A Queerer Way of Being: A Monthly Blog Series on Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity (GSRD) and Person-centred Theory and Practice

A Queerer Way of Being: A Monthly Blog Series on Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity (GSRD) and Person-centred Theory and Practice
(Rachael Peacock, GSRD Special Interest Group Link)

Welcome to the first blog post by the Person-centred Association’s (tPCA) GSRD Special Interest Group! Over the coming months, we’ll be posting a series of blogs exploring a range of GSRD related topics, focusing on person-centred theory/practice and therapy practice more generally. Each blog will be written by a different author with their own unique experience and voice, exploring GSRD therapy practice from a variety of angles. The blogs are intended to be a resource for person-centred therapists (of all identities) working with GSRD clients as well as person-centred supervisors and trainers, clients and anyone else wishing to develop their knowledge of the person-centred approach and GSRD issues more generally.

We believe that cultural competence for working with GSRD clients is a vital and ethical way of being for person-centred therapists, supervisors and trainers and that empathy can be developed by specific training on GSRD issues (Rogers, 1975). Through the blogs, we aim to raise awareness of GSRD issues within person-centred theory and practice. Irrespective of identity, self-education on GSRD issues is essential if we are to meet clients, students, supervisees in the totality of their experiencing. We hope that by engaging with the blogs, you will experience an attitudinal training that will help you develop the internal resources for a ‘queerer way of being'; a greater fluency in sensitively responding to the multifarious elements of queer experiencing.

Theory-wise, although there had been some detailed theoretical activity regarding working with LGB clients at the turn of the twenty-first century (e.g. Davies, 2000; Davies and Aykroyd, 2001), discussion on other areas of GSRD identities has been sporadic rather than consistent (e.g. Brice, 2011). Recent publications (e.g. Hope, 2019; Westmacott and Edmondstone, 2020) have been a positive development for the person-centred world in terms of generating awareness, perhaps indicating a growing consistency within this area of discourse. We aspire to add to this conversation through the blog series.

A few words about us: since our inception in November 2019, we have welcomed and continue to welcome members of all identities within tPCA expressing interest in GSRD issues in therapy and beyond. From the outset, we have used the umbrella term GSRD rather than LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or questioning, Intersex and Asexual and allies). The reasons for this are twofold: as well as ensuring our work is responsive to developments within the wider GSRD therapy field (Barker, 2019), our decision is also based on a wish to avoid an ever changing ‘alphabet soup of acronyms’ that may muddle the focus of the group.

Finally, as a group of person-centred counsellors and psychotherapists, we hold a strong interest in the social and political context of therapy encounters. We consider Schmid’s view of person-centred therapy as ‘sociotherapy’ (2015), encompassing the importance of encountering diverse social realities, as a foundation for all our discussions. Our diversity of experiences has proved to be a strength in terms of generating ideas and rich discussion in our monthly online meetings. If you are interested in joining the group and are a tPCA member, please email us at: gsrd.group@the-pca.org.uk

 

References


Barker, M.J. (2019) BACP Good Practice across the Counselling Professions 001 Gender, Sexual, and Relationship Diversity (GSRD). Lutterworth. BACP.

Brice, A. (2011) “If I go back, they’ll kill me…” Person-centered therapy with lesbian and gay clients. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies. 10 (4), 248–259.

Davies, D. and Neal, C. (2000) Therapeutic perspectives on working with lesbian, gay, and bisexual clients. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Davies, D. and Aykroyd, M. (2001) Sexual Orientation and Psychological Contact. In: Wyatt, G. and Sanders, P. (eds.) (2002) Rogers Therapeutic Conditions: Evolution, Theory and Practice Volume 4: Contact and perception. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books: 221-233.

Hope, S. (2019) Person-Centred Counselling for Trans and Gender Diverse People: A Practical Guide. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Rogers, C. (1975) Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being. The Counseling Psychologist 5, 2-10.

Schmid, P. (2015) qqPerson and society: towards a person-centered sociotherapy. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies 14, 217-235.

Westmacott, R. and Edmondstone, C. (2020) Working with Transgender and Gender Diverse Clients in Emotion Focused Therapy: Targeting Minority Stress. Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies 4, 331-349.

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GSRD (Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity)

Group lead: Lead: Rachael Peacock
Members:
  • Nick Glenister
  • Kirsty Horne
  • Kate Hoyland
  • Zeynep Kasap
  • LJ Potter
  • Daniel Sutton-Johanson
  • Suzy Henry
How to contact: rachael.peacock@the-pca.org.uk

Open to members of any gender, sexuality or relationship identity. We focus on Gender Sexual Relationship Diversity (GSRD) issues and their relationship to person-centred theory and practice. We are currently considering how GSRD issues are approached within training settings and areas for further development that ensure person-centred practitioners are well-prepared and receptive to the lived experiences of the GSRD clients they may work with.To ensure our discussions are holistic, we aim to adopt an intersectional approach to GSRD topics (i.e. that people have interconnected social identities such as ethnicity, age, class, ability etc. in addition to gender and/or sexual identity). A key consideration of the group is to find ways to build deeper awareness and dialogue regarding GSRD issues within the person-centred approach.

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What is affirmative therapy, and is it person-centred?

By Sam Hope

The UK government just announced there will be a public consultation regarding the banning of conversion therapy – therapy to change someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Sadly, this has already initiated an outpouring of misinformation, often centred on the idea that the ban would prohibit counsellors working with clients around “identity confusion”.

Particularly focused on trans rather than gay or bi identities, the outcry implies that the approach LGBT+ organisations support – affirmative therapy – forecloses on a client’s opportunity to genuinely explore who they are. This could not be further from the truth.

In my book, I talk a lot about working in a trans affirmative way. This is a tough thing to ask of therapists when the country is in the grip of a moral panic about “social contagion”, undue influence, and the fear that a person might be “encouraged” into a trans identity, as if you can “make” someone trans by giving them information or access to healthcare.

The truth is, you cannot make someone trans or not trans. The evidence suggests that some people just are trans, where trans is a plural, diverse, and multi-determined experience of incongruence with one’s sexed body or assigned gender. No two trans people are alike, and words and definitions remain imperfect to tell the story of this broad community.

Does “trans affirmative” mean telling people it’s better to be trans than gay, or telling people they are trans even if that’s not how they see themselves? Of course not. Being trans affirmative is no use if I am not also equally lesbian and gay-affirmative (and bi and aceaffirmative, etc.). I must hold in equal value binary and non-binary identities, the desire to transition or not to, to change one’s body or keep it the same. Being affirmative means “your self-experience is valid: I hold that you understand yourself best”. It accepts the diversity, plurality and complexity of our relationships with our sexed bodies, assigned genders, and sexualities.

I should not seek to place my own language and labels on the client’s experience. Underlying our inadequate words there is an enormous diversity of ways in which people experience and relate to assigned gender, gender roles, sexed bodies, sexuality and an internal sense of a gendered self.

What is my role as a therapist? Well, to listen and be affirming (prizing, empathic, non-judgemental) of experiences that are divergent from societal norms, without making assumptions. To not make assumptions, I need to do a lot of work on exploring my own unconscious biases. If I do not realise my brain has already been trained to effortlessly think about sexual orientation, sexed bodies and social gender in particular ways, then how will I notice the assumptions, and ultimately judgements, I am making? How can I show true empathy if I am hearing a client’s story through filters I am barely aware of?

If we stop thinking about labels to box people into and think of words as ways to tell a story, I think that can help. Affirmative therapy is not about the therapist “diagnosing” and labelling the client, or confirming the client’s self-experience in an “expert” way, as if it us who is to decide whether the client is correct or not in their experience.

We tune into the client’s story, get to grips with their own ways of making meaning of their world, trust they are not confused, deluded or in error. We prize all diverse identities and signal our valuing of lesbian, gay, bi, trans, ace people equally so that we are not subtly setting up hierarchies where, for example, trans is okay but gay and not trans is better, or a trans man or woman is better than a non-binary person, or identity must be fixed rather than fluid.

The prevalent arguments against affirmative therapy display a common variety of transphobia. The foundation of transphobia is often a belief that many or all trans people’s understanding of themselves is wrong, deluded or confused. Transphobic discourse wildly exaggerates the number of people who regret transition. In reality, regrets are incredibly rare, and children don’t “grow out of being trans” as many claim. Nor is the known fact that autistic people are more likely to be trans a sign that transness is merely a symptom of autism that can be mislabelled “gender confusion”.

If we buy into this transphobic climate where trans identities in particular are to be questioned and doubted, then we are unable to offer any client exploring their gender true non-judgement and a space where they are fully regarded as the expert on their own life and valued no matter what identity may emerge.

To value trans and gender diverse clients, supporting a ban on harmful conversion therapy and endorsing affirmative therapy is a minimum requirement.

 

Sam Hope is a non-binary, BACP accredited therapist and author of Person-Centred Counselling for Trans and Gender Diverse People, available now. Their website is sam-hope.co.uk

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Working with queer clients: Three Top Tips

Working with queer clients: Three Top Tips

Meg-John Barker

1. Reflect on your own relationship with queerness

Before working with marginalised clients of any kind it’s vital to reflect deeply on our own relationship with the systems of oppression which impact them. With queer clients this particularly means heteronormativity and related gender and relationship norms.

Deep reflection is about more than educating ourselves about these areas academically, or immersing ourselves in relevant popular and social media so that we’re familiar with diverse experiences and current issues. While those things are important, what’s needed is a more embodied, emotional exploration of our own experience with sex, gender, and relationships, including how cultural norms and oppressive systems have impacted - and still impact - us.

Expanding our understanding of queerness is important for this exploration. In what ways have we followed the normative scripts regarding sex, gender, and relationships? In what ways have we resisted these, or found them unavailable to us because of some other aspect of our body, identity, background, or life experience? In what ways do we feel queer, or not queer, or queered by life? When we reflect on our own experience, what are our feelings - such as fear, joy, shame, belonging, loss, alienation, peace, envy, anger, and more - around queerness?

2. Know your limits

Such reflection can help us to greater honesty about which themes and clients we feel able to work with currently, and which present an edge for us. All therapists are going to have some areas within their zone of competence, and some which are on - or over - the edge for them right now.

Again this is not just about lack of knowledge, as - for example - with a client considering medical transition who needs a therapist with expertise and experience around these services. At least as important is knowing our psychological edges. For example, if we have assumptions about monogamy being the best way to conduct relationships, then it would be an edge to work with a couple where one is behaving monogamously and the other non-monogamously. We would likely align with the monogamous client, and we’d be unlikely to think to explore forms of consensual non-monogamy with the couple.

This goes beyond conscious knowledge of our biase. Our deep reflections on our relationship with queerness may reveal, for example, that we have a big fear of ‘getting it wrong’ with non-binary clients, which brings up a sense of being out of touch, and risks collapsing us in shame if we make a mistake. Or we may struggle to allow that a client could be happily asexual, perhaps because of ways in which we have treated ourselves non-consensually around sex, believing it to be essential.

Igi Moon’s research demonstrates that these kinds of feelings easily leak out into the therapy room. Clients are likely to pick up on them when what they desperately need is somebody to mirror and affirm them in a world which generally does not. It’s absolutely fine to refer clients on to people with experience and expertise in such areas until you feel in a place of comfortable competence around them yourself.

3. Don’t assume queer clients’ issues will relate to their queerness, don’t assume straight/cis clients’ issues won’t

While some queer clients will approach a therapist specifically wanting to explore their sexuality, gender, or relationship style, many more will likely be grappling with unrelated issues such as bereavement, depression, or retirement. Indeed queer people are pretty likely to already have engaged in deep reflection around sex, gender, and relationships.

Our professions have a long and deeply problematic history of pathologising queerness and assuming that mental health struggles will relate to a queer person’s sexuality or gender. It’s vital not to reproduce this, for example, by interrogating a queer client’s gender, sex life, or relationship style more than you would a cis or straight client’s, or by assuming that these things will be relevant to their presenting issue.

While queer people do generally have poorer mental health than cis and straight people, this is due to the traumatic experiences that queer people are more likely to have experienced (e.g. family rejection, workplace discrimation, hate crime). It’s also due to the ongoing stress of living in the world knowing that you are considered somehow less normal and valid than others, to the extent that you may well not even be seen as you are unless you explicitly come out with all the risks that entails. Ensuring that you locate client suffering in the unjust culture, rather than individualising it, is a vital part of queer affirmative practice.

At the same time, many people who don’t present as queer will experience some degree of queerness in their lives, which may well be part of their struggle in such a queerphobic world. Statistics suggest that over a third of our clients will experience themselves as to some extent ‘the other gender, both genders, or neither gender’, an even greater proportion will be attracted to more than one gender, and an even greater proportion will be to some extent non-monogamous and/or kinky. Far more than this will - at some point - find themselves falling off the heteronormative standard for a ‘successful life’ (lifelong coupledom, kids, career, property ladder, etc.)

Finally, those who don’t experience themselves in any way queer may well have mental health struggles that are related to sex, gender, and relationship style. We might consider the statistics on suicide among straight cis men, or body image problems among straight cis women, for example, or the majority of straight cis people who report sexual ‘dysfunctions’ and/or relationship dissatisfaction. Exploring gender, sex, and relationships, and affirming queerer options as valid as normative ones, can be particularly helpful for normative clients.

Meg-John Barker is the author of the BACP resource on working across Gender, Sex, and Relationship Diversityas well as a number of popular self-help books and graphic guides on these topics. Website: rewriting-the-rules.com. Twitter: @megjohnbarker. 

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