I’ve been a member of Identity House for a long time, first as a client when I needed support coming out, and later as a peer counselor to give back to others what had been helpful for me. Connection is at the heart of Identity House. My experience as a gay man is that the more camaraderie I feel in sync with others like me, the more secure, happy, appreciated, and understood I feel.
It’s been a heady experience learning to accept me without apology, justification, or explanation. My journey and personal growth has only been helped by having people in my life with whom I share similar experiences. Identity House has played a big role because it’s helped me make friends, develop trust, assert myself, project my individuality, enjoy the happy times, and empathize when hearing about sad moments.
Being a peer counselor is meaningful and sometimes challenging. We’re not professionals, so listening and sharing experiences and feelings is very important. For some clients, it’s the first time they’ve had a chance to talk about themselves. I don’t know beforehand why people are coming to a one-time Identity House informational session, so I avoid making presumptions when listening. Having another peer as a co-counselor in typical Identity House fashion is always helpful. We can supportively react off one another to what a client is saying and each affirms or supplements what the other has said. At the session’s end, we can make referrals for those wanting professional psychotherapy, or inform clients about further Identity House services such as peer-led groups or time-limited Identity House peer counseling sessions. And if there are no clients showing up, then we have the time to socialize and talk with one another about our own concerns and issues.
I want to share a poignant memory. On occasion a peer counselor might work the Walk-in Center alone due to extenuating circumstances, and this happened to me. A college student from outside the City showed up to talk about himself. He presented as articulate and bright. He was thinking about transitioning and didn’t know how to broach the subject to his parents with whom he lived. I initially felt anxious and inadequate. What did I know, much less experience, about being transgender? What could I do to be helpful for a person in distress sitting across from me? I listened.
The client told me about himself, growing up in his traditional suburban family, feeling ‘different’ in school, lacking trust in confiding with anyone, while becoming aware how important his femininity meant to him. I admired his courage coming to Identity House and speaking with me, a stranger. I affirmed what he was telling me but the issue vexing him was how to talk with his parents. They clearly loved him, he said, and he felt the same toward them. I had a moment of clarity after this assertion because I identified with him about my own family, growing up outside New York. I wondered if he could talk to his parents beginning with telling them about his love for them, never wanting to intentionally hurt them, and how grateful he felt to be in his loving family. Setting that tone for the conversation he wanted, he could then begin to talk about his individuality and how important it was for him to want to feel happy, acknowledged and complete about himself. He liked my suggestion and when he left the session, declining further help, said that he felt more sure of himself and was glad to have talked.
In watching him depart, knowing that most likely I would never see him again, I was having my own warm feelings about him, his sweetness and authenticity, and the very personal time that we briefly shared together. I subsequently talked about the session in my supervision group. Everyone who volunteers as a peer counselor meets regularly with other peers and a professional counselor for supervision. I received the support that I needed to accept my own feelings of brief attachment to the client. I felt better and, as I then related, my realization that the experience would probably have been completely different had I not been working alone that evening. Nor was I apologetic about how I felt. My peers were empathic. I was glad that I shared in the group.
It’s assumed that being a part of Identity House will give volunteers all kinds of experiences that bring up feelings and thoughts, which upon reflection and examination lead to further growth, connection and satisfaction. It’s heady stuff, always personal, and I continue to learn, which makes the time and effort worthwhile.