A Feminist Approach to Working with Internalized Heterosexism in Lesbians

By Szymanski, Dawn M. | Journal of College Counseling, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

A Feminist Approach to Working with Internalized Heterosexism in Lesbians


Szymanski, Dawn M., Journal of College Counseling


This article addresses counselors' calls for more training on internalized heterosexism. Through a synthesis of the research on lesbian internalized heterosexism, the author discusses how the integration of a feminist approach can enhance college counselors' work with lesbian clients, describes 3 core feminist therapy principles, uses these principles as a framework within which to discuss relevant research on internalized heterosexism, and provides practical suggestions and clinical examples to illustrate the application of both research and feminist theory to counseling with lesbians.

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Research indicates that lesbians and gay men use counseling at higher rates than do heterosexuals; a large percentage of lesbians have obtained some form of mental health support; and lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) clients are present in most counselors' caseloads (Bradford, Ryan, & Rothblum, 1994; Hughes, Haas, Razzano, Cassidy, & Matthews, 2000; Liddle, 1997; Murphy, Rawlings, & Howe, 2002). Mental health services to LGB clients should be free of bias, prejudice, and discrimination and should be provided by college counselors who are trained in LGB issues (American Psychological Association [APA], 2000). However, research suggests that heterosexist bias influences some counselors' work with LGB clients (Garnets, Hancock, Cochran, Goodchilds, & Peplau, 1991; Liddle, 1996) and that graduate training in counseling concerning LGB issues is inadequate (Phillips & Fisher, 1998; Pilkington & Cantor, 1996).

In a recent study (Murphy et al., 2002), therapists indicated that training in several areas, including the topics of internalized heterosexism, "coming out," and estrangement from family, would improve their work with LGB clients. In addition, clinicians indicated that their most frequent type of training on LGB issues was reading relevant articles. This finding is somewhat surprising given the dearth of articles on LGB issues in counseling journals (Phillips, Ingram, Smith, & Mindes, 2003).

This article addresses counselors' calls for more training on internalized heterosexism (Murphy et al., 2002). Through a synthesis of the research on lesbian internalized heterosexism, I illustrate how the integration of a feminist approach can enhance college counselors' work with lesbian clients. More specifically, I describe three core feminist therapy principles, use these principles as a framework within which to discuss relevant research on internalized heterosexism, and provide practical suggestions and clinical examples to illustrate the application of both research and feminist theory to counseling lesbian college students.

Internalized heterosexism, or what some clinicians call internalized homophobia, represents lesbians' and gay men's acceptance of negative societal, cultural, religious, and familial attitudes and assumptions concerning same-sex attraction and nonheterosexual persons (Sophie, 1987). Although internalized heterosexism is believed to be a developmental occurrence that all lesbians and gay men experience as a result of living in a heterosexist environment (Shidlo, 1994), this article focuses on lesbians only because of the unique factors that influence lesbian identity development (e.g., female gender role socialization, sexism, and feminism; McCarn & Fassinger, 1996). Differences have also been found in internalized heterosexism and its psychosocial correlates between lesbians and gay men (cf. Amadio & Chung, in press; Herek, Cogan, Gillis, & Glunt, 1997; Mohr & Fassinger, 2000). In addition, many articles on sexual orientation fail to mention gender differences, thus making it unclear what information holds true for lesbians, gay men, or both.

Feminist Approaches in Counseling

There are several reasons why a feminist approach may be particularly useful for college counselors who are working with lesbian clients to reduce their internalized heterosexism. …

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