William Meyer: Reflecting on Soulforce Symposium, Philadelphia 2010
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Critical in Hamlet’s day, no less critical today. Such are the guidelines for anyone who wishes to live a life that is honest, a life that is whole, a life that feels real.
This, it seemed to me, was the message from those who presented and those who attended this past weekend , November 5th and 6th, at the 2010 meeting of Soulforce in Philadelphia.
This was my first such meeting, where I presented “On the Diagnosis and Treatment of Homosexuality: When Prejudice Masquerades as Science.” I have made this multi-media presentation many times to departments of psychiatry and mental health professionals, including the Department of Psychiatry, US Army in Honolulu.
In this presentation, l tell the story of the controversy within psychiatry – particularly from the 1950’s through the 1970’s – and why it was necessary for the scientific community to team up with gay activists to prevail upon those in power to delete the diagnosis of homosexuality from the DSM, the book of diagnoses used by almost all mental health professionals in the U.S.
I am a clinical social worker and in addition to my clinical duties here at Duke, I teach in a psychoanalytic psychotherapy training program. I was professionally trained by psychoanalysts and I credit many brilliant thinkers and writers in this field, and my many mentors, for revealing to me profound insights into the psychology of the human condition. Yet, I have also felt pain and a depth of anger that it was the psychoanalysts of years past who were so confident in their unscientific theories and whose clinical practices manipulated, shamed and hurt so many people. I shudder when I think about the link between their public “scientific” statements and the discriminatory policies that continue to this day. I am haunted by their once implacable position that homosexuality was curable psychopathology and incredulous that so few in my field let so much go by unchallenged.
Where on earth was their critical thinking?
To be fair, among the mental health professionals, it was not only the psychoanalysts who were to blame. Virtually all mental health professions and ideologies promoted variations on this theme. Who could forgive the behaviorists and their use of electric shocks, or the outlandish claims of “cure” by far too many to mention, including the two most popular sex experts of years past, the venerable Masters and Johnson. But the psychoanalysts were my people and they have a history of doing much good , but also causing substantial harm.
Not surprisingly, what I became most aware of at Soulforce was how other attendees shared with me a parallel experience. While I have had to come to terms with the harm caused by leading psychoanalytic voices of years past, other attendees had grappled with the legacies of religious traditions that meant so much to them. While some attendees were not from religious backgrounds, many were. What we were all saying, I believe, is that we wished to hold onto those aspects of our backgrounds that were good and provided us with light and meaning; while wanting to discard all that which was dark, negative and abusive.
Story after story emerged at the conference from individuals who had valiantly struggled to maintain a fidelity to the spiritual teachings in which they were raised. For many, suicide seemed the only way out – until somehow, they found the courage to be true to themselves and live lives of integrity. Indeed, one of the reasons for our meeting was to express our sorrow and to push back against the forces that had resulted in so many recent tragic deaths; all those young lives that had succumbed to internal pain and suffering, reinforced by the punitive external values of people who should have been providing support and care. How could this be? What could be done?
Being among so many good people made me reflect with even greater awe and admiration on those who have demonstrated great moral courage. I read the Rev. Dr. Mel White’s (Soulforce founder) autobiography, Stranger at the Gate, on the plane rides to and from the conference. In my own professional readings, I had read Richard Isay’s many writings, including Becoming Gay: The Journey to Self-Acceptance. Dr. Isay was one of the first prominent psychoanalysts to come out in the American Psychoanalytic Association, a professional group that once viewed homosexual people with not-so-thinly-veiled disdain. It is a tribute to sacrifices of people like Dr.’s White and Isay when we strive to be progressive voices for social justice; but it is the ones who go first that suffer the worst bruising. Indeed, it was just after I returned from the Soulforce weekend, when I read with dismay that the Rev. Eugene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop had announced his impending retirement. The death threats, he said, among other reasons, had taken their toll on him.
A man spoke up at the end of my presentation this past weekend. He thanked me for explaining how toxic was the environment for the gay community in the 60’s and 70’s and just how denigrating were any profiles of gays or lesbians in the media. He said that he felt he could now be more forgiving of himself for remaining in the closet for as long as he had.
How sad and lonely it must be to live in a closet. How stifling. How painful that the explicit or implicit messages from religious leaders and mental health professionals have shamed people, causing them to remain there – or worse, take their lives.
Forgiveness, love, inclusiveness and acceptance of self and for others. Aren’t these the values we should be conveying? It is the values I found at the Soulforce meeting in Philadelphia and it was a memorable privilege to be there and among so many fine people.
William S. Meyer, MSW, is a clinician who is an Associate Clinical Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Ob/Gyn at Duke University Medical Center and holds adjunct faculty appointments at Smith College and the University of North Carolina. He is on the faculty of the Psychoanalytic Education Center of the Carolinas. He is a past-president of the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work and is on the Editorial board of the Clinical Social Work Journal. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including, in 1999, “The Heart of Social Work Award” granted by the North American Field Educators and Directors, of the Council On Social Work Education and, in 2005, the Edith Sabshin Award for teaching from the American Psychoanalytic Association and the 2010 recipient of the Day Garrett Award from the Smith College School for Social Work . <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
Meyer also penned an article for the Harold Sun, “Conversion Therapy: When the ‘cure’ becomes a curse”