6 Ways Art Therapy Can Instill Pride for the LGBTQ+ Community at AVP

The Anti-Violence Project (AVP) empowers lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and HIV-affected communities and allies to end all forms of violence through organizing and education, and supports survivors through counseling and advocacy. Jess Benston MPS, ATR-BC, LCAT, one of the art therapists for The Art Therapy Project, guides the group art therapy sessions for AVP clients. The group is not specific to trauma, but sexual trauma, intimate partner violence, and abuse are some of the issues that are being addressed. As they work towards healing through art, clients address questions such as: after a traumatic experience, is it possible to regain trust? Can you reconcile with what happened, still feel safe and maintain a sense of dignity? The feeling of being violated within a supposedly safe community is a big part of this exploration with art: how can someone who is fighting for the same rights that I am fighting for also be someone who violates and harms me?Benston recognizes 6 key approaches in which art therapy can help instill pride for AVP clients and the LGBTQ+ community:

1). Respect

The art therapy groups at AVP reflect both organizations’ values in creating a respectful and trustworthy LGBTQ+ culture. This dedicated space dismisses gender binaries and asks clients what their appropriate pronouns are instead of assuming typical gender identities. Reflecting on intersectional identities and one’s privilege(s) is a part of the culture that AVP promotes. While this is becoming more common in other settings, it is a key component of the work at AVP. People are aware that mistakes and discomfort happen, but that is part of growth. By sharing their experiences with each other, people feel less alone and isolated and, in return, generates a sense of appreciation. A new system of support is created, which becomes a subset of their individual communities.

2). Reconciliation

Trauma affects your explicit and implicit memory. When you are experiencing trauma the part of the brain that forms memory shuts down because you are trying to get through the situation. Through art therapy, clients learn to reconcile the disconnections between what was before, what happened and what exists now. Collectively, clients look back and review their work throughout treatment, which creates opportunities for the group to make realizations about themselves.

3). Conversation

Group art therapy projects can create a tangible representation of the verbal and nonverbal exchanges that occur within the group. A project that this group is doing is a literal diagram of the conversational flow as the participants and facilitator answer “ice-breaker” conversations each week. Using a large piece of cardboard as a base, the group makes lines with masking tape to show the pattern of how the question reached each group member. The first week, the art therapist supplied the opinion-based question, but as the group formed and people became more comfortable in the group, different participants have supplied the questions. There are no words or names on the cardboard, so the piece reflects the direction of the interactions. The group also uses a different color of tape each week, which helps show the evolution of the conversation. Words have meaning, and nonverbal interactions have meaning as well.This not only sparked dialogue, but also encouraged clients to become more aware of who they were talking to and how they were listening to each other. Together, the group is creating a tangible experience of exchange through words and imagery, which acknowledges the speaking and listening that have occurred in sessions.

4). Acceptance

By using different art materials, clients begin to eliminate barriers and push limits. For example, clients are encouraged to use materials in different ways and are assured that it is okay to make something you don’t like, that it is okay to make something ugly. Clients tend to think the end product will be a certain way, but as they begin to experience the spontaneity of the materials they realize that unexpected things can happen. The work, then, is less about the materials and more about creating meaningful experiences, which pushes the restrictions of the materials and creates room for new understandings of self.

5). Sensitivity

Group art therapy demonstrates to clients that no one is alone. Being in a group is a rich experience as there are many different perspectives, which allow clients to have a voice. Feedback from each other and knowing that a space is going to be there for you, which might not exist outside of the room, is valuable for treatment. There is a sensitivity to queer culture because people in the group are really trying to understand one another, and there is a willingness to accept who you are.

6). Reclamation

AVP is an action-driven organization. Much of the organization’s work focuses on local and national activism. Our group is activism in the sense of the personal being political. In the current political climate, LGBTQ+ lives are devalued. The art therapy group is a way of reclaiming parts of the self that were impacted by trauma. In a sense, this is an act of defiance, by taking ownership of one’s trauma narrative and transcending the narrative of being a victim or being “damaged.” There is a parallel process of working to improve the community and working to improve one’s sense of wellbeing.


The AVP group is named “PRISM” to promote the idea of bringing light into dark spaces. The combination of light and interaction producing a new vision is a metaphor for the insight and action of the group reshaping a participant’s trauma narrative.

All PostsMartha Dorn