Claiming Identity in the Body: Supporting Sexual Identity Development for Queer Folk in Dance/Movement Therapy

Supporting Individuals of All Identities through a Body-Centered Approach

The development of a person’s sexual identity within an oppressive system can be complex, variable, and absolutely unique to each individual. In my experience, both personally and in my clinical work with individuals who identify as part of LGBTQIA+ communities, I have developed two main areas of focus in order to promote a safe environment within the therapeutic process and a healthy development of self for the client:

  1. The clinician’s own multicultural sensitivity training and development of awareness regarding personal bias and privilege
  2. Careful individualized attention to how the effect of minority stress, oppression, and prejudice has impacted each client.

Kawano, Cruz, and Tan (2018) make the argument that, “Within the current political climate, there is an imminent need to enhance awareness and knowledge of issues specific to persons who do not conform to binary societal expectations and cultural norms regarding sex, gender, and sexuality; and understand how sexism, heterosexism, and trans oppression manifest in relationship to each other” (p. 203).

Furthermore, I am suggesting that the use of body-centered approaches in counseling, such as dance/movement therapy (DMT), with individuals who identify as queer creates the need to include a strong emphasis on present moment awareness on the clinician’s part.

Doing the Work

As a therapist working with the LGBTQIA+ community, I am at the crux of societal change and the acceptance of this reality is what I personally find to be essential as I expand my awareness of my own privilege and internalized oppression. As I ease into the willingness to accept, I can feel the tension relaxing in my body which further perpetuates my motivation to provide adequate support. Kawano et al. (2018) argues that it is important for clinicians to focus on both “intra and interpersonal therapeutic dynamics” as well as social justice and advocacy counseling (p. 206). In addition, Lewis, Derlega, Berndt, Morris, and Rose (2002) point out three levels of advocacy established by the American Counseling Association (ACA) which are: client/student, school/community, and public arena (as cited in Kawano et al., 2018, p. 206).

Present Moment Awareness

As a body-based clinician it is imperative not only to do extensive analysis about my own bias, privilege and internalized oppression, but also how I experience these aspects on a body level. Not only this, but, as I relate to each individual client, I find the continual awareness and reconditioning of my own bias, privilege, and internalized oppression to be important. I have found that, in order to accomplish increased awareness of my own bias, the practice of present moment awareness is a key factor both inside and outside of the therapy session.

The skill of present moment awareness emphasizes the client/student level of advocacy proposed by the American Counseling Association (Lewis et al., 2002). Present moment awareness applied within the context of dance/movement therapy (DMT) can support the clinician’s identification of somatic sensations in their body as they relate to ideas about gender, sexual preference, sexual behavior, and identity. Mindfulness, overall, can also be helpful when creating a safe environment for queer folk which may include: being sure to use gender affirming and/or gender neutral language in documentation, as well as displaying art, safe space signs, stickers, and other representative materials (Kawano et al., 2018).

Being that I am a cisgendered woman who identifies as pansexual and I am in a same sex marriage with a partner who identifies as lesbian, I draw from my experience to support queer folk in the development of their sexual identity. However, I recognize aspects of my own identity which hold privilege, such as the fact that I present as cisgendered and passing to the outside world. Chang and Singh (2016) emphasize the importance of cisgender practitioners acknowledging their cisgender privilege in order to establish trust (as cited in Kawano et al.,2018, p. 206). Therefore, there is a sense of ethical duty to maintain my awareness of how my privilege, bias and internalized oppression manifests in the present moment when I am with a client who identifies as queer.

Dance/Movement Therapy for Queer Folk

When facilitating the development of sexual identity for an individual who identifies as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, it is important to understand how the effects of minority stress, oppression, and prejudice contribute to feelings of shame, internalized oppression, and poor mental health. It is equally as important to provide careful individualized attention to each client. Kawano et al. (2018, p. 207) found a focus in the field of DMT regarding how clients experience oppression and stigma: In the DMT literature on LGBTQI and/or GNC communities, a common thread is the exploration of the experiences of oppressed and/or stigmatized sexuality and gender identities on a body level through relational research paradigms.

Particularly, in the context of DMT practices for queer folk, individualized attention may include the use of empathic attunement, breath awareness, and exploration of shame somatically as components for body-based interventions. According to Roberts (2016), DMT interventions can “help a client understand the impact of concealable ‘stigmas,’ such as having HIV, or being gay or lesbian, on the somatic level” (as cited in Kawano et al., 2018, p. 207). As a body-centered psychotherapist, I may ask ‘how does shame feel like in your body?’ and support the client to increase their awareness of how discrimination may affect their sense of self.

The duty to advocate with and on behalf of queer folk in therapy is of great value both for the empowerment of these individuals and also to effect social change. Dance therapists and other body-centered clinicians are inherently equipped with the skill of present moment awareness which lends itself to a crucial factor when working with such marginalized communities: the clinician’s development of awareness regarding personal bias and privilege.

However, although awareness is foundational to advocacy counseling, it is not the end all. The process of providing queer folk with careful individualized attention within the field of DMT requires multi-cultural sensitivity training, addressing privilege head on, and assisting the client to process stigma and internalized oppression as it manifests in their bodies. As more and more dance/movement therapists process these complex issues somatically, we can perhaps cultivate a culture of reclaiming identity in the body.


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