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By Dr Damien W Riggs MAPS
School of Psychology, The University of Adelaide

The APS has long been involved in advocating for the rights of those groups of people marginalised within our society. In particular, the APS has been supportive of the rights claims of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people (see boxed information) and, much like its international counterparts, has advocated for the need for rights within a psychological context. Such advocacy has involved press releases, position statements, conference workshops and keynote speeches, alongside the role that practitioners in general have played in challenging marginalisation. Taking the role of the APS in relation to rights advocacy for LGBTIQ people as its starting place, this article briefly explores some of the possible limitations of existing forms of advocacy, and the directions that such advocacy may take in the future. In particular, it will be proposed that the APS may benefit from considering the intersections between a range of rights claims, and how these may at times contradict one another. Specific suggestions for policy implementation and psychological intervention will be made, with particular reference to accountability and reflexivity in regards to politics.

Advocacy, affirmation and evidence

Rights advocacy for LGBTIQ people within the discipline of psychology has largely taken as its starting place a desire to affirm the rights claims of LGBTIQ people. Examples of this include:

  • the APS Position Statement on the use of therapies that attempt to change sexual orientation (2000a), which not only questions the logic behind reparative therapies (aimed at 'curing' same-sex attracted people of their sexual desires), but which also affirms the rights of same-sex attracted people to therapy that is not based upon a pathologising view of same-sex attraction; and
  • the American Psychological Association's (APA) Resolution on sexual orientation and marriage (2004), which "urges the repeal of all discriminatory legislation against lesbians and gay men".
  • The discipline of psychology has also been involved in rights advocacy in the form of providing evidence in custody cases, in advancing arguments that prove that LGBTIQ people are entitled to rights; and demonstrating the psychological effects of denying rights to LGBTIQ people. Examples of this include:
  • the APS Tip Sheet on sexual orientation and homosexuality (2001), which outlines an understanding of same-sex attraction as a 'normal variation of human sexuality';
  • the APS Ethical Guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients (2000b) which, whilst being at times considered contentious in regards to its position on same-sex attraction (e.g., Fyson, 2002; Watts, 2001), represents an important intervention into how psychologists understand the sexual identities of LGBTIQ people; and
  • the aforementioned APA Resolution on sexual orientation and marriage (2004), which recognises that "discrimination and prejudice based on sexual orientation detrimentally affects psychological, physical, social, and economic wellbeing".

Together, these multiple forms of both affirmations of rights claims and evidence in support of such claims demonstrate the commitment of the APS (and the discipline of psychology more broadly) to equitable treatment for LGBTIQ people. There continues to be a need, however, to explore the potential limitations of psychological advocacy in regards to LGBTIQ rights. Two of these are identified below, and their implications explored.

Limitations and implications

The first limitation is highlighted in the aforementioned responses made to the APS Ethical Guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients (2000b), where some APS members questioned the evidence provided within the document (e.g., Fyson, 2002; Watts, 2001). Whilst debates over scientific merit are an important feature of the discipline of psychology in general, it is nonetheless essential that psychologists examine how calls for Psychological Societies to be apolitical may reflect the privileges held by majority group members. In other words, by continually returning issues of rights to issues of scientific merit, practitioners and researchers may at times run the risk of discriminating against marginalised groups if accusations of investment or politics are used to stymie rights. As such, it is important to recognise that all psychologists are invested in particular forms of politics or claims to science - it just happens to be the case in a society where same-sex attraction has historically been pathologised that certain viewpoints (i.e., those of majority group members) are largely seen as apolitical, whereas those of minority group members are seen to be political. The problem that arises from this is that in calling for LGBTIQ people to 'prove our politics', LGBTIQ rights claims become fundamentally about alleviating poor psychological health (as per the APA Resolution on sexual orientation and marriage), rather than about the equitable distribution of state sanction (Riggs, 2006).

This relates directly to the second potential limitation, and one for which the APS Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Interest Group must also be accountable, namely; that a sole or primary focus on sexuality in regards to rights can lead to a failure to explore the intersecting rights claims of a wide cross-section of people. In other words, LGBTIQ rights claims are made by diverse groups of people, differentiated by race, class, ethnicity and gender to name but a few. It is therefore important that rights advocacy within the discipline of psychology pays particular attention to the multiple ways in which LGBTIQ people may at times experience both discrimination (on the basis of sexuality) and privilege (on the basis of race for example). Likewise, there may be great disparities in access to rights between those who identify as lesbian or gay, and those who identify as bisexual, transgendered or intersex. Grouping LGBTIQ people into one category can thus tend towards the homogenisation of a disparate array of experiences in regards to discrimination. This is obviously not to suggest that rights advocacy in regards to sexuality should cease - though it may be read as such by some - but rather that such rights advocacy needs to engage with the complexities of rights issues. Otherwise, state sanction may well be reserved for particular members of LGBTIQ communities (i.e., white middle-class lesbians and gay men), rather than as being the entitlement of all LGBTIQ people.

As has been suggested above, there are a number of key points that require consideration in regards to LGBTIQ rights advocacy within the APS and within the discipline of psychology more broadly. From these points stem a number of potential directions towards which such advocacy may head.

Future directions

As is increasingly being recognised within the discipline of psychology, there is a great need for a diverse range of approaches to psychological science. Similarly, there is a need to recognise that whilst not all science will be explicitly political, all science is premised upon the politicality of specific research approaches, and the interests of particular psychologists (Stenner, 2004). Acknowledging this may assist the discipline and individual psychologists to engage with calls for LGBTIQ rights in ways that view them not as 'special issues', but rather as fundamental to equitable social relations. Likewise, it is important that scientific research conducted with LGBTIQ communities take direction from the needs of such communities, and do so by exploring the diversity within LGBTIQ communities. The corollary of this of course is that the discipline of psychology must be willing to acknowledge its own role at times in perpetuating discrimination against LGBTIQ people, and to explore how this may carry over into existing research and advocacy. The search for 'evidence' and the attendant 'burden of proof' that seems to rest with LGBTIQ people are examples of how such discrimination may at times continue to inform psychological debates in relation to same-sex attraction.

From these above points stem a series of potential future directions for policy and practice. These include:

  • The questioning of how psychological knowledge functions to both enable and potentially limit the forms that LGBTIQ rights claims take;
  • The need for the continued development of critical understandings of sexuality and the multiple forms it takes;
  • Policies that explore the previous two points and which aim at being accountable for existing discrimination, rather than simply attempting to explain it;
  • Approaches to practice that take as their starting point the explicit needs of LGBTIQ communities, rather than assuming that psychological knowledge that has traditionally been normed on, and applied to, heterosexual people can be simplistically mapped across and used with LGBTIQ people; and
  • An acknowledgment that rights arise from a fundamental entitlement to state sanction and equity, rather than arising from 'proof' of 'psychological damage'.

Exploring points such as these will enable the APS to continue to engage in rights advocacy for LGBTIQ people that is both accountable and productive.


American Psychological Association (2004). Resolution on sexual orientation and marriage. Retrieved February 15, 2006, from http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbc/policy/marriage.pdf.

Australian Psychological Society (2000a). Position Statement on the use of therapies that attempt to change sexual orientation - Acrobat icon - small(26Kb) Retrieved February 15, 2006,

Australian Psychological Society. (2000b). Ethical guidelines for psychological practice with lesbian, gay and bisexual clients. Melbourne: Australian Psychological Society.

Australian Psychological Society (2001). Sexual orientation and homosexuality Tip Sheet. Retrieved February 15, 2006,

Fyson, S. (2002). Opposing views have something in common in 'gay' guidelines debate. InPsych, April 2002, p19.

Riggs, D.W. (2006). Priscilla, (white) queen of the desert: Queer rights/race privilege. New York: Peter Lang.

Stenner, P.H.D. (2004). Psychology and the political. International Journal of Critical Psychology, 12, 14-37.

Watt, P. (2001). No authority for homosexual 'belief'. InPsych, June 2001, p24.


1. Transgender

The term 'transgender' refers to a person whose gender identity differs from their anatomical sex. Some transgender people may undergo gender reassignment surgery, some may choose to live as their chosen gender without surgery, and some may use hormone therapy without surgery. Transgender people may identify as same-sex or opposite-sex attracted according to their gender identity and sexual identifications.

2. Intersex

The term 'intersex' refers to someone born with reproductive/sexual organs/ chromosomes that are not exclusively male or female. Most intersex people identify with one sex or another, although there are some people who prefer not to define their sex. Intersex people have often been subjected to invasive postnatal surgical procedures to 'correct' their sexual organs. This, however, is now considered unnecessary and inappropriate (unless required for medical reasons) as it can cause a great deal of trauma for the person and their family.

3. Queer

The term 'queer' is often used by people to describe themselves if they do not identify with other terms such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or heterosexual. The term has been reclaimed by some LGBTI people (from its previous negative connotations) who feel that it is an inclusive and positive way to identify people who are targeted by homophobia and heterosexism, or who refuse to inhabit one particular identity.