Since the U.S. Military has removed the ban against lesbians and gays, I have been receiving invitations to come and speak to them on Gay Affirmative Therapy. It is my pleasure to be invited and share what I know to military mental health professionals. I will be at the United States Air Force base in Tampa, Fla., this week doing this very thing.
What I plan to teach them are the basics in working with lesbians and gay men. I thought I would share them here as well for anyone interested in what the main issues are from a gay affirmative point of view. Believe it or not many therapists still think many of these myths are true.
Top 10 Myths About Lesbians and Gays for Straight Therapists
It is important to debunk the myths about what homosexuality is and is not so that you are aware of them and do not allow them to get in your way of your work with this population. Making the myths overt can help clinicians challenge personal beliefs that stem from what they learned early in their careers and even from childhood.
Myth No. 1: Being gay or lesbian results from stunted, immature sexuality. Any stunting that occurs in relation to being homosexual results from a lack of permission to explore and express one's true orientation. Beginning in childhood, the sexual development of lesbians and gays is neglected, and gay and lesbian children (and adults) receive numerous developmental insults. They are shamed for being what they are. What Gay Affirmative Therapy asks is what is wrong with a boy being effeminate or a girl being tomboyish? Certain actions or appearances do not define masculinity or femininity. Also, this concept fails to take into account the fact that there are many heterosexuals who are sexually immature or stunted in their gender development. (1)
Myth No. 2: Homosexuality is caused by a smothering, overprotective mother and an absent, emotionally distant father. Mothers can tell very early on that there's something different about her child. She may become more protective of him to prevent any teasing and playground abuse. The father, sensing that his son might be gay, will distance himself, seldom knowing exactly how to react. (2) One day, I believe, we will learn that children are biologically gay or lesbian and that a parent can only react to that sexual orientation, not create it.
Myth No. 3: Acquainting children with gays and lesbians and teaching them about homosexuality can make them gay. Perhaps one of the biggest myths is that a child can be swayed by a homosexual "role model." The main argument behind this myth is that gays and lesbians should not raise children, who will perhaps be influenced and "choose" a gay lifestyle.
Arguments to the contrary say that heterosexuality is not that fragile, and that children can handle knowledge and exposure to gays and lesbians. In fact, studies show that children of openly gay parents grow up more tolerant and accepting of differences. These children do experiment more with same-sex behaviors than those raised by heterosexual parents do, but their orientation remains stable in terms of what they are innately. The truth is that all children should be able to grow up exploring their own sexuality and learn for themselves what their sexual/romantic orientation is.
Myth No. 4: Being sexually abused in childhood can turn a person gay. Early sexual abuse can't shape orientation, but it can shape behavior and confuse individuals as to their real orientation. Adult males who abuse boys can cause so-called homosexual imprinting: When the boy grows up, he may re-enact his own abuse by seeking out sex with other men. This is not innate homosexuality, as it is based only on behavior. (3) Women sexually abused at an early age by male perpetrators might seek out women for romantic and sexual relationships to avoid re-experiencing the trauma that was originally perpetrated onto them by men.
For lesbians, this can spark an earlier awareness of an innate lesbian orientation, but it does not create that orientation: These women would be lesbians even if they had not been abused. Innately heterosexual women who were abused and later partner with women eventually return to relationships with men. There is a link between early sexual trauma and later sexual acting out, which can include same-sex behavior, but it has nothing to do with orientation. After psychotherapy helps clear away the trauma, the imprinted sexual behavior often subsides and the client's true orientation -- gay or straight -- can surface.
Myth No. 5: Homosexuality can be prevented or cured. No matter how gentle or loving a parent may be, trying to prevent or forestall homosexuality inevitably winds up harming a child, causing gender confusion or low self-esteem. In my office, countless gay men and lesbians have shed tears as they recalled how a parent took away their "inappropriate" toys or imposed stereotypical gender behaviors. As adults, lesbians and gays who engage in "reparative therapies" experience high rates of relapse and suffer a considerable amount of trauma due to these therapeutic approaches.
Fundamentalists and reparative therapists assert that no one is born homosexual. Heterosexism teaches that everyone is or should be heterosexual. Gay Affirmative Therapy, on the other hand, assumes that we are all born with a certain sexual/romantic orientation, just as we are born with a given temperament. The truth is that everyone is born sexual, and what that means is discovered over time for each particular individual.
Myth No. 6: People can choose to change their orientation. People can choose to live as they wish, but orientation, like temperament, is stable. Children are born with a temperament and personality traits that can alter somewhat as they grow into adulthood. They can learn to modify and adapt to their environments, but their core temperament and personality stays largely within the same range.
The same is true of sexuality. People can mimic a heterosexual lifestyle, but they cannot change their true orientation. Study after study shows that for those who do try to change, the relapse rate is very high. Those who "succeeded" at changing were not essentially homosexual to begin with, but rather were either acting out past sexual abuse or were bisexual, tending more toward heterosexuality than homosexuality. Their basic orientation did not change.
This myth arises because of the seeming suddenness of the lesbian or gay individual's coming out of the closet. For the gay or lesbian, of course, making the decision to come out can take months or years, but to those who are hearing about their friend or family member's homosexuality for the first time, it seems like the person was straight one day and gay the next.
Others then assume that people can change their orientation consciously. But if young people felt free to explore sexual and romantic orientations (which today's teenagers and young adults in college often do), they would not need to suppress their innate sexuality and could come out earlier rather than later.
Myth No. 7: Adolescence offers a "second chance" at heterosexuality. Many teens experiment during adolescence: Straight kids try out same-sex relationships, and gay kids try out the opposite sex. This is a normal part of the developmental process. But this investigation doesn't prove that teens are interested in converting to a new orientation. Each teenager ultimately discovers his or her true orientation if allowed to do so, no matter how much experimenting and exploring is done. Again, orientation is predetermined.
Myth No. 8: Homosexuality is merely sexual behavior. Being gay or lesbian is not limited simply to sexual behaviors. It is also about attraction and attachment -- psychological, emotional, mental and spiritual -- to a member of one's own gender. For gay and straight alike, behavior follows from one's sexual and romantic orientation, which is based on emotions.
Myth No. 9: Homosexuality is an "alternative lifestyle." Calling homosexuality an "alternative" implies that being straight is standard for everyone. Since childhood, we are taught the negative belief that being gay is a more difficult way to live. But for gays and lesbians, pretending to be heterosexual is actually more difficult and can lead to depression and self-defeating or even self-destructive behavior.
Myth No. 10: Lesbian and gay relationships don't last. Gay and lesbian relationships do last and can endure -- just like their heterosexual counterparts. There is less support for these relationships in terms of the law, religion and sometimes family, which puts the relationships at risk. But just like healthy heterosexual relationships, healthy lesbian and gay relationships that are based on good communication, validation of the other, and respect for each other's differences can and do survive.
Joe Kort is the author of Gay Affirmative Therapy for the Straight Clinician.
(1) Besen, W. R. (2003). Anything but straight: Unmasking the scandals and lies behind the ex-gay myth. Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park.
(2) Brown, L. S. (1989). Lesbians, gay men and their families: Common clinical issues. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy, 1(1), 65-77.
(3) Gartner, R. B. (2005). Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of your life after boyhood sexual abuse. New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.