Forty years ago, no state recognized gay and lesbian relationships. For many, homosexuality was a source of shame and confusion. Society offered few protections to those who were open about their sexual orientation. And the institute for human identity (ihi) was founded as New York’s only psychotherapy and training institute serving this vulnerable community.
A lot has changed over the past four decades, and ihi has evolved with the times. But now, with new, energetic leadership and a slate of initiatives designed to meet the needs of today’s gays, ihi is renewing its focus on fostering a healthy community.
Lack of access to quality health care is a significant problem for LGBT people, even in the 21st century. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed in a 2009 report, LGBT Health and Human Services Needs in New York State, cited absence of LGBT-inclusive mental health services as the chief obstacle to care.
ihi’s philosophy has always centered on providing mental health counseling to the LGBT community in an unbiased way—something rare at its founding. For many years, it was the only place where the therapists and staff were also LGBT, which eliminated a common assumption in therapy practices, according to new Associate Director Tara Lombardo. Back then, “therapists would just assume that first-time clients were straight, and that would put clients in the awkward position of having to come out with their sexual orientation from the start,” Lombardo tells GO. “We don’t have that presumption.”
ihi’s name goes along with that attitude. “We’ve always focused on self-determination,” Lombardo adds. In past years, that meant helping clients primarily with their individual coming out processes. Today, ihi’s staff continues to help clients come out, but they are also seeing clients struggling with issues that hardly existed just a decade ago: same-sex marriage, managing long-term relationships, building families with children, and being out in the workplace.
Since January, ihi’s new leadership has been revamping the organization’s services and reaching out to underserved segments of the community. Executive Director Benet Hennessey, Outreach Coordinator Jamie Klassel, and Lombardo have expanded their message and outreach by tabling at LGBT events, targeting advertising and partnering with businesses and other nonprofits to makes sure everyone has access to affordable psychotherapy.
Calling the new direction a “changeover,” Klassel recalls “seeing opportunities where ihi could meet the community’s needs, and there were so many needs to be met. We had the energy to take them head on.”
In just six months, Hennessey and the staff have implemented a remarkable number of changes to boost ihi’s presence in the community. Earlier this year, ihi teamed up with David Barton Gym to educate members about its services and to offer discounted rates, adding to similar partnerships with Identity House, the New York City Anti-Violence project, Fashion Institute of Technology and the New York City LGBT Center. Referrals from these partner organizations increased traffic to ihi’s website sixfold. One particularly crucial relationship is with the Metropolitan Community Church of New York (MCCNY), in which ihi helps “young people, who are between 18 and 24, who fall into the slot where they’re too old for youth services but not yet covered by adult-oriented therapy,” Lombardo says.
Another youth-oriented approach is eye-opening: an ad on Grindr, the notorious gay men’s hookup app, suggesting “perhaps it's time to stop looking for validation from the outside, and start looking inward.” The campaign garnered 12,000 unique views for ihi’s website since its July 19 debut. Klassel points out that while ihi’s clientele is about 55 percent male, the organization is launching therapy groups for a wider audience.
New services at ihi’s Chelsea office address the explosion in LGBT marriages and families over the past several years. Project Q, funded by a state grant, provides workshops for prospective parents. “It’s not geared toward finding the sperm—it’s about after the child is born, and how to cope with a new family,” Lombardo says. Lombardo will lead a “new to motherhood” group this fall. Workshops and therapy groups also help engaged couples prepare for married life with a program loosely based on the Catholic tradition of “marriage training.” “The developments and victories in the marriage fight are wonderful, but it can be very overwhelming,” observes Klassel. “Ten years ago this issue wouldn’t have even existed.”
Training social work, mental health counseling and psychotherapy students is a critical component of ihi’s mission. Students from the leading universities in New York participate in internships and externships that advise them in providing sensitive counseling for LGBT-specific issues, and Lombardo says the program will more closely address lesbian and trans issues in the future. Since 1973, ihi has trained more than 200 therapists and served more than 6,000 clients.
“New issues are always coming up,” Klassel adds. “ihi is growing with the times. Therapy has really lost its old stigma, and ihi is able to forge a new connection with the community. That’s our real strength.”