Friday, July 14, 2006

Coming Out as a Lesbian to Straight Clients

When you are a lesbian therapist, the decision about whether to come out or not in the context of a therapeutic relationship is a complicated one, not just in terms of sexual and political orientation, but also because of the larger processing of the ins and outs of when, how and if a therapist should self-disclose personal information.

Coming out happens in the space between me and another person. Coming out is a psychosocial practice. But coming out is also an intra-psychic process, a process that is often fraught with ambivalence. Coming out to new friends and acquaintances involves the pondering of many questions and complicated ideas. Each time I say that I am a lesbian I want to show myself to a person and I want to hide from them simultaneously. It’s not just about telling somebody that I make love with women. It’s about making one decision that creates the possibility for a thousand others. Shall I tell you that I’m a lesbian or shall I not? If I tell you, what will the consequences of that decision be? How much of my time and energy will be taken up by the ramifications of that decision? If I don’t tell you, what will I do with the questions about my personal life? How do I explain my relationship with my partner, the fact that we have the same last name? I wear wedding rings, but I’m not married to a man. What questions will I have to field? Is it worse if there are no questions and my identity just disappears into a black hole? And what do I do with the invisibility of my essential self? How can I simultaneously hide from you, but not lie to myself?

Furthermore, if this number of questions surface in a relationship between friends and acquaintances, just how many more questions are there to ponder when I consider telling my client of nine months, after her repeated questioning, that I am a lesbian?

I came out as a lesbian in 1978 and I sometimes still fall into the trap of thinking that my coming out is over and done with. Cocooned obliviously in the eye of the storm, I have often allowed myself to believe that there is nothing more to think, feel or process about it. My coming out days are over. Not so. Each time I sit down with a new client, the potential for coming out exists. I have avoided this potential on more than one occasion, and each time I have left the therapy room with a sinking feeling of betrayal, both of myself and of the client.

My presence in the therapy room is critical, not just as a warm body, but as a thinking, breathing human being. As a therapist, my primary focus is to be present for my client. I have to think about what effect my self-disclosure will have on my client – who will benefit from the information about my lesbianism? My wish to connect with clients means doing everything in my power to be “with” them therapeutically in all that this suggests. Integrity and authenticity are central concepts for me as a clinician and it feels hard to be these things while hiding myself.

My client’s willingness to share extremely personal, vulnerable details about his or her struggles deserves an honest response from me. Not a response that claims the therapeutic space as mine, but one that involves inviting the client to swell into the space our joint vulnerability creates in the room. Therapy should not be a mystery. A mysterious therapist, silent, benign and enigmatic, is not a role model for a client.

There are as many theories on therapist self-disclosure as there are therapists. So far, what feels true for me is to reveal whatever, in my estimation, is in the service of the client’s move towards growth. There have been times when showing the soft, white underbelly of a particular vulnerability I have worked through in my life has been useful for a client struggling with a relevant issue. At all times, I am conscious that my client may be looking to me for guidance, so my answers should never hinder the process of emergence that my client is going through. I have direct personal experience, from the other side of the couch, as to how powerful personal stories of transformation can be, and I hope that some of my clients will draw strength from knowing that I have been able to overcome obstacles in my life similar to their own struggles, be this an eating disorder (that I struggle with), coming to terms with a shifting lesbian identity (that I have been through), or a or a struggle through depression and out the other side (that I managed to survive). At the point where my experiences touch on their present-day struggle, the possibility of a transformative connection exists. Needless to say, self-disclosure, as a therapist has to contain some measure of self-awareness. If you have never revealed to another person that you are bulimic, it is not timely to share this for the first time with a client who is struggling with the desperation born of a binge and purge cycle.

In working with heterosexual clients, I am stymied thus far by the whole idea of coming out. Do I come out or not come out? I have had sexual relationships and strong affectional relationships with men, despite the fact that I have spent most of my adult life in committed relationships with women. Is it dishonest to speak from this experience, without acknowledging my present identity? As a very “out” lesbian, one of my concerns is that a client will learn that I am a lesbian from another source. Will this information impact clients as a “betrayal?” On the other hand, the fact of my lesbian feminist roots constitute a knowledge base and strength for heterosexual men and women, in that I have an understanding of gender dynamics and inequities, not just for women but also for men.

I have often considered starting to include the word "lesbian" in between "licensed" and "psychotherapist" - but now have to consider the impact this will have on my existing clients, 50% of whom are oblivious to my sexual orientation and just assume that I am heterosexual.

As a lesbian clinician the issues are different with queer clients. But not all lesbians will be comfortable with a lesbian clinician. For example, I cannot assume that somebody struggling with coming out issues would want to be seen in the waiting room of a known and “out” lesbian therapist. On the other hand, I have experientially much to offer as a role-model of a woman’s ability to tackle coming out issues. In working within the gay, lesbian, bisexual community, I have to consider the fact that my community is small, the “who-do-we-know-in-common” conversations could easily impact on trust building in a relationship.

Well, this is a start. I’m relieved to have a place to write about these things and welcome feedback.


Blogger deb said...

I've stumbled across your blog, and I really like it. By way of introduction, my partner and I have known each other since 1975, but we've been together since '93. We have two kids - girls 8 and 10. If you visit my blog you will find an occasional picture or two of them scattered about.


PS: Elizabeth (aka "eb") can be quite annoying, but sweet, too. ;-)

11:12 PM  
Blogger Sapphique said...

Deb, welcome and I'm glad that you like my blog. I will go and check yours out too. I'm also happy to hear about your and your partner's relationship longevity - you must be doing something really, really right! Congratulations...our relationships deserve celebrating!

You gotta love this blogging thing! Welcome and keep coming back!

11:17 PM  

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