To be or not to be (an openly gay therapist)?

Joe Caslin Marriage Equality mural Dublin
Joe Caslin’s iconic Marriage Equality mural on Dublin’s George’s St, April 2015

Firstly, this is a reflection based on my own experiences and is not intended in any way as a judgement towards other therapists in a similar position, nor is it intended as a didactic call to arms for mass change. I would simply like to share my thoughts and potentially start a dialogue.

So, I was recently invited to contribute a short biography for inclusion on the Insight Matters website. For continuity, I decided to go to my Nozomi website and basically copy some of the main points I had written there about me and my approach to therapy, and thus offer a summary for anyone looking at my bio on the IM site. I came to the part about the kinds of problems I have helped my clients with, and as usual I mentioned that I have worked with sexuality, identity and LGBTQ issues. As I breezed past this element of the list, however, I became aware of a feeling of dissatisfaction with the phrasing – something in me wanted to make more explicit my connection with the final part of that trio. So I removed ‘LGBTQ issues,’ replaced it with simply ‘sexuality/identity,’ and then formed a stand-alone sentence (written in the third person, as is the norm for these kinds of things) that read something like He is especially interested in mental health issues that affect the LGBTQ community. Then I stopped and considered how this might read to someone who has never met me, either personally or professionally – someone who is simply reading my bio on a website and has no prior knowledge of me whatsoever.

So, why is this guy especially interested in mental health issues that affect the LGBTQ community? As a concerned citizen? As a curious outsider? As a professional who maybe just has a lot of gay clients, regardless of his own sexual orientation, and has decided to specialise in this area? Or, is it because these issues are actually part of his own story? For me, the most honest answer is the final one – so I found myself wondering, what would it be like to make that clear? On this blog I have made my love of music and nature plain for all to see. Conversely, though I have also done posts about Gay Pride and my thesis, which centred on gay and lesbian experiences, I consciously fell short of definitively saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m gay.’ As this thought came to me I felt a conflict that has resonated in me on some level for a long time, even though I came out many years ago. I have lived nearly my entire adult life as an openly gay man, and yet something in me, every now and then, still makes me stop and say to myself, ‘But do they really need to know that about you?’

When I open this question up (as Panti did in her fantastic Noble Call speech in 2014), I can see all sorts of traces of shame and embarrassment that have lingered on in me from the days when I actively worked to hide my true identity from the world. It’s not a nice feeling. Having got through those times when universal concealment was second nature, I now strive to uphold the principles of honesty, openness and being yourself. Yet there was still a part of me that looked at that contentious sentence and said, ‘Ah sure, it’s grand.’ But it wasn’t. For me (and just for me), leaving that sentence as it was felt like I was somehow colluding with that feeling I had when I was younger that told me to keep quiet and not ‘bother’ anyone else with my sexuality. After all, it doesn’t define me, does it? No, but being gay is part of who I am, and I don’t necessarily want to keep that under wraps.

Now, there are many schools of thought in the world of counselling and psychotherapy about how much or how little a therapist should self-disclose to their clients, and clearly this is an extremely important boundary to maintain. Obviously if the therapist habitually reveals inappropriate and irrelevant details of their private life to the client, then that is wholly unprofessional. But to me, stating that I am gay in a public forum is not inherently inappropriate or irrelevant. If I am meeting the client as I am, simply as another human being (albeit one who has training and experience in a specific helping profession), then putting a blanket over the potential for them to find out that I am gay because of a desire to maintain a certain professional distance or perhaps even a personal fear of judgement/disapproval would be somewhat incongruent – if I am to assist someone, of any sexual identity, to work towards fully becoming themselves and being proud of who they are, for what they are, then I feel it would be a shame for me to cover up my own personal appreciation of the difficult journey they are undertaking.

On a more general note, if someone sees the ring on my finger they might assume that I have a wife, and though statistically speaking this isn’t an unreasonable assumption (after all, most men in Ireland who wear a wedding band do have wives), I don’t want that to always go without correction – not because the idea of having a wife or of being thought of as straight is fundamentally intolerable, but simply because it’s not the truth. I don’t have a wife – I have a husband. That is the truth. So I changed the sentence. It now reads, He has a particular interest in mental health issues that relate to the LGBTQ community, being gay himself. I altered the phrasing a few times, shifting the ‘gay’ bit here and there until I settled on the above – and it felt right… Yet, I still have this kernel of doubt questioning whether the move was altogether too daring or somehow improper!

At any rate, here is a link to a 2015 doctorate thesis I found on the topic (by coincidence, it shares a similar title to this entry):

To Disclose or Not To Disclose? The LGBT Therapist’s Question

It is by Adam Harris of the University of Lincoln, with pages 53-82 comprising a journal paper authored by Harris, David Dawson, Roshan das Nair and Dominic Davies (of UK-based gender and sexual diversity therapy organisation Pink Therapy) that offers a good overview. I wholeheartedly agree with one of their concluding statements, that ‘it could be essential that non-heterosexual therapists are encouraged to discuss, explore and reflect on the potential psychological impact that having to conceal their sexual identity is having upon them and their clinical practice’ (p.76). It was in the spirit of discussion, exploration and reflection that this blog entry was written.

Any and all thoughts welcomed.

Simon

8 thoughts on “To be or not to be (an openly gay therapist)?

  1. A lovely read, reflecting the process many of us go through. I have long argued that the fabled blank slate was a myth, where being cis, male, abled, straight, mono was seen as not having an identity, the whole lables are for other people thing. If you wear a ring and people assume you are straight, its as you say, not true, and people in therapy will make those assumptions and projections all the time. It’s a society which sees some ways of being as lesser which makes us question is ensuring the assumptions are correct matters

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    1. Many thanks Karen, I appreciate your thoughts and I also agree that the blank slate idea has many limitations, especially if you work from a humanistic perspective. You can still maintain boundaries while being a real person!

      Simon

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  2. Fantastic blog post, I’ve often wondered about this myself. I haven’t reached any conclusions for my own practice just yet. However, reading this has certainly given me some food for thought.

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    1. I’m glad to hear that Luke – I feel it’s something many therapists in our position (obviously me included) have viewed as a sort of grey area, but it’s to all of our benefits to bring out into the light and at least talk about. I like the directness of your ‘Talk to Luke’ moniker, by the way!

      Simon

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      1. Yes I agree, it is certainly is something that needs to be talked about more.

        Thanks, although I was looking for something more meaningful like yours. Keep in touch, Simon. 🙂

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  3. A thoughtful reflection on authenticity.

    My mind broadened the concept that I struggle with…that is, when we state our specialisms/particular interests,etc doesn’t that usually indicate a personal theme?

    I would be really interested to hear how many therapists ‘specialise’ in a subject/concept, etc that has NOT been of personal interest/exploration/ impact for them.

    I state my areas of ‘interest’ in domestic violence, I have lived it and therefore feel passionately about the impact on MH issues.

    Is it our passion to understand ourselves that drives us to dig deeper for our clients?

    Subsequently should my profile read ‘ has an interest in domestic violence as she has lived through the experience’?

    Just a thought about authenticity with any ‘specialism’ that comes from an internal struggle within the therapist.

    Fiona

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    1. Thank you for your thoughts Fiona – I think you raise a very good point, that perhaps our key interests as therapists inherently display a certain self-disclosure to the client by virtue of the fact of our being interested in them! And naturally the client may also wonder why we are so interested in such topics, so depending on the situation and relationship, I think that being upfront about one’s personal experiences can be a very powerful tool for deepening the therapeutic alliance – used judiciously and keeping the primary focus on the client, of course.

      Simon

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