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InPsych 2011 | Vol 33

Psychology in current issues

Two psychologists named among the most influential gay and lesbian Australians

APS members Lynne Hillier and Paul Martin were recognised last year in the list of The 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian Australians, alongside names such as Bob Brown, Penny Wong, Michael Kirby and Daniel Kowalski. The ‘Same Same 25’ are nominated by the public each year and chosen by a panel of community leaders, and are members of the gay and lesbian community who are considered to be shaping perceptions and exerting a substantial influence over a variety of fields from business to politics to entertainment.

Associate Professor Lynne Hillier MAPS

Associate Professor Lynne Hillier MAPS is Principal Research Fellow at La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS). Lynne is the co-author of three large online studies of same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people (1998, 2004 and 2010) which have had a significant influence on policy, curriculum and services.

What does it mean to you to have been named on the most influential gay and lesbian Australians list?

I was delighted and humbled to be named. I have been privileged for 17 years to be working with, and totally inspired by, same-sex attracted (SSA) young people who have taught me much of what I know about integrity, compassion, generosity of spirit and determination. A list such as this is an effective way to highlight the struggles for social justice in our country, to mark where we have come from and how far we still need to go.

What has been the focus of your research on SSA young people and what has it found?

The Writing Themselves In (WTi) project began out of concerns that same-sex attracted young people were being treated poorly in mainstream services, and were invisible in research despite constituting 10 per cent of the population – there was simply no information, quantitative or qualitative, about their lives. Our aim was to put the spotlight first on the ‘what’ via rating scales, and then explain the ‘why’ via more open responses.

There’s a core set of questions we ask every six years about discrimination, homophobia etc, but also about more positive matters – how they are going, their schooling, soçial supports, how they manage what’s happening in their lives, and their sexuality. The kids are so generous – their qualitative answers just go on and on, and then they say "thanks for listening".

In what ways has your research been influential?

ARCSHS is committed to using research for social change and social justice. The WTi series has informed education policy, curricula, training and practice, and helped groups to get funding for community education and to address homophobia. Having research evidence means that no longer can these young people be ignored. Principals can no longer say they don’t have these students in their schools. They have the right to a safe education and respect. We have learned from the research that school is where they are most likely to be abused and this is where we have directed much of our energy towards policy change and support.

Your third national study of SSA young people has recently been published, some 11 years since the first. What changes have you seen over time?

The findings have been mixed. On the one hand, young people feel better about their sexuality, are more likely to be out and to have support, and are more likely to see that they have rights and to fight for them. On the other hand, reported abuse has increased over time in part because these young people are more likely to be out and therefore more easily targeted. In 1998, 44 per cent reported experiencing verbal abuse, and now it’s 61 per cent, and 80 per cent of that occurs at school. Moreover, 18 per cent (14% in 1998) reported being physically assaulted because of their sexuality and this often resulted in hospitalisation. There are strong and significant links between abuse, drug use, self harm and suicide. In particular, 38 per cent of those who had been physically assaulted because of their sexuality had attempted suicide.

We have come a long way in terms of social change. Our WTi participation rates have increased from 749 in 1998 to 1,749 in 2004 and 3,134 in 2010. Young people now have access to new ways of thinking that go beyond the old homophobic beliefs. In the 1998 cohort only one young woman thought she could have a child; now they are all having kids and wanting to get married. They’ve learned that being gay doesn’t mean being evil, mad, lonely or criminal – nor is it necessarily ‘just a phase’. Today you can even be Christian and gay and many young people are doing just that.

How would you like to see Australian psychologists address the challenges for SSA young people in our community?

I think the challenge for psychologists is to know the power that is in our hands – too many don’t acknowledge the power they have for good and harm. SSA young people have so often been rejected by professionals or not supported, and this on top of similar experiences from family and friends is very isolating, so psychologists need to take care not to repeat this. In our research, psychologists get reasonable ratings, and counsellors outside schools seem more accepting, but a significant number of young people (20%) rated counsellors as not supportive. There were significant links between rejection and higher rates of self harm and suicide in these young people. So it is important that we psychologists reflect on our values and ‘know ourselves’ (that’s why we have supervision), so we don’t jeopardise these young people’s acceptance and safety.

Paul Martin MAPS

Paul Martin MAPS is a Queensland-based counselling psychologist and organisational consultant who has worked in the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community for many years to create change and equality for LGBTI people. He has worked with organisations and educated professionals at the front line of mental health about the deeper psychological issues LGBTI people face. Paul was recently part of a small group of marriage equality advocates that met with the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to discuss the issue of same-sex marriage.

What does it mean to you to have been named on the most influential gay and lesbian Australians list?

It was an honour and it felt wonderful to be acknowledged for what I have enjoyed doing for LGBTI communities. More importantly it was a powerful way to put the mental health issues of LGBTI people on the radar screens in people's minds, as most are unaware of the critically high levels of mental health problems in our communities.

What has your work in this area involved?

My work has included counselling, training psychologists, social workers and other health care professionals in working effectively with LGBTI clients, and training employees and managers about sexual diversity in the workplace. I speak at community events on a range of LGBTI mental health issues, and am on the steering committee and do presentations for the University of Queensland School of Medicine’s HIV education programs for GPs, nurses and other health care providers. I educate the public through the media including LGBTI and mainstream magazines, newspapers, TV, radio and internet news. I have participated in several forums where I have provided training and consultation to conservative Christian leaders in understanding the psychology of same-sex attraction and advised them on some alternative ways to respond to these populations.

As a psychologist, how have you used your influence to advocate for equality?

I am actively engaged in the area of marriage equality. There is a strong connection between mental health and same-sex attracted people having the choice to marry. I was delighted recently when the American Psychological Association made public statements clarifying this link, and in fact the APA has recently adopted a Resolution on Marriage Equality for Same Sex Couples (www.apa.org/about/governance/council/policy/same-sex.aspx). I spend much time in Parliament House with highly skilled lobbyists talking to MPs about the importance of marriage equality and my angle is naturally mental health.

This seems to be a perspective that many people haven’t considered and it has led to some MPs stating that it has strongly influenced their thinking about this issue. I have also spoken to the Federal Attorney General who seemed genuinely interested in this perspective.

How did you come to meet the Prime Minister and what was your role in the meeting?

The main factors that led to my meeting with the Prime Minister were the credibility I have developed with politicians and marriage equality activists, especially around the mental health angle that I speak of regarding same-sex marriage. I found out later that this was the first ever meeting held between a group of gay and lesbian lobbyists and a sitting Prime Minister.

My role was to talk to the Prime Minister about the significant mental health issues that are perpetuated and at times intensified by the Government’s decision not to change the legislation allowing same-sex couples to marry. I was surprised that she seemed genuinely engaged with us, that she stated she values same-sex relationships and she appeared to be genuinely non-homophobic. I feel a tenuous sense of optimism that an evolution of her personal beliefs is possible. At the same time she has taken a very strong position in this area which has made it more difficult to achieve equal rights. Comments that are perceived to be negative in this debate have the potential to cause more psychological damage to the most vulnerable same-sex attracted people. I believe the only way to stop this is for those making decisions to have the courage to say gay and lesbian Australians should be protected and recognised equally by the law.

How would you like to see Australian psychologists respond to the same-sex marriage debate in our community?

I believe it is critical for us as a profession to do everything possible to make a difference in this area. The statistics of mental and physical health issues of LGBTI Australians are alarming, including that gays and lesbians are more than four times as likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexuals. This is due to the incorporation of ‘internalised homophobia’, where we take on board the negative beliefs all around us about what it means to be same-sex attracted. The negative rhetoric in the marriage equality debate affirms these beliefs which can lead to psychological damage. We as a profession have a very powerful influence on the hearts and minds of our communities and there is at the moment a very small window of opportunity for us to put pressure on the Government to improve human rights in our country, move towards equality and improve the psychological health of many thousands of same-sex attracted Australians.


Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on October 2011. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.