An Interview with Kyle Penniman from Stonewall Institute


“Specialized programs have some distinct advantages. When I think about the many ingredients that go into recovery, a vital component that sets the stage for long term recovery is the relatability factor.”


Tell us a bit about your story and the backstory to opening Stonewall Institute.

I have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and I am an independently licensed counselor through the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners. I am also certified in addiction counseling through the Arizona Board for Certification of Addiction Counselors.

I opened Stonewall Institute in February of 2009. Prior to that, I was the Clinical Director for a private pay residential treatment center in North Scottsdale created for LGBTQ adults. The center was the first of its kind in Arizona and I helped develop and launch it from the ground up. Unfortunately, due to the economic recession of 2008, the center closed. I saw an opportunity to provide affordable services at the outpatient level which led to me creating Stonewall Institute. 

In addition to my education and credentials, I am also a person in long term recovery from substance use issues and I identify as transgender. I transitioned from female to male nearly 9 years ago. Prior to my transition, I was out as a lesbian for over 20 years.


According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction treatment programs that offer specialized groups for the LGBTQ community show better outcomes for those clients compared to non-specialized programs. Do you agree and why?

Specialized programs have some distinct advantages. When I think about the many ingredients that go into recovery, a vital component that sets the stage for long term recovery is the relatability factor. The process whereby one client identifies with another regarding their substance use behavior and related feelings helps to alleviate shame and disconnection. Just as there is stigma associated with addiction issues, there remains stigma for being LGBTQ+. Specialized programming affords clients the opportunity to relate to one another on this secondary level. This in turn creates safety and a stronger feeling of belonging which can be extremely helpful.


What are some of the obstacles the LBGTQ community face on top of the stigma associated with being someone who struggles with drugs and alcohol and mental health issues?

There are two obstacles that standout to me. The first pertains to the stigma associated with being HIV positive. Science has come a long way in the last decade. Many professionals outside of the LGBTQ+ medical community are unaware of these more recent medical advances. In particular, the option for HIV negative people to utilize Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent the risk of HIV infection. That is a big deal, and I encourage all counselors who work in treatment settings to learn about these medication options for their clients. In addition, understanding about the many advances for HIV positive clients and the way in which medication can help to reduce viral loads and make the virus virtually undetectable.

The second obstacle pertains to there being a limited number of well-trained physicians who work with transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) individuals. There is a common saying within the trans community that we as trans people are often “training and educating our healthcare providers”. More needs to be done at the academic level to prepare healthcare providers in advance of direct patient care about the medical, psychological, and social aspects of gender transition.


What about going to a treatment setting that is not specific to the LBGTQ community? What would those challenges be, especially for in-patient.

Unequivocally, the greatest challenge at an inpatient facility would be staff preparedness to work with those who identify as transgender and gender nonconforming. Once again, training and education is key and having a clear plan in place when these situations arise. Particularly in relation to housing, medical care, and management of the clinical milieu. In the last 5 years, most local treatment facilities in the valley have had to make adaptions in this area and are prepared to serve transgender clients. Just as science pushes clinicians forward, clients do so as well. With the abundance of people transitioning in the last 5 years, centers are essentially being forced to make adaptions which I see as a good thing.


Are rates of addiction among transgender people higher than rates of substance abuse in the general community?

The rate of substance use disorders in the LGBTQ community is higher than the general population. While research is lacking regarding the assessment of substance use rates solely within the transgender community, research has confirmed that nearly 50% of transgender people experience depression and/or anxiety issues. These higher rates of depression and anxiety would likely correlate to a greater risk for developing a substance use issue.


How can the recovery community at large help with reducing the stigma the LGBTQ community faces?

There are some amazing opportunities that exist! Young People’s AA Conferences (ex. ASCYPAA, ICYPAA) have done a remarkable job integrating LGBTQ+ workshops and meetings into their conference. Doing so provides an extraordinary opportunity to educate those in mainstream recovery about the LGBTQ+ community. While AA conferences for young people have been outstanding in this regard, there remain several larger mainstream AA conferences in the area that have yet to include any LGBTQ+ meetings. I would encourage any person in recovery who is serving on a conference committee to advocate for the integration of LGBTQ+ meetings & workshops as part of the conference. Doing so can significantly increase the feeling of belonging for those who identify as LGBTQ+, while serving as a vehicle to educate those outside of the community.


How prevalent is suicide completion and/or suicide ideation?

Research confirms that suicide risk is higher for LGBTQ youth and adults. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, and 40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide in their lifetime. These are extremely concerning statistics, and the hope is that as families and society at large become more accepting, these suicide statistics will decline. 


What are some recovery resources for the LBGTQ community?

There are many locally. Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS offers support for people who are HIV positive combined with behavioral health services and support groups. One-n-Ten is a great support for young people. There are local therapists in the valley who are offering support groups to specific subpopulations within the LGBTQ+ community. And lastly, there is Lambda Phoenix Center which is a local LGBTQ+ 12-step recovery club where meetings are currently being offered online and in-person.


Any final thoughts?

The local behavioral health community in Arizona has come a long way in the last 10 years. Having spent over a decade providing LGBTQ+ training for thousands of counselors and medical professionals throughout the state, it has been incredibly rewarding to witness these changes. 

Historically, a more generalized LGBTQ+ 101 training was sufficient to educate clinicians on the basics. A shift in more recent years is to take clinicians beyond the basics by offering specialized training pertaining to each specific subgroup within the community. The differences that exist within the LGBTQ+ community are vast. For example, gay men manage stress differently than lesbians, and the complexities that transgender and gender nonconforming clients face is extremely distinct compared to those who do not identify as such. Learning on a deeper level the culture, trends, and clinical needs of each specific subgroup within the community can have tremendous value for clinicians and therefore the clients they serve.

Kyle Penniman MSW, LISAC, CADAC

With over 20 years of clinical and leadership experience in the behavioral health field, Kyle has spent over a decade providing training and consultation to behavioral health professionals who serve LGBTQ+ individuals and families. He has been an active leader with various state and local initiatives, and in 2009, created Stonewall Institute, which is an outpatient substance use treatment center located in Phoenix. In 2016, Kyle was presented with Sierra Tucson’s annual “Spirit Award” for his outstanding contribution to the LGBTQ+ community. In 2005, he graduated with a 4.00 GPA from the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at Arizona State University and is an independently licensed counselor through the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners.

For more information visit http://www.stonewallinstitute.comor call  602-535-6468.