Help make better counsellors

This is a plea to all readers of this post (counsellors, potential counsellors, clients and potential clients, everyone) to help make us trainees into better counsellors. How? By simply signing a petition. This post will explain why I think it’s important from my own point of view.

If you look to move on from this, ask yourself why. Why doesn’t it matter enough to take a couple of minutes to sign and do some good? I realise that’s confrontational, but I think it’s important to examine. Feel free to leave me a comment with your point of view :)

Changes in acknowledging diversity

Diversity word cloud

This month is LGBT history month. A month where we (all) celebrate LGBTness in a variety of ways. There have been films, talks, discussions, debates, all kinds. Also this month, the winter Olympics are being held in Sochi, a place where it’s exceedingly difficult to be LGBT (those human rights issues are explored much better in other places). But even in the rest of the world, athletes who happen to identify as LGBT are the target for homophobia on twitter. Also in the news this month is the Huffington Post’s article on homophobia in universities. I’ve seen some – ‘less than parliamentary’ responses to lgbt history month myself this month, from ‘just your average person’.

And so my preamble brings me closer to my point. I’m a trainee therapist. That’s what this blog is all about. And one of the things we haven’t had so far in our training is any specific training on diversity (and this seems to be repeated across many institutions – it’s certainly not just a problem where I am training). We have had a day on disability run by someone with a disability, which was excellent, and really served to uncover some of the thoughts, feelings and doubts we had about disability – many of my cohort not feeling we had had much contact with individuals with disabilities. It opened our eyes.

But for sexuality and race? Well, I exist within the class, as a queer (white) person, and there are also a couple of people of colour within the class. And this has so far been where our teaching happens. I have more than once been asked to answer in depth questions on gender and sexuality, and I see my POC classmates being asked to educate on race. I also see the microaggressions that happen. For me personally, I’ve heard (not about me) ‘she was bisexual, but she’s chosen to be straight now’ (in fact, on checking, the person in question had felt no such change in their identity and was simply dating someone of the opposite sex’. I’ve heard (addressed to me) ‘why do you want to work with those [queer] people?’.

In my day to day life, I often hear from people ‘your friend’, when the person with me is clearly my partner. My partner is misgendered when with me, because I am more clearly ‘female’ on first glance (long hair) than she (short hair). I have been asked just last month by three people at the same company if I had a husband, and no note was made after the first time, that I had a female partner. The third time I was asked, I got cross and explained it wasn’t appropriate and was told that the man asking the question hadn’t done anything wrong and I had no right to be cross (needless to say, we didn’t buy from them).

THESE THINGS ARE EASY TO DO if you don’t know they’re a problem. And the thing is – it might be something that you only need to be told once in order not to do it. But how many times do you think I’ve heard similar things from people? Countless. There’s one of me, and a lot of people ‘not me’ who are just making ‘one mistake’. It gets wearing.

As far as class, I don’t mind being an educator, but I’m not an expert on sexuality. It interests me as a topic and so I study it, but still, my experience of being queer is very different to someone else’s, and I have no firsthand lived experience of trans* issues, but as the only person who has any experience (it feels), I am reduced to being The Educator. I’d feel a lot better about sharing my experiences and in pointing out where people were going wrong, if I wasn’t the only point of reference my classmates had.

The alternative is that my classmates (and potentially all classes with no queer people in) go out in to the therapy world with no understanding of what it’s like to be queer, and no understanding of the things that they are saying that might be harmful. The same very much goes for race and disability and other diversities.

And although I do take to heart that my classmates want to learn and ask questions, I worry that if it wasn’t for people who were willing to out themselves AND to educate (or just to educate if their diversity is ‘apparent’) then we as students risk going out in to the world of therapy and making those mistakes without even seeing that we are doing them.

For example. As a queer person, if someone says to me ‘my partner’ and doesn’t gender their partner, that’s immediately a small flag of ‘their partner may be the same sex, or the opposite, or not identify in the binary’. It’s very easy as a straight person (I’ve seen many people do it – often to me) to just assume that that’s another way of saying ‘my opposite sex partner’ and proceed on that basis, thus forcing someone in to the closet. This is *not* what we want to be doing to our clients. We don’t want to silence them, we don’t want to layer assumptions on to them. We don’t want to have created a secret within them, or made them feel in any way inferior – because if you assume heterosexuality is the norm, you ‘other’ your client. The feeling then becomes a feeling of ‘less’ness – otherwise wouldn’t queerness be on the same level?

I’ve spoken here mostly about sexuality because that is the identity I am most comfortable with exploring – the only one within the petition that I have personal experience of. I get some similar types of comments on disability. I have for example, said to my counsellor ‘I’m having a bad day’ and got the response ‘but you look well’. That counsellor is no longer my counsellor, for reasons that include having heard that comment said on a few occasions. I recently had to explain to my last counsellor what ‘gender binary’ was, which again ‘othered’ me.

It’s not enough to think that as person-centred trainees and counsellors that we embody Rogers’ 6 conditions and all will be well – if we are not educated on a topic and we don’t know it, we risk causing offence.

For example – how many people reading this know what ‘cisgender‘ means? Most people reading this WILL be cis (hi to all of you who aren’t! :)). It’s a term heard in LGBT circles and widely discussed within feminism, but it’s entirely possible you won’t heard of it if you’re not active in those circles. Doesn’t sound like a big thing? It’s not. But if your client says they’re cis (or not) and you KNOW that word, your client feels heard on a deeper level than if they have to stop and explain to you what it means.

For all the reasons above (and apologies for the length of the post – I’ve been thinking this over for a while), please sign this petition, which arose from the PCSR‘s ‘taboo conference‘ to help make a better change for generations of counsellors and most importantly, *clients*, to come.

For anyone who wants a good book on sexuality and gender, I recently starting reading Christina Richard’s and Meg Barker’s new book Sexuality and gender for health professionals and it’s excellent. It gives a chapter by chapter look at each of the most common terms (and then a more detailed breakdown) across sexuality, gender, and relationship structures. It’s easy to read and provides useful information whether it’s your first time looking at some of this or whether you’ve done previous research.

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2 thoughts on “Help make better counsellors

  1. Hi, am just off to sign the petition. As a client, this is not something I considered (though my T is LGBT aware and has/does training in it since she also works within sexual violence).

    As a [probably asexual] person, it rarely if ever occurs to me to ask regarding the gender of a `partner`, but as I say, am on the other side of the couch, regarding therapy, but it does make me wonder if Ive been inadvertently pushing people into the closet, which has never been my intention…just never think it`s any of my business to ask. Am pretty gender/sexuality blind (if that’s an actual term), but reading your post has really made me/we think, so thank you for putting it out there.

    x

  2. manyofus1980 says:

    We too are off to sign it. Great post. Thank you for it. As a person who identifies as lesbian, I really really think this is so important. XX

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