Differences And “Otherness”: A Paper Urging That We Come Out Of Our Respective Closets And Learn To Play More Openly With Our Diversities

Amanda Kottler

In recent years, Self Psychologists have said much more than ever before about counter-transference and its impact on the work of psychoanalytic psychotherapists. Innovative, creative and courageous papers have appeared in the literature and at conferences, in which the authors have disclosed aspects of themselves, their self object needs etc. in an attempt to demonstrate the effects that their own dynamics have on the way in which the therapy unfolds. This has also been true of clinicians working within models of Intersubjectivity theory who have attended to the significance of the broader context in which each therapy takes place. Those of us who have been able to identify, in these papers, similar needs to our own, will know how they have provided us with a great deal of affirming self-object experiences that are immensely important to our work.

There is, however, in this literature a conspicuous gap. Few of these pioneering authors have chosen to focus on how their own “difference” and therefore their membership of what I shall refer to as a “disadvantaged (supposedly minority) group” against which prejudice is directed, influences their work as therapists. This is regardless of whether or not their patients categorize themselves similarly and regardless of whether or not the group is in fact a “minority” one. Addressing this gap is particularly vital in a country like South Africa but it needs addressing globally.

The absence of literature of this kind is not at all surprising. To engage at this level requires the author to be relatively resolved and comfortable not only with their particular brand of “difference”, per se but also with admitting that it is a site of struggle, in their professional lives. Nevertheless, the fact is that the paucity deprives those of us who can identify with this kind of marginalized status, of a range of sorely needed mirroring and kinship self object experiences. Said differently, the scarcity deprives clinicians of important reciprocal exchanges with fellow professionals (Abramowitz, 2001).

This absence is partly what motivated this paper. Obviously living and working in South Africa, where one becomes aware of marginalized groups more acutely (Lewinberg, personal communication) could and should lead one to use this idea to look at working with issues of race. However, I decided to focus elsewhere – on one of my own sites of “difference”, that of being a lesbian therapist. I hope that this will not detract from the fact that much of what I say does not only relate to difficulties that homosexual therapists encounter[1].

My choice to come out of the closet, so to speak, does not mean that such exposure is comfortable. It is noteworthy that the material used relates to work with a gay male patient rather than a lesbian and that some of the material was first presented at a Self Psychology conference in North America two years before presenting it to colleagues at home. Certainly, this has to do with a relatively widespread naïve understanding of homosexuality. Attitudes remain largely unchanged, even though Cape Town is fast becoming an internationally recognized lesbian and gay center and that South Africa is the only country in the world whose constitution gives homosexuals rights equal to any other citizen in the country.   “Homo-prejudice”[2] nevertheless continues to be alive and well in South Africa as it is elsewhere. “Basic adult relationship affirming rituals – family celebrated dating, engagements, weddings, anniversaries; legal marriages with joint tax returns; … shared retirement benefits and assumed rights of survivorship either are still not considered normative, or occur with extra hardship” (Abramowitz, 2001, p.1). This remains true in South Africa. Shared membership of medical aid schemes and reduced university fees for partners require an outing process, which is potentially shaming and therefore not necessarily a choice that the member partner would ordinarily want to make.

Because of the invisibility highlighted above, this paper will also attempt to illustrate something of the multiple and contradictory ways in which each of us can inhabit our gender and sexuality and how and why some of these shifts, at least in relation to gender and sexuality, occur. In so doing, I draw on the post-modern concepts of discourses and discursive practices.

A discourse used in this context, reflects a set of attitudes, meanings and beliefs that play a part in influencing the way in which individuals behave in a range of contexts. Discourses therefore make available varied behaviour, or discursive practices, but in so doing, they shape subjectivity. This is achieved by foregrounding some areas of experience or knowledge, and by creating gaps or silences in others (Davies & Harre, 1990 in Kottler and Swartz, 1995, p.184). In a slightly more simplified way, discursive practices are similar to Brandchaft’s (2001) patterns of attachment behaviour or what the Intersubjectivists refer to as “organizing principles” (Brandchaft, 1995, p. 94). Whatever terminology is used, an individual’s subjectivity, their behaviour and beliefs about how the world works is a product of his or her history, the positions each has taken up in particular discourses, together with the psychological investment each has had and still has, in taking up these particular positions (Hollway, 1984, p. 238). Having identified oneself with a particular subject position, “a person inevitably sees the world from the vantage point of that position” (Davies and Harre, 1990 in Kottler and Swartz, 1995, p. 184). A gay, black, Muslim or disabled person then would see the world from the vantage point of being gay, black, Muslim or disabled and a straight or non-gay person will see the world from the vantage point of being straight or not gay. An individual may, however, be positioned within multiple discourses in unpredictable and often contradictory ways. For example, as the clinical material will illustrate, being gay can mean different things within the discursive practices of heterosexuality, masculinity or femininity. Our sense of self is elaborated in terms of a series of dichotomous categories, which serve to include us in some groups, e.g. as homosexuals and exclude us “automatically” from others, e.g. for a gay man, from being masculine. Gender, Sexuality, Race and Religion are four such categories, and whether we like it or not, the complex discursive practices surrounding our gender, sexuality, race, religion or disability shape every social encounter, including our therapeutic encounters.

Complicating things further, it is noteworthy that the positions we occupy in discourses are not simply determined in any rational, conscious or unitary way, for example, because of biological sex. Discursive practices associated with discourses play a part in influencing which position may be filled by which gender or which sexuality at any particular time. Choices are therefore socially constructed and the ways in which they are given expression vary depending on the individual’s emotional commitment in being there, for whatever reason. There is always some pay-off or protection for the choice and a reason for taking up the chosen position. This is true even though the take-up position might seem irrational and, in terms of other consequences, satisfaction appears inexplicable. This is evident in the material presented below which draws attention to the effects of the shame involved in being homosexual and how psychologically debilitating it can be to have to try to “pass” as heterosexual, to ones sense of (homosexual) self, ones sense of reality, integrity and self cohesion. The material also points to the psychologically damaging effects of the need to “pass” in an attempt to accommodate to what I shall refer to as society’s pathology. I am referring to the dominant discourse that endorses “heterosexuality as the norm”[3].

Briefly, before going on to present some clinical material, it feels necessary to contextualise the theories used in this paper. I come from a very rigid background where ideas or concepts were black or white, true or not true. We were expected to either like or dislike something. There was no room for uncertainty and even less for changing one’s mind. In my fourth year at University (which was my 6th in therapy) as a mature student and following a change in career from Accountant with a multi-national oil company, I discovered social constructionism, post modernism and feminist theory. These theories radically destabilized all that I had believed about the way in which the world and everyone in it, worked. I realized that other possibilities were open to me, and the way I could live my life. The theories changed my experience of, and consequently, the nature of my own personal therapy and they all inform my daily practice with my own patients. I hope to illustrate this in the material presented.

At the time of these discoveries, I was drawing on Object Relations and Kleinian psychoanalytic theory, which had begun to feel inadequate and wrong for me. At around this time a prominent Self Psychologist (Peter Thompson) visited relatives in South Africa and gave a few public lectures. Discovering Self Psychology significantly shifted my understanding of my own and my patients’ struggles both in relating to, and being in the world. It, together with the theories mentioned above made me realize that different views or perspectives were possible. And, finally, my discovery of Intersubjectivity theory provided me with an overarching context within which to link post modernism, feminist theory and psychoanalytic Self Psychology. The combination made me realize that “empathic resonance was available in the world”. I had come to “see something about the world that was not visible to me before, that something existed which did not seem to exist in my experience before (Gehrie, 2002, p. 19). This is according to Kohut (in Gehrie, 2002, p.17) part of the analytic cure and one of the results of an analyst’s empathic understanding. I believe I managed to help Franco whose case material I will now present, in this way.

This, disguised, material illustrates many of the issues raised above.

It was only as I started working on this paper, that I became increasingly aware of how I had gently led Franco on a journey that I myself had taken so many years earlier. I believe that the fact that I had traveled this path myself meant that Franco’s ride was much smoother than my own with a non-lesbian therapist, and a significantly quicker one. I think this was partly because of my own experience but also because of the way in which I integrated Intersubjectivity, feminist and Self theory with postmodern ideas, including the contemporary literature focusing on the notion of multiple selves and the multiple ways in which we inhabit these varied selves.

Franco’s mother referred him to me but he was and not at all sure about what therapy could offer. He was at the time living with his mother, step-father and a younger half-sister. At the time of entering therapy, he was extremely depressed and had been for a considerable time. He spent most of his days in bed, sleeping. At night, he watched TV. A few months before I saw him, he had applied to a local college to study in the hospitality industry, partly he said initially, in the hope of meeting other gay men. Acceptance was dependent on the quality of a complex project for which Franco had no energy, and dreading doing.

On the up side, Franco occasionally went out with his half-sister to Raves. He loved trance music and told me later in the therapy that he sometimes dreamed of becoming a DJ at one of the local trance clubs. When he told me about this, he became unusually articulate and quite animated.   This was in direct contrast to our many silent and tortuous sessions in which he said little. I had to work extremely hard with him, initially because he was so insufferably self-conscious and shy. He hardly made any eye contact. He spoke with his face cast downwards and eyes focused firmly on the floor. From time to time, he would raise his eyes and furtively look at me through his relatively short cropped hair. He spoke in short, sharp, almost incoherent sentences peppered with the words “you know” and “like”. Whilst still communicating in this way, I discovered that he had had one, in his words, “horrible” sexual experience with a fellow waiter a year earlier. It had ended with a reluctant “outing” of Franco at the restaurant where they both worked. This had shamed Franco terribly partly because, at the time, he was not at all sure he was gay. Feeling betrayed, Franco left the restaurant immediately after this event and had not worked, and hardly socialized since then. In spite of this experience, and inexplicably to me early on in the therapy, Franco had come to firmly believe he was, and wanted to be, gay.

At the time of entering therapy, Franco had only told his mother that he thought he was gay. He suspected that his mother had told his step-father who remained silent on the subject. But, whenever a good-looking woman appeared on the TV, Franco’s step-father would say something like “Hey, Franco, how about her – do you fancy her?” This would infuriate Franco who believed that, even though it was an act of self-betrayal, he had to say, “yes” because this effectively ended the conversation. Franco’s mother, although clearly uncomfortable with his announcement about being gay, was extremely concerned for his happiness and prepared to accept that he was gay.

Much of our halted and tortuous discussions in early sessions revolved around the agony arising out of Franco’s wish that his step-father and his half- sister would acknowledge him as a gay man. He was intensely fearful of the anticipated stigma that would follow. In this sense, just as Franco was “embarking upon what is in the best of circumstances, a difficult stage of early adult self-development”, he had begun to struggle with the “traumatic loss of cultural selfobject support” (Abramowitz, 2001, p.4).

Illustrating, at another theoretical level, Franco’s struggle with his positioning within or outside of the discourse of “heterosexuality as the norm”, and endorsing something of his lifelong struggle with his own sexuality, he told me how he had felt different from other boys for as long as he could remember. As a young boy, he went to a single sex school and for the most part, at least from an objective standpoint, seems to have managed to fit in with his peers. He was good at sport and is a well-built, conventionally masculine looking young man, so he could “pass” as heterosexual and hence become a member of what Abramowitz (2001, p. 11) refers to as a “model minority”. From a subjective perspective however, the behaviour required of him to gain acceptance as “one of the boys”, cost him psychologically. From his description, it seemed that at worst, he felt utterly alienated from himself and at best, he felt like a fraud and completely inauthentic. Somewhere in between he felt like a total failure, socially.

Worse however than his experience at school, was what lay ahead for him. Franco’s decision that he was gay “heightened his selfobject needs, as does any transitional life stage” (Abramowitz, 2001, p. 3) and put him at odds with wider cultural norms. He had decided he was gay at a developmental stage when “ordinarily, vital selfobject experiences of peer twinship and family mirroring are generally found in walking arm and arm with a date of the opposite sex at college or bringing home the right young person for the family to admire and accept” (Abramowitz, 2001, p.4) . In Franco’s case, he could find nothing in his surrounding that admired or affirmed him as a homosexual. He was unaware of any cultural institutions from which to derive the selfobject support he so badly needed. And, worse, having decided that he was gay, Franco found himself faced with a dilemma of how to BE a gay man, socially.

Theoretically speaking, he was going to have to begin a process of shifting back and forth between contradictory discourses. Demonstrating his initial positioning, he spent many a session “educating” me with recurring stereotypic, but dominant ideas, about what gay men looked like, how they behaved and what discursive practices were therefore available to him. From his exposure to ideas at home, at school, in the books he had read, the TV he had watched and the movies he had seen, Franco believed that he would have to be either “camp and effeminate” or “butch and aggressive”. He decided that the latter was impossible because, even though he was a conventionally masculine looking man, he was far too shy to be an “aggressor”. He reluctantly decided therefore that he would have to become “camp”. He spent hours in his bedroom, looking at himself in the mirror as he tried out various movements with his hands, to see how he could cultivate the “limp wrist” required to indicate to others that he was gay. He had discovered that there was a gay language and he would try out some of the words and speak them with an acquired lisp.

When I asked him why he felt he had to acquire these behaviours, he described a fear that if he did not do so, he would never be noticed as a gay man, and would therefore never find a partner, which he so badly wanted. His experience a year earlier, when he had spent time at gay clubs (which is where he had observed these different behaviours) had been agonizing, mainly because he was so excruciatingly shy and because of what his fellow waiter had done to him. In spite of this, demonstrating in part his vital need for the selfobject experience of peer twinship mentioned above, he felt that he had to present himself in public “looking gay”, so that others, at shopping malls, or movies would approach him and make the “first move”. However, this was a double-edged sword because dressed and behaving in this way made it likely that his queer-ness would be “discovered” by other members of his family and old school friends. He knew this would fill him with shame and he dreaded the traumatic ridicule and stigma that he imagined would follow this discovery.

I could completely identify with Franco’s dilemma but personally, I could not bear what he was doing to himself. I personally knew this struggle very well.   26 years earlier, in a similarly depressed state, an ex-boyfriend of mine had put me in touch with a group of lesbians who, when I met them, dressed mostly in denim jeans, trainers and checked shirts. None of them wore make up. Immediately on meeting them, they asked me to join what they called a “lesbian rap group” due to start some weeks ahead. That evening they invited me to a gay and lesbian nightclub. This was my first experience (and unfortunately, not my last) of such a club! A model scene evoked by that evening was the horror and confusion I felt when I met Jamie, the first woman taxi driver I had ever encountered. She was an extremely butch looking woman in denim jeans, boots and a checked shirt. She wore no make up and regaled us all with stories about her relationship with her lover, who was heavily made up, wore a pink mini skirt, pink frilly top, and high heeled pink shoes. The stories included expectations that cooked meals would be ready for Jamie at whatever time she returned home and other similar expectations including putting out of Jamie’s slippers and running her a bath. I distinctly remember leaving the club that night feeling despair as to what my growing belief that I was a lesbian was going to mean in realistic terms. Was I going to have to be butch or femme? Which would I choose? At the time, I was an accountant with a multi national oil company. I power dressed as this was expected of me in this position – I wore make up, skirts, jewellery etc. On the evenings that I was due to join the rap group I would rush home, remove all traces of make up and change into denims, trainers and my newly acquired checked shirts! One evening I went to the Theatre with a group of non-lesbian friends. I was smartly dressed, I wore make up and I bumped into some of the members of the lesbian rap group. I was devastated, confused and wished that the floor would open up beneath me to enable me to simply disappear. It took me a very long time to work with this issue, helped of course by the fact that times and discursive practices have changed in the last 26 years, resulting in my finding ample and appropriate selfobject support in my surroundings.

Kohut (1959) argued that in order to be truly empathic, the therapist has to find something in herself or her own experience that affectively resonates with what the patient describes. I believe that the experiences portrayed above enabled me to understand what Franco felt about having to mould himself into something that truly did not come easily for him and the psychological dangers involved in doing so.   I felt that Franco’s, albeit perhaps reluctant decision to effect a camp and effeminate persona would only lead him down a one-way street to misery. I felt it was my job to help Franco realize that he did not have to try to re-invent himself into a unitary, camp and effeminate being in order to find empathic resonance in the world (see Gehrie, 2002). I knew theoretically and personally that for anyone, this would be restrictive, potentially alienating and likely to be painful and psychologically damaging. It could only lead to the development of more of an alienated Self with a greater loss of what I was beginning to see as a delightfully idiosyncratic and potentially multi-faceted Self.

Intersubjectivity, post modern and feminist theory helped me to formulate the question which came to mind at this point in the therapy and that was: “whose pathology are we dealing with”? Through the lenses of these theories it seemed clear to me that Franco’s predominant struggle was with the belief systems and dominant discourses that existed in the context in which he lived. He was struggling with the effects of the dominant discourses to which he had been exposed all his life, each of which cemented the message that heterosexuality was the norm and that anything else was “different” and “other”. Being different and other meant that it was deviant, something of which to be ashamed and something which everyone found funny – funny because of the way in which gay men are depicted in movies such as The Bird Cage, which was a constant point of reference for Franco.

I felt frustrated and intolerant of these ideas. This led me to conceptualize the foreground of his struggle and his major source of distress and depression not so much as a consequence of his shyness and lack of confidence, but rather as a result of the belief systems or “pathology” to which Franco was accommodating. This included the beliefs imposed upon him by his long-standing and hitherto unquestioned positioning within the “heterosexual as the norm discourse’ and the discourses that dictated the discursive practices of homosexuals. In recognizing this, I decided that initially at least, I needed limited but clearly focused goals for this therapy, one of which involved the introduction of alternative discourses and discursive practices, or put differenctly, cultural “norms”. I hoped that these discoveries would enable Franco to discover the kind of empathic resonance that he had not yet been able to find in his current context.

I found myself having to bite my tongue whenever I was tempted to challenge the ideas Franco presented and I struggled to carry out my therapeutic goal. But, theoretically and personally, I knew there were other options open to him and I was determined to set about facilitating his discovery of these alternative options which would enable him to realize that empathic resonance could be available to him (Gehrie, 2002). I wanted to encourage him to play with these alternatives so that he could find his own optimal positioning within these discourses (Sucharov, personal communication).

Franco clearly had no idea, at least at this stage, that I was gay, nor did it occur to him, it seemed, that I might see or know other gay men or women. I think he saw a middle aged, or even very old, straight, professional woman.

I decided early on that it would be completely inappropriate for Franco to discover that I was gay, nor that I knew anything about homo prejudice from a personal perspective. He was so completely confused and inarticulate about it all that I believed he would have to find his own voice and his own way through the maze that the whole issue of his sexuality presented to him.   However, knowing the pain involved in this process, I felt that he, like I had 26 years earlier, needed some help. I also knew that this was not initially going to come from other confused gay men like his first sexual partner. This earlier experience had understandably left him mistrustful and fearful and had left him feeling completely isolated, dreadfully lonely and confused.

Severed as he was from collective selfobject support had also left Franco with unmet idealized selfobject support (see Abramowitz, p. 5). He felt this absence acutely. I was concerned that his depression would intensify and that suicide was possible or that he would become vulnerable to another painful and exploitative relationship of the kind that had seemed to precipitate his depression. It felt important that he meet others who had: “journeyed through cultural bigotry’s rough terrain with intact and productive selves, or who had as they had proceeded along adulthood’s developmental path, repaired and restored themselves from this relational wounding and thus developed to their full potentials” (Abramowitz, 2001, p. 1).

This occurrence, from a Self Psychological perspective, would act as a mirroring experience for him and hopefully provide him with a developmentally significant twinship / kinship selfobject experience. For this to occur, support was necessary for his attempts at studying with others whose interests were similar to his own and his wish to find a peer group with whom he could identify rather than from which he would feel alienated.

I also hoped that Franco could find a way to develop to his full potential. I wanted him to have to opportunity to find a way to explore the range of Selves that might be in his repertoire and to feel comfortable with their diversity and any contradictions. This included for example, inhabiting and playing with his more camp Self, which enjoyed cooking and presenting exotic meals, wearing jewellery, something I noticed him trying out increasingly as time went on. However, he also loved watching Rugby and football and was quite capable of doing odd, traditionally male, jobs around the house, like painting and repair work. He often did this happily and companionably with his step-father. I hoped he would be able to feel comfortable with all of this and to move in and out of these facets of himself, as his mood and perhaps his context changed.

One of my first interventions involved some “biblio-therapy”, which in retrospect catalyzed a shifting of the family dynamic into a cohesive selfobject support system for Franco’s emerging identity (Sucharov, personal communication). I gave Franco a revised and updated edition of a book that, in a similar space to Franco, I had bought in a department store in Cape Town 26 years earlier. At that time, I told the sales assistant that it was for a “friend of mine”. Perversely perhaps, she put it into a see through packet and I remember walking out of the store desperately trying to cover up the title before I caught a train home.

The book was entitled “Loving Someone Gay”. Franco took it home and glanced through it. He found it interesting. Being a particular kind of South African, he especially liked the way in which the author equated homo-prejudice to racism. However, he is not a great reader and he passed the book on to his mother to read. She devoured it and spoke enthusiastically with Franco about much of the content. He loved these discussions with her. Later, he believed that his mother must have shared aspects of the book with his step-father and his sister, because it became apparent that they had, some weeks into the therapy, come to know and seemingly accept that he was gay. To his surprise, neither of them appeared horrified. His step-father stopped the comments about good looking women on TV and his sister became the source of his meeting a number of other gay people, both women and men, one of who, Dave, was to become extremely significant to Franco towards the end of the therapy. And so Franco began to discover others close to him who “joyfully responded to him, became available to him as sources of idealized strength and calmness, (were) silently present but in essence like him, and, at any rate, able to grasp his inner life (Kohut in Abramowitz, 2001, p. 3).

Going beyond the family, with a view to helping Franco find affiliation with others in the same predicament, or who had found a solution to it (Blechner, 1996, p. 232), I told Franco about The Triangle Project that I said I had come across. It is a gay organization that has a library, voluntary HIV-Aids workers, counseling programmes etc. though sadly at least at the time, no facilitated groups looking at gay issues such as coming out. I discovered this after Franco had phoned them to find out if there was such a group for him to join. He never explored any other possible activities, e.g. voluntary work, reading in the library or helping to catalogue gay books donated to the organization.

The apathy with which he continued to approach aspects of his life continued but there was energy in the room whenever we talked about the hospitality industry and the project that had to accompany his application for the college course. In the process of these discussions, Franco completed the project and gained acceptance into College. This was hugely affirming for him.

Whilst waiting for the course to begin, Franco began to look for a job as a waiter. He told me that he knew about “gay friendly restaurants” and, since he assumed that I did not know, he explained to me what this meant. I sat attentively listening to him, fascinated that he truly seemed to believe that this was not self-evident. He said they were the only kind of restaurant he wanted to work in and from a personal perspective I could completely understand his wish to be with others like himself.

However, he seemed to be getting nowhere. He was only trying small restaurants and he remained painfully shy. This made it difficult for me to imagine him conducting any form of interview, which would get him a job as a waiter. However, since I had no idea how he was outside of therapy and because of my experience of his animation when talking about the hospitality industry and being a DJ, I could not be sure that in other contexts he was necessarily the same as he was in therapy with me. It was perfectly possible that there were slices of his life and his behaviour unseen by me. For these reasons I did not ask questions that might discourage him from this chosen path, and look for other ways of earning money. Instead, I helped him pursue this idea.

I knew a gay man who is an ordinary looking, relatively masculine, neither particularly camp nor particularly butch (in his professional life at least) and who owned a large restaurant. Moreover, I knew that this was on Cape Town’s “pink map”. I told Franco that I had come across the map somewhere, and that I had heard the restaurant was owned by a gay man and without having any contact with the owner, I suggested to Franco that he might perhaps try to find work there. I said I had been to the restaurant and liked it very much.

Franco approached the restaurant, which offered him a job following a brief training period. He met the owner in one of his interviews and began to see him on a beach that Franco frequented with a “girl” friend. He felt good about being able to nod “hello” to such a successful, and quite ordinary looking man who he knew was gay only because I had told him so. This was quite a surprise to Franco who had never met a gay man, who was, from appearances and behaviour, not camp and effeminate, nor butch and aggressive and who was successful and out. A man who, in Abramowitz’s (2002, p.1) terms had apparently “journeyed through cultural bigotry’s rough terrain with [an] intact and productive [self]”

By this time, Franco had begun to look at me when he spoke. He was looking forward to his college course and meeting his classmates, who he remained convinced would be predominantly gay. He had, through two “old” lesbians (who turned out to be 20 years my junior) met Dave who I believe provided Franco with the kind of idealized self-object experience that I could not. Dave is gay, 30 something, divorced with a daughter. He is a successful professional man who is completely “out” in his professional and personal life. He is conventionally masculine looking and seemingly another intact and productive self. For fun, he fixes cars and dances topless on his toes at gay nightclubs. Franco loved him. Franco’s family loved him. Franco moved in to share digs with him and the two of them were going out every night to dinners, some clubs, the movies and Franco felt wonderful. In Dave, the lesbian couple he had met, and in his family members, Franco had begun to have the kind of developmentally essential selfobject experiences of peer twinship and family mirroring, as described by Kohut (in Abramowitz, 2001, p.3). Franco had discovered that there were others outside there who were like him, and that empathic resonance was after all available in this world. This according to Kohut (in Gehrie, 2002, p. 6) is the major constituent of a sense of security in adult life.

Kohut (in Abramowitz, 2001, p.2) also argued that “when the adult experiences the self sustaining effects of a maturely chosen selfobject, the selfobject experiences of all the preceding stages of this life reverberate unconsciously”. I believe that this is what happened with Franco and in this sense the therapy was, whilst unorthodox perhaps, transformational and certainly not directive and educational, as some might venture to suggest.

Because of what had occurred in the therapy up to this point, Franco was feeling increasingly confident in the world. This led to talk about terminating therapy, which we did after only six months. Whilst I am aware that there was and is much more that can be done in therapy with Franco, which is always true of any therapy, it nevertheless seemed appropriate at the time to end the therapy for a number of reasons, some already mentioned above. In summary, this therapy was not about being a good object. It was not about steering Franco in a direction that might reduce his tension and conflict. I would argue that it was developmentally appropriate and transformational. Franco’s discovery of the availability of empathic resonance and other cultural institutions from which he could derive collective selfobject support was crucial for him at this critical developmental stage. This enabled Franco to draw vital affirmation and admiration at a time when, feeling severed from collective selfobject support, he was seriously depressed and potentially suicidal (Abramowitz, 2001, p. 5). Finally, according to Kohut (in Gehrie, 2002, p.17): “the essence of the psychoanalytic cure resides in a patient’s newly acquired ability to identify and seek out appropriate selfobjects – both mirroring and idealizable – as they present themselves in his realistic surrounding and to be sustained by them.”

I believe that Franco had learned to do this. In realistic surroundings he had found cultural and relational selfobject support and the relationship between himself and his selfobjects had changed significantly as a result. Franco had become more of a cohesive Self and this increased cohesion had augmented his ability to use selfobjects for his own sustenance. This had helped facilitate a freedom within himself to choose (appropriate) selfobjects. He had found a comfortable way to come out and to play with his diversity. The diversity had enabled him to find rather than loose, as he had imagined, “certain representatives of his human surroundings … joyfully responding to him, … available to him, … sources of idealized strength and calmness, … being silently present but in essence like him, and, at any rate, able to grasp his inner life” (Kohut in Abramowitz, 2001, p. 3). At this point, we agreed that he could and would return to therapy should he ever feel the need to do so in the future.

Only after I began to prepare the case material for this paper did I consciously realize how similar Franco’s “coming out” process was to my own 26 years earlier, and what effect this had on the way in which the therapy unfolded.

This raises questions about the implications of therapists working with people whose organizations of experiences or presenting problems are not something with which we can affectively resonate, or without the theoretical tools with which to understand the complexities of the contextual problems with which our patients present.

This paper focuses on me as a gay therapist. However, because I have foregrounded the importance of the social/cultural field as a vital context beyond the therapeutic dyad that shapes not only the therapy process but the subjectivity of each participant, it also speaks to the general problem of difference and otherness, both in ourselves and our clients. Since most, if not all of us live in a range of diverse discourses while not being completely at ease with any of them (Sucharov, personal communication) this possibly enables us to do what Kohut (1959) said we needed to do in order to vicariously introspect and hence be “truly” empathic, and to act appropriately in the therapy. However, to do this I believe that we need the selfobject support from others who can resonate with our particular brands of difference or with the effects of a marginalized status. This is what motivated this paper; I wanted to fill the conspicuous gap I identified. We, as therapists, need much of what Franco needed in his context and developmental stage in life from our cultural/professional institutions.   In our contexts, we need the affirming selfobject experiences, which accompany vital reciprocal exchanges with our fellow professionals (Abramowitz, 2001). I hope that this paper will encourage others to come out and play, in our theorizing and in our work in the room, with our diversities and our differences.


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[1] Obviously, in very similar (but also very different) ways, all that is said in this paper will apply to individuals whose site of marginalized difference is located in their race, their culture or religion, their marital status, their disability etc.

[2] I prefer this term to that of homophobia, a term which is misleading

[3] We could add to this, the dominant discourses of “white as the norm” or “married as the norm”. (Don’t those women who have actually chosen to be single hate being asked if we are Miss or Mrs., especially as we get older and forced to take on the stigmatized spinster status in the eyes of the bank clerk attending to us who refuses to hear our answer, “Ms”?)

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