Queer Worldmaking as an Approach to Mental Health

What does it mean to understand that as queer1 people, we queer the world around us? And what could this mean about how we are received in health care settings? There could be different expectations of how practitioners and service providers work with queer patients, leading to more meaningful and culturally appropriate care. Queer worldmaking (QWM) can illustrate how our communities queer mental health. it could provide a new approach in counselling. it could redefine what practitioners in the helping professions learn about queered communities. 

In this blog post I would like to share how I understand my work in mental health with queer racialized clients, as a therapist, researcher, educator and clinical supervisor. My ideas and thoughts are based on personal, lived, academic and professional experience. I would like to first share some of the questions and concerns that led me to the concept of QWM.

For some time now, I have questioned how to understand the terminology of identities. Who are we as queers, as Two Spirit, as LGBT, as BIPOC? What language best represents how we see ourselves, and how we move through the world? And given English is inherently structured to favour binaries, and most non-English languages are predominantly gendered, what does it mean to transgress those limitations? As someone who speaks three other languages, I have a different sense of communication to make myself understood, and to make meaning of my life.  

Queer has been a derogatory term that has since been reclaimed, though it can still be uncomfortable for many. Activists fought long and hard to win the right to the inclusive and respectful terminology of 2S/LGBTQ. However I worry that this initialism  (which differs from an acronym which is said as a word like BIPOC or AIDS; in an initialism you say each letter such as L-G-B-T) may now be erasing the finer cultural nuances of the lived experiences within our many communities. I question if another type of colonialism is being reproduced through the global mainstreaming of this initialism.

We can be intentional in how we use certain types of language and terms, and we can be critical of the term 2S/LGBTQ. We can use more specific words, terms and ideas to describe the cultural experiences common and unique to each letter of the initialism. We can try to share and explain the cultural nuances of existing in liminal spaces…of seeing, being seen, and not being seen.  

The concept of worldmaking refers to how we collectively create spaces and how we move through them with symbolic practices. Storytelling or art can be considered types of worldmaking, depending on how they are used. When applied to a specific cultural group, worldmaking helps them understands themselves and each other. For queer communities, worldmaking is especially important because of how homophobia, transphobia and racism have not allowed us the legal rights to gather, to be safe, and to express ourselves.

I draw on this definition: Making a queer world has taken place in the absence of an intimacy connected to domestic space, kinship, structure of a traditional couple relationship, to property or to a nation (Berlant & Warner, 1998). I was struck by this statement when I first read it – I immediately understood that as a community we have not had systems or structures to allow us to meet each other, to find each other, to gather and be together. In most parts of the world, who we are is still outlawed, and we live in fear of violence for ourselves and our families. So, without ways to be legally recognized, to be safe, and protected – how do we find each other and build community? In parts of the world that have afforded us the legal right to exist, we are still building the histories and legacies to draw on and learn from, but without the structures of (biological) family and kinship networks.

And so I am drawn to this idea of how we make sense of ourselves and each other, how we find each other, how we build and form community and relationships. Our communities do not generally have the same access to spaces and structures to find each other, so I see QWM as one suggestion of how we have always creatively done this.

Through reading the works of queer, Indigenous, Two Spirit and racialized writers, scholars and researchers, I have learned some different ways of conceptualizing these identity positions. These teachers have helped me to understand how we manage our existence, how we thrive, what feeds us and nurtures us as a community.  These writers often speak to inclusion, visibility, belonging in a way that acknowledges living with what can feel like conflicting identity positions related to culture, ethnicity, family, community, sexuality, gender, and relationships.

In mental health and health care settings, queer worldmaking can shift the foundations of how care is provided and delivered. Meaning-making and sense-making are important in a mental health context. In my personal and professional experience, we are often seeking to understand who we are and why we do what we do, in the hope of making shifts to problematic behaviours. It can be difficult to find words to name and describe experiences, memories, knowing, as well as to accurately describe our identities, and who we are in our many different relationships. And so sometimes not having to know, or to name, can be just as important as knowing.

Queer worldmaking as a concept helps me think through how we make sense of who we are, and how we move through space and time. It helps me to consider what brings us together. it is informed by the legacies we have inherited of erasure and marginalization, and our many acts of resistance and resiliency.   

Generally, counsellor education merely names and teaches the identity positions of LGBTQ, and focuses on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the client, alongside the poorer mental health outcomes of these communities. Clinical education does not often move beyond this, to teach how queer people navigate through their lives and how they build resiliency. Counsellors become fearful of making a mistake, and therefore do not feel comfortable to ask how their client seeks support, meaning and connection. They are not able to ask how their client has queered how they move through life.

Queer worldmaking can help practitioners move beyond basic competencies of memorizing the letters and inquiring about pronouns. It can provide a framework from which to see queerness as a way of being, of seeing and knowing. It can serve as a place from which a counsellor can inquire about the different aspects of their clients’ lives. QWM can serve as a bridge, to move intersectionality as a theory, to a relational practice, one where the counsellor feels comfortable to ask about how their client experiences queerness in the different parts of their life, including in the counselling room. 


Written by Dr. Meera Dhebar, PhD, RSW

Meera is currently doing her post-doctoral research fellowship at CBRC. As a registered social worker she has worked in community based non-profits in Toronto, then hospitals and palliative care in Vancouver, before moving into teaching and practicing counselling.


Disponible en français.

1 I understand queer as an identity term based on non-conforming and non-normative gender, sexual and affectional identities; the experience of queerness is based on the environment, place, and context. I also use queer as a verb or adjective, as a way of approaching and transgressing the norms of a practice, such as queering research, or queering mental health. 


About CBRC

Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) promotes the health of people of diverse sexualities and genders through research and intervention development.
Queer Worldmaking as an Approach to Mental Health
Queer Worldmaking as an Approach to Mental Health
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