"Does this mean I'm really a lesbian?" the woman whispered in a cracked voice. She looked around nervously, afraid that someone would hear, or worse yet, confirm the ominous truth that lay naked in her question.
Ironically, many of us heard her. She had just revealed her deepest fear and curiosity to 200 people who had gathered for a seminar on group work, diversity issues, and conflict resolution. This afternoon we were focusing on homosexuality and homophobia.
Olga was a woman in her late thirties from Germany. She was married and had several children. She had traveled alone from Germany to the seminar. I don't know what moved her to speak; after tumultuous conflict the group had come to a point where individuals were addressing the personal aspects of their own homophobia. This was the first time she had spoken in the large group.
I studied her carefully, her desperation and panic, her confusion and need to know what her sexual fantasies and fleeting feelings for other women meant. Suddenly I was propelled back in time, remembering myself at age twenty. I was in a relationship with a man I loved when I began having those same fleeting attractions to women. I too, wondered what they meant. In my attempt to understand something "forbidden" which would destroy my cozy heterosexual picture of reality, I, too, approached these feelings analytically. I searched for reasons and tried to put my feelings in some perspective from the world that I knew. The world around me deemed such feelings as abnormal and until I went to college I knew no one who was gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Cultural Differences Are Not Pathological
Cultural difference is often equated with pathology. Experiences outside the norm are usually not greeted with discovery and wonder, but with disdain and fear. These visceral and subjective feeling reactions constitute the emotional basis of pathological thinking. Unable to explore and celebrate difference, we quickly condemn it, hoping we can isolate and restrain it, fearing it might spread.
Pathological thinking compels us to wonder what our feelings mean. Without it, we are fluid feeling beings. When we are happy we don't usually question why. We enjoy it. When a man and a woman are attracted to each other, they don't wonder if they are really heterosexual, nor do they question the meaning of their sexual feelings.
When we wonder about the meaning of our feelings and attractions, we are saying that they do not fit into our known range of experience. We examine ourselves, trying to conceptualize how our experiences might fit into our known worlds. If we conclude that they don't belong, how do we evaluate them? Without support or role models, it is all too easy to either deny experience or pathologize ourselves. These are the seeds of internalized homophobia, sexism, racism, and so forth. We begin to hate our inner lives and to view ourselves through the same lens as homogeneous culture that disavows and denounces difference.
Homosexuality Is Not Pathological
When I was twenty, my interest in personal growth, coupled with the negative climate around homosexuality, led me to conclude that I was going through a phase and I would eventually grow out of it. My psychological observations, confirmed readily in my environment, compelled me to see my experiences as pathological. After all, describing love as a "phase" does not exactly encourage relationship; rather it is a psychologically sophisticated means of minimizing experience. Inadvertently, my strong drive for self discovery was used against me as I strove to understand fragile feelings in a pathological framework. I had little awareness of the subtle self-hatred that such thinking fosters.
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In my early twenties I was looking for support and role models. I was studying psychology in Switzerland with a small learning community. I looked up to a group of women about ten years older than I, and I was shy and nervous about how my female lover and I would be received by this group. I felt like an oddity; a freak with problems, yet an exotic curiosity.
These women were all married to men, yet a strong bond electrified the atmosphere between them. They taunted and teased each other, flirting with the background sexuality between them. As they shared their dreams and feelings about each other with me, I began to feel less like an outsider. I felt their fascination with my relationship and welcomed it naively as an interest in me.
Many times I heard these women say, "I do have dreams and feelings about sleeping with women, but I don't have to act on them." I questioned myself, "Why do I have to act on my feelings? Maybe one day I will learn more about myself and I won't have to act on them either." Being young, trusting and desperate, I didn't realize the subtle condescension or perceive the elusive exploitation. I didn't question those whom I was looking up to, but doubted myself.
I don't think those women were intentionally malicious, just terribly unconscious. They didn't realize how they flirted with their own homosexuality through my experiences. They didn't see how their declaration to not act on their sexual impulses inadvertently pathologized my own.
Sex-Bashing and Anti-Gay Rights
These generally open-minded women, interested in the diversity of human experience, represent a large portion of the mainstream. This "liberal" section of society votes in favor of human rights legislation and against the strong tide of anti-gay rights bills presently sweeping the United States. This liberal voice says that everyone is equal and should have the right to pursue their own happiness freely. However, this same voice is uncomfortable when its own sexuality stirs in the direction of someone of the same gender. It wonders "why," and the analytical process begins, reducing experience to pathology or insignificance. This is the root of how we begin to pathologize difference. When we marginalize aspects of our own sexuality, we unconsciously oppress parts of ourselves and others. We enforce the dominant social belief that says homosexuality is an inferior experience.
Marginalizing and categorizing our own sexuality inadvertently creates an open playing field for the introduction of anti-gay rhetoric and legislation. If gay-bashing happens intra-psychically, how could it not occur outwardly? Any time we put down experience without openly exploring it, we bash ourselves. And when we put down experience in ourselves, we help sustain norms that subtly or not so subtly stigmatize behavior. The stigma of abnormality will remain glued to homosexuality until we are able to fluidly explore sexuality.
The political far right knows this, and therefore claims that there is a massive gay movement trying to recruit our children. These paranoid rantings strike fear in the heart of the mainstream. However, the far right does accurately see that gay and bisexual relationships are becoming more public. The growing exposure of various relationship possibilities is beginning to create an encouraging climate, in which both adolescents and adults can explore their sexual selves. This is the larger threat: normalization. Active recruiting of children or anyone can be quickly silenced, disregarded as extreme or fanatic. However, lifting the stigma of abnormality would foster inner freedom and create an environment where a variety of relationships and lifestyles co-exist without external condemnation.
Relationship Is Not a Multiple Choice Test
Was Adrianne really a lesbian? This was one of the sub-themes in the 1995/96 season on NYPD Blue, a popular U.S. weekly television drama series. Adrianne's male co-detective had been coming on to her, so she declared herself a lesbian. For a couple of weeks this explained to the national television audience and the TV characters why Adrianne was not responding to Detective Martinez's advances. It also made for juicy gossip at the 15th precinct and elicited the usual displays of cruelty and homophobia.
Just as everyone was wondering who Adrianne's female lover was, she dropped a bombshell. No, she didn't think she was really a lesbian; she only said it because she couldn't turn Martinez down. In fact, she then revealed that because all of her relationships with men had been awful, she was considering that she might be a lesbian. The story line for this mainstream television drama continued predictably when Adrianne trusted Martinez and they began an intimate relationship.
ABC network television thought it was on the edge with its introduction of a "gay" theme. However, there was nothing new or revolutionary presented here; just the same old mainstream thinking where homosexual love emerges as a pathological substitute. If ABC had shown Adrianne's desires and her struggle in having intimate feelings for women within a culture that evaluates these feelings as pathological, that would have been radical and deep. But there was not a hint of Adrianne's feelings or sexual desires. Her idea about being a lesbian had nothing to do with her inner feeling, but was a rational deduction based on "her" failure in relationships with men.
The desire to be sexual with someone of the same gender is not a substitute experience. Having bad relationships has to do with relating, not with gender. Being attracted to someone has to do with feeling and chemistry, not with appraisals and calculations. Attractions are not surrogates, and relationship is not a multiple-choice test.
by Dawn Menken, Ph.D.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, New Falcon Publications. ©2001. http://www.newfalcon.com
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About the Author
Dawn Menken, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist, group facilitator, teacher and writer. She has studied and taught process work for over twenty years and is a founding member of process work centers in Zurich, Switzerland and Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.