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Military Health System

How to Support LGBTQ+ Service Members as a Provider

By Olivia Bentley, Ph.D.
June 22, 2021

""U.S Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christina Carter

As mental health providers, we know the importance of creating a safe and supportive space for our clients to learn and grow. In honor of Pride Month, let's talk about how to provide maximum support to our LGBTQ+ service members so that we can help them thrive.

Educate yourself.

An important first step in working with any LGBQT+ service member is to learn more about them and their individual experiences. This may include learning more about the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, increasing your awareness of some common issues that LGBTQ+ people face or common experiences they share in the military, and confronting your own biases and assumptions. This education can happen through formal learning opportunities, such as coursework or conference attendance, and it can also be accomplished through informal learning activities. Make time to read a book by an LGBTQ+ author or listen to a podcast. Meet up with a friend and watch a documentary or film together and then spend time discussing what you learned or processing how it made you feel.

Avoid making assumptions.

In addition to educating yourself, it is just as necessary to do the work in identifying and addressing your own biases and assumptions. Remember that there is always room for growth with cultural competency. Spend time reflecting on your own views and values when it comes to sexuality, romantic relationships, and social norms regarding gender roles and gender expression. Remember that each LGBTQ+ person is unique and will, therefore, benefit from an individualized approach. You should never assume that every LGBTQ+ person will have the same experiences or values. For example, every person's "coming out" process is different, with some experiencing more support than others. Some LGBTQ+ people will come out in personal and professional spaces, while others may choose not to be "out" in the workplace. This is just one example of how it is essential for you to avoid making assumptions and to always humbly learn about your individual service member's lived experience.

Be affirming.

To be affirming goes a step beyond being "LGBTQ+ friendly" and demonstrates that you see and support who the service member is as a person. In order to be affirming, you are applying knowledge you've gained and adjusting your approach as needed. You are showing respect, remaining open-minded, and going above and beyond to ensure your clients feel safe and seen.

You can model this affirming approach to your service member patients by signaling you are an LGBTQ+ ally in tangible ways. For example, reference a service member's "partner" instead of spouse or husband/wife, which is more inclusive and acknowledges a range of committed relationships. Adjust your language by using less gendered phrases to be more inclusive of those who are transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming. You can also include your preferred pronouns such as she/her/hers or they/them/theirs when introducing yourself, and be sure to use the preferred pronouns that are shared with you by others. If you accidentally use the wrong pronouns, apologize, and communicate your commitment to affirm use of their preferred pronouns.

Advocate in your work space.

Speak up when you witness an injustice or a behavior by a colleague that is potentially harmful to the LGBQT+ population. If you recognize someone being even unintentionally harmful or offensive, have a conversation with them about the impact their actions have on those in the LGBTQ+ community. As mental health providers, we are trained to have difficult conversations with clients, so we are well-equipped to discuss sensitive topics in the workplace. If you recognize a larger need for more professional development trainings on LGBTQ+ topics, take the initiative to suggest or plan such events.

Celebrate!

When discussing the psychological health of members in the LGBTQ+ community, there is often a focus on the prevalence of mental health issues, discrimination, and the barriers they may face. While visibility of these issues is extremely important, there are also many ways this community has contributed to making our society safer, stronger, and more welcoming. It is just as important that these contributions be acknowledged. Pride month is a time to celebrate contributions of the LGBTQ+ community, often with parades and parties. Pride month is also a great opportunity to set time aside for some of the education and awareness-raising activities mentioned earlier in this post.

If you are looking for more resources on this topic, check out those listed by the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and stay tuned for additional clinical support tools and resources to be shared by the Psychological Health Center of Excellence.

Dr. Bentley is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and contracted subject matter expert at the Psychological Health Center of Excellence. She has clinical and research experience in addressing the mental health needs among women and other diverse populations.

Last Updated: December 02, 2022
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