A plea to hear each other

Dr Charlotte Whiteley writes.

I came across the debate on gender diversity and freedom of expression in The Psychologist (October and November issues) last night and have been struggling to fully get to grips with my relating to the issue. What is it that has sat so uncomfortably with me about this debate?

As counselling psychologists (and from what I understand, clinical psychologists too), we are taught that without actively listening to the experience of the other, engaging therapeutically with another is pointless. Active and compassionate listening and hearing the experience of another is at the heart of what we do as applied psychologists. And yet this ‘debate’ seems to exhibit quite the opposite of that. In clinging on to ‘the right point of view’, the experience of the other is being silenced and unheard.

Applied psychology is, as mentioned in the debate,a changing socio-political landscape. We draw on an array of modalities, one being systemic theory, which can be hugely valuable when considering ourselves in relation to our work, our clients and the wider socio- political systems we operate in. Such a modality can be invaluable in helping us with big, complicated topics such as privileged and oppressed parts of our identities. It is not until we look at our own identities and privileges that we might start to get a sense of how these operate and in turn impact on those who do not benefit from such privilege. As a queer, Jewish, white, middle-class, able-bodied parent, I have a multitude of lenses (both powerful and oppressed and which change depending on the context I am in) through which I read the debate. And rather than attempting to add another polarised position to this debate, I will offer only my questions and curiosities.

I wonder why this debate has so deeply affected me and why I felt so powerless and scared when reading it. Is it because people are speaking without listening? Is it because of the history of trauma experienced by the LGBT+ community? Is it because I fear that removing these guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity moves us back towards reparative therapy? And that the dangers of this therapeutic approach are so far-reaching? Is it because I want to defend the complex assessments, therapy and MDT work carried out at the adult GIC (having previously worked there)? Is it because I know how complex the issues around gender and sexuality are and that these debates polarise us rather than let us hear, listen and move closer to one another? Or at the very least understand each other? Is it because I’m protective that ‘my’ community of LGBT+ folk are under scrutiny yet again and I want my children to grow up in a world where practitioner psychologists ‘do’ and ‘should’ af rm their identity of growing up in a queer family? Notwithstanding the above, I still want to hear and understand the position of those who want these guidelines removed. What are you scared of and what am I scared of? How can we make space for all of our fears? And our desires to protect the patients and communities we serve? Does it have to be either your way or my way? Can we find a way to listen to and incorporate both? And what might that look like?

And does affirming someone’s identity need to negate a thorough assessment? Surely if we do not affirm someone’s identity (e.g., use their preferred pronouns, not assume they are heterosexual etc.) we risk not engaging them in the assessment process in the first place! For me personally, affirming is an important step in moving away from the traumatic history (and indeed present-day context) of LGBT+ folk. However, as indicated in the guidelines, thorough assessment prior to the endorsement of medical interventions does not withstand this. I write this as an urgent plea to hear each other. Start with your own reactions and responses and open up and listen to your colleagues. Let's do this before pulling down guidelines that are functioning to keep a community of LGBT+ folk safe and able to sleep at night.

Dr Charlotte Whiteley
Chartered Psychologist
[email protected]

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