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Supporting Students Navigating Gender and Sexual Identity

Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults

One of the most important components of wilderness therapy treatment is creating an emotionally safe, open, and accepting space for students to truly be themselves—away from the pressures of school, society, and even family. This safe space is especially important for students exploring their gender identity, questioning their sexuality, or struggling with issues related to gender and sexuality.


Gender and Sexuality Basics

It’s important to understand the difference between gender and sexuality. Gender refers to how an individual identifies in relationship with themselves only; it is not about an attraction to others. We tend to think about gender in a binary way: male or female. Individuals whose personal sense of identity corresponds with their birth sex are considered cisgender. However, there is a whole spectrum of gender fluidity beyond cisgender male and cisgender female. It ranges from individuals who don’t identify with a gender at all (intersex or gender fluid) to individuals who are transgender or who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Sexuality refers to an individual’s physical, sexual, and/or emotional attraction to the same, opposite, or varied gender. Regarding sexuality, you may hear people identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, questioning, and more.


Internal Distress and Gender Dysphoria

It is natural to struggle internally with confusion and stress when questioning, expressing, or coming to terms with feelings distinct from one’s assigned gender. If that internal distress develops to a level that disrupts one’s functioning in the world or has significant psychological ramifications, such as depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation, these symptoms may indicate an individual is experiencing gender dysphoria. Commonly, these individuals have struggled with the world’s perceptions of gender and sexuality, leading to internalized transphobia. These internalized perceptions make it harder for individuals to understand and accept themselves. They may even judge or shame themselves for their own feelings, resulting in further distress and dysphoria.

While it is important for young people struggling with these issues to experience external acceptance from people like friends and family, the primary goal is to experience that acceptance from within. The healing journey must therefore start internally, first and foremost.

Sometimes, individuals with various gender and sexual identities are content with who they are, but the world around them is not. Their gender and sexuality issues may look different. They may not be experiencing gender dysphoria but struggle with the phobias, stigmas, and lack of understanding and acceptance around them. This experience can also lead to distress, higher levels of depression, decreased self-esteem, lack of self-care, and increased suicidal thoughts.


Starting the Conversation

We don’t want anyone to suffer alone. Whether someone is struggling with their own self-perceptions or the perceptions of people and society around them, we want them to be connected to others and able to express what they are experiencing.

It’s important for parents, friends, and clinicians to be able to have these types of conversations and address these topics directly. People may feel uncomfortable addressing this topic, perhaps because of societal stigmas, because they don’t know the correct terms, or they fear saying the wrong thing. It’s okay to have the conversation, even if it’s messy. Open by saying, “I may not know all the right terms, and I don’t want to make any mistakes. And I also want to understand you and what you’re struggling with, so let’s talk about it.” This helps create an open and safe space for the conversation to start and helps the person feel supported.


An Emotionally Safe Space at Open Sky

From the first admissions call through graduation, we honor exactly where a student is at, from clothing to names to pronouns. The team setting students enter into has a foundation of emotional safety: we listen to and respect each person. Everyone can be themselves. This may be a unique experience for many individuals, the first time in their lives they can relax and be themselves. In this way, wilderness therapy is an incredibly powerful setting to begin a new phase of life.

My approach with each student is to start off with helping them gain self-awareness and develop a better sense of who they are. Who am I in the world? Who am I with myself? Over time, by developing and understanding their personal identity and self-awareness, they can start to talk about these topics with peers and family. Ultimately, they will become more comfortable in how they show up in their lives.

This time at Open Sky is an opportunity to explore their identity and become comfortable with who they are. Students at Open Sky aren’t here to be pressured into identifying a certain way. I don’t tell students their identity; it’s up to them and their internal experience. I don’t pressure them to come out; it’s up to their timing. I take the student’s experience at face value and help them develop a healthy and whole sense of self: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

From a more solid sense of self and the freedom to explore their true identity, students can then set specific goals moving forward after Open Sky. For example, determining the best type of school environment for them, setting specific intentions for family therapy in the future, and finding the right home therapists or medical professionals.



Supporting Parents

I strive to support parents in understanding their child, being aware of their own biases and expectations, and communicating with love and authenticity. If parents work to understand experiences and perspectives that are different from their own, they can then work on the relationship with their child. I provide parents with psychoeducation on our weekly update phone calls and give them lists of memoirs, podcasts, webinars, TED Talks, and other resources related to gender and sexuality issues. We work on communication skills similar to those their child is learning so that when students leave Open Sky, they are welcomed into a supportive and accepting environment. Practicing skills and education can also occur through Parent Coaching, Wellness Weekend, and in real-time with their child during Family Quest.

Much of this may be out of the parents’ comfort zones. These are likely conversations they haven’t had with their loved ones or their child. We are building a foundation on which families can learn to talk about topics that are uncomfortable or typically avoided. This applies to any issue their child is facing, whether it’s depression and isolation, suicidal ideation, or gender and sexual orientation.

I’ve seen firsthand the ways in which students can find comfort in the knowledge that their parent is making an effort to listen, learn, and understand. In addition to the emotional safety and connection found within their team at Open Sky, this connection with their family is significantly beneficial in terms of decreasing mental health challenges that may have been heightened by their gender or sexuality struggles.

I love watching families come back together and reunite at graduation or Family Quest. Their brave conversations are inspiring, as each person may be truly sharing themselves with each other for the first time. A student’s journey is never over when they leave Open Sky. My goal is for each student to leave with a strong foundation that propels them forward with confidence and strength.

Article originally published, September 2020
To learn more about this topic and Mariah’s approach, tune in to SKYlights Podcast episode 9. You can access SKYlights wherever you listen to podcasts! 


June 7th, 2021

Mariah Loftin, MA, LPC | Clinical Director & Senior Clinical Therapist | Young Adults