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Expert Voices

Rebuilding Identity: How CVT Encourages LGBTQ Self-Expression Amid Healing

Published June 19, 2024
Hands of different complexions all reading up, wearing varied LGBTQ identity pins and wristbands

The Rebuilding Identity Therapy Group, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is an on-going mental health group for LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees to explore personal identity, learn about U.S. LGBTQ culture and history and to find community.

The curriculum was created by Charissa Cable, psychotherapist with CVT and Jesse Valentin, a previous social worker with CVT. Rachel Barth, social worker and targeted case manager, also supported the curriculum’s creation, and now co-facilitates the group with Cable.

“To our knowledge, this [group] is a first in the five state area to have a therapy group for LGBTQ asylum seekers and refugees,” said Cable. 

Why focus on this population?

This is an important intersection, as a Queer identity is probable cause for isolation and harm in many countries, and it is not uncommon for sexual orientation or gender identity to be connected to reasons behind clients’ connection with CVT.

“Many [survivors] sound like they didn’t really know any other person like them and they had to flee because they were ‘freaks’ and ‘abominations.’ Now that they’ve arrived to Minnesota, we hope this group creates a safe space of acceptance and exploration that is counter cultural to where they were coming from,” Cable said.

“That’s an important component of having a group of people who’ve been alienated come together and feel really bonded over that.”

How was the curriculum created?

While held in the midwestern U.S., this multi-week group takes pointers from data, research and methodologies from around the world. “Research was a vital part of putting the curriculum and group structure together. The team focused on articles about populations primarily in South Africa and how being a different sexual orientation affects families, how it impacts communities, forms of torture and police violence,” Cable shared.

The team also used content from the Trevor Project’s Coming Out Handbook, Heartland Alliance’s Rainbow Response and CVT Kenya’s aftercare program.

Because CVT Kenya’s aftercare program is the first within our organization to focus on the LGBTQ population, the Rebuilding Identity group’s curriculum took pointers from Kenya’s manual alongside CVT’s Level One Building Safety Manual. 

According to Cable, these similar and combined approaches are all-encompassing, and ask important questions such as:

  • What is trauma?
  • How does it affect your body?
  • How do you know you’re experiencing anxiety?
  • How does it feel to be in a new culture? 
  • What stages of emigration are you in and how does that impact you?

Personal experience, psycho-educational and cultural components

In addition to the curriculum being informed by the work of many across the globe, it has also been a labor of love, based on the curators own lived experience and what they wanted to see within the group. 

Cable shared that both she and Valentin, as members of the LGBTQ community, knew what they wanted to share regarding the U.S. experience of a Queer identity. They wanted the research to help inform the rest by asking themselves, “What’s really the most impactful for survivors intersecting with LGBTQ identities? How do they relate to family and friends? How are they typically traumatized?”

The combination of Cable, Valentin and later Barth’s work resulted in a group format that is one part psycho-education and one part education in U.S. Queer culture.

The latter is important because in many places where participants hail from, there’s little to no sense of community surrounding LGBTQ identity and culture. This section covers topics including Stonewall, the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Drag culture, the Lavender Magazine, and more.

It was important to the facilitators that survivors see the longstanding history of LGBTQ identified-people and their impact within the states, as well as incite the beginning of individual understanding about identity in tandem with psycho-education topics.

At the start of the sessions, participants are asked questions surrounding anxiety connected with their sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as gauging their knowledge and understanding of Queer culture within the U.S. These are then asked again at the end of the session. 

In addition to exploring varied aspects of culture, sexuality and identity, some of the themes and skill areas include:

  • Coping skills
  • Adjusting to immigration
  • Foundations of trauma
  • Forming healthy relationships
  • Exploring chosen family
  • Self Compassion and loving kindness
  • Religion and queer identity

The impact of identity-focused groups 

This next iteration of the group will be the second, and Cable and Barth are hoping for just as much if not more success. When it comes to mental health, there is an undeniable vitality in the ability to discover what your identity is for yourself without fear of harm, especially for those who have experienced ostracization, harm or violence.

Cable speaks to the curriculum also being informed by the importance of emotional intelligence, and how all these pieces fit together. “Emotions are communication and learning that allows you to understand yourself better, other people better and have more compassion. Learning about identities is incredibly important – to know who you are – especially for survivors of torture who have had their dignity and human spirit tried to be broken,” she said.

Curated settings like these create a safer space to do so, and we at CVT hope that they continue to not only expand and thrive within our organizations, but externally. “Groups that help form identities are incredibly important, especially from people coming from regions where queer intelligence has been cut off or the access to explore freedom of expression and freedom of self has been cut off,” Cable said.

“So to come and be in this group where everybody is like you, and you’re all figuring it out, to have friends they like and text groups, how sweet to be able to share your identity fully and have no fear about how the other person is going to feel about it!” 

“What a privilege to sit down in a group of people who have not done this before and do it together.”

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