As a person-centred counsellor, who has worked for a number of LGBTQIA+ organisations, Matthew Cormack shares areas for therapists to consider when exploring the relationship between gender, sexual or relationship diversity and spirituality. While there may be some crossover with other protected characteristics, there are aspects that sit at the specific intersection between gender, sexual and relationship diversity that it may be useful to consider and understand.

Understand yourself

As therapists, we first need to reflect on our own thoughts and feelings about gender, sexual and relationship diversity (GSRD). Exploring what we feel about these is a part of the work we need to do. This might include reflecting on our own gender, sexual and relationship identities. If we can’t reflect on what it means for us, then it can be a lot harder to connect with a client who is exploring that. We have to examine what biases we might have. When someone is talking about spirituality specifically, we need to reflect on our feelings and experiences towards that too. In doing this, we become more aware of the things we might want to take to supervision, so that we are not harming the client through countertransference. By reflecting on our own gender, sexuality, relationships and spirituality, we can be better prepared to accompany a client on this journey.

Do your research

The vast majority of what we see in the media is cis heteronormative. When I was growing up, there was not a movie with a queer character as the main lead, and often the media did not really acknowledge gender, sexual or relationship diversity. While this has been improving in recent years, it means that many of us have not seen or heard about GSRD stories or ways of being. Indeed, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I can recall a lot of negative information about gender, sexual and relationship diversity. These messages have often been internalised, so building our knowledge helps us to understand it. This is why research is so vital for therapists. Taking responsibility for our own learning is important; clients are not there to educate us. There is a balance between a client sharing what something means for them, and a session turning into teaching the therapist.

Even though we cannot know everything, we can be active in our learning. If a client references something we are not familiar with, such as a type of relationship, we can research and learn about it in between sessions as part of our ongoing development. Listening to people’s experiences can be particularly powerful, which is why there are references to several YouTube videos included at the end of this article. One of my trainers used to say, ‘Be curious’, and I think that’s really powerful. Be open. 

Recognise the impact of religion

Questions of spirituality can affect someone a lot. For people who have belonged to a religious group or organisation from a young age, it may have played a vital part in their life and community, although this may vary across the generations. Those experiences of spirituality or religion can have a huge effect on someone’s identity and on their mental health. Even if you aren’t raised in a religious household, there can still be a lot of religious assumptions in the media or in schools. Christmas adverts are one example of this.

There are some very small groups that will actively say that queer people are going to hell, that we are sinners, we are evil. Such messages can have a big effect on a person’s identity. And there is research to support that.1 If you look at it through a person-centred lens, and consider the organismic self, you are being told that a part of you is wrong. A person may have to hide that or cut it off. This will be harmful and traumatic.

I want to acknowledge that there are a lot of faiths and spiritualities that do include GSRD people. We can’t just assume that because someone is of a particular faith, they won’t be inclusive or accepting of people, because all faiths and religions vary greatly and there are a lot of people who do have great experiences with queer-affirming faiths and organisations.

In addition, we shouldn’t make assumptions that someone who is GSRD is in conflict with their faith. They might not be. Their faith may be something valuable or supportive for them. Queer spirituality is often a personal journey, and it won’t look the same for everyone. We need to be aware that GSRD is diverse. We should celebrate and acknowledge that.

Be trauma aware

Having an understanding of trauma can be important as it can be present for people who have experienced conversion therapy or religious abuse. Taking a non-stigmatising and non-shaming approach is essential. When working with the client about a GSRD identity, remember that no one identity is better or more valid than another. When we are talking about someone’s identity, we need to come at it from an affirmative and non-judgmental, non-stigmatising place. Creating a safe environment for clients to talk is partly about acknowledging that there can be a lot of pain for many people.

Clients may also have experienced trauma within the context of therapy itself. Conversion therapy, also known as cure therapy or reparative therapy, refers to any kind of treatment which aims to change or suppress someone’s gender identity or sexuality. I don’t even like to call it therapy because it’s not, it’s harmful. It is based on the ideas that gender, sexual or relationship diversity is an illness or state of mind that can be cured. It takes the very harmful idea that someone’s identity is an illness, which can be changed. This does happen in the UK. According to Stonewall, 5% of LGBT+ people have been pressured to access conversion therapies in the UK. This rises to 20% for trans people accessing healthcare services, 8% of disabled people, 9% of people of colour and 9% of 18 to 24 year olds.2 There is research showing it can leave people with trauma. LGBTQ+ young people who had experienced conversion therapy were twice as likely to have attempted suicide multiple times.3 The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)4 offers clear information about what conversion therapy is and isn’t. BACP is one of the organisations that has signed the MOU. I highly recommend reading it.

To support someone who may have been through this, it is important to have a solid grounding in trauma awareness and to go at the client’s own pace.

Signpost to other spiritual resources

A client may question their faith or even if they want to retain their faith. Constant messages such as ‘God will only love you if you are straight’ can be hugely damaging. A person’s religious or spiritual identity and their sexual, relationship or gender identity might be at odds with each other. It can be helpful to let clients know that there are groups, churches and organisations that are specifically LGBTQIA+ affirming. It can be healing for clients to know that there are inclusive faith or spirituality groups, and there are people, who say, ‘God does accept you and there is nothing wrong with who you are’. However, while they may find another group is accepting of their sexuality, it may not be the same denomination that they have known, and being part of a new organisation may not replace a person’s longstanding links with their community. The client could experience strong feelings of rejection and grief as a result of this loss.

The Human Rights Campaign has a website that outlines the beliefs of various faith groups in relation to LGBT+ people.5 It can also be helpful to learn, and let clients know, about queer spirituality across the world. There are many faiths and cultures that are inclusive of GSRD people. There might be more queer positive spirituality in a person’s faith than they are aware of. Learning about these may help clients to recognise the divinity within themselves. However, we should be careful not to encourage appropriation from other cultures; we can learn from others without taking from them. Some of these include Hijras in Hinduism, Two-Spirit in Native American beliefs and Paganism.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a trans and Hijra rights activist, describes Hijras as, ‘The oldest ethnic transgender community [in] which we have our own culture, our own family set up, our own way of functioning. And we are, religiously, known as divine demigods. We have power to curse, we have power to bless.’6

According to the Two-Spirit Society of Denver: ‘Two Spirit refers to another gender role, believed to be common among most, if not all, first peoples of Turtle Island (North America), one that had a proper and accepted place within native societies. This acceptance was rooted in the spiritual teachings that say all life is sacred.’7

Paganism is inclusive of GSRD people. According to the Scottish Pagan Federation, one of the three tenants that many Pagans would agree with is recognition of the Divine, which transcends gender. Indeed, Paganism is one of the few faiths in Scotland that perform same-sex marriage: I am an approved celebrant with the Scottish Pagan Federation, able to perform legal Pagan weddings for any couple.

Explore meaning through ritual and honour losses

Many faith-based rituals, such as marriage, funerals and baby naming ceremonies, come from a very cisgender, heteronormative place. Cisgender simply means our gender identity is the same as the sex we were assigned at birth. Heteronormative is the idea that heterosexuality is the normal, acceptable or standard sexuality.8 There is not much available for people who are relationship diverse, for example, in a polyamorous, or open relationship. There is currently no legally recognised marriage for poly relationships, although there have been people who have had legal unions.9 However, some people create their own rituals. Creating rituals for people who are GSRD can be affirming and validating. It may even be a way of a client expressing their autonomy. This might be something a client wishes to explore in therapy. Creating your own rituals to mark key events can be a powerful way to do this.

There are already some rituals that many GSRD people take part in, such as Pride marches. My local Pride would often have a minute’s silence to honour the members of our queer family that we have lost to violence, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. This is followed by a minute of noise to symbolise continuing to work towards a more inclusive world. This can be quite a spiritual experience for some.

Where there is a conflict between faith and gender, sexual or relationship diversity, some people may not be able to reconcile the two. The client might experience feeling rejected by their faith group or community. They may lose relationships with people or groups they have been close to, which may lead to feelings of loss or grief. When someone has an open space to explore a potential loss of their spiritual or religious identity and its effects, it can help to make meaning of this situation. This is similar to working with bereavement, and it is worth considering ways of working with grief for a client in this position.

Consider all intersectionalities

Intersections with all aspects of self will be important. Experiences of spirituality and GSRD are also affected by other aspects of a person’s life. For example, an organisation that is GSRD affirming may have an inaccessible building. Clients across generations may have different experiences. People may have experienced racism alongside their experiences around gender, sexuality, relationships or spirituality. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi has spoken about how colonialism led to ostracising of Hijras.6 The effects of colonialism, misogyny, systemic racism, systemic homophobia/biphobia/transphobia may all come more into awareness for the client during therapy. We, as therapists, need to develop our own awareness to be able to work with the client when these issues emerge. There is some fantastic training available for therapists around this. There can be intersections around all these elements of someone’s experience. It’s important to remember that these parts of our identity are not separate from other aspects of our selves. It all connects and it’s vital for us as therapists to understand these.



  • Pink Therapy, by Dominic Davies and Charles Neal
  • Gay Witchcraft, by Christopher Penczak Queer Magic, by Tomas Prower
  • Working With Risk, by Andrew Reeves
  • Counselling Skills for Working with Trauma, by Christiane Sanderson
  • Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, by William Worden
  • The Creative Toolkit for Working with Grief and Bereavement, by Claudia Coenen
  • Intersections of Privilege and Otherness in Counselling and Psychotherapy, by Dwight Turner
  • What Psychotherapists Should Know About Disability, by Rhoda Olkin
  • Other Tongues, by Beverley Costa

Personal accounts


  • Boy Erased. Edgerton J (dir). Perfect World Pictures; 2018.
  • The Death and Life of Marsha P Johnson. France D (dir). Public Square Films; 2017.
  • Prayers for Bobby. Mulcahy R (dir). Lifetime Television; 2009.
  • Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. Feder S (dir). Field of Vision; 2020.


Some LGBTQIA+ and GSRD affirmative spiritual organisations

There may be other organisations in addition to those listed. 


1 Human Rights Campaign. The lies and dangers of efforts to change sexual orientation or gender identity. 2021. [Online.]
2 Stonewall. Conversion therapy. 2021. [Online.]
3 Green A, Price-Feeney M, Dorison S, Pick C. Self-reported conversion efforts and suicidality among US LGBTQ youths and young adults.
4 BACP. Memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK. 2017. [Online.]
5 Human Rights Campaign, Faith positions. 2021. [Online.]
6 Women in the world. What is a Hijra? 2017. [Online.]
7 Them. What does two-spirit mean? 2018. [Online.]
8 Pink News. Heteronormativity: definition, societal examples and why it’s harmful to LGBT+ community. 2019. [Online.]
9 BBC. Polyamorous marriage: is there a future for three-way weddings? 2017. [Online.] www