I met Wayne (not real name) back in 1994. I was just beginning to do counseling. We were selected as partners for a study project. After the project was completed Wayne called and asked if we could have lunch at a local diner. Wayne sounded stressed on the phone. When I met him he was sitting in the back all by himself looking kind of somber. When the food arrived Wayne stated he was going to tell me a secret he could not hold in anymore. For the past several years he had been a visiting a local state park in order to meet other men for sex. He explained he was gay and that he had gotten married (just a year prior to our conversation) because he wanted his family and his church to approve of him. He also thought he could fight through his tendencies and make a heterosexual life for himself. Eventually the buried feelings began to surface and he ended up at the state park. All his emotions like depression, anxiety, guilt, fear, anger, remorse, and so many other negative emotions about his dilemma and his life got released during our lunch. Then all of a sudden he stopped and asked me, “What should I do?” Two things were very clear. First, these feelings were not a choice. In reality, he had chosen heterosexuality, but his instincts said otherwise. Second, he came to me for a reason and I pledged to him that I would help. During this time there was no gay counseling service in our area. In addition, I did not know any openly gay therapists, lesbian therapists or even a good gay friendly therapist that had experience helping a gay man. So, I took on this assignment myself because we had an essential therapeutic element already in place, Wayne trusted me. Although this trust was important I also realized that Wayne and I had a long road ahead of us.
Some opening thoughts
Before, I begin to speak about Wayne’s story I want to say five important things at the outset. First, this article is merely a simple thumbnail sketch concerning what are enormously complicated and broad issues. Second, when I use the term sexual orientation or orientation issues I am talking about the whole spectrum of LGBT issues although I realize as an expression it is not a perfect fit, especially as it relates to the transgender and any transgender psychology. Third, since I was born and raised in the United States, my own observations are derived from my experiences here in the United States. In some cases, other countries may have their own unique factors and views surrounding these issues. Fourth, I may use the word “issues” to describe some of the obstacles the LGBT community faces, but many of these issues are really those of intolerant non-LGBT people. Finally, I am a heterosexual male therapist and I have always been acutely aware of my own potential biases. This realization is important because over the years I have been a therapist for many gay and transgender people, having the privilege of being able to write psychological reports for doctors and surgeons as to their psychological fitness for surgery that would change their lives. These transgender people have placed a level of trust with me and I did not want to violate that trust. I have operated the same way when doing what might be called “gay mental health” and addictions for the gay person. In my mind, the key to be free from bias is to be empathetic, to write it and see it from their perspective.
Hope on the horizon
Some might say Wayne’s story was 22 years ago and certainly things have changed since then. Or have they? From an overt perspective, through legislation and support we are now seeing massive changes in the public perception about sexual orientation issues. Laws on the books clearly demonstrate improvement. Gay marriage is now commonplace. There are laws concerning hate crimes that include violence perpetrated on those with different sexual orientations. As far as support is concerned there are now many places online like gaycenter.org as well as local onsite support venues that provide valuable services to the LGBT community. So, if you add it all up, it appears that acceptance and healing are happening. Uh, not so fast!
Change takes time
To investigate whether acceptance is happening let’s look at discrimination from a parallel universe. Despite the fact that this is 2016, nearly one hundred and fifty years from the end of slavery, we are still seeing that in the fight for racial equality, discrimination and outright bigotry continue on despite the laws and assurances. This is partly due to “a hangover effect” from centuries of discrimination. Discrimination is a hard thing to remove from the culture. So, why should the LGBT fight be any different? There are laws on the books to protect the LGBT community but many people are still holding on to their intolerant ideas about sexual orientation and in many cases acting on them. Many of my teenage clients are still struggling with coming out due to the fear of family disapproval and potential shunning. Others have been telling me that despite coming out and assurances of acceptance by their parents, the focus and time of the parents has then shifted to the other siblings. These things are painful. Other teens are telling me they are bullied and verbally ridiculed at school and on the social media despite all the public education. To be fair, in many cases the bullies are merely carrying out the ignorance and bigotry of their parents and other adults. Geography also plays a part in it. In the big cities there is more tolerance of LGBT issues whereas in many small suburban settings the story is radically different. The primary fuel for people’s ignorance in these settings is that many still hold on to the idea that orientation is a choice. This idea is often reinforced by religion. They feel as if LGBT people choose to be different and are told it is a sin. This train of thought goes from parents to kids and then to other kids and very quickly the environment becomes toxic for those with a different orientation.
Adults suffer too-the story of GiGi
It is not only the teens that are still suffering but adults too. Wayne got caught up in the middle of both of these things just mentioned; the small town and the religion. Some adults suffer at the workplace by not being hired or passed over for job raises and promotions. Many of these decisions are done in back rooms and often the judgment of whether discrimination occurs is left to those who do not understand LGBT issues. It’s a stacked deck. Some suffering is more blatant. I had a client; I will call her GiGi (not real name), who describes herself as a shemale. In her early adolescence she became acutely aware that she had strong feelings for men. In addition, she had strong feelings about being a woman, or at least a strong affinity with a feminine side. At age 18, she came out to her family who were supportive. By age 19, she began to inquire about estrogen therapy and at this time became my client. She needed a letter from her therapist for transgender issues for her surgeon about her psychological state since she was having breast implantation surgery. I sent a letter to a surgeon after she decided to have implants put in. Prior to this surgery she made the decision she wanted to permanently retain her penis. She was pleased with how she looked and her decisions. She even got to do some modeling. Then she called one day requesting an emergency session. She told me she was walking in the local mall and a man followed her because he wanted a date and more. When he made his amorous appeal to her, GiGi informed him she was a shemale and asked if that was ok with him. The male beat GiGi and left her bleeding on the ground. This type of physical assault happens a lot to shemales, adding to their difficulties.
The suffering in a broader sense
Many in the LGBT community are now free from these issues. Those are the lucky ones. But there are many who are still suffering. So what is the fallout from this battle still being waged on these folks? The fallout is in three areas. First, it happens at the very beginning with the whole process of coming out and the issues associated with it. The anxiety and the uncertainty racks the nerves, lots of people suffer from anxiety conditions, some experience panic attacks. Second, after you come out there are so many things to deal with just living day to day. For example, how do you form healthy relationships both in and outside the LGBT community? Over the last ten years I have worked with many people who were depressed, anxiety ridden and even suicidal dealing with these issues. Some have experienced the painful loss of family and friends. Some have turned to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain. Some struggle to gain and maintain healthy love relationships. Sadly, there is a higher rate of physical assaults in LGBT relationships. Because of this, there is a need for gay and lesbian relationship therapy. For others, the life they expected has not materialized or has been derailed. Being or feeling alone tends to exacerbate the issues. Finally, a different orientation does not mean you don’t suffer from the same things all humans do. For example, some people have a chemical imbalance and have been depressed, anxious or bipolar most of their lives irrespective of their orientation. Some have strong genetic markers for addictions. Many have come for counseling because of abusive childhoods, particularly sexually abuse. Still others have experienced physical abuse. Then we have some who have problems forming healthy relationships period. They struggle in loving, platonic and work relationships.
Wayne and GiGi
The good news is with time and effort people can find peace in their lives. Wayne did get divorced and is now an ordained Unitarian minister. He and his partner have been together for ten years. Wayne’s former wife has remained friends with him and remarried. GiGi has struggled for many years to obtain a long term relationship with someone but hasn’t been able to find anybody. With the changing sexual climate she is optimistic that this too might change. In spite of her challenges she is happy with who she is and the choices she has made.
How can you get help
Victor Frankel, the famous psychiatrist was a prison camp survivor in WWII. He was kept alive because he was a doctor. His wife and all other family members were executed in Auschwitz. After the war he lamented how the German army had taken everything he loved. However, later is his life, he said “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Sexual orientation is an instinct not a choice, however how you deal with it is a choice. As Frankl’s story teaches us, it is not the circumstances that define you but your attitude toward the circumstances. Don’t let others deny you the happiness of being who you really are and what you want from your life. You deserve to experience life on your own terms, in your own way. It takes courage but you can do it. If you are struggling with any of the issues discussed here or some that have not been mentioned, where do you start? What is your path to freedom and ultimately to happiness? The first thing is to know that others have suffered too and found a way. There is a path for you too. Find a support program in your community and online where people can share with you their experience and strength. Don’t be alone. Second, although support is helpful, it is not therapy. If you are presently struggling, find gay friendly couples counseling or a therapist who specializes in gay and transgender issues who is intimately familiar with the issues you are encountering. He or she should be able to assist you to form a step by step plan to identify and overcome your obstacles. Make sure the therapist, lesbian, straight, or gay has the experience to help you navigate between the LGBT and heterosexual world. Also, through meditation or other sources find a way to be ok in your own space, to be at peace with yourself, loving yourself for who you are.
Frank Gillespie NCC, M.A., Psychotherapist
This article is provided by PsychNook.com. Frank is one of our therapists for offering transgender psychotherapy and counselling for gay men.
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Frank Gillespie has a Master's Degree in Counseling from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. He is a nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). He has provided therapy for over 23 years. During his career, he has helped more than 10,000 people move past their obstacles towards reaching their potential and fulfillment in their lives. He practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a warm and nurturing approach. In addition to being a therapist, Frank has been an adjunct college professor teaching social work, a clinical consultant, a clinical director, and a seminar speaker. Frank has recently retired from his full time practice to focus on a part time online practice. He is married. He enjoys listening to music, watching sports, power walking, swimming, reading and writing.