Sunday, June 19, 2011

Friends in Internet Places

- by Stacey Prince

You know when you are doing something different or new, or you're a little uncertain of your direction, how validating it can be to learn that there are other people out there who have similar ideas? Thanks to the world wide web, this has happened to me recently in a multitude of ways, connecting me to individuals and organizations whose work mirrors and bolsters my own and gives me the encouragement to continue. I wanted to highlight some of those connections here:

1) Heather Greene, Justice Centered Social Work. Heather is an MSW in Portland, Oregon, who is committed to anti-oppressive, social justice oriented social work practice. Her website outlines her intentions and philosophy of justice centered practice and supervision, and I especially appreciate her voicing of the struggle to do this work in the context of institutions and systems that can and often do perpetuate systemic oppression. Her blog, the Social Work Activist Reader, was recently begun and is intended to be a forum for exploring practice through a justice lens. She also will soon launch an online zine with a similar focus. We have begun to correspond and her passions, vision and interests overlap considerably with mine for TJP. I hope the future will bring opportunities for us to connect not just electronically but face to face!

2) Manivong Ratts, Washington Counselors for Social Justice. I have been hearing about Vong for several months from mutual friends and colleagues, who have told me we should get together to discuss our two organizations and their overlap. He has been active in the national organization Counselors for Social Justice, and is currently President of the Washington chapter. In one of those weird, small world things that make you go hmm, it turns out he works right across the street from me, as program director of the school counseling department at Seattle University! So far we are internet friends only, but we are working on a get-together soon. From their website, WCSJ is "a community of counselors, counselor educators, graduate students, and school and community leaders who seek equity and an end to oppression and injustice affecting clients, students, counselors, families, communities, schools, workplaces, governments, and other social and institutional systems." Strategies include implementing social actions, disseminating scholarship on the impact of socioeconomic inequities, maintaining an active online and in person support network, and providing social justice focused professional development activities. Sound familiar? I was so inspired to learn of this parallel organization whose commitment, vision and strategies sound so much like TJP's. I am also excited about the possibilities for allyship and connection with Heather, Vong, and other practitioners in the Northwest who share a commitment to incorporating social justice, anti-oppression, and liberatory strategies into our work, possibly at a future TJP retreat.

Venturing now both beyond the Pacific Northwest and outside the world of mental health:

3) Josh Freeman, Medicine and Social Justice. Dr. Freeman is chair of the department of family medicine at University of Kansas Medical Center. I really like this guy's blog! He writes on topics such as the following: healthcare reform, insurance companies profiting while patient care quality decreases, perceptions and realities of economic inequity, professional disincentives to providing care to underserved populations, and financial conflicts of interest impacting physicians' choice of treatment approach and the veracity of research findings. While not speaking to mental health practice directly, so many of these issues are prevalent in the mental health professions that I think it is a great read for those of us interested in the intersections of social justice and mental health.

And finally, here is a way that the internet has made the world seem REALLY small and has connected me with someone whose work is so similar, and yet so very different...

4) A few months back I received an email from a Pastor named Martin Nzabanita. Martin is the leader of a ministry named Beyond the Bridge that serves countries in central Africa. His congregation has both religious and social foci: in addition to an active Christian ministry he works with street children, orphans, the homeless and impoverished, prostitutes, victims of rape, and individuals with substance abuse in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and the DRC, and trains other pastors to do the same. He found me because I also run an organization called Beyond the Bridge (, whose focus is to raise funds to support organizations that work with LGBTQ youth to reduce suicide risk, prevent bullying, and increase acceptance in schools, families, and faith communities. A friend in the US was helping Martin set up a web page for his ministry, and they were both surprised to find another group with the same name. Martin emailed and asked me about my "ministry," and when I explained to him that in fact we were not a ministry but a community organization with a focus on LGBTQ youth, frankly I expected rejection. Instead, he was warm and accepting, and what has transpired since has been a remarkable, fascinating dialogue that has built bridges in ways that I did not think possible: across vast differences in philosophy and approach and religious belief, across huge cultural differences, and of course across the many miles and continents between Seattle and central Africa. As Martin describes it, he works with people who have been the victims of hatred, exclusion, tribalism, ignorance, and the mismanagement of African institutions. He describes himself as not being "in the prison of religious barriers," and in fact I have found his responses to my inquiries about the challenges faced by gay and lesbian people in central Africa to be unconstrained by the usual homophobic, rejecting rhetoric that so many of us have experienced or been harmed by when trying to interact with fundamentalist Christians. I believe this dialogue has been healing and growth producing for both of us: I am learning that my kneejerk reaction to evangelical Christians is sometimes unfounded. In turn, I am sharing with Martin about the concerns and needs of LGBTQ individuals, the human rights violations that take place in many countries in Africa and around the globe, and the need to address these social inequities not just with prayer, but also with public education and policy change.

Community is one antidote to feeling isolated and lost, and one of my primary goals in forming TJP was to build local community; now I am also grateful to the internet and a good dose of kismet that is bringing me together with others in the global community who are doing similar work.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


- by Stacey Prince

I learned this beautiful word today while reading the book Cutting for Stone (which, by the way, is a great read so far). In addition to having a lovely sound, like a sea creature or a generative biological process of some kind, anamnesis (from the Greek word for “remembrance”) has the following three interesting and varied definitions:

• The remembering of things from a supposed previous existence,
• A patient’s account of a medical history, and
• The part of the Eucharist in which the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ are recalled.

Wow! A recollection, a patient’s self-reported medical history, and a Catholic sacrament all in one! What fascinating word. What it got me thinking about, though, was particularly the middle definition, “a patient’s account of a medical history”. Think about how important that is to all of us who are healers and providers of health care. Whether you are a massage therapist, an internal medicine specialist, or a psychotherapist, careful collecting of the patient’s medical history is critical both to accurate diagnosis and effective treatment planning. In Cutting for Stone the physician narrating the story recalls the words of her professor: “Milk the history! Exactly when and exactly how did it start? Onset is everything! In the anamnesis is the diagnosis!”

So, in the anamnesis is the diagnosis. Yet now think about how incredibly culture-bound this taking of the patient’s history is. Whether you are patient or caregiver, what you look for in tracing the origins and history of your pain, your symptoms, your distress is bound by what you have been taught to look for, what likely etiologies and processes and mechanisms your cultural context has provided you with. In your search for an explanation, you include some pieces of information and exclude others based on these cultural boundaries. A great example of this is the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, in which a young Hmong woman born in the US shortly after her family’s immigration is thought to have epilepsy and to need medication or surgery by her Western physicians, while members of her family believe she is possessed by spirits and needs shamanistic intervention and sacrifices. Told with compassion and balance, the author depicts the struggle to define her illness which leads to disastrous consequences as she is denied the benefit of both perspectives.

Now, think about how social justice and inequities come into play. Who defines the cultural boundaries, who gets to determine what is normal, what is pathological, what causes distress? Primarily those who hold privilege and are members of dominant groups. Those who hold this fearsome power differ by culture, of course, but in Western culture they are primarily highly educated with advanced degrees, often male, often White, and almost always owning class. While members of an individual’s community may have their own set of explanations for illness or distress, if they are not in power their explanations of their own or their family member’s illness may not prevail and will have little bearing on diagnosis and treatment of the individual in question.

So, here is a place where social justice and healing come together in ways that have profound and lasting impacts for individuals. Look at how the course of a person’s life can be altered by the ways that their medical histories are defined by those in power. A recent series on CNN explored reparative or conversion therapy, efforts (usually through aversive behavioral means) to change an individual’s sexual orientation from gay or lesbian to heterosexual. In “The Sissy Boy Experiment,” Anderson Cooper explores the history of such efforts to change sexual orientation. He focuses on the tragic story of one individual treated with conversion therapy as a youth by George Rekers, one of the leading proponents of conversion therapy. Initially deemed a “success” by Rekers, this young man by all reports led a terribly unhappy life and then committed suicide at age 38. His family members firmly believe that conversion therapy, which included both verbal and physical punishment for feminine behavior, was to blame.

Imagine such a patient’s anamnesis. He might tell you that he is unhappy and depressed because he is gay. This is what he has been told – by his church, the media, his family, and his doctor. In this cultural context he likely would be unable to recognize that there is a confounding variable, homophobia (and its internalized version), that might better explain both his own low self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness and depressive symptoms and other peoples’ opinions about him. Seeking treatment, he might then feel hopeless and suicidal because the treatment failed to change him. Ultimately, this internalizing, self-blaming anamnesis leads him to see no alternative but to take his life. How many young men and women have similar stories?

How could this narrative be different? Certainly the patient’s own anamnesis would need to be different. I see this process often in therapy, as my clients who struggle with substance abuse, social anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness begin to relate their symptoms to rejection by family or church, harassment, and constantly feeling the need to hide their identity and their relationships. A light bulb goes off, and suddenly there is a chance for hope, where before there was despair.

But even more than that, the cultural definition of homosexuality as an illness, a problem, and a deviation from the norm would need to change. Because even if a client’s anamnesis is transformed – even if he is able to say to his treatment providers, hey, I’m absolutely fine with being gay, it’s other people’s homophobia that’s causing my distress, that won’t be enough if his providers have a different story. Unfortunately, some practitioners continue to use conversion therapy despite the preponderance of evidence indicating that such treatment has little lasting effect on sexual orientation and can cause depression, anxiety, and suicidality, and despite the fact that numerous professional organizations including the American Psychological Association have deemed it unethical and harmful. Even among those practitioners who do not practice this abusive and overtly heterosexist form of therapy, biases and microaggressions based on sexual orientation still take place all too often (see for example my recent blog article reviewing research on this topic). Problem is, these same institutions of power that are now deeming conversion therapy and sexual orientation microaggressions unethical only stopped defining homosexuality as a mental illness a short 38 years ago.

Now a new but painfully familiar battle is being fought over the definition of acceptable gender identities. In our strict Western binary in which only “male” and “female” are acceptable categories, individuals who define themselves as both, or neither, or whose internal gender experience does not match their biological sex and who decide to transition, are still deemed by many to be deviant. They often cannot even receive treatment without receiving a diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” (previous TJP blog article Transcending Diagnoses provides more information about the struggle to change this diagnosis and its criteria in the next version of the DSM; see also this recent article from The Bilerico Project in which the proposed DSM-V diagnosis “Gender Dysphoria” is discussed.) Yet how culture bound this is! This map shows the many places around the globe where gender is not constricted by the binary, where genders other than male and female are honored and not pathologized. This interactive map is fascinating and full of information; I hope you’ll take a look. Yet these individuals and cultures are generally not at the table when the folks in charge determine Western definitions of “normal,” so transgender individuals in our country are still harassed, discriminated against, and denied crucial medical and social services. The third segment of “The Sissy Boy Experiment” draws a clear parallel between conversion therapy and efforts to change gender identity in children who exhibit cross-gender behaviors.

While I have been focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity, an individual’s anamnesis is similarly impacted, interpreted and distorted when we look at ethnicity. What is defined as normal is largely defined by White, middle class, Western, Eurocentric men. So, for example, being emotionally expressive, relationally focused, and angry are all deemed unhealthy, while being logical, autonomous, calm and detached are seen as normative. It infuriated me when on a recent episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” a Black krumper who was clearly at the top of his game but expressed a lot of anger (both in his words and in his dance) was sent home, while another Black break dancer who in my humble opinion was no more talented or proficient in his style was sent through to the next round of competition. The latter young man was smiling, humble, a little obsequious, and deemed “adorable” by the judges, while the former was reprimanded for his arrogance and “frustration”. Not only was this a great example of the ways that personal discrimination can lead to systematic access to or denial of resources, since being on this show and advancing to later stages of the competition can lead to jobs and opportunities, but it also seemed to indicate a lack of understanding (or denial?) by the judges regarding the style of dance, krumping, demonstrated with great proficiency by the first dancer. Krumping IS about anger – at injustice, at racism, at systemic oppression. It’s a street dance giving the dancer a way to express anger, rage and frustration in a non-violent way. So to critique a krumper for being angry is, well, sort of missing the point. Also notable on this particular evening was the fact that the judging panel that night was all white; I wished there was one person of color, or one white ally, to argue with the head judge (a white, British, middle aged male executive producer) in favor of keeping the krumper for another round.

So in the end, I guess I agree with the quote from Cutting for Stone, but only with a big IF. “In the anamnesis is the diagnosis” - but only IF both the teller and listener are not bound by culturally prescribed definitions of health. Otherwise, the definitions of the dominant paradigm will prevail.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Ben Cohen tour: Mixed messages from a straight ally

- by Stacey Prince

International Rugby star Ben Cohen recently announced his retirement, and is now becoming well-known for an entirely different reason: he has dedicated himself to eradicating homophobia and bullying in sports, and has started a foundation (The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation) dedicated to this cause. As the first straight athlete to do so, he is garnering lots of press and admiration; see for example this recent article in the New York Times in which he is profiled along with US wrestler Hudson Taylor who has devoted himself to the same issue. On Friday, May 27 Ben came to UW as part of his Foundation’s inaugural tour, and appeared at a Town Hall meeting at the University of Washington. On the panel with him were UW Center for Leadership in Athletics Professor Jennifer Hoffman, Associate Athletic Director Shannon Kelly, and David Kopay, who came out in the 1970’s shortly after retiring from the NFL, becoming the first professional male athlete in the Big 3 (football, baseball and basketball) to do so. The event was moderated by the amazing Jennifer Self, coordinator of UW's Q Center (a center for support, resources, advocacy and mentoring for LGBTQ students), who added a feminist, queer and anti-oppressive analysis as well as good humor to the event.

I was excited to attend, as I have a strong focus in my own work on reducing homophobia in general, and bullying in particular. But as the conversation unfolded, I found myself becoming uncomfortable with some of the messages that were being conveyed, and also maybe more importantly, with what wasn’t being said. I thought it might be helpful to try and unpack some of my reactions here.

First, I of course thought that it was fantastic that this conversation about homophobia in sports (and in general) was happening, and that it was happening in this particular setting, a large, mainstream state university with prominent sports teams and programs. Many on the panel (particularly former NFL star David Kopay, for whom the progress is likely especially salient since he came out some 30 years ago) commented on how much progress has been made toward acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. The sensation I had was one that I often have at such events: marveling at how far we’ve come, but also how far we haven’t. For example, the fact that people locally and globally are so excited about Ben Cohen’s foundation is because he is unique: the first straight male athlete to take a stand to end homophobia in sports. The fact that it’s 2011 and he is the first shows how far we haven’t come, and makes me sad.

Further, he is often admired for taking a stand on this particular issue, which is not a "straight person’s issue," and asked why he does so. Why would a successful, popular straight athlete decide to work on homophobia? This makes him a hero. This, too, makes me sad – because homophobia is a straight person’s issue in the same way that racism is a white person’s issue – it’s just that we see the marginalized group members (gay men and lesbians, people of color) fighting for their own issues so much more often. The fact that he is such a dedicated heterosexual ally is something to be celebrated, certainly; the fact that it is so unusual that he is revered as a hero is sad.

The next area I was concerned about was his message to kids. I know he wants to be a role model for students in high school and college, but he is in a very different boat than most. As a highly successful, widely respected world class athlete, he has little to lose by taking this stand. As he says in the NYT article, “I can say something and it can be so little to me, but it can be so powerful for tens of thousands of people." But what about high school kids? At a time when peer pressure is at its height, and gender conforming behaviors are valued, a straight kid who allies himself with a gay peer runs the risk of being bullied himself. Part of what makes me cry nearly every week when watching the TV show Glee is how touching it is to see those straight kids stand up for their gay friend Kurt – yet this is a fantasy world which does not approach reality for many, many gay high school students. I think it’s fantastic that some kids will see Ben Cohen’s website or hear him talk and will be inspired to take a stand against homophobia, but we need so much more than this – for example, comprehensive anti-bullying programs in schools, real sanctions for when bullying does occur, and parents supporting their kids’ acceptance of gay peers – before kids are going to stop torturing other kids and driving them to depression, isolation and suicide.

Another part of Ben’s message I felt uncomfortable with was a refrain that he repeated often in different forms that went something like this: “when so-and-so came out it was so not a big deal, because he is such a stellar athlete”. This sounded to me a lot like what some of my therapy clients who are men and women of color call the “black tax” – the idea that, in order to be accepted, they have to work extra hard, perform extra well, and be super successful. Ben’s message that stellar athletes will be accepted rang of the “gay tax,” and also suggested that what was happening in these cases was more of an overlooking of the person’s sexual orientation, due to their athletic prowess, rather than true acceptance. A comment from an audience member that the gay rights movement just needed some top athletes to “come out and act normal” didn’t help matters. The conclusion seemed to be if you come out but you're really good at what you do, and you act straight and don't make any waves, it will all be fine. Is this what we want our LGBTQ high school and college students, and their heterosexual classmates, to hear?

An area that was touched on but not plumbed as much as I would have liked had to do with the intersections of homophobia, sexism, and racism in sports. For example, several folks commented casually on the fact that homophobia seems less of a problem on women’s teams than men’s. Yet a deeper analysis of this discrepancy was only hinted at by Jennifer Hoffman, the Center for Leadership in Ahtletics assistant professor. No-one mentioned the underlying sexism inherent in this phenomenon – the fact that gender transgressions are much more of a problem for men than for women, whether we look at kids or adults, athletes or non-athletes - because men acting feminine is far more threatening to the status quo and therefore must be corrected and brought back in line (usually by other men) than women acting masculine.

Despite the fact that being gay is a much bigger deal in men’s sports than women’s, homophobia is still a factor in women’s sports, too, often running hand in hand with sexism. For example, the panelists did comment on the unfortunate fact that female athletes are often made to pretty themselves up for promotional photos and non-athletic professional appearances. Similarly, the panelists chuckled over the fact that one recent women’s softball team was admired and commented on for being great athletes and good looking to boot (as if that was an exception). The assumptions about gender identity, gender expression, sexism, homophobia and transphobia inherent in these issues was a topic that would have been interesting to explore, but was maybe a bit beyond the scope and intention of this event.

Perhaps some of my problem and my criticalness came from being a member of the disenfranchised group being discussed. After all, I wasn’t really Cohen’s target demographic: his comments seemed largely directed at other heterosexuals. Yet as is often the case at these events, the room appeared to be more than half filled with gay folks (I am basing this primarily on observing same-sex couples who were clearly together, people identifying themselves when asking questions, etc.) including myself. I was reminded of a training I did recently focusing on white privilege, after which several people of color who had attended came up to me to tell me that they had heard most of what I’d presented before, and that workshops such as the one I had just led left them with little by way of tools or strategies to cope with privilege and oppression themselves. This was humbling feedback for me to receive, and on Friday as I sat listening to Ben Cohen I understood it at a more visceral level.

I hope you will excuse me if I sound critical – as I said, I am thrilled that there are Ben Cohens out there, that UW decided to host this event and Microsoft to fund it. Even if it is somewhat limited, what he is saying is so important. If his work gives one athlete, one kid, or one parent the strength to stand up to homophobia, that would be great. I just hope that some day we won’t have to get so excited about a heterosexual ally (or any dominant group member) working towards equality.