Queer PTSD

Our community has been affected by the trauma of societal and familiar homophobia.

BY COLIN STACK-TROOST, MA, AMFT

The first time that I made the connection between trauma the queer experience was in the title of a book: Alan DownsThe Velvet Rage: Overcoming The Pain Of Growing Up In A Straight Man’s World. Downs uses the word “pain,” but as a graduate student in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in LGBTQ+ mental health, I substituted the word “trauma,” and a lightbulb went on. The trauma of growing up Gay. Or Bi. Or Trans. Anything that was “other,” something non-normative, something that society did not accept or understand. 

In an instant I flashed back to my junior high school, where hateful epithets were frequently carved across my locker. Where the word “faggot” was screamed at me out of the windows of passing cars. I thought of the deep feelings of discomfort that I had with my sexuality, knowing full well that I had little interest in dating girls. I lived in fear that—at any moment—my gayness would be discovered by my peers, making me a target for physical violence or verbal harassment. What was I supposed to do with this at-once shameful and excited feeling that would rise in me when a handsome actor on a TV show would take his shirt off? 

Later in my studies I encountered an article by two Queer Ph.D.’s that further solidified this connection between trauma and the LGBTQ+ experience. Blum and Van Pfetzing posited that growing up queer could be, in and of itself, a traumatic experience that shouldn’t be overlooked by mental health practitioners. They offered the example of a Black or Jewish child who is bullied at school for being Black or being Jewish, but upon returning to their family, receive the affirmation and validation to dispel this trauma. It is rarer, however, for a bullied Queer child to return to a LGBTQ+ affirming family, and thus find that the world feels very unsafe. For many Queer youth, the home or church is even more toxic than a school environment. 

When an individual’s upbringing involves repeated exposure to physical or emotional violence, mental health professionals refer to this as “CPTSD,” or complex post-traumatic stress disorder. While it might be a stretch to say that all Queer and LGBT-identified folks are walking around this world with CPTSD, I believe it is negligent for mental health practitioners not to have an awareness of how our community has been affected by the trauma of societal and familiar homophobia. Imagine never knowing a safe environment in which to express yourself authentically, and how this affects the way someone navigates through the world. 

As a Queer man who has been out for over half my life, I still catch myself having moments of homophobia-fueled anxiety: if I’m in a grocery store or movie theater, I’ll notice I do a quick assessment of my surroundings to make sure it’s safe to hold my partner’s hand. I wonder if this simple display of affection will put me at risk for the kind of verbal or physical harassment that I was so used to enduring as an adolescent? Over the years of working with clients, I’ve learned that I am certainly not the only one who has bouts of living in this state of constant vigilance.  

In my practice, I employ what’s called LGBTQ+ Affirmative therapy, a therapeutic modality designed to help clients connect to the traumatic experiences we had growing up around our sexuality. In this frame, the therapist’s role is to act as an “enlightened witness,” helping clients see that there is nothing wrong with them for their sexuality—that it is societal homophobia that has left us so deeply wounded. Therapists invite clients to reframe their perspective around their sexuality, maybe even daring to view our queerness as a gift instead of something to be ashamed of. 

As it stands, treatment options for trauma include a combination of talk therapy, support groups, and medication; the results of which are varied. But with the FDA’s recent approval of Phase III clinical trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, a new tool for healing may soon be at hand.

Could this classic “party drug” be the key to help Queer community heal from some of our traumatic upbringings? This is the question I’ll be exploring in next month’s issue of THE FIGHT.