Whereas Irish society has come along way in embracing other-ness and difference and moved away (or was wrenched?) from long-held traditional norms, the blight of homophobia is never far from earshot. And it is literally that – it can take the form of a blistering barrage of epithets or a well-aimed cruel single word that strikes as metaphorically keenly as the newest surface-to-air missile. And we do well to pay attention to cultural indicators that mark the obvious even when it is not in plain view – the most frequently-used insult in the playground and among adolescents in Ireland today is to refer to anyone who is different, who doesn’t quite fit in as ‘gay.’ Gone it seems are the days when only the most effeminate of boys or the butchest girls were castigated as ‘a gay.’ Being gay or lesbian in Ireland today still brings with it enmity and prejudice, less so than before but it is there nonetheless. As progressive as Ireland has become, today the young people of Ireland tell us, in their bantering ‘dis-quiet,’ that heterosexual norms remain in the antecedent and everything else has at minimum, has a whiff of the perverse about it.
Therapists pay attention, or should pay attention to cultural shifts and markers – these inevitably influence the attitudes, experience, speech and language that people have and bring along to their therapy. Practitioners within the mental health sphere have not always been aware of their own espousal of social norms and biases and their implicit or explicit condemnation of the so-called ‘non-normative.’ Of course, every person has their biases and without being aware of them, they can never be questioned or shifted. It is one thing to remove homosexuality as a pathology from the legal or medical statues, (it was removed from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association in 1973), it is quite another as many readers will know, to remove it from the minds, especially the unconscious minds of therapists, mental health workers, therapy clients or society at large. If biases are not recognized and interrogated, ugly social ills such as classism, racism and homophobia are transmitted across familial, social and even therapy lines. In the therapy room, this can lead to negative experiences and outcomes in therapy, to therapists being more interested in interpreting than in listening; instead of witnessing they are judging; instead of being present, they attempt to minister to, cure or resolve. Homosexual clients are too often ‘anal-ysed’ rather than listened to, as mental health workers consciously and unconsciously project their own anxieties, judgements and ignorance onto lesbian and gay clients.
Of course one of the aims of therapy is for the therapist to provide an atmosphere as free of judgment (on the part of the therapist) as possible. The client should feel free to discuss any and all aspects of themselves and their psychic life, without having to endure critical judgement and ignorance from the therapist. This can also have the effect of encouraging clients to speak about and question their own judgments and ideas. One of the central tenets of psychoanalysis is ‘full speech,’ that is speech that emanates from the life story, the forgotten memories, the hidden past of an individual and it is far closer to the truth than speech that is didactically determined or imparted educationally on the part of the therapist. One of the strengths of psychoanalysis is that it recognises each human subject as individual and avoids generalisations. The emphasis is on the client – only s/he can know what is wrong with them, can know what will “cure” them, and ultimately can know whether or not they actually want to be cured. The therapist is more like a witness than a confessor or a healer or a specialist. They witness the client’s speech, and by this very presence in the analytic relationship, they facilitate deeper movements and understandings in the client’s own psyche.
Therapists can and often do operate as counter-measures against cultural fears and biases by sensitively and carefully helping clients to interrogate their individual anxieties, fears and prejudices. But that is presuming that clients get into the therapy room. Therein lies the rub. Many gays and lesbians first experiences with the mental health sector have historically been problematic, leaving them unwilling to seek help. Instead of being a counter-measure to social ignorance, mental health services can fail to deliver a service because the underlying treatment unconsciously lays an emphasis on difference and separation, providing an imaginary illusion of a sense of not being like ‘them.’ Gays and lesbians are especially attuned to critical judgement and homophobia, facing it regularly in the workplace, home, etc. and they have often internalised it. Mental health practitioners must be mindful of not allowing their biases to enter the consulting room – it won’t take much to drive a gay or lesbian client away and many have been driven away, never to return. Let us not forget that depression, addiction and many ‘dis-eases,’ including breast cancer and HIV occur at statistically higher levels within gay, lesbian and transgendered communities.
Whereas therapists have work to do to question their biases, clients should also be aware that therapists are people and are similarly flawed, or ‘lacking’ as is said in therapy-speak. We are doomed to repeat prejudice if we are ignorant of our ignorance. The love that dare not speak its name has found its voice. Mental health services and therapy can help enable these newly-speaking voices to be heard and potentially to soar.
[Homosexuality] is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness….It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and cruelty too….What analysis can do for your son runs in a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed.
(Letter, dated 9 April, 1935 from Sigmund Freud to a despairing mother asking for her son to be cured of homosexuality).