2016 Div. 44 Presidential Address

Social Justice and Sexual Minority Psychology

Excerpts from the Div. 44 presidential address, 2016 APA Annual Convention

By Allen M. Omoto, PhD

I know that many Div. 44 members were not able to attend the APA convention this year, and even for those who did, many likely had more important business than attending my presidential address. As it was, my talk was scheduled in a hotel located some distance from the convention center and in a room that did not have audiovisual equipment. After some delay in getting set up, I gave my talk in full. In my presentation, I talked about some things that have been on my mind for some time, and on which my own thinking and commitment have continued to evolve. Specifically, I considered different ways and motivations of working for social justice, including tracing a little bit of my own winding and discontinuous path to becoming a psychologist working for social justice. Along the way, I wove in nods to some of my research, and closed with discussion of Div.44 and its current and potential future work for social justice. In this shorter article, I focus on the last part of my talk, and specifically on social justice issues and Div. 44. I offer here my comments on the work that I believe Div. 44 needs to do in the future to be a positive force for social justice in the APA, psychology, and the world at large.

At the outset, I hasten to point out that I do not claim to speak for the Div. 44 leadership or members, but rather, I offer my own appraisal of how it seems to me many people think about the division and also how social justice currently and could potentially more strongly guide the mission of Div. 44. In doing so, I also note that the term “social justice” is sometimes used interchangeably with concepts like diversity, respect, access, equity, multiculturalism, human rights, inclusion, and so on. Other definitions of social justice focus on social mobility and the breaking down of barriers to mobility as well as economic justice and distribution of wealth, while still others emphasize movements and activism aimed at creating a more socially just world. What is important to me in a definition of social justice is that it has roots in basic human rights, the dignity of every person and the assumption of equality among all people. As psychologists, we are comfortable and more familiar with the term social justice than human rights, although I would argue that human rights is a broader term that helps call attention to societal and institutional structures and organizations, including the obligations and roles these organizations play in constraining actions of public bodies (including the government) toward individuals. As I will mention later, I also think it is important to make clear that inclusion and access do not guarantee social justice, and in some contexts, may actually serve as disincentives to pursuing social justice.

In my view, Div.44 is at a critical time in its commitment to social justice. So as to not bury the lead, I seek to issue a call to action of sorts, or at least a gentle nudge, for Div. 44 to take more active steps to look outside itself, look beyond the APA, and to engage itself and encourage its members to pursue social justice work in other spheres of influence. I know that many people are doing this work already on an individual level, but truth be told, there are surprisingly few Div. 44 initiatives or priorities that revolve around social justice.

In fact, the current mission statement for Div. 44 contains what you'd expect in terms of working toward advancing understanding of LGBT issues through research and promoting the development and delivery of affirmative psychological services to LGBT people. Interesting to me is that this statement makes no mention of social justice or human rights. The closest the statement gets is verbiage that part of Div. 44's mission is to “advocate for the advancement of the public interest and the welfare of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.” And, I think that this is also telling, and again understandable, that the statement focuses on the specific LGBT community as targets of advocacy rather than the principle of social justice or even human rights.

In the future, I encourage Div. 44 and its leaders to more fully embrace a bigger frame for LGBT or sexual minority issues; a frame that derives from commitment to the value of social justice. We often make the point that LGBT issues are social justice or human rights issues, but I think that we do not often consider many broader social justice and human rights issues as OUR issues. I do not think this is unique to Div. 44, but I think that it is a potential problem, or at least a limitation, for Div. 44 and other divisions. It also seems to me that that we have relatively narrow conceptualizations of the LGBT community and who it includes. Or, said another way, we do not consider the ways in which LGBT people are interconnected with or interdependent with other people and communities.

In research that I have conducted with Mark Snyder from the University of Minnesota, we have investigated the impact of community connections and psychological sense of community for volunteer recruitment, persistence, satisfaction, and effectiveness. Across a variety of indicators, we have found that heightened community connections or feelings of community are related to greater volunteer activity, commitment, and satisfaction. We have extended this work in a field-based intervention study in which we designed and implemented a manualized, group-based intervention to create psychological sense of community among individuals already connected to AIDS service organizations as volunteers, staff, clients, board members, and other associates. An important point is that participants entered our study with preconceived notions about their own communities of concern — other HIV+ individuals, other gay men living with HIV, individuals who were infected through drug use rather than because of sexual activity, etc. Our intervention was designed to broaden a sense of community and a good deal of it focused on instantiating a sense of community for an inclusive community of people affected by HIV/AIDS.

In this experimental study, we found that increasing psychological sense of community led to better psychological health, greater willingness to do more for the AIDS service organization, and also heightened concern about and actions taken on behalf of others. The impact of this intervention, moreover, was evident even several months later and after controlling for initial sense of community. While sparing the details of this research, the simple point is that there seem to be salutatory effects of a psychological sense of community. It can be surmised, therefore, that to the extent that individuals share a common interest in LGBT psychology, feel pride, affection, and belonging for that identity, and also see these community connections as building strength, capacity, and actually having impact, they should be better off in facing the challenges, heartbreak, and hurdles that they are bound to experience in their professional lives. This is a critical role that Div. 44 serves for its members. But, I think that this research also begs questions of what other and broader communities can be created and leveraged for potential positive impact? How can we spread the wealth of the mental health and social change benefits people experience when their notions about their own communities are broadened?

To date, Div. 44 has focused a lot on helping itself and its members and in building networks for obvious self-interested and historical reasons. It has worked to gain acceptance within APA - to gain access, privilege, and its “place at the table.” But, mirroring what happens in broader society, the division has not done much to look outside itself and embraced social justice or human rights in a broad sense and as an umbrella or integrating theme for its work. In short, this is one place where we may have used the term “inclusion” or “diversity” as synonymous with “social justice,” and thereby limited the horizon for change and contribution. I believe that focusing on social justice or human rights rather than these more limiting terms will be important in the future.

Specifically, and as a final shot as now outgoing president, I want to encourage Div. 44 to begin to make this shift in perspective. To my mind, and as someone long interested in psychological contributions to social issues and policies, Div. 44 is missing important opportunities for advancing psychology by showing its relevance, for building alliances with other people and organizations, and for helping empower, educate, collaborate, and advance other marginalized people. This might include other sexual minority people who do not fit neatly into one of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identities, but also it applies to groups of people who likewise experience oppression, prejudice, and discrimination because of one or more of their social categories or characteristics.

Div. 44 certainly still has internal bridges to build and fences to mend, including coming to greater understanding of the changing nature and social constructions of what it means to be LGBT or Q or a sexual minority. We also have internal struggles to work on around Div. 44 members or would-be members who are people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, or have or claim other intersectional identities. These are big issues, but I hope that we can also find space for a conversation about principles of social justice writ large and to think bigger, with greater aspiration, and less fear, self-censure and holding back to engage in social justice work more broadly. There are many social policy domains that have roots in social justice concerns, and these are the topics with which I think Div. 44 can be more deeply engaged.

Bottom line, there is a bigger, scarier world out there that needs to be approached rather than avoided, and division leaders should not be distracted from looking at that world as they work to clean up our divisional home. My comments, again, are not intended to diminish any of the work that Div. 44 has done and the many advances it has pushed within APA and even in contributions outside the APA. I simply would like to see Div. 44 do more of that, and also, to attend to the social justice through-line in its work. This would probably need to involve a shift in perspective from divide and conquer or zero-sum, to a perspective that is broader, more open and encompassing, and bridging. It may also require relatively less focus on any specific L, G, B, T, or Q identity and more on broader community labels. And, I think it will be facilitated by firm commitment to principles of social justice and human rights. Given ongoing “sturm und drang” within the APA about its commitment to human rights, Div. 44 and its members have the opportunity to be leaders within the association on what it means to place social justice at the center of practice, education, science and advocacy.

To my perception, Div. 44 is at an interesting and important time in its life course. It has worked through some of its adolescent rebelliousness and challenges around identity development. It has also gained some measure of adult success – we are no longer isolated and cut off from others. It has forged productive relationships with others and other divisions, and even gained some measure of political clout. In recent years, it has made attempts to hire professional staff to support its work. That is, Div. 44 is now less mom and pop and more professional. Div. 44 no longer operates on the fringe, but has become part of the APA's institutional fabric.

Taking a social development framework, a la Erik Erikson, Div. 44 has passed through if not mastered identity and intimacy stage challenges of adolescence and early adulthood. Next is generativity, a stage at which it can begin giving back to society, to involving itself in larger communities and activities and organizations. Div. 44 and its members can ask themselves questions about how we are contributing to society and how we are working to make the world a better place, and especially for future generations. In other words, we can begin to more intentionally and fully address what is out there beyond the division and the relatively hospitable confines of the APA.

As I think my research has helped to demonstrate, at an individual level, people can and indeed do engage in socially productive work for a number of reasons or to meet different psychological motivations. Hence, we could engage in advocacy work for several possible, and even very self-interested, reasons. The important point is that we would be engaged.

Before closing, I invite you to do this for yourselves: think about what brings you to this place – this division, this professional association, this convention, and to the work that you do? For many people, it is likely a commitment to a self-defined community and a deeply held interest in social justice, interest that may flow from past personal experiences of injustice. The extension I am advocating is to broaden this sense of community and to bring focus and priority to the principles of social justice and human rights. The tools, perspectives, and knowledge from psychology are currently underutilized, and yet, I believe, they can be key to effective social justice work.

Our research and understanding of resilience, personal growth, empowerment, social organizations and community organizing, social movements, culture, and interpersonal and intergroup relations are all examples of content knowledge that is relevant to this work. We have ample data on the detrimental impact of injustice, as well as the benefits of equity and fair treatment, and also psychological understanding and tools for creating change. In short, our work can and should benefit more than LGBT people.

As a not unimportant aside, social justice focused psychology can be a key attractor for new generations of psychologists and help counter increasing louder concerns about the graying of psychology. It also offers vast potential for theoretical, methodological, and problem-focused advance, and it can directly counter some of the suspicion of the value and role of psychology in people's lives. In other words, it helps close credibility and accountability chasms that have opened up between the public and scientific enterprise as well as the general population and academic institutions.

I do not believe there is any danger that Div. 44 will cease to have LGBT issues and people as core to its mission and activities. But, I encourage expansion and growth. I hope that in the future Div.44 will work to expand its notions of community and social justice, and especially to approach rather than to recoil from policy involvement. In doing so, I believe, it will ultimately strengthen all of psychology, and especially sexual minority psychology, as well as society at large.