What do you see when you look in the mirror?
The stain from a toddlers kiss?
The pierced ear from a drunken decision in Ko Samui?
Traditionally the advice to therapists has been never to disclose personal details to clients, we were apparently “blank slates” for them to project what they needed onto. Traditionally, the advice was hokum, ignoring that, just as we look in the mirror, clients look at us. They see our race, age, perceived gender, the clothes we chose, the haircut, the tattoos, if visible, the wedding ring, the minutiae of data which makes up who we are. That is even before we open our mouths, when accent, dialect, and tone disclose many more details both about who we are and who they perceive us to be.
The blank slate was a myth. blankness was a stand in term for white, abled, cis het, male, middle class from a “respectable” background.. In fact what we were admonished to do was to not disclose any details about ourselves which deviated from that assumed norm. Fit those norms, and we did not have a gender identity, or sexuality, or class or race, we just were. Deviate from them and our deviation was a thing of shame, a thing which might harm clients, and so must be hidden.
Thankfully in the 21st century we have begun, slightly, to move away from the idea difference must be hidden. Realms of research exists, not only into the wider value of theraputic self disclosure as a tool, but also the specific benefits of disclosure of LGBTQAAI identities to clients. Despite this, it is still not uncommon to hear cis het therapists question why LGBTQAAI people might prefer an LGBTQAAI therapist. (and lets not even get into the resistance to training, that is for a different blog).
One thing I have rarely considered around the importance of being an out LGBTQAAI therapist is in the modelling of hope. We talk alot about the negative impacts on health and wellbeing of being queer. We have to, the statistics can be frightening, the higher chances of suicide, rape, mental ill health, disability, must be highlighted so we can challenge the structural oppressions which underlie them. As an anti oppressive practioner I see part of my role as advocating publically for change, because, quite frankly, not everything can be changed in the therapy room. Dismantling structural oppression is probably the most useful thing any of us can be to improve the mental health of our clients.
I think this tweet sums up what I mean here perfectly
Which is not to say that people with material privilege cannot struggle with suicidal ideation, wealth and fame do not protect us, whether duchess or comedian. However in tackling poverty, inequality, access to services, we also tackle the causes for many of suicidal ideation.
I spoke earlier of hope though, and I think often in highlighting the negatives we (and I include myself in the universal we there) forget about the importance of hope – of being able to conceive of ourselves as queer, middle aged (and older) and living our best lives. The concept of the blank slate not only assumes a default many of us do not fit, but removes our example as the living embodiment of hope. As I write I remember being at a local pride a couple of years ago. I had my Bi flag, proudly, tied around me, like a queer superhero, and a group of teenage girls came up to me. Giddy with the excitement a first pride can bring they told me how great it was to see someone older there. One confessed her parents kept telling her being bi was “just a phase” and seeing me gave her hope.
Many young queer people will only have tragic narratives of aging, brokeback mountain or Its a sin, it is rare to see older queer people living their best lives. I understand why drama needs tension, however it can leave young people unable to picture themselves in 10, 20, 30, 40 years. I am sure this is exacerbated by the lost generation, those we lost to HiV who now would be our elders. If you cannot look in the mirror and see not only yourself now, but your future self, it is hard to be hopeful about that future self. As a therapist I am not a role model, but I can model the fact that not every queer life ends too soon, or badly, that it is worth trying to build your own best life. If there were ever a reason to be out as a queer therapist, that seems to clinch it for me.