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Psychotherapy for Gay and Lesbian Clients

Psychotherapy for Gay and Lesbian Clients

Arriving in Orlando, Fla., for the 10th Annual U. S. Psychiatric & Mental Health Congress, I felt a familiar surge of excitement about seeing colleagues, attending seminars for my own continuing education, and my presentation of "The Role of Shame and Idealization in Homosexual Identity Formation," as well as the follow-up Ask-the-Expert session on psychotherapy with gay and lesbian clients.

I was unprepared for the large audience and the level of energy and interest its members sustained throughout these presentations, which enlivened the question and answer periods. The high interest level revealed the clinicians' need for specific information and consultation to facilitate their work with a group of patients who are becoming increasingly visible within our culture.

Fortunately, the body of relevant knowledge is growing, and clinicians who have experience in working with this population are available for supervision and consultation. I hope in this article to summarize some of the clinical information that therapists need to master in order to work responsibly with their gay and lesbian clients.

Social Context

A basic understanding of the social context in which and by which lesbians and gay men have been defined is important. Definitions and understanding of homosexuality and homosexuals have changed radically in this century. Seen as criminal by the law and evil by the church early in the century, we were "rescued" by the medical establishment and redefined as having a pathologic condition. Beginning in the 1950s, a convergence of scientific and political forces led to increased awareness of the realities of homosexuals' lives and relationships, and efforts to depathologize us as a group of people. Continuing work in that direction is reflected in the recent resolution by the American Psychological Association, which insists that patients exposed to the so-called "change therapies" be given information which validates homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality and recognizes the therapies available to support homosexual identity formation. It is an unfortunate reality that negative definition and stigmatization continue to some degree in the social environment of most homosexuals.

Scientific, social or legal redefinition is only slowly reflected in changed practitioners and practices. It is not surprising that surveys (Garnets and others, 1991) continue to report high levels of ignorance and prejudice encountered by homosexuals in their contacts with health care providers. This also contributes to a negative feedback loop in which many homosexuals are reluctant to utilize, inform or confront their care providers, impairing collaboration in treatment.

The category "homosexual," is now understood to include many different kinds of people and many varieties of self and relational expression. Homosexuality is not just a sexual act, but a sexual, affectional and relational preference. Gay men are more like other men, and lesbians more like other women, than they are similar to each other. The "problem" of homosexuality is not that these variations of human sexuality exist, but that the achievement of a healthy adult sexual identity is impeded, and the stress of daily living increased, by the social conditions of stigmatization and prejudice in which homosexuals must develop their identities and conduct their lives.

The process of "coming out" was originally thought of as an event, the moment of one's debut or first appearance at an openly homosexual social event. Now we understand that it is a prolonged process of identity formation and realization that extends over a lifetime and can be manifest in various ways.

My experience of psychotherapy with lesbians and gay men is derived from several sources. I am a psychiatrist in private practice with four other therapists, and our group sees somewhat more than a usual percentage of homosexual clients, either in individual and/or group therapy, or in relational therapy (couples and families). My ongoing experiential training groups in psychodynamic group psychotherapy are all of mixed gender and orientation, with approximately 20% gay or lesbian membership. I also travel to conduct three- and five-day self-awareness and intimacy-enhancing workshops for gay men. In the remainder of this article, I will discuss what I have learned in these venues about areas in which treatment of homosexual clients calls for particular knowledge and focus from the therapist.

Epigenetic Process

The concept of one stage building upon the work of the previous stages has been used throughout the literature on biological and psychological developmental, but was particularly well described in Erik Erikson's (1997) writing on human development. In his later years, he expressed concern that the stages he had delineated were being thought of only in relation to early development, and that the ongoing process of adult and later life, which involves revisiting many of the tasks of early life, was not well enough understood and described.

Because the work of homosexual identity formation involves effort against the constraining forces of "heterosexism" at every stage, it is particularly important that therapists understand how addressing significant unfinished business can free psychological energy to improve self-esteem and enrich relational capacity. I have encountered many instances of gay and lesbian clients presenting themselves to other group members as "having already dealt with coming out," only to be stirred by the catalytic activity of group processes to experience long-avoided painful memories and powerful healing experiences.

Much of the homosexual's developmental work may have been done in relative social isolation due to such factors as the need to hide or camouflage the self in a "heterosexist" world; difficulty in finding and entering the homosexual subculture, which is frequently invisible; and a lack of positive role models like those available to the developing heterosexual. The power and necessity of validating and normalizing interpersonal experiences cannot be underestimated, and facilitating such experiences must be given prominence in the therapeutic strategy. For this reason, a knowledge of gay-affirmative therapists and of appropriate therapy, support and social groups in one's area is very useful. For example, there is Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and OUTRIGHT for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.

The therapist must understand the usual trajectory of the coming out process and be familiar with the internal struggles, stigma management strategies and social conflicts that accompany each stage (Troiden, 1989). Too many therapists naively expect the patient to inform them about a process for which the patient may be lacking language and concepts.

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