<< Return to InPsych April 2006 

By Dr Daryl Higgins MAPS
President, The ALSO Foundation

The ALSO Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation committed to securing legal and social acceptance of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender communities. For more information, see www.also.org.au.

I recently saw the highly-acclaimed Ang Lee film, Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal - a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy - who meet in the summer of 1963. Although the movie was touted as a great love story, transcending issues of gender, ultimately it is a story of tragedy, and how some individuals are not able to accept their identity or envisage a life for themselves where they could freely express their affections. This made me think: how far is Australia from the Wyoming of the 1960s and 1970s? How many Brokeback Mountain stories are there in Australia's rural towns, outback stations, and suburban streets?

There is a range of issues relevant to same-sex attracted people to which psychologists can contribute through research, advocacy, and professional practice. In this article, I provide a snapshot of some of the current issues I see as critical, including discrimination and harassment, relationship recognition, parenting, safer sex (and safer relationships), and recent initiatives to address vulnerable subgroups, such as seniors and youth. Also included in this article are suggestions on how to access resources for further information on the topics. Attention to these issues can assist psychologists to help same-sex attracted clients to find their own space, as well as assist us as a profession to find a space within the discipline of psychology in order to promote the wellbeing of same-sex attracted people.

Discrimination and harassment

Many gay, lesbian and bisexual people - as well as those with gender identity issues (transgender and intersex people) - still suffer discrimination and harassment. In the newly established journal, Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review (published by the APS for the Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Interest Group), Heath (2005) reviewed recent Australian research showing the high numbers of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals who experience abuse, sexual coercion, threats and violence on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Initiatives within the police forces - such as the gay and lesbian liaison officer programs in the Australian Federal Police (as described by Warrick Arblaster in this issue of InPsych) and other State/Territory forces - are important in reducing the likelihood of harassment or discrimination, and of minimising people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex (GLBTI) receiving a discriminatory or inappropriate response when reporting a crime.

From decriminalisation to debates over relationship recognition

In December 2005, the GLBTI community in Victoria celebrated the 25th anniversary of decriminalisation of homosexuality. Other Australian States and Territories varied in the dates by which 'sodomy' and other laws directed at the sexual activities of gay men were repealed, beginning with South Australia in 1972 (Bull, Pinto & Wilson, 1991). Tasmania was the most recent to reform (and consequently, one of the States with the most progressive legislation).

Over that same time, the discipline of psychology, and the particular position taken by the APS, has also changed. It was not until the 1990s that a psychologist from a non-metropolitan area, Christopher James, was instrumental in forming the APS Interest Group for Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology (GLIP). Since then, the APS has produced some practice guidelines, an information sheet on sexual orientation, as well as a position statement on the use of therapies that attempt to change sexual orientation (Riggs & Walker, 2004). On the GLIP website, two key issues are identified: relationship recognition and gay/lesbian parenting.

As well as the direct impact on individuals, the debate over relationship recognition seems to also be about GLBTI issues being given (or denied) a 'space' politically. Fighting for relationship recognition is a way of getting GLBTI issues in the public consciousness, even for those who are not currently in a 'relationship' or wanting to have their particular type of relationship 'recognised'. For a useful summary of the variety of positions on the merits or otherwise of marriage, civil unions and relationship registration, see The Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby's (VGLRL) website . These issues are also addressed by Riggs (in this issue of InPsych) in his exploration of the role of the APS in advocating for the rights of marginalised groups.

Gay and lesbian parenting

Recent research published in the Australian Institute of Family Studies' journal Family Matters has highlighted some of the different methods of family formation (and reasons for the choices) for lesbian parents; relationship and contact with fathers/donors; and social supports, strengths and challenges (McNair, Dempsey, Wise, & Perlesz, 2002). These researchers found that "children raised by lesbian parents were well accepted by family and friends, and were reported as having few relationship difficulties overall as a result of their parents' sexuality" (p.46). In another Family Matters article, Ray and Gregory (2001) showed that although children of gay and lesbian parents have similar psychological adjustment to children growing up in more traditional family structures, they do face particular challenges, such as stigma in the school yard.

There are a number of useful research studies and resources related to lesbian parenting on the VGLRL website , and the Health and healthcare for lesbian, bisexual and same sex attracted women website . The site is run by Dr Ruth McNair, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of General Practice, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne. There are also a number of 'facts sheets' and other resources summarising the research on relevant issues on the VGLRL site, such as the impact on children of being raised by lesbian parents (it's positive); access to assisted reproductive services (it's difficult); and family law issues (it's complex).

With the number of same-sex attracted individuals and couples overcoming the difficulties (biological and social) of bringing a baby into the world, in many parts of society there is a greater acceptance, or tolerance, as exemplified by the screening of a session on the ABC's Playschool of a girl and her two mums. However, does acceptance of gay and lesbian people only occur to the degree that those people adopt 'heteronormative' couplings and nuclear family structures? While it is pleasing that for those lesbians and gay men who want to have children that they are increasingly able to do this, what about those who are happy to be single, or want to enjoy a stronger connection to the 'community' than to an individual partner, child(ren) or family unit? As the broader society is struggling with issues of relationship instability and marital breakdowns, gays and lesbians have an opportunity to show by example a lesson that many have learned: the importance of an identity-based community that can transcend the limits of the nuclear family.

Previously married lesbians and gay men

Same-sex attracted people within heterosexual relationships are largely invisible, and yet this has been (at least until recently) part of the closet in which individuals hid. Back to Brokeback Mountain again - one reviewer stated: "What this film also demonstrates is that there are married men who have sex with men and, as any active gay man will tell you, it's impossible to be gay in these days and not be hit on by somebody's husband, somebody's father. It is the great undiscovered scandal of modern life" (Bashford, 2006). 'Mixed-orientation marriage' is an issue that affects a significant number of men, women and children.

Many gay and currently or previously married men grew up believing that being heterosexual and married was normal, and they wanted to fit in to society (Higgins, 2004; Ross, 1983). The main reasons outlined were: social expectancy; feeling different from an early age (but wanting now to 'fit in'); denial/avoidance of homosexuality; desire for children; and because it is 'natural/normal'. Violi (2004) also described the experiences of gay non-resident fathers, and the issues faced in coming out to children, managing contact, and overcoming institutional and cultural barriers.

Significant numbers of lesbians also report coming out at a later stage than gay men, many of whom previously experienced heterosexual marriage (see Scrivner & Eldridge, 1995 for an overview of the different models of identity development).

Same-sex attracted women and men who are currently, or have previously, been involved in a heterosexual marriage are confronted by a unique range of issues and challenges in regards to self-identity and the negotiation of transitions between personal and public identities. A systemic understanding of 'mixed-orientation' marriage can also contribute to an understanding of the problem, and the approach to treating couples - allowing the therapist to look at the impact of changes in one area of the system on all other aspects of the system (e.g., a gay or bisexual man coming out to his wife/family/friends often is followed by the wife 'entering' the closet of secrecy, shame, guilt and anxiety; see Buxton, 1994). This demonstrates circular causality and the interactions that exist among system components.

Psychologists' understanding of the principles of cognitive dissonance can help us make sense of some of the internal and external processes that people may be undertaking, as they seek to reconcile inconsistent behaviours (same-sex arousal or behaviours and heterosexual marriage), and the process of achieving cognitive consistency (Higgins, 2001).

Safe sex

From the mid-1980s, with the discovery of HIV/AIDS, the message has consistently been conveyed to gay men that they are at higher risk than other groups in Australia for contracting HIV, and the importance of preventing transmission by practising safer sex. HIV infection rates in Australia have remained low, however many jurisdictions have reported increases in identified cases in the past year or so. Given the knowledge that psychology has about risk perceptions, behaviour change principles, as well as concepts such as 'learned helplessness', there is perhaps more that we can be doing - both at the individual level, and in working with key government and non-government agencies (such as the AIDS councils around the country) to promote safer sex. Another issue that has received little attention is individual factors that may increase the risk of engaging in unsafe sex. Although there is no evidence that a history of childhood sexual abuse 'causes' homosexuality, there is evidence that at least for some groups of gay men, it may increase the likelihood of engaging in unsafe sexual practices (Carballo-Dieguez and Dolezal, 1995).

However, safe sex is not just about what two people do in the intimacy of their personal encounter. It is also about creating a safe society so that sex (that is freely consented to) can be enjoyed without fear. Recent examples of injustice internationally, such as the case of Max McCosker, an Australian, who was charged with homosexuality in Fiji (see ) and reports of a number of arrests and beheadings of gay men in the Middle East (see ) reminds us that society's sexual prejudices can have significant consequences for individuals.

Domestic violence

Violence and abuse in gay and lesbian relationships is another issue that is starting to be recognised. The NSW Attorney General's Department funded the AIDS Council of NSW (ACON) to produce a booklet on domestic violence in same-sex relationships (ACON, 2005). The booklet acknowledges that - like heterosexual relationships - some are based not on love and equality, but on power and control. As well as providing an understanding of the issues, and referrals, the booklet also directs readers to the website, where personal stories are described.

Local needs and initiatives for vulnerable sub-groups

GLBTI communities and service organisations are focusing on two particularly vulnerable groups, positioned at either end of the ontological continuum: youth and seniors. This is not to suggest that the rest of us - who perhaps no longer feel (or look) young, but are not ready to receive our 'Seniors' discount card - do not have particular needs. I have already highlighted issues such as relationship recognition, mixed-orientation marriage, and harassment and discrimination that affect all age groups. However, the identity issues and need for appropriately delivered services are particularly apparent for both GLBTI youth and seniors.

Same-sex attracted seniors

As a society, we are living longer; and, as we age, it is predicted that our need for health services will increase. The proportion of the population over 65 is predicted to double over the first half of this century - and a significant proportion of these are people who are going to identify as GLBTI (Chamberlain & Robinson, 2002). For GLBTI seniors, this poses a particular challenge. Will the health and aged-care sector be sensitive to their clients' needs? It is also worth remembering that these GLBTI seniors lived through a time when their very identity, their loves and their relationships were either ignored in law (for same-sex attracted women), or in fact were proscribed under the criminal code (for same-sex attracted men). Chamberlain and Robinson's (2002) report on the needs of GLBTI seniors emphasised the need for outreach services, social groups and social spaces, and appropriate aged-care facilities. A major focus for meeting these needs is awareness raising in the aged-care sector and the provision of sensitivity awareness training (Birch, 2004).

Same-sex attracted youth

Psychologists have an important role to play in assisting same-sex attracted young people to find a safe 'space' for dealing with sexuality and gender issues.

Homeless youth

Along with poverty, mental health and abuse, one of the factors that influences homelessness in young people is sexuality issues. Initiatives such as Sydney's '2010', and a new service to be established in Melbourne mid-year by the ALSO Foundation, are playing a critical role where mainstream crisis housing services are not able to meet the transitional housing and welfare needs of same-sex attracted youth.

Drug and alcohol issues

The 'gay scene' can be a way of building a sense of community, however the opportunities offered by the vibrant gay scenes of larger metropolitan centres (particularly Melbourne and Sydney) also come with risks. These risks include the focus on youth and beauty, alcohol and drugs, loud music, late nights, a prescriptive fashion etiquette, and, in general, a narrow way of 'being'. However, for each of the criticisms that the scene receives, it also provides a lighthouse that beckons those from homophobic rural areas or stifling suburbs who are searching for others with whom they can relate - with whom they can just 'be'; finding community.

Anti-homophobia education

The National Safe Schools Framework was produced by the Student Learning and Support Services Taskforce, established by the Commonwealth's Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) - particularly important for school guidance officers, and any psychologists working with school-age clients (MCEETYA, 2005). The document explicitly recognises that school staff, parents and students need to be equipped to identify and address prejudice and discrimination as it relates to gender and sexuality - as well as a range of other factors (such as race or disability).

Approaches to bringing about broad social change and reducing sexual prejudice include school-based approaches such as the program developed by Daniel Witthaus called 'Pride & Prejudice'. The program is designed to help students explore their understanding of social difference, including diversity in gender roles and sexual orientation. Pilot data have demonstrated that the program is successful in allowing students to develop more positive attitudes to gays and lesbians, which creates a social environment where it is easier for same-sex attracted students to accept themselves, and to be accepted in their school community (Higgins, King & Witthaus, 2001). As well as being implemented in a number of schools across Victoria, the program is currently undergoing a further evaluation trial in Tasmania.

Another health-based school curriculum initiative commissioned under the Victorian Kennett Government in the 1990s, 'Catching On', deals with sexually transmitted infections, same-sex relationships, safe sex and other aspects of sexuality. The program for Year 9 and 10 students was ready for release in 1998, but was not rolled out in classes until 2004, with teachers being trained by staff at Deakin University (Dunn, 2004). Other useful resources for sexuality education and strategies for responding to homophobia are available on the website of La Trobe University's Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society .

Resources for psychologists

As well as drawing on the resources I have already referred to, readers may be interested in consulting other international journals (e.g., Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review - a journal of the British Psychological Society; and a range of specific journals published by Haworth Press in their Gay/ Lesbian/ Bisexual/ Transgender Studies series: see ).

In 2004, GLIP supported the publication of an anthology of GLBTI psychology issues, Out in the antipodes, edited by Riggs and Walker (2004). The newly established journal of the APS Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Interest Group also provides an outlet for up-to-date research by Australian psychologists. Finally, the ALSO Foundation is about to publish the 3rd edition of ALSORTS: A sexuality Awareness Resource (2nd edition [Higgins, 2004] currently available), which is a popular resource for a range of school staff, therapists and workers in the youth sector.


ACON (2005). Another closet: Domestic violence in same sex relationships. AIDS Council of New South Wales. Available at http://ssdv.acon.org.au

Bashford, K. (2006). Brokeback Mountain Review. Accessed 1 February 2006. 

Birch, H. (2004). About Time! GLBT Seniors ALSO Matter: Strategic Plan. South Yarra: The ALSO Foundation. 

Bull, M., Pinto, S., & Wilson, P. (1991). Homosexual law reform in Australia. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 29. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology. Available at: www.aic.gov.au

Buxton, A. P. (1994). The other side of the closet: The coming-out crisis for straight spouses and families. New York: Wiley.

Carballo-Dieguez, A., & Dolezal, C. (1995). Association between history of childhoold sexual abuse and adult HIV-risk sexual behavior in Puerto Rican men who have sex with men. Child Abuse & Neglect, 19, 595-605.

Chamberlain, C., & Robinson, P. (2002). The needs of older gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people: A report prepared for the ALSO Foundation. Melbourne: RMIT University Centre for Applied Social Research. 

Dunn, A. (2004). Sex course catches on in schools. The Age (Melbourne). August 31. Available at: www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/08/30/1093852183885.html?from=storylhs

Heath, M. (2005). Pronouncing the silent 'B' (in GLBTTIQ). Gay & Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, 1(3), 87-91.

Higgins, D. J. (2001). Mixed orientation marriage: The experience of gay men. In K. A. Moore (Ed.) Relationships: Their impact on social and mental wellbeing. Proceedings of the 1st Australasian Psychology of Relationships Conference (pp. 59-64). Deakin University: Melbourne.

Higgins, D. J. (2004). Living with contradictions: Experiences of same-sex attracted men within heterosexual marriage. In D.W. Riggs and G. A. Walker (Eds). Out in the Antipodes: Australian & New Zealand Perspectives on Gay and Lesbian Issues in Psychology (pp. 124-145). Bentley, WA: Brightfire Press.

Higgins, D. J. (2004). ALSORTS: A sexuality awareness resource, 2nd edition. Melbourne: The ALSO Foundation. Available at: www.also.org.au/alsorts

Higgins, D. J., King, R. M., & Witthaus, D. (2001). Pride and prejudice: Facilitating change in the attitudes of students toward gay men and lesbians. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 12, 238-241.

McNair, R., Dempsey, D., Wise, S., & Perlesz, A. (2002). Lesbian parenting: Issues, strengths and challenges. Family Matters, 63, 40-49.

MCEETYA (2005). National Safe Schools Framework. Australian Government Department of Education, Science and Training. Australian Government: Canberra.

Ray, V., & Gregory, R. (2001). School experiences of the children of gay and lesbian parents. Family Matters, 59, 28-34.

Riggs, D. W., & Walker, G. A. (2005). Quite contrary: Lesbian and gay psychology in the antipodes. In D. W. Riggs and G. A. Walker (Eds). Out in the Antipodes: Australian & New Zealand Perspectives on Gay and Lesbian Issues in Psychology (pp. 1-23). Bentley, WA: Brightfire Press.

Ross, M. W. (1983). The married homosexual man: A psychological study. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Violi, D. (2004). Moving on out: The issues and experiences of nonresident gay fathers. In D. W. Riggs and G. A. Walker (Eds). Out in the Antipodes: Australian & New Zealand Perspectives on Gay and Lesbian Issues in Psychology (pp.167-188). Bentley, WA: Brightfire Press.