Counselling and Homosexuality

By Carl Berkeley

To try to understand the fears experienced by a homosexual without looking at your own fears of homosexuality is like looking at a car without wheels. It goes nowhere no matter how sleek and beautiful it may appear.

Homosexuality has been a part of society from time immemorial. It has been accepted, derided, criminalised. Homosexuals have been scorned, burnt at the stake, herded into concentration camps, imprisoned. In Ireland, we seem to be on the verge of an enlightened age: Homosexuality has been decriminalised, which, although a step in the right direction, does not give homosexuals the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. They cannot marry, adopt children or have equal fiscal rights. The change in legislation does not mean that attitudes will automatically change.

Homosexuality would not be a problem for the homosexual if it was not a problem for society. For example, if homosexuals were facilitated to meet and explore relationships, as is the case for heterosexuals, if it facilitated homosexuals to form permanent relationships, recognising commitments, facilitating joint home ownership, facilitating children by adoption or conception, there would be no issue to be dealt with.

Homosexuals, like many other minorities are victims of the “Dictatorship of the Norm”. The Norm means the majority. There seems to be a fear for the family when homosexuality is thought of as an acceptable way of life. It is almost as if everyone would be homosexual.

I envisage a society where there is room for the heterosexual family and the homosexual unit, until this happens, homosexuality will continue to be seen as a problem, both for society and for the homosexual.

Whether or not homosexuality is a choice is really not the question. If it is a choice, then who is to deny the freedom of choice? If it is genetically defined then who has the right to deny a genetically defined behaviour? We are talking about a behaviour that is not damaging to the individual or other consenting adults.

One of the main problems confronting both homo and heterosexual people is gender conformation or non-conformation. It is the myth of masculinity. Brannon’s summary of the normative structure of contemp­orary American masculinity is relevant here. Masculinity requires the avoidance and repudiation of any and all behaviours that are even remotely associated with femininity (no sissy stuff); this requires a ceaseless patrolling of one’s boundaries, an incessant surveillance of one’s performances, to ensure one is sufficiently male.

In a paper by Fracher & Kimmel, the Myth of Masculinity is made up of the following components:

Men must be Big Wheels!
Men must be Sturdy Oaks!
Men must “Give ’em Hell”!

What Fracher and Kimmel omitted was:

Men must Desire Women!

Thus, the first fear homosexuals encounter is that they are not “Real Men” or that they are “Failed Men”. They have to hide their gender non­conformity. Since the Stonewall riots in New York where Gay men rebelled against police harassment and the subsequent emergence of the Gay Libera­tion movement, gay men have started to recover and repair their damaged sense of masculinity. Hence the appearance of the denim clad, mustachioed gay male; and the realisation that both gay and non-gay men are men first. Both have “male sex”.

Before we get lost in the Macho Gay Male image, we need to remember that there are all shades of gay males just as there are all shades of hetero­sexual males. Some are softer, more “camp”; some having the desire to be women. Equally there are shades of heterosexual males, some being softer, more “camp” and, yes!, having the desire to be women. Not all transsexuals are gay and in my experience, most cross-dressers are not gay.

As yet we have not arrived at the stage of total acceptance of Gay sexuality. Most gay people have been born into a homophobic society. They have been conditioned by the same society as heterosexuals. They have internalised their homophobia or fear/hate of homosexuality.

In the stereotyped agenda for masculinity is included the “fag” jokes, the more disparaging remarks that can be made about a homosexual, the more a person’s masculinity is affirmed. Thus, homosexuals, conditioned by the same rules of gender affirmation disguise their sexual orientation by making jokes about themselves.

It is my experience that most homosexuals realise their difference at an early age, even at 5 or 6. They will not know or understand what this difference is. They will be conscious of it and from then on the “coming out” process begins.

What is the coming out process?

It is coming to the stage of acceptance and integration of one’s different sexuality and the realisation that the problem, once thought of as his or hers, is the problem of the heterosexual society in which s/he was raised. The stronger the gender conformity of the society or the family of origin, the higher will be the psychological cost of the emerging homosexual. Often this leads to suicide.

Work, on this “coming out” process has identified five stages:

Pre-coming out:    Prohibition, involving:
                                  1. Denial
                                  2. Shock/Identity Crisis
                                  3. Negative/Ambivalent labelling
Coming Out:              4. Ambivalence/Practising
                                 or
                                  5. Compulsion/Exploration
 
Exploration:
First Relationships:
Integration/Consolidation/Resolution:

Pre-coming out prohibition usually occurs at an early age, before puberty. There is an awareness of a difference, much research has shown that homo­sexual men demonstrated gender non-conforming behaviour – non sport activity and behaviour more acceptable from girls: Interest in dolls, domestic activity etc. At this stage if they are raised in a parental atmosphere of acceptance a sense of self-worth will be developed.

Research shows it is more difficult for males to accept gender non-con­forming behaviour. Therefore it is likely the relationship with the father will be unsatisfactory. The child will experience a sense of isolation, separation and abandonment. He may experience an inability to form intimate male relationships. If the child attempts to deny his gender non-conforming behaviour a division of self arises and a double life begins.

Coming Out – Acknowledgement

Acknowledgement occurs when a recognition that the difference felt earlier is sexual, that he is experiencing sexual desires for the same sex. At this stage gender non-conformity would play a large part in his distress. Sexual gender conformity would be a desire to have sexual relations with a female. Heterosexual males will be talking of sexual feelings toward females, boast­ing of sexual activities, etc.

The homosexual male, although not overtly homosexual suffers internally from his gender non-conformity. A “real man” talks about sex with a woman. A “real man” is keen on sports.

It has also been shown that a homosexual male is more affectively responsive than a heterosexual male. This too is seen as gender non-conforming behaviour. Self rejection occurs as well as peer rejection. It is at this point the homosexual may come into therapy to be cured of his unnatural urges and he will not want to accept his sexuality.

The therapist has to walk an exceptionally tight line – neither to condemn the feelings nor to encourage them. Thus it is of extreme importance that the therapist is aware of his or her own prejudices. I suggest that to work on your own self awareness is of absolute importance. Are you able to talk about what two men or two women do together in bed?, about two men dancing together? Can you bring your own discomfort or unease into the light?

What do you do with your feelings when a gay man wants to talk about his experiences? By your response you may be able to understand what a gay person, who has been conditioned by the same society as you, is experi­encing. At the same time it will help you to be more available to your client.

Exploration

This is usually the stage when the gap between sexual behaviour and sexual feelings is bridged. The consciousness of gender non-conforming behaviour is always in awareness. “Real men” don’t do this. Exploration means socialising with other people who share the same sexual interests. With many people exploration will stay on the level of sexual exploration only and will reinforce the living of a double life.

Many people go through these stages at different ages. You may find a man of 40 going through the exploration stage along with a boy of 16 also going through the exploration stage. This is the equivalent of the hetero­sexual adolescent period. Society is orientated toward this: Youth clubs, etc., where boys and girls explore their relationship and their growing sexual awareness, sharing ideas and views. The homosexual has no place to explore his sexuality except in forbidden zones, such as parks, toilets etc. In these situations the exploration is totally sexual with very little, if any, social contact.

First Relationships

Homosexual people have very few role models to emulate. There is also a lack of public support for these relationships. First relationships are like walking through a minefield. We have the difficulties set up by gender non­conformity – “real men” do not express emotions or feelings. No encourage­ment is given by a hostile society. It is interesting to note that society con­demns homosexuals for a promiscuous way of life while making it imposs­ible for a steady relationship to be sanctioned.

For most gay people their sexuality has been the most overwhelming area of their lives. Thus, the pressures and importance put on the first relationship become so intense that it is almost impossible for it to survive. For most people the first relationship is an early part of the coming out process, a step toward integration.

Because of the isolation experienced by homosexuals the finding of a partner becomes all the more precious. Suddenly there is someone to share life with. It is also accepted as a “normalising” factor, in comparison to heterosexual society: “Look I have a partner, just like you”. As in all walks of society, having a partner is looked upon as some form of success or valida­tion.

Integration/Consolidation/Resolution:

Integration of sexual orientation as a whole and resolution regarding being stigmatised are two important of this stage. Society does not know how to deal with homosexuality. There comes a realisation that homosexuality is not the homosexual’s problem but society’s problem.

The gay person will realise that living as a gay man or as lesbian in a basically non-accepting environment is an ongoing challenge. It is an every­day question to decide whether or not to say I am gay.

As in all stage models the stages are not necessarily experienced in order; nor is a stage left behind. For example, if someone has a negative experience of telling someone about their sexuality and finds themselves rejected, they may revert to an earlier stage of denial. Many people will not pass through all the stages. They may get stuck in an earlier stage (e.g. permanent explora­tion or ongoing first relationships).

A fellow counsellor who is not gay recently asked me about the people coming to me who are concerned about their gay sexuality and who turn out not to be gay. This stopped me in my tracks. I tried to think of any experi­ence I had of this and realised it had never happened to me. He said it had happened for him. I thought: “Does this mean that because I am Gay I would influence my clients in one direction and the opposite for him?” Or, could it mean we have different client populations?

At one time this was a concern for me, now I realise it is not an issue. What is at issue is how a person deals with their sexuality – whatever orien­tation. It is about fears not orientation. It is not my work to label or diagnose. It is my work to help a person explore his feelings and maybe help him to lay to rest the ghosts of the mythology that has influenced us all.

It is crucial to recognise the importance of the counsellor as a role model. Many times I wonder how my being gay would influence my clients atti­tudes. I’m not certain whether they come informed about my sexuality. There is always the question whether or not I tell them. In discussing it recently I discovered I have no hard and fast rule about this. It depends on the relevance – as I see it. This could depend on the stage the client is in.

Most of my clients, in the early stages, have a stereotype of a gay man who is effeminate and camp. They do not want to be like this. When they realise I am also gay it changes their whole perspective. They see that someone can be gay and still be respected, fulfilling an active role in society. (I must add here that I believe a gay man who is effeminate and camp can equally play such a role, again we encounter the myth of masculinity.)

I find it exciting when a client realises he has taken on the problems of society as his own and begins to separate them from himself. However, this is usually a long way down the road of recovery.

Many of my clients would not have told anyone about their sexuality, except for the few sexual contacts they may have had. Slowly, they will start to tell close friends, usually this is received positively, they are encouraged to continue.

Telling someone else not only means they run the risk of rejection, it also means they are going past the “point of no return”. They are being forced to accept it in themselves.

I do not influence my clients in this matter. It is usually something they come to for themselves. If they decide to tell their parents, I usually warn them that their parents are going to need time to absorb this news and come to terms with it – just as my client has needed this time.

One of the most difficult areas for many of my clients is Religion, especially if they have been reared in a strongly Catholic home. I would sus­pect this is a difficulty for many counsellors reared with the same beliefs. I find my role here is to help the client explore his fears without influencing him in any way, I may suggest he attends a group called “Identity”; a Christian gay group.

I do find it important to have a knowledge of gay associations “Ice­breakers”, run by the gay switchboard is an introductory meeting to help people, who are coming to terms with their sexuality, to meet and talk in a comfortable environment. “Parents enquiry” is a service provided by parents of gay people to help other parents who have recently been informed of their son or daughter’s sexuality. All these resources can be contacted through the Gay Switchboard. (Phone 8721055).

Unfortunately, at the moment there is no resource for married men who are struggling with their gay sexuality. Together with them, I find this an extremely difficult situation because most times they have a good, loving relationship with their wives and children. They do not want to lose this, yet they feel the need to express their gay sexuality. I do not have the solution and can only be there for them to help them explore their feelings.

Many times they have found themselves in this situation because of their earlier difficulty in accepting their gay sexuality. I hope, with the present more understanding and accepting climate this will happen less frequently.

Each of my gay clients comes to me in a different stage of their “coming out process”. As with all my clients, whether gay or not, if I can be accepting and non-judgmental, they will move forward in their own direction.

Finally, in rounding off this paper, I would like to see the focus of work on homosexuality pointed away from the homosexual and towards the fears that a heterosexual society has of homosexuality. As part of this process I ask you to examine your own fears, lack of acceptance and understanding. As Dr. George Weinberg says in his book “Society and the Healthy Homo­sexual”: “I would never consider a patient healthy unless he has overcome his prejudice against homosexuality”.

(This article is a copy of a paper presented at Irish National Conference on Employee Assistance Programmes, Royal Marine Hotel Dun Laoghaire, Dublin September 29 and 30 1993)

References:

Guidelines on Certain Aspects of Homosexuality. BMA House. Lon.

Iron John. Robert Bly ISBN 1-85230-307-7.

Hard Issues & Soft Spots. Fracher & Kimmel Sage Pub.

The Forty-nine Percent Majority. Brannon & David. 1976.

Integrated Identity for Gay Men and Lesbians. Coleman. Harrington Pk. Press. NY.

Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy. ISSN 0891-7140.

Journal of Homosexuality. ISSN 0091-8369

Society & the Healthy Homosexual. Weinberg. ISBN 0-901072-16-8.

Carl Berkeley B.Tech Psy. Hons; MIAC. works in private practice in Dublin. He is a person centred counselling psychologist. He is a part-time teacher of counselling skills with St. Patrick’s College Maynooth. He is a founder of the IAC Newsletter and current member of the Editorial Board. He is Vice President of the Interim Executive Group of the European Association of Counselling.