QUEER MINDS: LGBT Issues in Psychology and Mental Health

Monday, October 14, 2013
Thinking of Opting Out? Take a Note from Same-Sex Parents
Posted by Margie Nichols, Ph.D.  

clientuploads/mg4.jpgSummer of 2013, The New York Times released a piece by Judith Warner in its Sunday Magazine, entitled “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In,” returning to the women interviewed in Lisa Belkin’s 2003 Times article “The Opt-Out Revolution.”  The women, all of whom had bid farewell to high-power, high-paying jobs to be full-time mothers, had either returned to work or wanted to. Sixty percent had re-entered the work force, and some others were trying unsuccessfully. Not surprisingly, given that Warner’s sample is upper middle class, some had been able to go back rather easily. But others struggled and often settled for a job they did not want or that did not pay well so they could support themselves post-divorce or if their husband had lost his job. Some of the post-article comments focused on the problem of being overworked: none of the women wanted to return to the 50-70 hour work week they left, but there are still few employers who take part-time workers seriously.

As a feminist, this speaks to me. Second wave feminism was never about simply making it in a "man's world". We wanted the entire system to work differently, in a way that was more accommodating of families, a way that was more fair and balanced. Things like better employment opportunities for women, job-sharing, and day care became key focal points because women would need power and money to truly make any changes.

Somehow that all became women "opting out".

As a white-collar, educated professional, I have a privilege and freedom most working women don’t. I also have a different way of looking at things, informed by the fact that I am a queer parent who, together with a female partner, chose to mother and raise a child together. He recently turned 30. My personal and professional lives have always been deeply embedded in the LGBT community, where I’ve raised and shared in the raising of four kids and returned to work very quickly after each of their births or adoptions.

When I was pregnant with my first kid 30 years ago, an older and wiser working mom told me something that has stuck with me ever since: “Never make friends with a stay-at-home mom”.  Now that may sound harsh, but what she meant was that a lot of stay-at-home moms are quick to judge the working ones (especially working moms who could afford to be stay-at-home moms), whether it be in subtle or obvious ways. The upper middle class heterosexually married "opting out" moms portrayed by Lisa Belkin and now Warner are not the financially struggling women who stay home because childcare is too expensive and/or of low quality, but the ones who have a personal choice.  These "opting out" moms often feel they've taken the virtuous route, the one that's best for their children. And their husbands, actually the whole culture when you think about it, agree with them.  

A lot of folks hold the belief that women are "naturally" more suited to parent and that children need and deserve a full-time mother at home with them. Most men and women accept this myth despite decades of research demonstrating that it makes no difference to kids’ well-being whether they are brought up in quality daycare or with a full time parent. Staying home can be some really hard work; not so much for upper middle class women with hired help.

Women who consciously and willingly return to the workforce and rely on child-care assistance are viewed as selfish or at least as less adequate mothers. This post-modern version of the belief in the sanctity of motherhood has morphed into a "women’s choice and freedom" issue.  The practice of "opting out" seems to blend traditional values with more modern notions of egalitarianism. The Opt-Out women feel entitled to choose work or home life while their husbands continue to work, and at the same time they maintain the feminist expectation that Dad share housework and childcare.

Unfortunately, the decision to stay home hasn't panned out as well as people had initially hoped and thought it would. Over time, some women experienced a loss of personal self-confidence and self-esteem, and some began to feel like they genuinely were inferior to their husbands.  For some, problems developed when husbands resented having to share household chores they expected be done by their wives during the day, or resented that they never had the choices that their wives had to incorporate better work-life balance into their lives. It seemed that Opting-Out had as many problems as Leaning In.

So now, same sex parents: how can we queers help the heterosexual family? We can learn a lot from the research on how same sex couples function relative to straight marriages, most aptly summarized in Liza Mundy’s June 2013 Atlantic piece titled The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss.  Gay and lesbian couples with children do it differently than straight ones. First, lesbian households are the most egalitarian, with it being far less likely that one would opt out and the other would continue to work. What usually happens is a compromise, both adjusting their schedules to equally assist in child rearing. Lesbian moms share chores and child care with a greater frequency than all other relationship models, often deciding to "blend" their incomes for the sake of fairness. Observational studies comparing lesbian moms to heterosexual parent pairs show that when interacting with kids together, two women tend to reinforce and support each other's parenting while straight couples often obstruct each other.  Lesbian parents seem to have more inherent respect for each other’s abilities and family decisions. Gay dads lean towards an egalitarian model too, but they tend to "specialize".  Unlike straight couples, gay men fight about who "gets to" work instead of who gets to opt out.

From same sex couples we learn, first, that no individual parent is "entitled" to make unilateral family decisions, like whether or not a parent will stay home to raise their child. Next, the relationship between money and power: how common it is for the bread winner to feel superior and/or the at home parent to feel inferior. For many women, staying at home becomes a dull and thankless duty, especially when housework is a big part of it. There’s a reason gay Dads who "specialize" fight to be the one to go to work – they recognize the inherent boredom in much of the routine of childcare as well as the power that money brings. "Specialized" households are in no way inherently problematic, as long as both parties are satisfied and equal.  And as long as it is done with understanding that though this may the best choice for your particular household, it is not the best choice for all children, and this arrangement is no more inherently structured to raise healthy children than any other quality arrangement. 

One con to the one-parent-at-home model that is rarely brought up: what you could potentially be depriving your child of because of lacking money. Because I’ve worked as hard as I have, my children have been afforded top notch educational resources, special services for their learning disabilities, life-broadening experiences – and they will walk out of college not owing a dime.  I wasn't home with them every minute, but I've been able to provide a lot for them.

So straight couples, some pointers if you're interested.  Women need to consider relinquishing  the sole privilege of choice.  At the same time, men have to give up the sometimes unconscious tendency to dominate their spouses through financial power, using their stay-at-home wife as a "status symbol" or expecting they will be "taken care of" by women.

When both partners are of the same sex, the problem of inherent gender differences just isn't there. So when it comes to parsing out responsibilities it can be a rational decision, based on who's good at what or who likes certain things instead of dated gender stereotypes. A belief in equal worth in gay relationships gets rid of a major source of relationship strife.  Gay couples interact with each other better, as a unit, than heterosexual couples when co-parenting, because the teamwork is there in the relationship in general.  Seems like that's what's better for children, to see happy, cooperative parents and not discord?  And getting a uniform message from both their parents?

Another thing same sex parents are doing right? They usually remain friends with ex-partners. I have seen bad divorces in gay families and the LGBT community, like any community, certainly has unstable and immature people who would rather get revenge on an old partner than do what's best for their child.  But queer life has long normalized and embraced friendships among exes. It is the norm rather than the exception, so new partners rarely bat an eye.  When children are involved, this means that children do not experience being torn between fighting parents.  The transition to blended families and step-parents is made simpler, resulting in a rich, extended support system for the child.

Straight folks have to give up the fiction that stay-at-home moms are better for children.  That assumption may seem to privilege women with choice, but once assumed, it chains women to domesticity. Feminists dating back to 50 years ago were aware of the problems with the pedestal of motherhood, and some heterosexual women are learning it again in the 21st century.  Heterosexuals have to stop pretending they are engaging in work/homelife specialization because it is for the good of the children.  It’s a choice – like all parenting decisions – based partly on self-interest. 

There is nothing radical about opting out of the work world to be a full time mother. What will be more radical is if heterosexual men and women are inspired by the egalitarian nature of same sex relationships to fully share decisions about who does what with housework, childcare and working. Only if both men and women, gay and straight, are involved in a cultural push for a more ethical work world, do we have a chance of radically changing a culture that makes work/life balance next to impossible.  Now THAT will be a movement.

Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Parenting A Child That Is Different
Posted by Margie Nichols  

clientuploads/1-1.jpgWhat does it mean to parent a child who is 'different?' Well, one thing we know through research is that these kids can be protected from the negative effects of a close-minded world through the efforts of the people who raise them. There have been articles in the past about parents refusing to conform to gender stereotypes in raising their children, allowing their children space to be who they are while being realistic about what a child might encounter in the world if they do not conform. It struck me that my partner Nancy and I used the same strategy raising our son, born in 1983. clientuploads/2-1.jpg

The beginning of ‘turkey baster babies,’
or, children conceived through donor insemination (often self-insemination, hence the name) to lesbian couples.  It represented a bold and significant move for gay women.  Lesbians raising kids wasn't new, but the children were typically born into the heterosexual marriage that numerous women had been a part of before publicly identifying as lesbians  The ‘lesbians choosing motherhood’ movement, as it was called in the early ‘80’s, was a means to show that gay people were completely capable of raising a child together from day one.

So one of the first issues confronting me and Nancy was – what would our son call us?
In our suburban neighborhood, the few kids with two moms called one ‘Mom’ and the other ‘my Aunt’ or ‘my Mom’s friend.’  We weren't comfortable having our son view one of us as less of a parent than the other, something we felt the mom/aunt distinction would do. So we moved to a gentrifying neighborhood in Jersey City to be surrounded by other gay people but also by liberal allies.  We  pursued child care and schools clientuploads/3.jpgthat were progressive, surrounded ourselves with queer-friendly families, and arranged play dates with kids whose parents we knew and trusted.

And it turned out fine for us – and for our son. He didn't really have to directly face homophobia until his teens, and by then he'd learn to see homophobes as dangerous, wrong, and, frankly, a little crazy. I learned a lesson that the parents of many children already know – say, the parents of a Jewish kid in a Christian community, a black kid in a mostly white area, the parents of a disabled child in a world ignorant and fearful of disability.  It’s a nuanceclientuploads/4.jpgd, complicated balancing act:  if you can, you of course want to shield your child from ignorant or bigoted people and have their life and their family life validated. On the other hand, you need to prepare the kid for all the haters in the world.

But the thing is, if a child is older when they face the haters – teens or twenties, let’s say- their egos and self-esteem have already been formed. They are able to see the bigots clearly as they are, without being ashamed of themselves  Growing up self-love instead of shame? What better gift could a parent give their child?

Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.

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Monday, May 6, 2013
Is The Queer Community "Recruiting" Kids?
Posted by Margie Nichols  

clientuploads/gayrecruit.jpgThe Gallup organization recently released some interesting survey findings.   They questioned 120,000 people, asking: ‘Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?’  Never before have this many Americans (120,000 to be exact) been polled about their sexual orientation (by comparison, the highly regarded NORC survey done by University of Chicago asked 2,000 people).

Gallup's findings are fascinating, and disrupt some of the common stereotypical assumptions about the LGBTQ community.  3.4% answered ‘yes,’  92.2% answered ‘no,’ and 4.4% said they didn’t know, or refused to answer. It’s crucial to note that the 3.4% represent people who are willing to publicly declare their queerness to a pollster, and that this number is  far smaller than:
The amount of people who identify this way but won’t declare it, which in turn is less than
The amount of people who live an LGBT life but don’t self-identify as such, which is less than
The amount of people who experience LGBT attractions and inclinations but never act on them
Basically, a rather significant minority of people are at least a little bit ‘queer,’ and 3.4% probably under-represents the actual queer community.clientuploads/youngqueerproud.jpg
What these stats do reveal is a dramatic difference by AGE and, to some extent, gender. 6.4% of 18 to 29 year olds identified as LGBT, compared to 1.9% of those 65 or older. And a whopping 8.3% of 18-29 year old women identified as queer. 
So, something is clearly going on here.  Either people stop being queer with age or there are obvious differences among generations.  No surprise here: as queer people are embraced more and more by mainstream society, more people feel safe to self-identify as queer.

So, we’re recruiting the young? Not so much. More accurately, our culture is starting to real provide a space for LGBT people to live authentic, public lives.  If the number of LGBTQ-identified people increases, as it sure is likely to do, it will not be the result of indoctrination.  What it would actually indicate is the number of LGBTQ people not openly identifying as such.

Other findings from the poll defy many previous survey findings about this topic.  Gallup found the rates of LGBT identification to be higher in less educated, lower income, and minority respondents, whereas older studies always revealed the opposite.  It’s intriguing to wonder why, and I hope to write an article on that in the near future.  The rates of motherhood among lesbian and heterosexual women are now identical, another statistic probably attributable to increasing social acceptance.

It's the generational number that have me excited, though.  I have a vague feeling of a revolution on the rise, a cultural revolution of gender and sexuality that is starting as a wave of queer young people, led by women, and will eventually transform the way we look at these dimensions now.

 Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013
What is GSD: Going Beyond Our Current Queer Acronym
Posted by Margie Nichols  

 In the beginning of 2013, the Pink Therapy group in the UK made headlines by saying ‘GSD’ – Gender and Sexual Diversities – should be the new umbrella term for a community that seems to add letters even while they're sleeping. All joking aside, though, I’ve seen: LGBTQQIAA- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, allies. On top of that, many other groups -  nonmonogamouclientuploads/1.jpgs people, kinky people, those who identify as pansexual, for example-  aren’t included in that tricky and ever evolving acronym.

Excited about this new possibility, I researched 'GSD' and found that the term is already in use in some academic and educational circles here in the U.S.  Pink Therapy is highlighting a growing cultural shift, one that I am personally quite excited for and feel was a long time coming.  Because this isn’t just a new alphabet soup, adding more and more letters trying to make finer grain distinction after finer grain distinction. This is a rather different paradigm, a reversal of a pattern that prevails in all areas from identity politics to scientific discourse in talking about sex and gender, moving towards a broader, more inclusionary descriptive method.

They say in scientific thinking there are ‘splitters’ and ‘lumpers; ’different issues at different times require both approaches. LGBT activism began in the 1970's with organizations that only used 'gay' in their titles, like the National Gay Task Force. Then lesbians argued that 'lumping' them with gay men made them invisible, and that started the trend of adding letters to distinguish the different groups who wanted to be included under the 'big tent.'  This all seemed logical, politically.  But, over time, researchers as well as the culture at large started to act as though each letter in the acronym stood for a distinctly different group.  And this has led to some  problems, mainly conflating identity politics with reality. This is a time for us to be ‘lumping’ together people who are outliers, minorities, nonconformers in their gender expression/ identity and/or their sexual expression/identity. This group of people includes those with same sex attractions, or both/pan gender attractions; it includes the whole spectrum of TGNC (transgender and gender nonconforming) people; but it also includes kinky, nonmonogamous, asexual, queer, refuse-to-label-myself people as well.

Here’s why we should all switch to GSD immediately:

It’s simple! Just say it a couple times to yourself.clientuploads/2.jpg It’s inclusive. Sure, some of us don't like inclusivity but here, I think it's good. It’s a political asset. Strength in numbers. (And yes, I know the arguments against including people who are stigmatized even more than you.  It's the reason why drag queens and other gender benders were excluded from gay politics for a long time. I disagree with the 'Virtually Normal' argument.) It encourages us to find our commonalities. And believe me, as a queer shrink for 30+ years – we have SO much in common. It pushes us to work with one another. Good karma, good communities – good politics, too. THERE IS A LOT OF OVERLAP AMONG THESE COMMUNITIES ANYWAY. Especially among gay men/nonmonogam/bisexual/kinky folk. Which leads me to my last and not insignificant reason: IT IS VERY LIKELY SCIENTIFICALLY MORE CORRECT. Or at least it functions as a BETTER paradigm for scientific research than the one we are using now.

The field of sex therapy and research is profoundly marked by a pathology model, a medical/psychiatric model that leans toward marking all ‘outliers’ as indicators of disease. And it is a ‘splitting’ model: each new version of the DSM involves disagreements about adding new categories of sexual anomaly/pathology. This time around, in the preparation of DSM5, there was a group proposing that ‘hebephilia’ be added as a ‘paraphilia’ i.e., sexual perversion. (Hebephilia, if you're unaware, means sexual attraction to teenagers. Perhaps a majority of men would qualify as hebephiles.)

 My thoughts keep circling back to this: maybe our categories are just plain wrong. Different cultures at different times throughout history have ‘sliced up’ the GSD pie in different ways. For example, we like to make crystal clear distinctions between gender and sexual orientation, throughout history more commonly the two have been conflated: ‘Invert’ was the nineteenth century term for homosexual. We believe gender and the gender to which one is attracted to be the two most significant elements of sexuality. What if there are others we are missing completely, such as reasons (maybe biological ones) why the kink, nonmonogamy, and LGBT communities overlap so much?  More intriguing examples:  young people are replacing 'bisexual' with 'pansexual,' and it is true that there is a huge overlap between the bisexual, kink, transgender,  and open relationship communities.  What if we aren't acknowledging an crucial dimension of human sexuality like a general openness to a plethora of sex and gender expressions? Yet another example: we've seen a growing phenomenon of previously lesbian identified trans men who become attracted to gay men after transition.  What if 'same-sex' orientation is exactly that - attraction to others of the same gender as you?

What if we're just clueless? What if, as I'm inclined to think, our understanding of sex/gender variation is in its infancy? If there is a chance that is true – then the lens we need to use must be broad and inclusive. For now, GSD – Gender and Sexual Diversities – is the best paradigm we can use.

Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Lessons Learned From Queer Couples
Posted by Margie Nichols  

At this point, John Gottman’s research from a few years ago comparing gay and straight couples is pretty well known. Gottman, a well- respected psychologist and researcher, conducted a study of gay relationships, basically showing that (most) same and mixed sex couples displayed like levels of relationship satisfaction, similar problems, and dealt with relationship highs and lows in the same ways.  The study highlighted some differences, as well: same sex couples were more optimistic when faced with conflict, more often utilized affection and humor during disagreements, and employed fewer hostile and controlling emotional tactics. Those are not minor findings!
This all seems to be people's main focus when it comes to the Gottman study, which is a shame. If you look carefully, there’s way more to analyze and discuss, something I intend to do in this piece, also adding observations of my own.clientuploads/M1.jpg                         
 In addition to the above widely reported findings, Gottman also found that “gay and lesbian partners displayed less belligerence, domineering, and fear tactics with each other than straight couples do……fairness and power-sharing between the partners is more important and more common in gay and lesbian relationships than in straight ones.”

That is incredibly powerful!  What might have resulted in these findings?  For starters, same sex couples benefit from automatic gender equality between the two partners and similarity of bodies and acculturation.   For gay/lesbian couples, the two partners, whether they were socialized through male or female norms and expectations, were presented  the same messages about gender.  Neither would be likely to make the assumption that they ‘ought’ to be dominant or submissive to their partner. In short, traditional sexist roles do not exist in same sex relationships.  Gottman’s finding suggests that differently gendered partners might still be struggling with effects of living in a patriarchal society.

Obviously same sex partners still have power struggles sometimes. Obviously some of these relationships are not founded in equality.  But they're not starting from the place of an ‘automatic’ power differential, something inherent in differently gendered couples. No one believes he should be in charge of the relationships or that her role is to submit.  No one who feels that housework is her responsibility, even if she works, and no one who doesn’t even concern themselves with daily household chores. clientuploads/M2.jpgFurther more, in same gender couples, no one automatically assumes it's their job to stay home and raise the couple's children, and nobody who thinks they're basically not responsible for any of the childcare.  On top of that, there's also no partner who simply assumes she is entitled to be a stay at home parent, and no spouse who then feels he must shoulder his family's financial burden solo. To my knowledge, neither Gottman nor anyone else has connected his findings to traditional gender roles in relationships. The belligerence, domineering, and fear tactics could certainly indicate a dissatisfaction with partnerships that don’t ‘value fairness and power-sharing.’  Is it possible that these roles PRODUCE the unhealthy couple interactions?  I think it would be of great merit to investigate this.

Gottman also detailed differences between male/male and female/female couples,differences that reveal something to us about gender, as well.  Lesbians were more emotionally expressive with both positive and negative emotions, not entirely surprising based on our understanding of stereotypical behavior from women.  More surprising, though, was the finding that gay men whose were attacked by partners during a time of conflict showed greater difficulty recovering from the negatives, and ‘repair’ attempts were stymied.  Gottman suggests that gay men may need ‘extra help’ to offset this negativity – is this perhaps because in mixed gender relationships the woman plays a larger role in repair than the man, making it less necessary for her mate to recover quickly? This is worth investigating; it has implications for couples therapy, among other things. Gottman’s research, interesting and significant, only scratches the surface of the differences between couples, differences from which we can learn a great deal. For example, 40 to 50% of gay male couples are nonmonogamous, and open relationships are way more common among lesbian and bisexual women than in the heterosexual world.  Kinkiness is way more common among gays and lesbians as well.   It could be that the genetic combinations that predispose one to queerness also predispose towards other forms of variant sexuality. Or it might be that once you break down cultural taboos about one aspect of sex, other taboos become easier to transgress.  If straight folks follow the lead of gay people, those who are repressing their sexual desires might develop the courage to be more honest with themselves and partners. That could result in fewer people cheating and fewer doomed to sexual incompatibility within their relationships.

Gottman is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to difference.  Gay men and lesbians tend to be rather different from each other when it comes to sex. They ‘do’ sex differently (and not just in the obvious ways), which could reveal information about male-female sexual differences.  LGB folks tend to stay friends with their ‘exes’ much more frequently than straight people, even when there are no children involved, something that could significantly lend to building and/or maintaining a healthy family unit after a break up.

The list is long, too long to do justice to in one blog post.  Here’s hoping other researchers follow Gottman’s lead.  For myself, this is a topic I’ll be blogging about frequently in the future.

Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.

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Monday, April 1, 2013
The Growth Of Trans Visibility
Posted by Margie Nichols  

clientuploads/fgender.pngLots of folks are puzzled and surprised by what appears to be a sudden explosion of people who identify as transgender, genderqueer, gender fluid, or something else that is not traditionally ‘male’ or ‘female.’ Even for LGB individuals, this all seems to have happened in the blink of an eye. So let’s look at exactly just what has been happening here.

Looking back at the 70’s and 80’s, standard belief was that sexual orientation and gender identity were completely unrelated things. The gender binary (the idea that there are two distinct and biologically determined sexes aka male and female) was unquestioned. ‘Transsexuals,’ what trans folks were referred to, were nature’s mistakes, a female brain trapped in a male body, and female to male transsexuals were thought to be rare. ‘MtF’ transsexuals, those individuals assigned male at birth but claiming a female identity, yearned to be perceived as women and to fit into mainstream heterosexual society; many sought to achieve this by ‘going stealth,' which meant keeping their history of being assigned male at birth a secret. They rejected and similarly were rejected by the newly emerging gay community. Simultaneously, the gay male community embraced the male macho ideal, resulting in the marginalization of drag queens and 'sissy men.'  Lesbians were more accepting of ‘dykes’ or ‘butches,’ those who did not fit in with heteronormative female ideals, but remained suspicious of anyone who presented as ‘too’ male. ‘Transsexualism’ and same sex sexual orientation seemed as far apart as one could fathom.

With the 90's, we saw some changes. In the past twenty years, there was a great increase in ‘butch’ lesbians identifying as female to male transsexuals.  Even today, most ‘FtM’s’ go through a period of identifying as gay women before solidly identifying as trans.  Many of these FtM individuals choose to remain within the lesbian community post-transition, something most lesbians have come to accept. Cross-dressers, assigned male at birth, attracted to women, who live part time as women) began to go to another level. Increasingly, some move to a full-time female identification and ‘transition,’ meaning taking feminizing hormones, undergoing gender reassignment surgery, and living as women.  Post-transition, many retain their attraction to women and enter into same-sex relationships. Increasingly they are accepted by and integrated into the lesbian world.  Gay men are having a change of heart as well: some trans men are discovering post-transition that they are attracted to other men, situating themselves within the gay male community.

The addition of the ‘T’ to the LGB acronym has produced an interesting change in the LGBTQ community, something some social scientists call ‘intersectionality.’ A widespread questioning of the gender binary has developed, along with a recognition that sexual orientation and gender identity can’t be neatly separated.  This new outlook is especially prevalent among younger ‘queers,’ many of whom refuse to self-label, or who choose idiosyncratic labels.  Beemyn and Rankin, whose book ‘The Lives of Transgender People’ came out in 2011, found that their subjects chose no fewer than 103 separate, distinct ways to describe themselves, demonstrating a widespread kind of ‘gender blending’ or ‘gender fluidity.' Here's an example: 'I may feel ‘mostly’ female, but some days I’m more  ‘butch,’ and my gender expression and behavior is different at different times.' Another example could be throwing out the concept of gender entirely..

Mainstream culture is shifting too.  Transgender people, aided by the Internet in the 1990’s, formed coalitions and lobbied for recognition, acceptance, and legal change. The transactivist movement has had a good deal of success, resulting in law changes on all levels.  Trans people have become increasingly visible (think Chaz Bono) and this visibility encourages young people to ‘come out.’ At the same time, the children of the Baby Boomers, raised on feminism and ‘Free To Be You and Me,’ have supported a wider range of gender expression in their own children.  Parents who twenty years ago might have taken a little boy who played with dolls to a shrink now just simply buy him the Barbie he desires. And the kids who might have suppressed their gender nonconforming identities until middle age have begun to express them by adolescence.

Are there more transgender people now than thirty years ago?  Maybe. But it could also be that they are just identifying as trans younger and feeling freer to live their inner experiences outwardly.


Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013
What You Need To Know About Transgender And Gender Non-Conforming Youth
Posted by Margie Nichols  

At the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling and psychotherapy firm where I am a practicing therapist and Executive Director, we offer supportive counseling groups for gender variant and transgender youth, as well as their families.  There is a lot of dangerous misinformation circulating about these young people, so we came up with a list of facts that we hope will combat the stereotypes and falsehoods, something that will hopefully enable communities to embrace these young people for who they are.

1. It's Not a Binary, It's a Spectrum.

We're used to thinking of gender as existing in two (possibly three) categories: male, female, maybe transgender. But lots of people, particularly young people, fight against these limited labels because they simply don't fit. Many kids are GENDER NONCONFORMING, GENDER VARIANT, or GENDER ATYPICAL. An example would be a boy who likes wearing dresses. Books like 'Princess Boy' depict the experiences of children like this who defy gender norms.

2. It's 'Minority Stress,' Not Dysphoria

The psychiatric term for what we are calling gender nonconforming/variant/atypical and transgender kids will be called 'Gender Dysphoria' in the new DSM, the 'psychiatric Bible.'
‘Dysphoria’ is therapist lingo for mildly to moderately depressed.
You'd be dysphoric too if, like research on trans and gender non-conforming youth shows, you were the most likely of your peers to be bullied, rejected and/or abused by your parents, and become homeless. Dysphoria is NORMAL in these situations. Dysphoria only becomes a greater problem if the kid is pressured to conform to gender norms or expectations. The worst thing a parent can do – and the worst thing an expert can advise- is to tell the kid to ‘act like a boy/girl’.

3. Nobody Is Sterilizing Children

Some of the more sensational news stories about gender variant and trans youth claim that gender affirming medical interventions make these young people sterile. First, medical intervention isn’t even considered until the beginning of adolescence.  Second, puberty blockers given early in adolescence are fully reversible. Cross-gender hormones, never given until age 16, have mixed effects, some reversible, some not. Some trans men (assigned female at birth, true gender male) have been able to go off androgens and have children.
Furthermore, alternative methods of having children exist.

Most importantly, if a child reaches adolescence and still identifies as trans, the hormones ALLEVIATE DISTRESS.  They prevent suicidality and self-injurious or reckless behavior. Hormones play an instrumental role in allowing many teens to lead normal, fulfilling lives.

4. Statistics Are (Unsurprisingly) Misleading.

The media will tell you that 'most' gender nonconforming kids don't grow up to identify as trans. This isn't exactly true. That research was done on children brought to clinics, not kids in the general population. Furthermore, many of these young people remain somewhere on the gender non-conforming spectrum even if they don't fully transition. What IS true is that young people who identify as transgender at puberty don't usually change their minds.

5.  Gender Variant Does Not Necessarily Equal Transgender

Some young people are gender non-conforming but retain the gender identity assigned at birth; also more and more GV youth are identifying as "genderqueer." Remember how we said back in #1 that there are more categories than male, female, and transgender? Most are encompassed in that term. Young people can identify as mixed gender, fluid, two-spirit and some can be pretty pissed if you call them male or female.

6. The choice may not be between waiting for hormones/transitioning and not waiting

You’ll hear some ‘experts’ call for ‘caution,’ providing parents and medical professional with a ‘wait and see’ model in considering hormone treatment. But one Los Angeles M.D. who works with these kids says bluntly: "The choice may be between a transgender kid and a dead kid." It's truly that serious.

7. How Will Other Kids Handle Another Kid's Transition? Better Than You Think

Gender non-conforming kids tend to be bullied or harassed by other children more BEFORE they engage in any medical interventions, particularly boys. Our sexist society permits 'tomboy' girl behavior to a certain extent before they become teens, but it really punishes males perceived to be 'feminine.'  Ironically, post-transition, the child no longer violates gender norms, and they are less likely to experience bullying.

Also (hopefully demonstrating an important shift), young people tend to be a great deal more accepting of sex and gender variance than people over 35. There are literally thousands of Gay Straight Alliance groups in high schools throughout the U.S. At IPG we've been pleasantly surprised by the supportive reactions most schools, students included, have had towards our young transitioning clients.

8. Adolescence Is The Key Time

Many gender variant kids don't express a desire to live as a gender different than what they were assigned when they are young; this may be due to the fact that children's bodies aren't that different except for the genitals. When pubertal hormones hit and secondary sex characteristics begin to develop (breast buds for girls, changes in testicles for boys, body hair for both), some gender variant kids are undisturbed. Others, however, have severe emotional reactions. This is the time when puberty blocking hormones can 1) alleviate distress and
2) give the young person some time to explore identity. For those assigned female at birth, these blockers may need to be used as young as age 9.

9. Puberty Blocking Hormones Aren't Toxic OR Irreversible

The once gender variant child who now identifies as a transgender tween is at most risk for mental health problems, unless you give them puberty blocking drugs, which are fully reversible. Then they experience relief and can live for a while in their affirmed gender before starting cross-gender hormones 2-4 years later. If the young person changes their mind? Just stop them. If a young person is given puberty blocking hormones at the right time, they will never develop unwanted characteristics of their assigned sex like breasts or a deep throat. The U.S. Endocrine Society and World Professional Association for Transgender Health endorses their use. It's a no-brainer.

10. Transgender Teens Who Transition Lead Normal Lives Afterwards

Remember how we talked about greater stress, more abuse, and more mental health problems among gender variant youth? Most of that goes away if 1) their family and community support them; 2) they aren't forced to conform to gender norms; 3) they receive the medical treatments they need. Peggy Cohen-Kettenis, who has studied these young people for twenty years in the Netherlands, says that post-transition they are 'indistinguishable' from other teens and young adults.

Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.

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Monday, March 18, 2013
The Infamous ‘Gay Agenda’: Recruiting the Young
Posted by Margie Nichols  

Years ago, when teachers were fired if they were suspected of being gay, the argument was that LGBTQ teachers would "recruit" young people to their way of life.  I thought of that when I read a special report put out by the Gallup organization on a survey they did last year. 

Last year, Gallup asked 120,000 people the following questions: "Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?"  This is the largest number of Americans who have EVER been polled about their sexual orientation in history (by comparison, the highly regarded NORC survey done by University of Chicago asked 2,000 people).  In October, Gallup put out the report based on this effort.clientuploads/youngqueerproud.jpg

The results are fascinating, and upend some of the more common stereotypes about queer people. 3.4% answered "yes,"  92.2% answered ‘no,’ and 4.4% said they didn’t know, or refused to answer. It’s important to understand that the 3.4% represent people who are willing to publicly declare their queerness to a pollster, and that this number is  far smaller than:

  • The number of people who identify this way but won’t disclose this, which in turn is smaller than
  • The number of people who live an LGBT life but don’t self-identify, which is smaller than
  • The number of people who experience LGBT attractions and inclinations but don’t act on them

Anyway, you get the idea – a very significant minority of people are at least a little bit ‘queer,’ and 3.4% probably under-represents LGBTQ people a bit.

But the breakdown of the Gallup stats shows a dramatic difference by AGE – and to some extent, gender. 6.4% of 18 to 29 year olds identified as LGBT, compared to 1.9% of those 65 or older. And a whopping 8.3% of 18-29 year old women identified as queer.
Something is happening here.  Either people stop being queer as they get older – or there are striking generational differences.  Not surprisingly, as LGBT people are increasingly accepted and integrated into mainstream society, more people feel comfortable identifying themselves openly.

We’re reclientuploads/gayrecruit.jpgcruiting the young.  Well, not exactly. To be more precise, the culture is allowing people who might have lived in the shadows or never expressed themselves at all to live full, free and open existences.  If the number of LGBTQ-identified people increases, as it seems sure to continue to do, it will not be the result of indoctrination.  Rather, it is a testimony to how many people are still hiding- in some way – now.

Other results of the poll fly against statistics in almost all previous but smaller and older surveys.  Gallup found the rates of LGBT identification to be higher in less educated, lower income, and minority respondents – past studies have shown the opposite.  It’s intriguing to speculate on why this is so, and I’ll probably write another article when I’ve pondered it more.  The rates of motherhood among lesbian and heterosexual women are now identical, another statistic probably attributable to increasing social acceptance.

But those generational numbers excite me.  I have a vague feeling of a revolution coming, a cultural revolution of gender and sexuality that is starting as a wave of queer young people, led by women, and will eventually transform the way we look at these dimensions now.

Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012
Overcoming Stress from Hurricane Sandy: How to Survive a Superstorm-After It's Gone!
Posted by Margie Nichols  

QUEER MINDS is a blog about LGBTQ issues in psychology, mental health and counseling.  But this issue affects everyone, including pretty much every NJGayLife reader.

Okay, your power is back on, you pumped out the basement, your kids may even be back in school. You survived Hurricane Sandy, the Superstorm, the ‘Frankenstorm.’   So you should be feeling fine, right?   Even brimming over with gratitude because no one you knew lost their life?  Or at the very least – back to normal, instead of cranky, exhausted, sad, anxious or numb?

Wrong.   The aftermath of an event like Sandy can last for weeks, even months.  For starters, there are real-life consequences that take much longer to resolve:  lost belongings, housing, cars.  And the loss of income.   Most of us lost money in some way in this storm, and a lot of us were stretched pretty thin already.   I’m seeing a lot of people with faces creased by worry about how they’re going to get by financially in the near future.

But even if you lost next to nothing and aren’t worried about money – you may be feeling a post-Sandy slump.   That’s because an event like this disrupts our ‘map of the world,’ literally and figuratively.   Figuratively, because it forces us to really “Get It” that ultimately we don’t control anything about our lives, at least not the really important things like life and death.   We don’t like facing this unpleasant reality.   The first thing we do with this news is to deny it -  I’ve already heard people ‘blaming’ the victims of Hurricane Sandy for not evacuating quickly enough.  But back in the swampy underground of our unconscious mind - where lurk our darkest fears – we don’t forget.  The ugly truth about Sandy is that the worst (and potentially the best) impact of the storm is to strip away our illusion of control and show us how transitory life really is.

No wonder we feel out of sorts – we are covering up an underlay of pure terror.

But on top of that, Superstorm Sandy disrupted our actual maps of the world- the routines we have established that get us through the day.  What we do all day and the order in which it is done, the people we see, the routes we take to get places – all changed, again by forces outside our control.  We need our little routines more than we know.  We get cranky when they are blown up.

And then there is the physical stress.  Pretending that you are camping in a power outage gets old fast.  Our bodies feel threatened by the chill and the sudden loss of light.  They go into ‘survival mode’, pumping out cortisal and adrenaline in big, constant spurts.  This in turn, makes us feel jittery, anxious and tired all at the same time.  All of this physical stuff runs down our immune system, so we are more prone to colds, headaches, other physical suffering.

And when the stress subsides – the power is back, we are once again in familiar surroundings -  we are physically exhausted, even if we were mostly couch potatoes during the storm and its immediate aftermath.  We may sleep ten or twelve hours, but that sleep might be disturbed, full of nightmares or strange dreams, physically restless.  The unlucky insomniacs will be constantly exhausted and ultimately need to resort to drugs to sleep. 

It didn’t help that we set the clocks back Saturday.  The early onset of darkness adds to the sense of doom and gloom and if you are prone to SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – as I am, the drop In mood can feel precipitous. 

In addition, most of us are reeling from ‘vicarious traumatization.’   When I drove through Hoboken today for the first time I was rattled and upset by the FEMA trucks on the main street.  The pictures on the news were horrible and scary.       

 And one final thing, that may seem a little silly.  We lost Halloween. Most cultures have feasts or celebrations to herald the end of the harvest, death, the beginning of winter.  Ours is Halloween.  Even though Christie declared November 5 as ‘alternate Halloween,’ in my area there were few trick-or-treaters.  We could have used the lightness that happy kids bring.

So if you’re feeling listless, helpless or indecisive, jitty and emotional, fearful and anxious, if you can’t sleep or sleep too much, if your appetite is different, or you are just ‘out of sorts’ – you’re not crazy, you’re suffering from ‘post-Sandy stress syndrome’.

  II. What You Can Do To Recover

The first, perhaps the most important thing you can do to help recover from post-hurricane stress is to accept that you have it.   Yes, it’s over.  Yes, other people had it worse than you.  And yes, you are functioning at less than 100%, and may not be back to speed for a while.

Once you’ve accepted that you have been stricken, you need to admit you need to recover, and that recovery means devoting a little extra time and effort to your own well-being.  

Here are some things that can help:

  • Because so much of the stress from Hurricane Sandy was physical – being cold, being in the dark, being uncomfortable -  our bodies are exhausted and battered.  Give yourself permission to sleep more than usual, to take naps, to be easily tired.
  • And make sure you eat well.  Many of us consumed a lot of ‘comfort food’ during and before Sandy, which means a lot of carbs.  Focus on protein, fresh fruit and veggies.
  • Exercise, even if it’s only walking.  Exercise and one other thing are as or more effective than antidepressant medications for depressed mood.
  • Increase your exposure to daylight.  Bright light is the second thing as effective as drugs for depression.  Walking outdoors is one of the best things you can do – exercise and light at the same time!
  • Consider purchasing a ‘bright light’ box if you are prone to SAD.
  • Allow yourself to mourn if you've suffered losses.  Losing material things can have psychological impact - it's okay to feel bad about it.
  • Take it slow.  Not only do you have to recover – you have to process what happened, even if unconsciously.  These unpleasant reminders of mortality have to be turned over in our human minds until we can put them away in memory with an appropriate perspective.   If you daydream more, are forgetful, get lost in reverie – that’s normal, that’s what is supposed to be happening.
  • Along those lines - take time to relax, and if you've been considering meditating - now is the time to start!
  • If you are still looking at disturbing images of the storm - give it a rest.  You don't need to keep re-traumatizing yourself.
  • Try to re-establish some of your routines - or alternate routines.  We all need structure and predictability in our lives.
  • If you are up to it, try to find something positive in the changes around you.  I am less busy this week, and today I had the chance to have friendly conversations with two colleagues I normally would be too busy to chat with.
  • speaking of friendly conversation - balance your need to hibernate a bit with some socializing and .....enjoying your connections to the world
  • DO SOMETHING FOR OTHERS.  It helps in so many ways, from the concrete to the personal to the spiritual.  You can't control what happens to you.  If you're lucky, you can try to transform pain into wisdom, perspective.....and love.
  • Remember when I said the worst and BEST repercussions of an event like Sandy came from the realization of our own mortality and lack of control?  Again, when you are ready for it – re-think your priorities.  Maybe you’ll find you are completely happy with the way you were living pre-Sandy.  But maybe not – and maybe now is the time to change that.

Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center serving the LGBTQ community since 1983.


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Tuesday, November 13, 2012
How We Stopped Being Crazy and What It Did For Gay Rights
Posted by Margie Nichols  

QUEER MINDS is a blog about LGBTQ issues in psychology, mental health, and counseling. My inaugural blog recounts the history of how homosexuality because de-classified as a psychiatric disease.

This is the first blog I am honored to write for NJGayLife.com, and the proximity to the election made me think about the relationship between mental health and gay politics.  I am a psychologist, sex therapist, and director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling center founded in 1983 to serve the needs of lesbians and gays.  The election results were almost unimaginable for someone like me who came out in the mid-70’s.  The gay Congresspeople, the lesbian Senator, the four Marriage Equality ballot initiatives that won – I still have to pinch myself.

Many LGBT people don’t fully understand the critical role that the political action against the mental health community played a in advancing lesbian and gay rights. Soon after the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969,  the new gay activist  movement took on the task of getting homosexuality removed from the psychiatric ‘Bible,’ the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders (DSM).   Before 1973, if you were gay, you were automatically ‘mentally ill,’ and that implied you were emotionally stunted, prone to other mental disorders- mentally disabled.  Homosexuality was considered a ‘treatable’ disorder, something caused by bad parenting. ‘Sick’ gay people were encouraged to devote themselves to treatment in the hopes of a cure.  (Sound familiar? The Christian Right still believes this.)

clientuploads/gay conversion.jpgThe diagnosis enabled horribly cruel psychotherapy ‘treatments.’ People were committed to mental institutions against their will, subject to aversion therapy – electrical shocks- or years of treatment where they were considered sick and in need of controlling their  ‘perverted’ impulses to love.  And it justified discrimination of every form.  The diagnosis, along with the sodomy laws that still existed in most states, insured that gay people would have to live in the shadows of normal life.

And so just like Marriage Equality is one of the key LGBT rights issues of the 21st Century, gay activists made removal of homosexuality from the DSM a major target of political action right after Stonewall.  They succeeded in 1973 through a combination of direct action and persuasion of the more liberal members of psychiatry.  One of the problems activists had was that gay psychiatrists and therapists were for the most part themselves afraid of ‘coming out’ for fear of being drummed out of their profession. One psychiatrist testified at hearings held by the APA wearing a wig and mask, John Fryer, known then only as “Dr. H. Anonymous.”clientuploads/dr_anonymous_0.jpg

Most queer historians agree that the psychiatric de-classification of homosexuality was a pivotal moment for gay rights.  Although psychiatrists didn’t mean it this way, the public generally interpreted the action to mean that doctors were saying that homosexuality was ‘normal.’  While it has taken decades for this to become a true majority mainstream belief, it lay the ground work for anti-discrimination legislation.

It did lots of other things, too, one of which was to transform my field.  As the attitude towards homosexuality changed slowly, some mental health practicioners felt emboldened to ‘come out’ themselves and to dedicate their practices to working with other lesbians and gays. We worked with our clients to help restore the self-esteem that had been battered down by decades of being marginalized – we developed ‘gay affirmative psychotherapy.’  We addressed issues special to the LGBT community, we educated non-gay clinicians, and we advocated the idea that the higher rates of depression, suicidality, and drug and alcohol abuse in the LGBT community were caused by discrimination, not anything intrinsic to being gay.  Some of us went into research and developed studies showing that gay people are not harmful to children and in fact are just as good at parenting as non-gays.

clientuploads/affirmative psychotherapy.jpgSo reforming the mental health field has been very important to gay politics – and in turn, gay political successes improve mental health among LGBT people, as they gradually reduce the amount of ‘minority stress’ we experience, stress that can trigger emotional disturbance.

And because of the actions of our gay activist forebears, I can write this blog as an openly queer psychologist and sex therapists – and in the future, I can tell you more about the special mental health and sexuality issues of the LGBTQ community.

Margie Nichols, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and Executive Director of the Institute for Personal Growth, a counseling/psychotherapy center working with New Jersey LGBTQ people since 1983.


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