Presidential Address at the 2014 APA convention

Owning Our Place at the Table: The Next Chapter for LGBT Psychology

Entering the next phase of our work together

By Michael L Hendricks, PhD, ABPP

Two years ago, then-president Mark Pope delivered an address that walked us through a history lesson—of our own history—the history of our movement as LGBT people and as psychologists who care deeply about the rights and health of LGBT people. Dr. Pope's address serves as a valuable reminder of not only where we have been, but just how we got here. It was our story, told in a framework that reflects our culture. On the other hand, I have to admit that I found it a little rattling that so much of what Mark called “history” is, to me, memory. Nonetheless, as anyone trained in administering the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale knows, history is important.

In his address, Mark described the “zap” tactics, “facting,” and other strategies that were employed in the earlier days of the movement to raise awareness about issues related to, at that time, mostly sexual orientation; tactics and strategies that ultimately effected changes in policy and law. He also described the gains that were made, particularly within APA, because of the actions taken by psychologists who were, for the most part, members and leaders of this division and its predecessor organization. Indeed, many of those psychologists are now past presidents of Div. 44.

In his address, Mark went on to describe how the tactics used, both within and outside of APA, evolved. He noted that a strategy that ultimately became one of the most successful strategies used by any group within APA is the use of scientific research findings to argue the need for change—referred to as “facting.” With sound research data to offer, even the minds of conservative members of the association were swayed. With that strategy, psychologists advocating for the health and wellbeing of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people have succeeded in securing a number of resolutions, policy statements, guidelines, amicus curiae briefs and personnel practices promulgated by APA. These documents, each of which carries the full support of APA, have contributed to tremendous changes.

But each of these resolutions, guidelines, policy statements and legal briefs came with a great deal of hard work: from developing the research to creating masterfully worded documents that brought that research to bear in ways that simply could not be ignored. Along the way of achieving this level of accomplishment within APA we also added a third major strategy to our repertoire: infiltration. In the last 30 or so years, psychologists from Div. 44 applied for and have been appointed to numerous APA committees and boards, across all four directorates. Not only have we sat on committees and boards, many times we have chaired them—and not just those committees that have been closest to our own interests, like CLGBTC and the Committee on Psychology and AIDS. Our members have been elected, by various divisions, to Council, and have held positions on the APA Board of Directors. In addition, there have been several close allies who have held positions of power within APA—allies who are members of Div. 44. This infiltration within the premier organization of psychologists in the U.S. has helped to transform the relationship between psychology as a field and the LGBT communities.

As with any process of change, gaining the attention of, and then prominence within, APA has not always been smooth sailing. However, in the last few years, the position that we fought hard to earn has mostly paid off with tremendous dividends. For many years, we were banging on the door of those in leadership—those who held the power—within our own field, asking to be heard. But through the successful use of the tactics that Mark described for us, and particularly through facting and infiltration, we now stand on both sides of that door; and where we don't, we almost always have allies on the other side of the door.

Now, the leaders in our field are about as likely to come to us as we are to go to them. As a poignant example, I'd like to share with you an episode from our not-so-distant history: a very difficult situation that many of us will recall all too well in which Div. 44, LGBT psychologists more generally, and some of our strongest allies played an important role in navigating troubled waters.

Many of you will recall the controversy that erupted over APA's use of the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego for the 2010 APA convention. By sheer coincidence, I had a unique position during the year that led up to that convention, serving as the Div. 44 liaison to CLGBTC and thus holding a non-voting position on what was then the Executive Committee of Div. 44. This allowed me to observe and be a part of the process within both bodies that represented those of us who were most directly affected by this issue.

For those of you who may not remember the details, the problem arose when it was learned that the owner of one of the hotels that had been contracted years earlier to serve as a primary hotel for the 2010 APA convention had contributed a substantial amount of money to aid the California Proposition 8 campaign to ban same-sex marriage, which was placed on the 2008 general election ballot—the election in which America elected its first African-American president. This was a ban that effectively took away a right that had been granted by the California Supreme Court; indeed many same-sex couples had already legally wed. APA had taken a stand in favor of civil marriage for same-sex couples and in opposition to Proposition 8, but was locked into a contract that would have cost a great deal of money and no small amount of inconvenience to get out of. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that this particular hotel, the Grand Hyatt, was one of the largest hotels slated to be used for convention.

Even before she became president of APA in January 2010, Dr. Carol Goodheart, who has long been an ally, approached both CLGBTC and the Div. 44 Executive Committee seeking consultation, advice and assistance in finding the best resolution to this problem within the confines of the harsh realities that could not be avoided. She met with CLGBTC at its Fall 2009 meeting. Then, taking time out of her practice, she traveled to D.C. again to meet with the Div. 44 Executive Committee during its midwinter meeting in January 2010. Also present at that Executive Committee meeting was Dr. Jean Carter, who at that time was a member of the APA Board of Directors . It is not insignificant that both of these psychologists, Carol and Jean, are ally members of Div. 44. It is also not insignificant that both of them had for some time, and continue to have, strong personal and professional relationships with many members of Div. 44, among them several who have held positions of leadership within the division.

From my vantage point of participating in the discussion both with CLGBTC and Div. 44, I was not only impressed by the level of commitment demonstrated by Dr. Goodheart—whose presidency, mind you, had essentially been hijacked by this controversy—but by her passion and commitment to chart the best course she could chart, with the interests and concerns of the LGBT members of APA always at the forefront of the process. Nor did she ever lose sight of that aim. It was then that it became clear to me that all the years that we have struggled to be heard—to have our place at the table—were not in vain. Not only did this demonstrate that we had a voice if and when we wanted to be heard; our opinions, our thoughts, our feelings were being sought out as a necessary component for determining the best course of action for APA.

In one way, this mighty achievement might look like the work of a rather monolithic, single-minded and determined community exerting its influence on the field, almost through sheer force. After all, political science holds up countless examples of how change is brought about—for better or for worse—when these elements coincide. Besides, we do have those among us whom many regard almost like forces of nature—in a good way, of course. For some reason, Kris Hancock comes to mind. Some of you may be old enough (like I am) to recall a commercial, the tagline of which ran, “When J.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” Well in Div. 44, when Kris Hancock talks, people listen.

But as President Arlene Noriega reminded us last year in her Presidential Address, we are not monolithic and we are not single-minded—though we certainly are determined. Instead, we are a collection of communities sharing commonalities that run along the spectra of gender diversity and sexual orientation, but with simultaneously overlapping identities based in ethnicity, country of origin, socioeconomic status, religion and spirituality, geographic region and so many other aspects of what we call culture. As Arlene pointed out, we are still in the process of understanding the variety of aspects of identity that we hold—the intersectionalities of these varied elements that contribute to who we are as individuals. What we do know, however, is that it is these intersectionalities that make us stronger as individuals and especially as a community. It is the diversity of voices at our table that have allowed us to refine our actions, to strengthen our commitment, and to be recognized outside of our own division and community for our depth of thought and insightfulness.

As Arlene pointed out, there was a time when our predecessor group was known as the Association of Gay Psychologists. Then the “L” word was added. Not only that, it was added before the “G” word to help overcome the invisibility of lesbians in our community and in society in general. Later, the “B” was added; and more recently the “T.” It is worth noting that neither of these latter letters was added before the previous letters in the acronym—or in the name of the division. So the path through history even within our own community has not always been smooth sailing either. Had we repeated the courage of that earlier decision when lesbians were named in the title of the organization, we might now be known as the Society for the Psychological Study of Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay (or TBLG) Issues. Perhaps historians will ultimately opine that this was one of our biggest errors as a community, simply because of the lost opportunity and the downstream ramifications that it has had.

With each acknowledgment of another constituency of our community, we became stronger—less monolithic but with more of a focus on unity (as opposed to single-mindedness). Admittedly, we also get deeper in the alphabet soup and there may soon come a day—perhaps in the not-to-distant future—when we decide to drop the individual letters altogether and instead opt for a more encompassing title. This is what the division did in naming our journal: Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity. Arlene proposed that when we get to that point of fishing ourselves out of the alphabet soup, we might follow the example set decades ago when “lesbian” was placed ahead of “gay” and put “gender diversity” ahead of “sexual orientation.” Personally, I would second that move; but I think that this decision will likely be made by the next generation of psychologists—who are not all that far behind, by the way.

One of the things that makes this division and other “identity” divisions stand out from other divisions is that while we are certainly a collection of psychologists who have a professional interest in the mission of the division, this is our home as well. This means that the errors we make have more than just professional consequences—they have personal consequences. I am not talking about bruised egos; I am talking about errors that can lead members of our own community to feel less at home, less safe, and less respected. These are the errors that hurt the most. And when these errors do occur—and they do—it becomes necessary to own them and address the processes that allowed them to occur, to help to ensure that they do not happen again. Under no circumstances can they be simply ignored.

Just one such error occurred this past year in this division, and I am frankly embarrassed that this particular error occurred during my presidency. But as I said, I cannot ignore it. People I care deeply about and with whom I feel real kinship have been hurt. Simply burying it in the minutes of the Executive Board meeting will not resolve the issue; and without resolution, owning our place at the table that we fought so hard to obtain becomes a hollow achievement, because we are less able to speak effectively with unity.

Here's what happened: Following a long-standing practice within the division of making a selection for the venue for the division's Annual Fundraising Dinner for this convention, a small group of individuals, myself included, gathered information that provided us with a number of options. Among those options was the Equality Center at the HRC Building. Through a winnowing process, many of the options were quickly ruled out because of cost, lack of sufficient space, or unavailability. This left us with three remaining options, still including the HRC Building. Of these, one was clearly more expensive than the other two options and so was eliminated because the ultimate goal of the dinner is to raise funds for the division. A second was eliminated because it was a restaurant that was known to have an approach to the LGBT community in general that was substantially less than favorable. This left the HRC Building. Plans then progressed to secure the space and to arrange for a caterer.

The problem was that there was no trans member of our community who was consulted in this process, and HRC has had, at best, a tepid relationship with the trans community—most notably over its previous and repeated decisions to continue to lobby for ENDA even when gender identity and gender expression were explicitly not included in the bill before Congress. The result of the decision regarding the dinner venue was that members of our own division felt marginalized and devalued. The irony in this is that my first leadership position in Div. 44 was as a founding Co-Chair of what was then the Transgender Task Force—the group that ultimately grew into the Committee on Transgender People and Gender Diversity, whose members were most affected by this decision. This should not have happened. Yet it did. As president of this division, I was involved in the decision making process and the responsibility was ultimately mine and I want to apologize to those who have been hurt by this decision.

In the board meeting the past Thursday, we voted on a change in policy for the division that will help to ensure that this will not happen again. But without taking ownership for the error, we lose some of the unity and determination that makes this division so effective. That would result in a much worse impact for the division and a completely unacceptable one for me personally.

During the board meeting, after Colt Keo-Meier presented the Trans Committee's response to the selection of the dinner venue, there was a long period of silence. In my mind, I was realizing that I had to re-write my Presidential Address. This was simply too important to ignore; and it held clear implications for the theme of my address. After all, if members of our own community did not feel that they had a place at our table, what sense did it make to talk about us as a community and a division having a place at the table among our colleagues in the field.

This was clearly not one of our shining moments. But we are a remarkably resilient group and it is my sincere hope that this situation and the hard lesson that we learned from it will ultimately help us to become even stronger.

As I said, sometimes the path even within our community is not a smooth one. Nor is it always linear. Allow me now to describe for you what clearly is a shining example of all of our strengths converging to produce not only a process that would make any psychologist proud, but also an outcome (albeit still in the making) that is a tour de force in its own right. This example also represents the latest development within the field of LGBT psychology in many respects.

I am talking about the Task Force on Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Clients . This Task Force in many ways continues the venerable tradition of utilizing research to effect change by pulling from a diverse group, all the while owning the authority that we have earned. The formation of this Task Force was delayed for years specifically because of doubt among psychologists within APA about whether there would be sufficient scientific study of the attendant issues by which to support any recommendations at all, let alone consensus within the field of mental health providers working with trans clients. It got further delayed when the financial bubble burst and APA's discretionary budget evaporated.

When the task force was finally appointed a little more than three years ago by the joint leadership of Div. 44 and CLGBTC, seven members were initially appointed. One of the first decisions made by the Task Force was that we lacked sufficient diversity to successfully address the task at hand. For starters, only two of the original seven identified as trans. We also had only one ethnic minority member at that time. So we set out to add three additional members, with an emphasis on diversifying the Task Force. The result was a team of 10, five of whom identify as trans and with increased ethnic diversity.

From the start, we were aware that the guidelines that would be produced by this Task Force would face a potentially uphill battle getting passed through the various committees and boards of APA, and, ultimately by Council and the Board of Directors. Anticipating this, we engaged that strategy that Mark Pope pointed out that we had mastered: facting. Almost immediately, the Task Force set to the task of ensuring that nearly every statement that would be made in the document would be backed up by research—this, in addition to a process of clarifying what concerns the guidelines themselves would address—that is, what topics could be covered. Now, a little more than three years into our work, this Task Force has produced a current draft that contains approximately 300 substantive professional literature references. Most of the studies cited in the current guidelines document were completed in the last 10 years—yet another example of the great deal of work and expertise that it takes to produce the necessary scientific data. Two years ago, Mark commented that we have mastered this particular strategy. I would say that we have nearly perfected it!

Perhaps what has earned us the most respect and has most helped to secure our place at the table is the impact of the work that we do as researchers, educators, clinicians and advocates. For example, the work of psychologists in this division has been cited in multiple amicus curiae briefs that have ultimately contributed to the Courts changing the way LGBT people are treated in our society. Another example is the impact of advocacy work of the Congressional Fellows Program, coordinated by the Public Interest Government Relations Office at APA. A significant number of members of Div. 44 have served in this capacity, and the PI-GRO office is now under the directorship of one of our own Past Presidents, Judith Glassgold. So here is an example of both infiltration and facting in action.

And the impact? Last year, Arlene talked about all the states that had at that point been added to the list of marriage equality states and the twin Supreme Court decisions that struck down key elements of DOMA and effectively overturned California's Proposition 8. Kevin Cathcart, the executive director of Lambda Legal, who last year accepted this division's Clarity Award on behalf of his organization, also spoke of the momentum of marriage equality cases. Since that time, there has been a rapid succession of Appellate Court decisions that have successively struck down state constitutional amendments and laws banning same-sex marriage or recognition of same-sex marriages from other states. In fact, there is no longer any state in the U.S. that does not currently allow same-sex marriage in which there is not a pending appeal of that state's ban or a recent court decision striking down the ban.

One of the most recent of these decisions was in the 4 th Circuit, which covers Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas. Based in Richmond, Virginia, this has traditionally been understood to be one of the most conservative Courts in the Appellate system. It is also the Court that, in 1967, had upheld Virginia's ban on inter-racial marriage in Loving v. Virginia. The Attorney General from North Carolina has accepted the court's decision and has declined to appeal that state's case any further. Prior to the Appeals Court hearing, the Virginia Attorney General officially changed the Commonwealth's position to one opposing Virginia's marriage ban. Now, he has requested the Supreme Court to review (and ratify) the Appellate Court's conclusion, in the interest of avoiding another Loving case.

What does this look like to us? I sent out an email asking members and students of Div. 44 to send me their wedding photos, along with their name, their spouse's name, and the date of their nuptials. Here are those photos. Other than the placement of the first and last slides, the rest are relatively random. In each slide, the name of the division member or student appears first, regardless of placement in the photo. I also included the location of the nuptials, when I had this information.

One interesting note here—and this is entirely unscientific. As you see, we have clearly more photos of male couples than we do of female couples. I really had not given this much thought, until Thursday morning, when I attended a session on same-sex marriage in which Robert-Jay Green reported results from a longitudinal study conducted in California. They found that of the couples who initially participated in their study, just prior to the first round of marriage equality in California, a slightly higher percentage of male couples compared to female couples had gotten married by the time of the follow-up five years later (after the repeal of Proposition 8).

I want to point out that there is one particular photo notably missing from this montage. I had asked Dr. Jean Carter to provide me a photo. Jean is a dear friend and business partner, having been in the same practice for several years. I asked Jean to do this not because she is my friend or because she is just any ally. I asked because she and her husband, Dean, made a decision together to wait to get married until it was legally possible for their friends to get married in the U.S. I think that Jean is too modest to point this out to most people, but we need to be careful not to either forget the important roles that our allies play in our work or to minimize them.

While there is no question that we should celebrate the gains made on the marriage equality front and that we should regard these as important successes, we need to be careful not to lose sight of the fact that this is not the end of our work. Most notably, many of the legal gains we have secured for people who identify as bisexual, lesbian or gay do not convey to people who are not cisgender. Multiple surveys have shown that trans people, when they are compared to cisgender people with similar levels of education, make consistently less money and are less financially secure. Similarly, multiple studies have reported that trans people experience outright discrimination across a wide range of everyday life experiences, including housing, accommodations, and health care—including mental health care. This last point is particularly disturbing and is, I think completely unacceptable. Clearly, we have much more work to do. I propose that this is the central focus of our next chapter.

If it seems that we have picked up momentum in recent years, perhaps it is because of the strategies that we have used that have essentially secured our place at the table. To the extent that our successes depend on scientific data—data to which many of us in this room have contributed—we need to ensure that this information is disseminated in a timely manner. As just one example of how the need for the application of data has intensified, consider how many legal cases in the fight for marriage equality there have been in just the past year. Cases like these are won when the argument is supported by sound, scientific data. At the same time that organizations that conduct most of the advocacy work do not also produce the data needed to present to the courts. That is where we come in—as LGBT psychologists and as a division.

In this past year, with the agreement of the Board, I redefined the position of Outreach Coordinator with the intent that this person will help facilitate the flow of information and the establishment of connections needed to respond more rapidly to what has already become a flurry of advocacy projects, including legal briefs. Gregory Sarlo, who is our first Outreach Coordinator in this newly defined role, will work closely with the President of Div. 44, with Judith Glassgold, the director of PI-GRO, and with Clinton Anderson, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns Office at APA to facilitate Div. 44's contribution to a coordinated effort to bring research and knowledge about LGBT issues to bear where and when they are needed. He will also hold a seat on the Public Policy Committee, the Science Committee, and any other committee within Div. 44 that may seem appropriate in the future. The goal of this position is to facilitate the extent to which Div. 44, where many of the best researchers, educators and advocates in the areas of LGBT issues are members, can better aid and participate in the wider advocacy efforts.

In this way, we utilize, in new and more effective ways, the skills that we have acquired over the last few decades, to help bring our society closer to the goal of greater equality. While that has been our goal for many years, we now participate in this process with a recognition of authority and expertise that took all these years to earn—an authority and expertise that is further strengthened by paying attention to parallel issues of diversity and equality within our own communities. So now, it's time to turn the page to the next chapter, surely made brighter by the amazing intelligence and skills of the next generation who will stand on our shoulders as we have stood on those of others, reaching heights only dreamed about not so long ago. For those of us in my generation of psychologists, let us ensure that we provide them the base of support—literally and figuratively—that they will need to achieve what we can only hope for.

It has been a privilege to serve this division as your President. And to now, with no small measure of humility, place myself among a most esteemed group—the past presidents of the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues. Thank you.