For many people, animal companionship is more than having a pet. Those with disabilities, whether physical or mental, often benefit from service and assistance animals. In the LGBTQ community, mental illness and psychiatric disability are common due to the pressures of stigma, discrimination and outright violence.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) tracks data on mental illness, as well as offering support resources for those struggling with it. NAMI addresses the unique challenges faced by those in the LGBTQ community.

“Between 38-65 percent of transgender individuals experience suicidal ideation,” NAMI’s LGBTQ page reports. “LGBTQ individuals are almost 3 times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorder. This fear of coming out and being discriminated against for sexual orientation and gender identities, can lead to depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, thoughts of suicide and substance abuse.”

For anyone struggling with a mental health condition, one avenue for relief is to turn to Emotional Support Animals (ESA). These animals, unlike service dogs, are not professionally trained to perform tasks. Instead, ESAs provide companionship, unconditional love and often give their human partners a reason to keep living.

“The patient is focused on the animal’s needs, feeling a sense of responsibility for the animal which takes them away from worrying about their own problems,” said Michael Halyard, a licensed professional clinical counselor and therapist. “The animal is dependent on the person to take care of them and gives the person a reason to get up in the morning and feel good… This dependence makes the person accountable to another living being, which adds purpose and meaning to one’s life.”

This purpose and meaning is not exclusive to ESAs, of course, but often benefits those with trained service dogs as well. Canine Partners for Life, a service dog placement organization, pairs those with physical and less visible disabilities with a canine partner who will perform specific tasks and also provide that emotional support.

“[My dog] keeps me active and gives me a sense of something I need to do,” said one Canine Partners client, a Vietnam veteran diagnosed with ALS. “She takes care of me and I take care of her. [She] has helped me to become more active and overcome my disability.”

The increased likelihood of LGBTQ people to experience mental illness means that ESAs are one vital resource to queer people with psychiatric disability. Halyard stresses, however, that an ESA should not be the one and only treatment for such patients.

“When part of a treatment plan in psychotherapy,” he said, “Studies show that connection of a person with their dearly loved animal can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression … the mere presence of animals has been proven to reduce the physiological symptoms of anxiety, stress, and blood pressure.”

However, ESAs do not share the same legal rights as formally trained service dogs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and state law all play a part in the distinction between different types of assistance animals.

Emotional support dogs have increasingly
become a welcome addition to Pride festivals.
Photo Credit:
mbruxelle via Adobe Stock

“Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA,” states The site notes that while common types of service dogs are seeing-eye dogs, hearing-assistants and seizure-sensing alert dogs, some service dogs are charged with “reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack, or performing other duties.”

With such essential jobs, service dogs have a legal right to enter any public venue with their handlers. Refusal to admit a service dog to a public space constitutes discrimination based on disability, without exception.

“Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals,” the ADA states.

Untrained assistance animals do not share public accommodation rights, but are legally protected in one way. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guarantees ESAs access to housing.

“The FHA and Section 504 require the housing provider to modify or provide an exception to a ‘no pets’ rule or policy,” the HUD states, “to permit a person with a disability to live with and use an assistance animal(s) in all areas of the premises where persons are normally allowed to go … Breed, size, and weight limitations may not be applied to an assistance animal.”

The prevalence of assistance animals in the LGBTQ community is such that San Diego Pride, one of the largest pride festivals in the nation, has an explicit policy welcoming assistance animals — including emotional support animals not legally protected in public spaces.

“Pride welcomes service dogs and documented emotional support dogs as a cherished part of our LGBT family,” the policy states. “Recognizing that some individuals with certain disabilities may need their canine companion to fully participate in events at the Festival, Pride will admit emotional support dogs that have documentation of the role they play in their handler’s life.”