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Important Context for Counselling Sexual and Gender Minorities

Sexual and gender minorities in Canada include lesbian women, gay men, and bisexual, transgender, queer, and Two-Spirit persons. The abbreviation LGBTQ2S+ is commonly used to refer to persons in these groups. Other similar acronyms are often used interchangeably and typically aren't meant to exclude individuals.

Though Western societies are becoming more accepting of sexual and gender minorities, many factors continue to contribute to reduced employment outcomes in this population.

Terminology and definitions

Counsellors must use terms that are accepted by the LGBTQ2S+ community as respectful and inclusive. Use of appropriate terms helps clients feel they are in a safe and welcoming environment. The Government of Canada’s LGBTQ2 Secretariat maintains a glossary of appropriate terminology, including the following.

Sexual orientation

Sexual orientation is the “sexual attraction for people of the same or another sex or gender.”

This is separate from questions of gender identity and includes:

  • Asexual people who “[lack] sexual attraction or interest in sexual expression. An asexual person’s sexual and romantic orientations may differ… and they may have sexual and/or romantic partners.”
  • Bisexual people who are sexually “attracted to two or more genders.” Similar terms, such as biromantic, refer to other forms of attraction that may not be sexual in nature. Pansexual refers to people “whose choice of sexual or romantic partner is not limited by the other person's sex, gender identity or gender expression.”
  • Heterosexual people who are “attracted to people of a different gender than themselves.” This is the majority group in society.
  • Homosexual people who are attracted to people of the same gender as themselves. The term is no longer in common use because of the historical medical understanding of same-sex attraction as a mental illness. The use of gay or lesbian is now preferred.
    • Gay refers to people who are “attracted to people of their same sex or gender identity. Traditionally this identity was reserved for men, but it has been adopted by people of all gender identities.”
    • Lesbian refers to women who are attracted to other women.

Gender identity

Gender identity is distinct from gender expression, which “refers to the various ways in which people choose to express their gender identity. For example: clothes, voice, hair, make-up, etc. A person’s gender expression may not align with societal expectations of gender. It is therefore not a reliable indicator of a person’s gender identity.”

Gender identity is a person’s “internal and deeply felt sense of being a man or woman, both or neither. A person’s gender identity may or may not align with the gender typically associated with their sex. It may change over the course of one’s lifetime.” Different gender identities include the following:

  • Cisgender refers to a “person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.” This is the majority group in society.
  • Gender-fluid refers to a “person whose gender identity varies over time and may include male, female and non-binary gender identities.”
  • Intersex refers to people who have biological “variations in their sex characteristics, such as sex chromosomes, internal reproductive organs, genitalia, and/or secondary sex characteristics (e.g. muscle mass, breasts) that fall outside of what is typically categorized as male or female.”
  • Non-binary or genderqueer refer to a “person whose gender identity does not align with a binary understanding of gender such as man or woman. It is a gender identity which may include man and woman, androgynous, fluid, multiple, no gender, or a different gender outside of the “woman–man” spectrum.”
  • Transgender, or simply trans, refers to a “person whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.” The term transsexual is no longer in common use due to its association with “gender affirming medical and/or surgical interventions. The term has fallen out of favour as it implies that physical transition is necessary in order to claim a trans identity.”

Transgender people have many issues in common with other sexual minorities, such as identity development, coming out, oppression, and discrimination. At the same time, they face unique challenges, such as the impact of sex change procedures, legal issues around their status as male or female, the impact of cross-dressing, and a variety of occupational choice and adjustment issues.

Other groups in the LGBTQ2S+ community

LGBTQ2S+ identities and self-definitions are continuously evolving. Some other groups of people in the community don’t directly align with either the sexual orientation or gender identity category.

  • Allies are members of the heterosexual, cisgender majority who recognize, respect, and support LGBTQ2S+ people. They use their positions and privilege to help address and eliminate discrimination in society.
  • Queer, historically a derogatory term, has been “reclaimed by many LGBTQ2 people as a positive way to describe themselves, and as a way to include the many diverse identities not covered by [the] common LGBTQ2 acronym.”
  • Questioning refers to a “person who is uncertain about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity; this can be a transitory or a lasting identity.”
  • Two-Spirit is an “English term used to broadly capture concepts traditional to many Indigenous cultures. It is a culturally-specific identity used by some Indigenous people to indicate a person whose gender identity, spiritual identity and/or sexual orientation comprises both male and female spirits.”

The closet

The LGBTQ2S+ community refers to the emotional state of not being able to disclose their identity as the closet. It’s a dark, constricted, claustrophobic space that limits the person’s ability to grow and engage with society.

People who have not disclosed their identity to others are referred to as closeted or in the closet. Closeted people may hide their identity in the workplace, at school, at home, and with friends. People may be closeted in certain social contexts but not in others.

Coming out of the closet refers to the process of discovering one’s identity, integrating this knowledge into one’s personal life, and beginning to disclose that identity to others. Coming out is a complex, selective, and ongoing process.

Outing is the hostile act of publicly disclosing another person’s sexual orientation or gender identity without that person’s permission or knowledge. Not only is it considered very disrespectful, the experience of being outed can be deeply traumatic. In some cases, it can put the outed individual in serious danger of violence and abuse.

Phobias, negativity, and exclusion

Homophobia is an umbrella term for the fear, hatred, or aversion experienced by members of the LGBTQ2S+ community as a result of their identity. It includes more targeted phobias such as biphobia or transphobia. It is often expressed by offensive, discriminatory, and violent actions, and its presence can have a strong psychological effect on the broader LGBTQ2S+ community. The Public Health Agency of Canada defines internalized homophobia as the “diminished sense of personal self-worth or esteem felt by an individual as a result of the experienced or presumed homophobia of others.”

Homophobia takes many forms and includes homonegativity, which refers to having negative views toward LGBTQ2S+ people without implying fear.

Heterosexism, cissexism, heteronormativity, and cisnormativity refer to world views in which all activities are seen from a majority heterosexual or cisgender point of view. Excluding references to people of other sexual orientations and gender identities disempowers minority populations and makes them feel invisible. Though rarely deliberate, these world views are typically considered hurtful and offensive to members the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Reclaimed language and symbols

Reclaimed language is taking terms or symbols that have been used in a derogatory fashion and using them in a positive way to describe one’s experiences or self. Queer is an example of a reclaimed term. The pink and black triangles, which were used by the Nazis to identify gay, lesbian, and political prisoners, are examples of reclaimed symbols.

History and legislation

Promotion of equality in law—“The promotion of equality entails the promotion of a society in which all are secure in the knowledge that they are recognized at law as human beings equally deserving of concern, respect, and consideration.”

The LGBTQ2S+ community has a long history of discrimination and marginalization. Before the 1969 Stonewall riots, the community was largely underground, trying to stay away from state-sponsored scrutiny, profiling, and criminalization. The riots, triggered by an undercover police raid on the Stonewall Inn, generally marks the start of a more outward-facing, activist sentiment in North America’s LGBTQ2S+ community.

This activism further crystallized during the 1980s and 1990s because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which, in North America, mostly affected gay and bisexual men. However, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that LGBTQ2S+ rights began to see legal protection in Canada.

Alberta Human Rights Act

Alberta’s previous Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act recognized that all persons are equal in dignity, rights, and responsibilities with regard to the protected grounds of race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, or family status. The Act did not include sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression as protected grounds. As of 1998, however, sexual orientation had been “read in” by the Supreme Court of Canada as a protected ground of discrimination in Alberta.

In 2009, the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act was renamed the Alberta Human Rights Act [PDF]. Under this renamed Act, sexual orientation was written in as a protected ground. Protected grounds based on sexual orientation include “protection from differential treatment based on a person’s actual or presumed sexual orientation or his or her association with a person who is homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual.”

At this time, the renamed Act also updated the definition of marital status to read “the state of being married, single, widowed, divorced, separated or living with a person in a conjugal relationship outside marriage.” Before the change, the word “state” was “status,” and the word “person” was followed by “of the opposite sex.”

In 2015, the Act was updated again to include gender identity and gender expression as further protected grounds, distinct from sexual orientation.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

In 1996, the federal government passed Bill C-33, adding sexual orientation to this list of prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.

In 2017, Bill C-16 further expanded the list of prohibited grounds to include gender identity and gender expression, following the example set by various provinces, including Alberta.

Bill C-250, An Act to Amend the Criminal Code (Hate Propaganda)

Bill C-250 was passed in the House of Commons in 2004, amending Sections 318 and 319 (Hate Propaganda) of the Criminal Code of Canada to include sexual orientation in the listing of identifiable groups against which hate propaganda is deemed a criminal offense.

In 2017, those sections of the Code were amended further to include gender identity and gender expression.

Civil Marriage Act

2005 saw the passage of Canada’s Civil Marriage Act, which includes same-sex couples in the definition of civil marriage. Before the passage of the Act, some provincial courts had already struck down the opposite-sex definition of marriage.

Sexual and gender identity formation

For LGBTQ2S+ clients, the development of their sexual identity involves transitioning from a heteronormative or cisnormative system of cultural beliefs, values, attitudes, behaviours, and identification to those of a minority population with which they increasingly identify. To make that transition, they must manage or overcome externalized homophobia and heterosexism or cissexism as part of their positive self-identification as an LGBTQ2S+ person.

A place of acceptance—“It is important to let [LGBTQ2S+ clients] know right up front that [their sexual orientation or gender identity] is only one part, although an important part, of who they are and that this is a safe place to talk about it. Seeking help is hard enough for anybody and, in my experience, most people take a long and winding road before going to a counsellor... I don’t always know if I can help them, but I can listen and not judge.”

A number of models related to the formation of gender and sexual identity have been proposed. The social constructionist perspective identifies 6 stages of the process for forming sexual or gender identity:

  1. Identity confusion. The person becomes more aware of thoughts, feelings, or behaviours belonging to the sexual minority. This awareness creates confusion because these thoughts, feelings, or behaviours do not fit into a majority heterosexual or cisgender mould.
  2. Identity comparison. The person begins by exploring the LGBTQ2S+ world, seeking out further information and contact with members of that community.
  3. Identity tolerance. The person experiences more contact with LGBTQ2S+ people, but still mostly identifies as cisgender or heterosexual.
  4. Identity acceptance. Conflict begins to surface with non-LGBTQ2S+ people while at the same time the person develops more comfort with the idea of being LGBTQ2S+. Most people at this stage remain closeted in contexts that aren’t actively supportive.
  5. Identity pride. The person feels strong pride and seeks immersion in the LGBTQ2S+ community, while also feeling anger and isolation from the heterosexual and cisgender majority.
  6. Identity synthesis. The person accepts and feels comfortable expressing their identify in both LGBTQ2S+ culture and the majority community.

Barriers and challenges

Often when LGBTQ2S+ persons come out to their families and peers, temporary conflicts arise, leaving them with very little support. When this event coincides with the timing of important career decisions, it may influence their self-esteem, self-efficacy, and general well-being. This, in turn, negatively affects their career decision-making process.

Coming out and coming to terms

Coming out is a continual and lifelong process that is always influenced by safety, vulnerability, individual comfort, and perceived levels of support and acceptance. Coming-out experiences are linked to a larger coming-to-terms process. This involves both the person who discloses a minority identity and the person who receives that disclosure. Researchers suggest that coming-out and coming-to-terms processes are critical to the mental health of all LGBTQ2S+ people.

Substance abuse and suicide

LGBTQ2S+ persons are likely to be at higher risk than the general population for substance abuse, depression, and self-harm, including suicide. LGBTQ2S+ persons who do not attempt suicide differ in 2 key ways from those who do attempt suicide:

  • They experienced less stress in coming out to their parents or family.
  • They experienced less ridicule for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Barriers specific to gender minorities

As the most recent group to receive specific protection under human rights legislation, gender minorities continue to face the highest levels of stigma and misunderstanding in the workplace. Traditional, cisnormative workplace policies can limit how much this client group is able to align their gender expression with their gender identity in the workplace. As a result, this group faces significantly higher unemployment and lower median salaries than both the general public and their sexual minority counterparts.

Common cisnormative workplace policies include binary gender assumptions on workplace forms, gender-specific uniforms, and binary labelling on bathrooms and locker rooms. These policies, which are often already visible to transgender and non-binary clients during the work search and interview process, can result in this group feeling invisible and closeted before they even accept the job.

Gender transition also means that a person’s past work history and legal identity might be under a different name and pronouns than they currently use. Those who have not yet transitioned have to decide whether to do so in the context of their current employment. If they don’t feel supported, they may decide to seek a new job as part of their transition.

Certain methods of gender expression, such as binding one’s breasts or tucking one’s genitalia, may not be sustainable over the course of a full workday. If people do not feel safe expressing both their biological and chosen genders in the workplace, this can make certain jobs impossible. Meanwhile, medical gender-affirming procedures can be very costly, making any loss of employment income even more devastating.

For all these reasons, career success for individuals who identify as transgender or non-binary often comes in the form of working online, being self-employed, or founding companies where they can create safe environments for themselves. As more employers adapt to current human rights legislation, learn from gender minorities active in their industry, and work to create safer, more accommodating workplaces, these limitations will become less of a factor for gender minority clients.

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