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Information and education about psychology, gender, and trauma.

Advice and reflections on writing, research, and life in academia. 

Posts written by Dr. Jem Tosh and Dr. Lucy Thompson. 

Being a Queer and Nonbinary Survivor in Psychology

by Dr. Jem Tosh



(Content warning - mention of s*xual abuse and h*mophobia)


In the transcript below I talk about my new chapter in the edited collection #MeToo: Counsellors and Psychotherapists Speak about Sexual Violence and Abuse.

 

#MeToo Book Launch


What is the chapter about?

The chapter is about the topics that I usually research, so sexual abuse, gender, and sexuality, and how they all interconnect in complicated and nuanced ways. What makes this chapter different is, it includes summaries or overviews of academic work in those areas but they are intertwined with my own personal experiences and reflections. So, the beginning of the chapter focuses on growing up during The Troubles in Northern Ireland as queer* and genderfluid,** and how that impacted on my experiences of being a survivor of sexual abuse. I reflect on the messages I received about what sexual abuse is and what it is to be a survivor, and how they intertwined with messages that I was also receiving around gender, sex, and sexuality.


What makes this chapter different is, it includes summaries or overviews of academic work in those areas but they are intertwined with my own personal experiences and reflections.

So, the chapter is consistent with what I argue in my other academic work, but it really shows through personal examples how you can’t separate those topics. You can’t talk about sexual abuse without talking about gender, without talking about sexuality, and for me it highlights the problems with approaches that have a very binary way of thinking. This is both in terms of assuming that there are only two genders (male and female) and excluding trans, nonbinary, and intersex perspectives, but also the binary of perpetrators that assumes only (cisgender) women are victims and only (cisgender) men are perpetrators. When everything is framed in cisnormative and heteronormative terms, the voices that get silenced in that process are queer and trans people but also queer and trans survivors.***


Why talk about your own experiences?

When you start training in psychology you tend to learn statistics first and approaches that encourage you to be very objective. You're instructed to not talk about yourself and to not use ‘I’ statements, but to be factual and as detached as possible. Then I got my training in qualitative methods which was very different. It was about being transparent and reflective, seeing how you interpreted that information and what you were bringing to that material. It was a co-construction of knowledge and meaning. This was an interesting experience because even after many years of qualitative training, teaching, and research, it still took me a very long time to talk about my personal experiences in relation to my work.


...when I saw the call for chapters for this book, I was looking for an opportunity to do this for a while and it just seemed perfect because I would be able to academically 'come out’ as everything.

I did reflect on my history of sexual abuse during my PhD but I kept it very private, such as in discussions with examiners but it wasn’t something that I published about. So, there was this awareness that I was keeping a part of myself back in my research and writing. I was writing about sexual abuse as a psychologist and a survivor, but I wasn't stating that explicitly.


Also, academically analysing texts regarding specific forms of sexual abuse that I had personally experienced and not drawing on that knowledge became another aspect of myself that I wasn’t ‘out’ about. I wasn’t out as bisexual or as nonbinary but I was writing about issues around gender and sexuality and keeping that part of myself back because of all the complexities and issues and risks around coming out, both personally and professionally. So, when I saw the call for chapters for this book, I was looking for an opportunity to do this for a while and it just seemed perfect because I would be able to academically 'come out’ as everything.


What’s the key message?

I would say the key message in the chapter is complexity regarding sexual abuse. Appreciating the importance of specifics in each individual case and that you can’t generalise people’s experiences. All aspects of who you are and where you are, and the context and culture that you live in, are all pertinent when we are looking at healing from or analysing issues around sexual abuse. My upbringing and the context of Northern Ireland and the extreme forms of homophobia that I was exposed to were key aspects of my abuse experiences - because how do I manage that tension between my identity as being Irish (at a time when being queer was seen as incompatible with Irishness) and these coercive sexual experiences, while at the same time being shamed for my sexuality? That all merges together in this big mess of trauma.


How sympathetic and supportive are people going to be when they find out that some of my abusers were women? Will I be blamed for that because being queer is seen as ‘bad’ in this context?

I can't address it by only looking at the coercive or violent part and ignoring my experiences of being queer in this context. It's important to consider how those sexually abusive experiences impacted on my queer identity and whether or not it felt safe to come out, because if this is the violence I experienced when I was perceived as being straight, there's a (reasonable) fear regarding how much worse it could get if I came out in a context where I was told that homosexuality was a sin and I was going to hell for my attraction to women. How sympathetic and supportive are people going to be when they find out that some of my abusers were women? Will I be blamed for that because being queer is seen as ‘bad’ in this context? So culture, context, and history all form a part of that analysis and understanding needed for healing to be more than one narrow focus, and instead considers how sexual violence can impact all aspects of a person's identity.


How did you survive psychology?

I survived psychology by making connections with other queer, nonbinary, and trans psychologists, as well as connecting with those areas of psychology that reflect on the profession. Those that look at its history and present and critique it - what could we be doing better? Where are we unintentionally causing harm? Where are places potentially intentionally causing harm? How can we broaden out from a constructed ‘norm’ to include so many voices that it’s impossible to even think of a ‘norm’ at all? How do we make space for everyone’s experiences, identities, cultures, and contexts with such uniqueness and specificity and so many plural and diverse options for healing? That’s how I survived, finding those spaces and thriving in those areas.


 

The book #MeToo: Counsellors and Psychotherapists Speak About Sexual Violence and Abuse, featuring my chapter, ‘Sexual Abuse and Surviving with(in) Psychology’, is available now.



 

Missed the live book launch on Twitter?

You can read a summary of the online discussion here.

 

Notes