THE BODY POLITIC November 1978, No. 48. Chris Bearchell
The social workers all 60 of them sat comfortably in a large circle of classroom-style desks. The gay peer counsellors all 4 of us, plus one woman who brought us all together sat nervously at the makeshift head table. It was a staff development workshop for the Metro Toronto Family Services Association (FSA). It was our hostess's hope to convince "them" to take "us" on as clients. Instead the effect it had was to convince me that I could not, in good conscience, send a fellow gay person to the FSA.
It all began when the hostess, a young, well-intentioned heterosexual social worker, decided that gay relationships were just like marriages. Someone else decided that she was the perfect professional to help gay male couples "in trouble." (Her stated intention, after all, was not to convert such clients to heterosexuality, only to make them functional mimics in their relationships.) Then, one day she found her practice overwhelmed.
The afternoon got underway with discussion groups in which the social workers answered a series of questions about gay stereotypes (e.g., in lesbian relationships, one partner always assumes the female role and the other the male role true or false?). This was easy. Most of the social workers in my group answered the question quickly and confidently. Silence followed, until two women broke into nervous laughter. They both one was from Hong Kong, the other from Portugal claimed that homosexuality didn't exist in their communities. It was an assumption they had never before questioned.
The others, their own minds blissfully free of stereotypes, were slightly scornful. "I wonder what you think causes homosexuality?" one of them asked, unaware that his question betrayed a disease concept of sexuality. "It's not so much a fear of child-molesters," another assured us, "but I'm concerned about your effect as role models for young people." He seemed literally in awe of the insidious and near-mystical process by which gay people supposedly transmit our sexual orientation. "If you don't think there's anything wrong with being gay," I asked, "what does it matter if provide a model for young people?" Silence.
At coffee break, someone asked, "What about those people who dress up like women and parade around on Yonge Street at Hallowe'en?" "What makes a way of dress 'like a woman'? I retorted. "And what makes you think that's such a good thing?" But the social workers wanted us to disassociate ourselves; they wanted to be reassured that we were as much like them as possible. The organizer still insisted on calling gay relationships "marriages," unable to grasp the possibility that we might even want something better.
The FSA people expressed concern that we, being mere peer counsellors, would send those whom we counselled to avail themselves of the professional services of the agency. "How could you be sure that whoever came to you was gay? What if someone was truly troubled and trying to sort themselves out? Could you give them a balanced view, or wouldn't your bias try to turn them against heterosexual adjustment?" Some of the gay panelists, in turn, wondered what balance was presented in our whole society's aggressive recruitment to heterosexuality.
But some of the other panelists were less able to deal with these questions and they angered me almost as much as the social workers. A macho creature, who had quickly disassociated himself from drag queens, also confidently claimed that straight counsellors could counsel a gay person as well as anyone. And furthermore, he was perfectly capable of counselling lesbians. "After all, they usually just need a sympathetic ear."
If only the enemy within were as easily identified as the enemy without. It was the enemy within which made my fellow panelists want acceptance more than they wanted to defend the interests of our community. It was the enemy within which made me leave things unsaid in order to avoid outright confrontation. I was told not to talk about gay politics because it would turn "them" off. I should have known from that alone how little use these people could be to us, to our community. I was not able to say that lesbians and gay men do not seek out counsellors because they are gay but because of the problems caused by the way the rest of the world treats them.
That is what gay peer counsellors have experienced which no straight professional has. That is why there is a gay community. That is what gay politics is all about.