When still in graduate school and seeking internships in wilderness therapy, I was immediately drawn to Juniper Canyon because it is a woman-specific program for women led by women. I loved the empowerment that comes from that and the safety it provides that so many seek. One question I had was related to how those who identify as gender non-conforming, or gender queer might fit into this binary system, as well as other members of the LGBTQIA+ and minority communities.
I was relieved to find that Juniper Canyon was making active efforts through Diversity Equity and Inclusion trainings and meetings to ensure that it would be a community welcome and affirming to all folks in the LGBTQIA+ community as well as other marginalized groups. Throughout my time working here, I have enjoyed facilitating conversations and trainings related to gender and sexuality affirming care as the head chair of the DEI committee.
Simply put, gender-affirming care saves lives. So does, I firmly believe, the wilderness. Part of why I feel such safety in the outdoors has to do with the freedom it allows me to be fully myself. The wilderness doesn’t care how we identify or if we fit into a mold we are expected to be in. I have had my loudest laughs, goofiest dances and biggest tears while being held by the nature around me that gifted me the bravery to be fully myself. It doesn’t have expectations or stigmas and remains open, nurturing and welcoming no matter what our story is, and therapy should be the same way.
It is of vital importance that we affirm the identities of the clients that we serve, as our clients are the experts on themselves—not us or anyone else. If we had expectations of who we think our clients should be and asked them to fit into a mold they don’t feel they are themselves in, how can we set them up for success? We should provide a space that is as non-judgmental as it is in the wild; allowing our clients to step into the bravery that it takes to explore their identities and develop a better sense of who they are.
At Juniper Canyon and Legacy, we have a robust clinical team capable of working with a diverse range of mental health and substance use concerns. I believe in the treatment that we have to offer to clients coming from all types of backgrounds and identities, including those that belong to the LGBTQIA+ community. That being said, we know that simply identifying as queer or transgender does not indicate mental health concerns on its own. However, we also know that individuals that belong to marginalized communities do face higher levels of struggles related to peer and family rejection, harassment, trauma, abuse, and much more. Therefore, we provide treatment to clients for the symptoms and struggles that develop because of these circumstances—but we are not treating their identities.
We should embrace the unique and beautiful identities of all clients and provide a space in which they have the freedom to express that while also treating the pain and negative symptoms that have developed as a result of being rejected or victimized because of who they are. We know from the research that simply affirming an individual’s gender identity improves these symptoms, along with suicidality and depression significantly. With 1 out of 3 gender queer individuals having attempted suicide and over half of transgender and non-binary youth having seriously considered completing suicide, the necessity of this cannot be ignored. Additionally, individuals that belong to the LGBTQIA+ community are much more likely to use and abuse substances, increasing risk for addiction, overdose, and other complications. So, we will do everything in our power to help them recover from the symptoms they are experiencing, while using preferred pronouns, allowing space for exploration, and respecting their understanding of themselves.
To me, this feels like an obvious and non-controversial treatment decision. I understand that for some, especially parents and family members, this topic can bring up a lot of complicated feelings and shifts within the family system. Just as I approach any client with empathy and respect for their struggles, I have empathy for this too. Adjustment to any degree is difficult—especially when it involves a changing expectation of how you thought things might be. Many parents struggle with this when their child is in treatment for any reason. Parents might struggle with acceptance of change, fear or concern, grief, confusion, and more. Just as I help my client navigate their experience by providing a safe and supportive environment in which they can feel brave to be themselves, I will offer parents the same. I won’t advocate for the rejection of the client’s identity—and I will support parents and family members in reconnecting with their child in a healthy and authentic way.
To sum it up, I have no interest in treating or changing the identities that my clients claim. One of the most beautiful things that I get to witness at Juniper Canyon is unique and strong humans figuring out, accepting, and ultimately loving who they are at their core.