Psychoanalysis and Homosexuality Conference

Bernard Ratigan

By Bernard Ratigan

Reflections on the conference on psychoanalysis and homosexuality, January 21 2012

It was a relief that the conference was so well attended. I would be interested in knowing the demographics of the attendees in terms affiliation, location, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender. My impression was that many of the attendees were not members of the BPC and especially not psychoanalysts. If this is a correct assumption it is sad and needs thinking about in terms of the ‘What Next?’ question.

As someone not in membership with the BPC, though clinically finding myself much more in sympathy with it than some colleagues in UKCP, although there was much talk (rightly) of the day being momentous and a turning point, I felt it was surreal. There was a strong sense of déjà vu. It was as if the last 30+ years, since it was made clear that training as a psychoanalyst was not for gay people, had not occurred. I had made my career in provincial settings where being out as a gay psychoanalytic psychotherapist never seemed a big deal.

Hearing the history of the psychoanalytic engagement with homosexuality and the consequent perversion, domestication and the gradual growing heteronormativity of psychoanalysis as the twentieth century wore on was, of course, as it always is, useful. My problem was that I have been banging on about it for so long. I had to remind myself that for some present it might have been news. It was hard to believe that recent products of trainings in psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy had not been through all this as part of their training. If not, why not, I asked myself? If trainings are integrating diversity into their curricula why was the conference necessary? What have the trainings that receive any form of public money been doing all these years? There is a serious question of accountability that needs thinking about.

Another difficulty I had with the day was the gap between my lived life as a gay man, the experience of assessing and treating many (hundreds of) gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people over my clinical career as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and some of the theorising that occurred during the conference. I wondered if the day had begun with a showing of the recently released, very low budget film, ‘Weekend’ in which two young men meet for what turns out to be a weekend and in between having sex they have some conversations that would help therapists better understand their patients.  (Look up the trailer on You Tube.)

Throughout the day the question of the toxic nature of the closet, both for patients and for psychotherapists, was like a ghost in the room. My view is that it is most effective for LGBT clinicians to be able to be open about their sexuality in professional settings. The epistemophilic instinct will be at work in the consulting room sniffing out material about the therapist. This is always a challenge to manage well in terms of keeping the overall need to help and not hinder the patient’s health with the therapist’s own model of analytic neutrality.

Having a cadre of out LGBT senior clinicians enables theoretical and clinical teaching to be informed by their insights. Engagement with LGBT communities, as to the range of views about psychoanalytic treatments would reveal, yes some not unexpected skepticism, but also considerable curiosity. Psychoanalysis, I believe, has much to contribute not only to LBGT concerns but also to the wider culture in the hope of bringing thoughtfulness to our national concerns. Psychoanalytic thinking reaches areas of thought, feeling and subjectivities unmatched by any other discourse. It is a bit like opera: yes, it is arcane in its performance practices, but it does capture (for me) the heights and depths of human experience often rapped up in myth.

On Saturday, I was often reminded of the black and white television documentaries of my childhood and youth where, from behind a screen, ‘A Homosexual’ would speak of his (it was always a he) misery and the message to the child behind the sofa who would himself grow up to be another ‘Homosexual’ was ‘This Is Your Future”. During the conference, the anonymous invitation for attendees to identify themselves as LGBT (weakened, of course, by being kept anonymous) was let slip in the actually process of the day. The chair of the session made a pragmatic decision not to let this request be discussed by the whole conference. It had been pre-discussed, I imagine at length, by the group that wrote the (rather anodyne) position statement and it would have completely derailed the afternoon programme, I imagine. Yet the paper from the Boston out gay analyst was precisely the result of US colleagues in, of all US psychoanalytic institutes ‘The American’, doing what the writer of the anonymous request had asked to be done: come out.  

The future: there needs to be engagement with the Institute of Psychoanalysis/British Psychoanalytic Society (I am never sure of the difference) to think about its current position on ‘Homosexuality’. Given the ideological power structure in psychoanalysis, broadly defined, this is an imperative. It would have spoken such a powerful message if some of the most senior members of the British Society had chosen to be present. If the conference was as noteworthy as some claimed, I was left wondering where was the President of the British Society? I was glad though that the Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis at UCL felt able to give the first lecture of the day.

Given the lack of presence in the public sphere by psychoanalysis it is not going to be easy to find a voice for psychoanalytically informed debate about contemporary questions regarding the sexualities and the looming culture wars .  Given the concentration of the media in this country in London and the parallel concentration of psychoanalysts surely there it is worthwhile giving more thought to out-reach than is current. It would be a pity if psychoanalysis just died out as a result of being so inward looking. There are excellent provincial examples, like in Leeds and Sheffield, of community-linked partnerships that do much to show psychoanalysis as part of the common culture not something just in the consulting room.

If there is to be a future event on ‘Homosexuality’ (but, please, not with that word in the title) and aspects of homophobia, as suggested by Guild member Laurie Slade, there needs to be more engagement with the research coming out of Michael King’s work at UCL, more on the impact of religions have on LGBT people in terms of psychopathology and, most painfully, with the particular issues arising from homonegative attitudes in some BME communities in the UK. It is my preliminary view that the faith and race issues are closely linked and that psychoanalysis (or at least a version of it) and the monotheistic faiths are the two so-called ‘intellectual’ roots of prejudice against gay people.  I hope such a future conference would be ecumenical with BCP, UKCP, BACP all coming together and there being actual debate with those who do not agree with the liberal consensus.

By the time of any future conference I hope LGBT members of the BPC have been able to identify themselves to provide support for each other (if needed), as mentors, as resources for teaching theory and clinical matters where an LGBT perspective may prove enriching and as ambassadors to the world of psychotherapy and wider of the determination of the BPC to move on from the silence of the recent decades. The American experience was posited on members having the courage to come out and be clear that they were gay/lesbian. To establish the success of these moves towards the making a more LGBT friendly psychoanalysis, the current numbers of LGBT members in the various sections of the BCP will need to be known to see if the attempts at change are working. Silence is dangerous in this situation.

[A version of this report was published in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Vol. 26 No. 2, June 2012, 99-101.]

Bernard Ratigan