer relationships.
We live in a heteronormative society, which means that our society normalizes and privileges couples that identify as straight and cisgender. While visibility for queer couples and relationships is improving, there is a long way to go. For example, think about how many queer couples you know. Or, when you turn on the TV or flip through the pages of a magazine, how many LGBT couples do you see? When queer youth sit in health classes at school they often learn about heteronormative relationships and heteronormative sex. Discussions of gender diversity or sexual diversity are limited. Self-help books for couples happen to be a personal irritation of mine. They are overwhelmingly focused on straight, cisgender couples. Example after example follows the format of man + woman= relationship. When we look around and do not see ourselves or our identities reflected in what we observe, it promotes silence and perpetuates stigmas that lead LGBTQ+ individuals to believe there is something wrong with them. Learning healthy relationships as a teen is already difficult, and it becomes harder when you lack affirming, healthy models to learn from. A good example of the fallout of this lack of visibility and models comes from a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control. The study found that LGBTQ+ couples report more difficulty disclosing experiences of intimate partner violence because of fears of rejection or not being believed. It found that “sexual minority respondents reported levels of intimate partner violence at rates equal to or higher than those of heterosexuals.” Yet these issues are not often talked about or discussed within the context of queer relationships.
When we lack visibility, affirmation, and a pervasive sense of safety in the world we often fill those gaps by creating our own communities and finding our own resources. In many ways, this is incredible evidence of human resiliency. However, for anyone who has ever had to forge their own family in the world, you know how much pain and confusion comes with the process. We need support to process these experiences and to learn how to cope with them effectively. When we don’t have that, the coping strategies that we develop often lead us down the path of co-dependency.
Pia Mellody is a well-respected therapist and writer who has focuses on co-dependency. In her work, she outlines five core areas of struggle that often lead to codependency. These are:
Difficulty developing healthy self-esteem
Difficulty setting boundaries
Difficulty owning our own realities
Difficulty acknowledging and meeting our own wants and needs
Difficulty moderating thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
In Co-, we will talk about and explore the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and we will talk about factors that lead to unhealthy relationship patterns.
Then, we will look at each of the core areas of difficulty and learn skills to address each difficulty. Learning and practicing these skills in adolescence lays a powerful foundation for creating healthy relationships in adulthood. Each week, I will be writing a blog post introducing that week’s topic. Sarah and I will use teaching, art, and experientials in groups to keep groups engaging and creative.
It is our hope that this group will serve as a much needed support for LGBTQ+ teens as they learn to navigate healthy relationships. Queer youth experience unique stressors on the path of healthy development. We believe the skills taught in this group are invaluable for any adolescent or adult, and we are excited to offer them to teens. Go here to find dates, cost, and an outline of the group. To register, contact me at (919) 813-0218 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading!
Meg Hamilton, LPC is a therapist practicing in Durham, North Carolina. Meg is an art therapist and specializes in therapy for trauma as well as in supporting LGBTQ+ youth and families. Meg’s work is upheld and informed by a commitment to social justice. Learn more at www.birchcounselingdurham.com.
Sarah Hamilton-Dunsmore, MSW, LCSW graduated from University of North Carolina’s School of Social Work in 2013. Sarah is trained in numerous treatment modalities, including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy for trauma. Sarah has worked with youth in a variety of capacities, including outpatient therapy and wilderness therapy. She is also bilingual and has worked extensively within the Latino community. Sarah identifies as queer and has served as an active advocate within the LGBTQ community for many years. In addition to her work with clients, Sarah plays in a bluegrass band with Meg, tends to her vegetable garden, and loves snuggling her and Meg’s three dogs Kona, Osa, and Mr. Roosevelt.