Friday, 13 January 2012

Times: The ‘others’ are part of us too
Thursday, January 12, 2012, by Michael Conti

Trees come in different shapes and sizes, ranging from the tall-standing palm tree to the low-lying carob. All are beautiful in their own right and nature does not impose any predetermined form but allows each one to develop into what it truly is.

Unfortunately, some societies see life differently. All seeds are expected to become palm trees and are cultivated as such. But, one fine day, some seedlings start developing in a different fashion. They no longer conform to the expected pattern but become the "ugly ducklings" of our families, our Churches and our societies.

Such is the case with people who question their sexual identity or who identify themselves as other than heterosexual. In the research for my Masters in counselling and psychotherapy I focused on the issues that those who identify themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual or are questioning their sexual identity bring to psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors in Malta.

Not all non-heterosexuals experience the same level of difficulty but here I will mention the main issues that are particularly relevant to Malta and that push some people to seek for therapy.

The first issue is a pervasive sense of heterosexism on the islands.

Heterosexism is the assumption that heterosexuality is universal and the only acceptable condition while denying and stigmatising anything that is not heterosexual.

Although non-heterosexual individuals are more visible now than they were a decade ago, some sectors of society still tend to see them as unacceptable or inferior when compared to heterosexuals. Their behaviour is still deemed unmanly or unwomanly and their relationships looked down on as unhealthy and immature.

These attitudes and prejudices are visible in our society's difficulty in providing positive representations of non-heterosexuality in educational institutions. They are present in discourses that portray lesbian, gay and bisexual people and relationships as a threat to family life. They manifest themselves in our country's absence of legal protection of non-heterosexuals apart from anti-discriminatory legislation in the area of employment. They are evident in our refusal to recognise non-heterosexual couples despite the fact that they are based on a loving relationship as much as heterosexual couples are.

Another problem we face in Malta is our small size, making it more difficult for those questioning their sexual identity to meet others who don't identify themselves as heterosexuals. Thus, a number of individuals discover who they are in isolation and find very limited support. This makes the process of self-acceptance very hard.

Meeting others who share a similar sexual identity and seeking help in coming to terms with one's identity may be more difficult for some due to the fear of being discovered as not being heterosexual. Others are silenced by this fear and live a double life, showing an acceptable heterosexual facade on one level while having a different identity on another. This can easily lead to profound personal fragmentation.

Finally, there is the issue of the impact of religion.

Although a number of non-heterosexuals receive considerable support from some members of the clergy, others experience judgement and a deep sense of internal conflict regarding the matter. This includes feelings of shame, anger and a lifelong inability to integrate one's identity. For some it also implies rejecting their spiritual aspect, hence losing an important part of themselves.

In addition to this, religion impacts non-heterosexuals indirectly when parents do not accept their children fully for who they are due to religious teachings.

All these issues can lead to various psychological problems. These include suicide, self-harm, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, self-hate, guilt and shame, a low self-esteem and a higher incidence of relationship breakdown.

Some people are still adamant on attributing the origin of these issues to the sexual orientation itself. However, the source of such problems lies more probably in society's reaction to non-heterosexual individuals and relationships that results in isolation, added psychological burdens and internal fragmentation.

If we want to live in a healthy society we need to shift more towards promoting personal development in all its variety and complexity rather than imposing a standard measure for everyone. The latter only results in discarding by the wayside those who were broken because they were pushed to be other than who they are.

(This degree was carried out following the award of a STEPS scholarship, which was part-financed by the European Union – European Social Fund under Operational Programme II – Cohesion Policy 2007-2012, Empowering People For More Jobs And A Better Quality Of Life.)

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on the Times' website.]

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