A step towards freedom

February 27, 1998

Lesbians and gays are celebrating a victory over bigotry in psychology. Celia Kitzinger hopes it presages a more inclusive approach to research.

Lesbian and gay studies in Britain achieved a major triumph last week with the decision by the council of the British Psychological Society to support a proposal for a lesbian and gay psychology section within the society. This follows nearly a decade of campaigning by lesbian and gay psychologists.

The BPS has rejected similar proposals three times since 1991, as representing too narrow a field of interest and for fear that they were politically rather than scientifically motivated. During that period, those of us campaigning for the section were on the receiving end of extraordinary hostility, including the publication in the BPS's journal, The Psychologist, of a letter from senior members of the society accusing us of abnormality. This heterosexism backfired, and the apparent acceptability of such sentiments within psychology was seen by some society members as speaking eloquently in our support.

By "lesbian and gay psychology" we mean psychology that is explicit about its relevance to lesbians and gay men, which does not assume homosexual pathology, and which seeks to counter discrimination against us. The phrase "lesbian and gay psychologist" means (in this context) a psychologist involved in this type of psychology. A "lesbian and gay psychologist" can be heterosexual, just as a "social psychologist" can be anti-social, or a "sports psychologist" a couch potato.

The section will challenge psychology's long tradition of oppressing and pathologising lesbians and gay men. Before the 1970s, we were generally seen as sick products of disturbed family backgrounds, and psychological research focused almost exclusively on treatment, prevention and cure. But it is now 20 years since the American Psychological Association passed a resolution urging psychologists "to take the lead in removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with homosexual orientations".

Although it is relatively rare today to find psychologists describing lesbians and gay men as mentally ill, it is depressingly common to find that we are excluded from psychological research across a whole range of topics. The psychologies of adolescence, mid-life and ageing are often written as though lesbians and gay men are never part of the adolescent, middle-aged, or old population; the psychology of parenting generally presumes heterosexual parents and children; the psychology of bereavement typically assumes the heterosexual orientation of the bereaved. Lesbian and gay psychology not only incorporates lesbian and gay experience into the discipline, but also stimulates the development of new psychological approaches and the reconceptualisation of key concepts.

The new section will provide a forum for contemporary research on lesbian and gay psychology exploring a wide range of topics - such as coming out, relationships with partners, families and friends, sexuality across the lifespan, the stresses posed by heterosexist workplace practices and the issues arising for lesbians and gay men from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

This kind of research has important practical and policy implications. Today, lesbian and gay psychologists speak as expert witnesses in court in support of lesbian mothers in custody cases, champion the rights of young gay people in schools, get involved in other "gay affirmative" therapies, and investigate the causes and consequences of prejudice, discrimination and hate crimes against lesbians and gay men.

Celia Kitzinger is reader in lesbian and feminist psychology at Loughborough University. The proposal to set up a lesbian and gay section must now go to a ballot of the whole BPS membership. For more information contact Dr Kitzinger at Loughborough.

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