No Face Pic = No Chat

I cruise the hook-up apps just like most gay men that have smart phones. A comment I see in profiles a lot is something along the lines of “no face pic = no chat.” It is a sentiment that I can understand. In fact it is a sentiment I kind of share. I like to visualize what a guy that I am chatting with looks like. I think it makes it more like real time. It’s also nice to think the person I am chatting with is not dealing with shame. I am too out to try to be closeted when in public with someone.

However, I also recognize that despite the progress we have made in society there are still many proud people who do not feel comfortable being quite so public. In fact I have often thought about obscuring my identity on social media as well because of my professional position. It can be disturbing for clients to know too much about my personal life—it can be distracting from the work we are doing or they can find out something they don’t like but is irrelevant to the professional work we are doing. I know that some clients have seen me naked or seen pictures of me naked—just as I have stumbled onto naked pictures of my clients on occasion—and this is something that ideally I would not like to have as part of our relationship, but being open is a decision I personally have made.

One of the comments I have seen deriding the absence of a face pic referenced the age of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell being over. I have a client who is an officer in the military reserves. We talked about what it might mean for him to add to his Facebook profile that he is in a relationship with another guy after Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was overturned. He acknowledged that he thought it was great that he could not be kicked out for being found out anymore, but expressed sincere concern that he would not receive another promotion in his career if his superiors found out that he is gay. One’s career in the military is not secure just because of a change in policy, it will take a while before there is a change in attitude up the ranks.

There are also many conservative professions in which having that much exposure could be occupationally damaging. Here in Houston, the economy is dominated by oil & gas, the medical industry, and shipping. All three of these industries are notoriously conservative. Some of the energy companies have excellent non-discrimination policies. However, I think that by now we also know that not all of management abides by the spirit of non-discrimination policies. Similarly, we think of the medical field as well educated (and equate this with liberalism), but the medical industry (like the mental health industry) have a long history of keeping one’s private life private. The majority of the gay doctors I have talked to do not put their face on their profiles because they have to deal with both a broad political spectrum of patients and a politically conservative work environment. I don’t think there is any confusion about how liberal or conservative the shipping industry is.

The counter argument I hear a lot in my defending the faceless is that only other gay people are looking at the apps, so what would be the concern? This has been the argument about why it is safe to go to the gay bar for years—only other gay people will see you there. Today, neither of those arguments is quite true. I see straight people at my bar almost every time I go, and I go to one of the least straight-friendly bars in the city. But the apps are even more vulnerable to exposure outside of the community. How many gay guys are showing profiles to gal pals non-gay friends because the guy is particularly hot or the profile is particularly amusing? Okay, now what if the friend shown the app is a co-worker of the person whose profile was just shown? Sure, the friend is probably open-minded, but nonetheless the person on the app was just outed at work without control of that information—and without consideration of the possible consequences.

Everyone needs to decide what they want in a potential partner or trick on the apps, but I do wish that people would respect that not everyone is free of consequences of being out. The majority of states—including Texas—do not have non-discrimination clauses and many employers are still willing to punish, terminate, or limit gay employees. And besides, the next time you ignore the faceless guy on the apps, you just might be missing out on that doctor you mother wanted you to marry.

Excited and Angry

Two things of note happened in my life recently related my identity as a gay man, and as a mental health professional. President Obama publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage and in the same week a former client committed suicide because his family could not accept his sexual orientation. This is a rough juxtaposition for me.

Part of me wants to celebrate President Obama’s announcement. I want to share in the joy of this gesture. I see it as a symbolic action in that as President he has little official power to effect change in state marriage laws. I see that it has importance nonetheless, in that it will inevitably affect public opinion and has the potential to set same-sex marriage rights as an official party policy. I recognize that progress will only be made incrementally and often symbolic gestures can turn a real world, practical tide, which is what I hope happens in this case.

However, I am reminded on a weekly basis in my office, by the people that sit on my couch that as a people, GLBTs are far from being accepted. Many of us living our insulated lives—frequently among our liberal friends—are unaware of the daily oppression that has gone on or continues to go on. Most of us have not been directly affected by the oppression. I have been an out gay man for just over 25 years; in that time I have been threatened with physical harm or even death a half dozen times—sometimes anonymously, sometimes from a person standing right in front of me—and I have had my apartment door vandalized in grad school (see picture).

In those 25 years I have also seen sodomy legalized, DADT overturned, and same-sex marriage begin to be legalized. I have seen numerous openly gay or lesbian politicians be elected. I have seen numerous states pass non-discrimination laws. I have seen a President specifically address a GLBT audience, appoint openly gay and lesbians to sub-cabinet positions and ambassadorships, and invite GBLT individuals to state dinners. The amount of progress I have seen is sometimes enough to make my head spin.

We have made tremendous progress in the last 25 years. But there is a sentiment that (suddenly?) everyone can be out and open with reprisal. I see this sentiment on the online hook-up apps all of the time because the person himself feels safe without consideration for what consequences may result from another’s different consequences (demands that people have a face picture in their profiles without any consideration as to the workplace or family consequences involved in being exposed). There is a sense that since we live in a liberal city which elected an openly lesbian mayor we are safe. All of the threats and attacks that I experienced also occurred in exceptionally liberal cities.

The day that President Obama made his announcement there were protests all over the country planned in response to the vote the previous day in North Carolina to ban same-sex marriage. The majority of the protests were immediately converted into celebrations. I agree that having a sitting President express support for our equality is a momentous occasion as well. But I also was a little frustrated that it diffused our anger. It is our anger that fuels us toward continued progress, not celebration. Stopping to celebrate our progress is essential in maintaining hope and I fully support it. However, I also fear that we will become complacent with the crumbs of acceptance.

I am reminded of how far we still have to go about every week by my clients. I also am aware of the (indirect) effect of the barrage of stories of oppression—bullying and ministers, as of late—has on the psyche; it is not healthy to be continually reminded that people hate us. How many times a week are you exposed to homophobia by reading the news? I hope that we still get angry, but do not stay angry, but I also hope we do not stay joyous yet. I hope that we are able to appreciate the progress with one eye, while simultaneously recognizing the immense progress still to made with the other.

Therapy Does Not Equal Rent a Friend

“I don’t need therapy, I have friends”

This is a sentiment that is frequently expressed. However, this is not the reality that I generally see among my clients. While it is true that I often perceive that my clients could strengthen their social support networks, they do not come to therapy to share their mundane problems—that is what social support systems are for. Rather, they come to me with enduring or intense problems that they feel for which their support systems are inadequate.

A concern that I often hear from clients is that they do not want to overburden their support systems. I think most of do not like friends that are constantly complaining—most of us also do not like to be the friend that is constantly complaining. We do not want to be perceived as an embodiment of our problem, but to be seen for the multidimensionality that we are. As a consequence, we often withhold some of the pain we are experiencing from our friends in order to appear to be “bigger” or more than the pain. We want out friendships to be a balance of support and entertainment-companionship.

When a problem is enduring and personal it is difficult to constantly have ‘the problem” as the context in which one interacts with friends. Friends are often well meaning in asking about a problem, but rather unprepared to deal with the full brunt of the problem. They also do not understand that by asking about a problem, while they intend to be supportive and are genuinely interested and concerned, they actually help keep the problem in the forefront of the person’s mind. Sometimes we want our friends to offer us support as a “time out” from the problem.

Friends also lack the ability to be objective. Friends have insight that a therapist never will, however, they also have their own filters as well. Friends are also are rarely free of their own agenda. When a therapist develops an agenda for a client it is grounded in an understanding of the client’s best interest. While I genuinely care about the happiness of my clients, at the end of the day my life will largely be unaffected by the outcome of a client’s decisions. Friends are frequently affected by friend’s decisions, and are aware of this. Therapists are able to be outside, independent observer in a way that friends can never be. Friends also recognize that by being too challenging of their friends they can endanger the friendship. As a therapist I get more liberties to challenge people about their problems and call “bullshit” when I see it.

Sometimes clients come to me because they do not feel safe talking to their friends about their problems. If the problem is about a friend and one is not sure how to address it or is uncertain about the problem in some way, then talking to the friend about the problem is not likely to feel comfortable. There are also things that we would rather not have our friends know about us. While I am not a big fan of secrecy, it is a reality of many people’s lives—as is privacy. Sometimes there are things that we would like to better understand before we are ready to share with friends—or even know how to share with friends. One of the reasons people come to therapists is because we are trained to deal with the heavy shit—questioning the existence of god/good/evil, feeling life is meaningless, questioning one’s gender/sexual orientation, figuring out what roles one actually wants in society—these are not questions that most friends are prepared to deal with and can only give pat advice.

Friends also are not trained in theories of personality, human development, symptom identification and treatment, and processes of human change. Therapists are. Listening to problems and being supportive is an incredibly important role of friendship. But listening to problems and being supportive is not facilitating change or personal growth, actually it often facilitates the status quo. Therapy often provide and educational or normalizing role that friendship cannot—either the friends do not have the knowledge or they will be trusted as unbiased.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of a social support system. In fact it helps feel keep us stable and from sinking into poor mental health. But friends cannot offer the same professional guidance and exploration (not advice) that therapists provide.

Labels (Part 2)

I recently wrote about why I think labels can be useful, even though there is a mantra against labeling people. The double edged sword of labeling people is that they promote expectations, but this can be both problematic and beneficial. Names for relationship status is another area where I hear an avoidance of labels. I hear less encouragement of avoiding labels of relationships, but no less frequency of it; “it’s complicated” is one the ways that people frequently avoid labeling a relationship these days.

I have friends that are dating, and apparently in a monogamous relationship, only they are afraid to label their relationship as “dating” or refer to each other as “boyfriends.” They are sexually exclusive with each other and have romantic feelings for each other but do not dare label their relationship as “boyfriends.” I do not know what they think is the risk of labeling what is going on between them, but it feels risky to them.

It seems that they think that by not labeling it a relationship—they are roommates—they do not risk being emotionally hurt. However, I think they actually create greater risk by not labeling their relationship. Labeling a relationship does mark certain expectations, or can clarify expectations. But in this case, the absence of the label does not mean the absence of the expectations. If either of them were to have sex or go on a date with someone else they would very hurt—as much hurt as if they had labeled the relationship. Only without the label, the expectation is not made explicit.

Both of these guys are sexy guys and this is where the label would be useful for others. If they labeled themselves as being in a relationship it would give the rest of us a better sense of how to treat them—namely as a couple. Until I figured out that they were dating (unbeknownst to themselves) I would hit on each of them, now I know to back off. I still do not know when I am expected to invite them both to things or just one of them—with couples I default to inviting both, but with roommates I am more inclined to invite one or the other to something, based on what the event is.

Of course the flip side is that labels sometimes do not help in clarifying some things and can even cause more confusion because we have limited expectations for labels. Relationships come in many forms. But they can at least inform us as to what questions to ask. If someone is in a relationship I can inquire about the nature and boundaries of the relationship, but without a label we are more likely to step on toes without realizing it. Even when I encounter an open relationship I attempt to clarify the parameters of the openness of their relationship. So the label cannot tell one all of the nuances of the relationship, but it provides a framework in which to work.

There may be a shortage of terminology to describe the full range of relationship types—the term “monogamy” does not well apply to a triad relationship in which the three members are exclusive to each other, but neither does the term “open” apply well. Similarly, an open relationship in which the members of the relationship only play with outsiders separately is different than a couple that only plays with others together, but “open” is still the only term we have for either relationship style. However, “open” provides a framework for either style.

Expectations are essential to relationships—they are part of what defines them in fact. The label is not what defines the relationship—the expectations exist (perhaps unspoken) without the label—but the label helps others know how to best interact with the members of the relationship. Unfortunately, the feelings and expectations are there regardless of the label. The label also provides clearer guidance as to how to act for the members within the relationship—including what inquiries to make about how to act.