This quarter, as I continue working towards my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, I am taking a course on counseling the LGBTQ population. Here is the course description as it appears in the syllabus: This course provides an overview of clinical issues, contemporary theories, interventions, and research relevant to the treatment of sexual minorities. This population includes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender clients, as well as those clients who identify as other than heterosexual (e.g. Queer, Pansexual, Omnisexual, etc.), or are questioning their sexual orientation or gender in any way. Psychological, social, cultural, and developmental issues are explored within the contexts of theory and practice. Emphasis is on affirmative mental health services for sexual minorities, including the importance of developing an awareness of the cultural, historical, and social realities of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. Readings, discussion, videos, presentations, experiential activities, and guest lectures/panels will serve to heighten awareness of problems such as homophobia and heterosexism as they affect the therapeutic setting, the counseling relationship, and the process of psychotherapy.
Students have to pair up to lead class discussion each week, so I signed up for week two (last week), which was to cover Lesbian Identity. I wanted to be done with the assignment early on in the quarter, AND who better to lead the discussion on Lesbian Identity than an actual lesbian?
Imagine my dismay when I realized the articles we’d been assigned to read were all sadly out of date. Two were at least ten years old, and the third, a study done on 15 lesbians who lived in the UK, looked at clothing and hairstyle choices and how they correlated to coming out, data that hardly seemed relevant for a counselor in training in the Pacific Northwest.
The findings certainly didn’t match up at all with my own experience. Coming out for me had nothing to do with how I dressed—I started shopping in the boys’ department when I was a child. Ask my mom. My short haircut has nothing to do with being a lesbian and everything to do with being lazy. And the fact that I look hideous in long hair. Never mind that all the women in Bellingham—lesbian, straight, queer, bisexual—look and dress alike. There’s a uniform: fleece, jeans, hiking shoes, short hair. We all look the same, a confounding and complicating fact of life for the women (and men!) who reside here.
So, armed with my indignation and determined to find more useful data, I put out a call to my Facebook friends. Would any of them give me permission to use their pictures and their sexual identities for a Lesbian Identity Quiz? The responses overwhelmed and heartened me. Assent and identities flooded my inbox. My friends—lesbians, straight women, bisexual women, queer women, were all intrigued and excited about this project. I began creating a PowerPoint slide show, the most stunning one I have ever made, full of my friends’ bright, shining, and beautiful faces.
And it wasn’t just about the pictures. Women sent me stories too, about their sexual orientations, their choices, their gender identities. Intimate stories. I had been gifted with very personal revelations. My excitement for the project grew as I realized I had tapped into something elemental here. Don’t we all want to be seen? Don’t we all want to know how others see us?
The enthusiasm for this project caught me a bit off guard. I heard from some Facebook friends I hardly know, from others I hadn’t heard from in years, from some I have never even spoken to in person. A few I had been close to once upon a time. And a handful with whom I have just a nodding acquaintance. The eagerness surprised me, heartened me.
A couple of people sent me specific pictures, but the rest told me to use whatever I wanted from their Facebook photos. I set about culling just the right pictures from dozens of Facebook feeds. Some were easy to find, others not so much. Many pictures were taken with significant others: wives, husbands, lovers, kids. I needed clear, easy to see photos that wouldn’t reveal anyone’s identity in an obvious manner, i.e. no wedding or family pics.
I didn’t want to bias the results via the pictures I chose, but I faced a dilemma: what picture actually best represents someone? Given the opportunity to choose a picture of a straight woman in a dress or a cowboy hat, which would I opt for? Or, my friend who has a biracial baby—what message would it send if I included a photo of her holding her child? For my lesbian friends, would I choose photos of them that emphasized their more masculine traits or their more feminine sides? I have to say in retrospect that my choices probably skewed the results.
I set up the slideshow with six pictures per slide, and when I clicked the mouse, the pictures disappeared one at a time, revealing each woman’s sexual identity (lesbian, bisexual, queer femme, or straight). I printed slideshow handouts to give to each class member, so they could write their best guesses next to each picture. I looked at my work and was proud. This was going to be a kickass class discussion and presentation. I could hardly wait.
Imagine my surprise then, when I introduced the quiz in class and the instructor immediately objected. “Wait a minute,” she said. “Is everyone comfortable judging other people like this? I’m not sure this is okay.”
I stood there, stunned, and wondered for a moment if I had made a serious error in judgment. I explained that I had everyone’s permission, that each participant hadn’t just agreed but had enthusiastically and wholeheartedly opted in. My classmates rallied to my defense, shutting down the instructor’s objections in short order. I passed around the handouts and fired up the slide show.
When they had finished the quiz, I went through the slide show quickly so they could compare their answers. I didn’t linger over individual identities, nor did we discuss anyone’s picture or what made someone look like a lesbian or a straight woman. Instead we talked about what it was like to judge people based on appearance. One female student said she refused to make any judgments about the individuals, saying they all looked like beautiful women to her. The instructor refused to take the quiz, as well. But she also refuses to label herself. Honestly, I have to say I have some judgments about that.
We discussed the safety of being identifiable, the politics of passing for straight. I (being the only self-identified lesbian in the room) talked about the changes in the past ten or fifteen years. How I used to feel like no one would know I was a lesbian because gays and lesbians weren’t part of the social or political discourse. Now, I feel like I’m always identified, categorized, and labeled. The discussion meandered from there, eventually covering a variety of topics, but one that we kept bumping up against and then turning away from, how to meet this population in our counseling offices.
And there’s the lesson—or should have been. How will we counsel lesbians when they come to us? What will we know about Lesbian Identity? Is it important that we know how a dozen or so UK lesbians changed the way they dressed when they came out? Or better that we know it’s nearly impossible to identify someone by the way they look? That 50% of the time we can tell a straight woman from a lesbian? That hardly anyone will know a queer femme when they see one, and more often than not bisexuals are invisible?
My tiny experiment revealed that, in this instance at least, we are right about our assumptions approximately 50% of the time regarding sexual orientation. I’m sure there are many more ways I can exploit the data for better/more interesting information, and I have my more mathematically inclined friends working on that for me. I’ll publish those results when I get them. In the meantime, here is what I have.
What are your thoughts, Readers?