‘Changing language is a form of intervention’

Ian Florance talks to Elizabeth Peel (University of Worcester).

The last couple of years have seen huge media interest in the transgender experience. Alongside high-profile individuals such as Caitlyn Jenner, in the arts world we have seen new books and films such as The Danish Girl. It seems a good time to talk to Professor Elizabeth Peel, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Psychology of Sexualities Section. I asked about her own personal journey, and how this area of psychology can support people in their identity choices.

Elizabeth begins her story at school. There was no psychology A-level there but her dad, who was a primary head, had been interested in counselling psychology. ‘I took A-level Sociology, and when I went to Nottingham University I did a joint degree in sociology and psychology and also a Diploma in Applied Psychology. I’m glad I studied two subjects at undergraduate level as becoming too specialised too early is overly limiting. I work with colleagues from sociology, anthropology, linguistics and socio-legal studies.’

When did psychology really grip Elizabeth? ‘Cutting up sheep brains didn’t grab my imagination! I connected with social psychology during the second year of my degree. Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour by Potter and Wetherell looks at language, communication and discourse, and these are lenses I still use to look at any area I’m interested in.’

Feminist psychology became important to Elizabeth, and she tells me: ‘As far as I remember I discovered it by myself. I can only describe it as finding an area that resonated with my identities, one I could find a home in. Feminist psychology, in particular, was and is about people as they exist in the world. I came out as a lesbian while still at school – at age 14. This has obviously influenced my interests and career.’

At that stage Elizabeth wanted to be a clinical psychologist, ‘like a lot of other people’. She worked as an assistant psychologist in play-based autism assessment with the late Elizabeth Newson during her degree, and as a research assistant looking at neuropsychological assessment in stroke rehabilitation immediately afterwards. ‘I found working on my own in a hospital-based multidisciplinary team very alienating and decided that neuropsychological assessments were too limiting for me. My final-year degree project had been about anti-lesbian and anti-gay hate crime. It had been suggested I work with Celia Kitzinger, and I applied to do a PhD in social psychology at Loughborough with her in 1998. I was undertaking sessional work for a gay and bisexual men’s sexual health project delivering lesbian and gay awareness training to different organisations. Talking it over with Celia we decided that this was a perfect PhD topic – an exploration of the process and outcome of education designed to reduce heterosexism and increase awareness of LGB diversity issues.’

Was the experience of offering this sort of training for the police, youth workers and social workers challenging for a young psychologist? ‘Yes, especially since this was before equal opportunities legislation which protected LGB people in the workplace. There was some personal risk involved, and one of the things I learned was how trainers managed personal disclosure in this sort of context. Going back to your original point, here’s an area where psychology and research work interact with issues in the real world – my PhD topic was driven by my community work.

‘But in my second year of PhD study my father showed me a report which suggested he was either clinically depressed or experiencing “an early dementing process”. Two years later he was diagnosed as having dementia. I would have liked to stay at Edinburgh University – where I was working at the time as a postdoc – but instead moved to Aston University to be nearer my father and take on caring responsibilities. I worked in a predominantly neuroscience environment but continued my diabetes and sexualities research. That period of my life lasted 10 years.’

Elizabeth says it’s still very important for her to work with marginalised and disadvantaged groups. ‘But my interests don’t just relate to sexuality or gender identity. I worked at the unfortunately now defunct Research Unit in Health, Behaviour and Change at the University of Edinburgh, conducting longitudinal interviews with people newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and more recently held a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship on Dementia Talking: Care, Conversation and Communication. The period of the fellowship in 2011–2012 coincided with my father’s death, which made the project especially poignant. This year I’ve been working with Professor Michael Murray (Keele) and Dr Carol Holland (Aston) on a British Psychological Society Research Seminar Series entitled Beyond Boundaries: Exploring the Psychologies of Ageing, which really aims to move beyond some of the traditional divisions in psychological ageing research and bring academics, practitioners and “users” together.’

‘Things have changed, though there’s still a lot to do’
Over the years Elizabeth has received a number of awards. ‘I co-wrote the first introductory textbook in the field of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Queer Psychology with Victoria Clarke, Sonja Ellis and Damien Riggs, which won a BPS book award in 2013, which we were thrilled by. I was also involved in the early days of what was the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section, which has been renamed the Psychology of Sexualities Section. I had just started as a PhD student in 1998 when the Section was first formed, after about 10 years of trying to set up something formal to focus on this field of the discipline. It was an exciting time to be involved in the establishment of the field in British psychology, and I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to undertake a number of different Section roles.’

I asked Elizabeth to tell me a bit more about the Section. ‘It’s worth remembering individual and institutional attitudes not that long ago. The Society was very slow in reacting to the need for such a Section and it took some real pioneers like Celia Kitzinger, Sue Wilkinson, Adrian Coyle and Martin Milton to push it through. In the early days Celia and Sue received a lot of hate mail from other psychologists. I recall that the section ballot received the biggest “anti” vote in any comparable ballot in the history of the BPS. Historically, of course, psychology and other psy-disciplines were very problematic in their “treatment” of non-heterosexual and non-gender normative individuals. In the UK we’ve moved a long way from “aversion therapy”, “conversion therapy” and chemical castration, but support for LGBTQ research and practice still needs building in the discipline.’

The change in title to the Psychology of Sexualities Section represents a wider focus than just lesbian and gay psychology, including bisexual, trans, intersex and queer identities. ‘Again to go back to one of your original points,’ Elizabeth says, ‘we are keen to bridge theory and practice, recognising the key role of counsellors, therapists, and educational and occupational psychologists have in promoting better understanding of the wide diversity of psychology of sexualities. Things have changed for the better, though there’s still a lot to do. For instance, we need more research addressing transphobia and trans issues as well as mental health outcomes for people who identify as bisexual or in ways other than lesbian or gay. Homophobic bullying in schools is still very much a live issue with “gay” still being used as a pejorative term.’

‘I want the world to be a better place’
Since 2013 Elizabeth has been Professor for Psychology and Social Change and Director of Research in the Institute of Health and Society at the University of Worcester. For the last five years her main academic interest has been in dementia, ‘a global issue that significantly impacts families and communities. But I’ve kept an interest in communication and discourse. As I became a professor in my thirties my role has changed – a lot of my time is spent mentoring, supporting people, and creating research structures that are hopefully enabling and encouraging.’ But you still keep up your research interests? ‘Thankfully they come together in projects that look at the way sexualities, gender and health affect each other.’

What do you hope for the Society Section of which you are Chair? ‘More working together with other allied Sections and groups in the Society. More international links need to be forged; international, interdisciplinary working is key.’

Finally, what does psychology do for the people Elizabeth is interested in? ‘It helps give them a voice and power. Changing language is a form of intervention.’ So you see your work as having practical benefits. ‘It may sound naive but I want the world to be a better place. That’s the unifying thread throughout my career to date. There’s always more to do.’

For more see tinyurl.com/elizpeel

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