Monthly Archives: September 2011

The problem that has no name

I’m okay with gay people – they can choose whatever lifestyle they want to live.

God loves all of us, regardless of our sins.

It doesn’t bother me if someone’s gay – they just don’t need to be so obvious about it.

Homophobia is damaging – there’s no question about it. My last two posts addressed the consequences of overtly homophobic acts, such as anti-gay bullying in schools and violent hate crimes perpetrated against LGBTQ people. These are obvious forms of prejudice. You can put your finger on it. You can see it for what it is. These forms of prejudice are unequivocal. And yet, even though these forms of homophobia are incredibly harmful (even potentially fatal), they inflict only a particular type of wound. It’s the more covert forms of homophobia that are more like the silent cancer, killing your soul without you even knowing the disease was there in the first place.

What does covert homophobia look like? One of my students told me that she was riding the light rail train in our city and reading her textbook from our Psychology of Sexual Orientation class (a book which prominently displays the words “lesbian” and “gay” and “bisexual” and “trans”), and a couple of people sitting near her changed seats after she took her book out of her bag. Another student told me of an incident where a friend wanted to know what classes he was taking this semester, and after he mentioned the Psychology of Sexual Orientation class, there was a momentary uncomfortable silence before his friend abruptly changed the subject. Sometimes covert homophobia leaks out in the form of an embedded assumption – for example, when a person says that they’re fine with the “lifestyle” that gay people “choose” for themselves, they are using very loaded words that are often associated with broader heterosexist and homophobic attitudes. The most challenging part of these forms of homophobia is that they are intangible. Even more challenging is the fact that these behaviors or statements are made by people who consider themselves to be good-hearted, well-meaning, and accepting. If my student had gone up to any of the people who had changed their seats and accused them of being homophobic, they would probably have gotten defensive with her. If I were to correct the person who used the words “lifestyle” and “choose” or “choice” in the same sentence and clarified that being lesbian or gay is not a lifestyle or a choice, I run the risk of being accused of being too sensitive. So now we’ve got a double whammy on our hands – a homophobic belief or attitude is leaking out, and you can see it, but your hands are tied. You don’t feel like you can take it up with the person who is engaging in the behavior. If you do take it up with them, they are likely to deny or rationalize their behavior. And then you begin to doubt yourself – which is where the silent cancer of covert homophobia begins to spread through the soul.

A colleague of mine, Kristin Anderson, Ph.D., who is a professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, has recently published a book titled Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice ( In her book, she addresses six commonly held cultural attitudes towards historically oppressed groups (including LGBTQs) that appear harmless on the surface, but that actually encourage prejudice and discrimination. I think this is the direction that our current cultural dialogue about prejudice and discrimination needs to go. The first call to action here is to name “the problem that has no name.”

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Filed under covert homophobia, homophobia, overt homophobia, Uncategorized

Safe haven

This morning, instead of coming straight home from a beautiful weekend in Capitola, I made a pit stop in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco. I had hoped to visit a couple of bookstores to get my newly published book on the shelves, and I also wanted to look into setting up some author events. It’s been several years since I’ve been to the Castro, and while some things have changed, much of it was comfortingly familiar. The Castro Theatre, with its imposing marquee, still showcases classic and indie films (“The Bad Seed” being the one I noticed today, its irony not lost on me). Harvey’s, named after the slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, still serves up food to the Sunday morning crowds. In contrast, its neighbor, A Different Light, the flagship gay and lesbian bookstore, has closed its doors. Two Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence roamed the sidewalks, chatting with passersby. The SF Cheer squad passed out flyers for a classic car event. And numerous gay male couples held hands openly as they walked down the street, occasionally stopping to talk with friends or acquaintances. This, I thought to myself, is what makes the Castro the Castro. It’s why so many LGBTQs (particularly gay men) flock to this neighborhood. It has an incredible neighborhood feel to it, where people are friendly and open and accepting. It’s why so many people consider it to be a safe haven.

And sadly, there probably is no true safe haven for sexual minorities in the United States – or anywhere else in the world, really. Hate crimes are very much a reality in the LGBTQ community. Over 30% of gay men have been victimized by a hate crime at some point in their lives. Between 12-15% of lesbians, bisexual men, and bisexual women have been the target of a serious hate crime. And 1 out of 1000 murders in the United States involves a transperson. And these crimes happen everywhere – at home, in the workplace, in other public places. Including “safe havens” like the Castro.

Here in Sacramento, while nothing like the Castro even remotely exists, there is an area a few blocks wide and a few blocks deep that locals refer to as “Lavender Heights.” A couple of gay and lesbian bars and clubs are in this area. The Lavender Library and Cultural Exchange is in the heart of Lavender Heights, as is the Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center. This is our “safe haven” – which, last night, was very unsafe for a man, walking with an acquaintance, who was assaulted with homophobic epithets and then sustained a blow to the head with a heavy object. The perpetrators were a man and a woman in a silver Land Rover – perhaps roaming the area, looking to cause trouble.

What could possibly motivate someone to make a special trip to Lavender Heights at two o’clock in the morning to perpetrate such a violent act of hate? It doesn’t surprise me that there were two people in the car – hate crimes are far more likely to be perpetrated by groups of people, rather than by a single individual. There’s probably some degree of inhibition-lowering and social contagion when people who harbor sexual prejudice are around others who share the same beliefs. It also doesn’t surprise me that this crime was perpetrated by a male-female pairing – committing an act of hate against a marginalized group can help people secure their sense of belonging to the dominant group, and distance themselves more from the feared “other.”  Nor does it surprise me that the victim was male – gay men are twice as likely than their lesbian or bisexual (male or female) counterparts to be victimized. And while there is no window into the souls of these individuals, I have to think that inflicting this powerfully violent act must alleviate some deeply rooted anxieties and fears. Why else would anyone project out such hate if it isn’t a reflection of one’s personal unconscious anxieties and conflicts? 

There is a group here in Sacramento called the Lavender Angels, which is a volunteer late-night guide and street escort program, concentrating its efforts in the Lavender Heights area. (Incidentally, they are providing a volunteer training on Wednesday, October 6 – for more information, send an e-mail message to I think the Lavender Angels are such a gift to our community. At the same time, if we REALLY want to eradicate hate crimes against sexual minorities, we need to fundamentally change the culture that supports and encourages these crimes. If same-sex couples could just be regular couples, holding hands and walking down the street, anywhere in the U.S. (not just in the Castro), these crimes would diminish significantly. If more heterosexual people would speak up every time a homophobic slur is uttered, these crimes would diminish significantly. If heterosexual couples and families made their gay and lesbian neighbors feel safe to be open about their relationship status, these crimes would diminish significantly. Until then, no safe haven really exists.

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Filed under Castro neighborhood, hate crimes, Lavender Heights, Sacramento, San Francisco, Uncategorized

Is “neutrality” really neutral?

Yesterday, in a New York Times article titled, “In Suburb, Battle Goes Public on Bullying of Gay Students,” Erik Eckholm reports that, in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, eight student suicides have taken place within the last two years. Four of those students who committed suicide had been struggling with their sexual identity. While suicide rates among LGBTQ youth have always been high (studies cite between a 30-42% suicide rate among gay kids), the fact that so many suicides have occurred within such a short period of time is disturbing. What’s particularly important to note is that the Anoka-Hennepin school district lies within Michelle Bachmann’s Congressional district. And therein lies the backdrop to the suicide contagion we’re seeing within this school district.

Michelle Bachmann and her husband, Marcus Bachmann, run a Christian counseling center that has been accused of providing “conversion therapy” to clients. While those allegations haven’t been clearly substantiated, Michelle Bachmann’s attitudes towards homosexuality leak out in her words. For example, in 2004 Bachmann was quoted as saying, “We need to have profound compassion for people who are dealing with the very real issue of sexual dysfunction in their life and sexual identity disorders” (emphasis mine). That homosexuality-as-pathology belief system has infiltrated the public school system, contributing to a heated debate resulting in a “gag order” on any discussion involving sexual orientation. More specifically, the Anoka-Hennepin school district has adopted a policy of “neutrality” regarding sexual orientation, stipulating that sexual orientation should not be taught in the schools in any way, and that school personnel shall remain neutral on issues involving sexual diversity. Although this seems on the surface to be the best “agree-t0-disagree” solution, I think it’s important to question whether a “neutrality” stance is truly neutral.

Anti-gay bullying is not a new phenomenon. High schools have been something of a battleground for gay teens (or teens who are perceived to be gay, regardless of their true sexual orientation). Teens repeatedly say things like, “That’s so gay!” They bully gay kids by using anti-gay epithets against them. LGBT teens get verbally harassed and physically assaulted, and they are routinely subjected to intimidation tactics. According to one study, 80% of gay youth are subjected to verbal harassment, 45% are threatened with physical violence, and 20% are physically assaulted. And sadly, many of these incidents – particularly those incidents involving anti-gay comments and name-calling, and incidents involving intimidation – result in no intervention whatsoever by school personnel. It’s not just the Anoka-Hennepin School District that practices a code of silence around LGBT bullying – it’s almost every school district in the country. And yet, when we stay silent about bullying, discrimination, and oppression, we are ultimately engaging in complicity. Sadly, the LGBT students end up being collateral damage.

What the “neutrality” policy does, in essence, is that it contributes to a hostile campus climate. It also straitjackets teachers who want to intervene on behalf of LGBT students. And it shuts down any potential for conversation.

I’m reminded of a distinction made by Gregory Herek, professor of psychology at UC Davis, who has conducted scores of research studies on sexual prejudice. In his arguments in support of overturning the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Herek underscores the difference between social cohesion and task cohesion. Social cohesion involves liking each other and forming close personal and emotional bonds. Task cohesion, on the other hand, refers to the shared commitment among group members to work towards a common goal. It seems to me that public schools need to step up to the plate and engage in task cohesion regarding ensuring the personal safety and respect of all students. And ensuring that personal safety requires that school personnel be able to exercise the right to intervene when an anti-gay bullying incident is occuring (or, for that matter, any bullying incident). A policy of neutrality does nothing to achieve that goal.

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Filed under anti-gay bullying, gay suicides, hate crimes, homophobia, LGBTQ youth, reparative therapy, Uncategorized

The stories behind the research studies

My name is Gayle Pitman. I am a psychologist with a Ph.D in clinical psychology and the psychology of women. For the past ten years, I have taught psychology and women’s studies courses at Sacramento City College.  In addition to teaching classes about gender issues and psychological disorders, I developed and now teach a class called “The Psychology of Sexual Orientation.” And I just published my first book, titled Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research – a book that, I must say, has quite a story behind it. So let me relay a bit of that story to you.  

In academia, sexual orientation is known as a “specialty topic,” a topic that is included as a course offering only if there is a resident expert on the faculty who specializes in that topic. Because it is such an idiosyncratic area, until recently there were no undergraduate-level textbooks focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in psychology. So, in my Sexual Orientation class, I limped along by cobbling together a “reader” comprised of articles – some academic, others more mainstream and accessible. I also assigned a non-academic book on LGBT issues for my students to read. And my students HATED them. I mean, HATED. In all caps. And yet, our classroom discussions were quite the opposite. They were rich. They were lively. They were heated, emotional, challenging, upsetting, inspiring. They were real. “You should take what we talk about in class and write your own textbook,” one of my students remarked one day, somewhat jokingly. I took her seriously.

And yet, even though I was awarded a full-time sabbatical to write this textbook, it just wasn’t happening. I was hit with a powerful case of writer’s block and procrastination. I sat in front of my computer for eight weeks straight, feeling guilty about all the time I was wasting. I spent countless hours on Facebook, I got better at solving advanced-level Sudoku puzzles on the computer – clearly, these were not activities that I was getting paid to do. So why couldn’t I get it together and put pen to paper (or fingertips to computer keys)? I realized one day, when I was sitting yet again in front of a blank document on my computer screen, that the idea of writing a textbook on such an inherently interesting topic bored the daylights out of me. Although I’ve learned some things from reading textbooks (and, in my student days, have stayed up quite late reading a textbook because of a test the next day), I’ve never stayed up until 3 o’clock in the morning because I just couldn’t wait to finish reading a textbook. And I couldn’t stomach the idea of requiring my students to pay $100 for a book that was boring – especially when the topic itself was so captivating.

On about the eighth week of this very frustrating bout of writer’s block, I had a phone conversation about my book with Esther Rothblum, a psychologist and LGBT researcher at San Diego State University whose work I very much respect. As she was telling me about one of her early research studies, she said, in a somewhat offhand way, “There’s a story behind every research study.” When Esther said those words to me, it dawned on me that the book that needed to be written wasn’t going to be a garden-variety textbook. Somehow, her comment shifted my perspective from that of an academic to that of a storyteller – and I realized that there was quite a story to be told. The path that LGBT research has taken, such as the work focusing on the biological basis of sexual orientation, has been like a series of slowly unfolding subplots, with lots of twists and developments. The people behind the research studies (both the scientists as well as the activists and reactionaries) bring humanity and character intrigue to the story. More often than not, the story ends not with a perky “happily ever after”-style ending, but instead with a series of unresolved questions. And all of the action takes place before the landscape of politics, religion, and moral values. I realized that I couldn’t just dryly report the research findings – I wanted to tell the story behind research on sexual orientation.

So that’s what I did, and the result is Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research

Although many stories were told in my book, the story never really ends. The battle over LGBTQ civil rights still rages on. Psychological research on LGBTQ issues still continues on – and is continually debated. And this is where my blog comes in. I wanted to write Backdrop for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I hoped to bring the science to life. More importantly, though, I wanted to start a conversation about LGBTQ psychological research – and the social policies and political controversies arising from that research. While I get to talk about these things all the time with my students, these rich and intense conversations shouldn’t just be contained within the walls of academia. That’s one of the joys of the Internet, particularly for such a marginalized and invisible group like the LGBTQ population. So please feel free to join me in conversation.

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Filed under LGBTQ, psychological research, Uncategorized