Out of the comfort zone

Since I joined the online poetry group at the beginning of May I’ve written about 60 poems. Yes, that’s right – 60. Me, who used to write one every few months if I was lucky and would usually add them to my collection of unfinished drafts, having given up on them. Not all the new poems are of high quality – or the highest quality that I’m capable of – and some are very slight, but I’ve been quite pleased with a few and think my work is showing signs of improvement. I’d like to believe that as I read all the marvellous poetry other people post something may be rubbing off on me. Many of those people are properly published poets whose work has had or is starting to get the recognition it deserves and I’m deeply grateful to be in there somewhere, even if I’m only waving from the back row. I’m also pretty chuffed and grateful that I’ve now had poems accepted for three magazines and two poetry websites and that a pamphlet of mine was shortlisted for a competition, even though the shortlist was very long.

The way the group works is that every week the person who runs it sends out a theme for the week. The themes vary from apparently safe ones like sound and colour to ones that are definitely near the edge – like the erotic. Whatever the subject, though, it seems to take people right to the limit of what it feels possible to write about. There have been poems about illness, death, bereavement, violence, rape, sexual abuse, guilt and shame and the ordinary varieties of unhappiness, as well as poems that are joyful and loving and celebratory and funny and wonderfully surreal. And it’s genuine poetry, so beautifully written and full of imagination that that alone would make you weep; it’s not simply the kind of ‘therapeutic’ writing whose main function is to say what needs to be said, never mind how.

I’ve found that other people’s openness and the safety of the group have helped me to write about things I never thought I would, and in ways that I haven’t tried before. The poems haven’t always been successful or even appropriate, but I’ve managed to survive that and write poems about it too. Although it is most definitely a poetry group and not a therapy group, what happens in it has many of the qualities of the best kind of therapy. There is acceptance, support, care for one another, freedom to be who you are and a welcoming of diversity. And there’s the shared love of poetry – writing our own and reading other people’s – and encouragement to make our work as good as it can be.

In case that sounds too utopian, the group is very large and poems don’t always get the amount of feedback the writers hope for, and that you might get from an in-person group or class. I’ve sometimes felt overlooked or discounted, even though I recognise that many of the other poems are better and more noteworthy than mine. Nevertheless it’s a community, and some people from it actually met for the first time at the weekend. I didn’t manage to get there, having been away somewhere else, but realised as I was driving down the motorway that I easily could have taken a detour. But perhaps that would have been too far out of my comfort zone: scary and awe-inspiring, not to mention just plain socially awkward. Knowing people online, however well, is very different from knowing them in person. I’ve had some pretty personal online ‘conversations’ with people I’ve never met or hardly spoken to, and the question then is: where on earth do you start? Having seen the photographs, though, I wish I’d had the courage and – more than that – the navigational competence to get myself there and have a go. Had I planned it properly, there would have been nothing to stop me coming back from Nottingham via Stratford upon Avon.

Well, I didn’t. But what I did do was write a poem about it – the shyness and the awkwardness and the fear of seeming an ‘unpoetic fool’, as well as the regret at having missed out on the party. It wasn’t a good poem, but for once that didn’t matter. I wouldn’t have been able to write it at all before I joined the group.

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Coming out

When I was just four, one of the littlest pupils of Miss Perry’s dancing school in South Norwood, I took part in a show. I was supposed to be a chick, dressed in a yellow satin costume with a cute little peaked cap (I still have the photo). At the right moment I should have burst out of the egg, a hoop covered with tissue paper, ripping the paper with my little wooden spoon. Unfortunately it didn’t tear and a large grown-up hand had to smash through it for me, whereupon I stepped through the hoop with great delight and called out, “Oh look, there’s my daddy.” I don’t remember saying that. What I remember most clearly is being fascinated by a large basket of fruit on a table in the centre of the audience – presumably a raffle prize. My memory has been aided by a piece from the local paper about the show: clearly the journalist enjoyed my debut as much as I did.

Although I can’t say that all my comings-out – of whatever kind – have been as well received as that one, coming out in the widest sense seems to be a theme right now. As well as literally coming out after being confined at home for weeks with a bad back, I seem to have been emerging in other ways too. I’ve been sending work off to magazines and competitions – no luck so far – and to my amazement have been writing several poems a week, thanks to the wonderful online poetry group that I’m part of. If I’m not careful the group could become a full-time occupation. Some of the poems people post are amazingly beautiful and many more are amazingly honest, taking the most raw and difficult experiences as material for poetry that’s eloquent and heartfelt. It’s enabled me to make poems about things I never thought I’d share on paper and to feel part of a community of creative, generous, witty, insightful people, some of whom already seem like friends, even the ones I don’t know in real life. The great thing about writing for the group – and writing poetry generally – is that no-one bothers about whether their work is commercial: people are just themselves in all their quirkiness and individuality, which invites others to be themselves too. Of course they want their poems to be published, and many have had poems published, but there’s a great freedom in not writing with one eye towards the market.

Having said that, I realise a novel is a very different animal from a poem or a collection of poems. It has to tell a story, oh dear yes, as E M Forster said, and it has to draw the reader in. Although I don’t write novels solely in order to be published, being published does matter and that means doing all I possibly can not only to make the novel better but also to make it more engaging for the reader. The one I’m writing at the moment has some rather dark themes and I will have to be careful it isn’t so grim and gloomy that it simply puts people off. In that sense I do need to think about the market in a way that I wouldn’t if I were writing a poem, which could be as grim as it liked. It also means stepping back and seeing the book as a whole – seeing it as though I were reading it and not writing it, which of course is necessary with a poem too. I’ve got to a point with the first novel now where I could imagine myself as a reader actually wanting to read it, though I’m not sure I’ve moved away completely from my infatuation with it as the writer. Whether I have or not, I’m about to submit both novels to a publisher who is having an open submissions month and have entered the new one for yet another competition, shelling out more money in pursuit of the dream. There’s persistence for you, and the continuing hope that this time someone at last might want to read what I write. At least the publisher isn’t asking for a fee: competitions come expensive, if you enter a lot of them.

This far from the first time that I’ve written about coming out with my work. Perhaps what’s different now is that more of me seems to be coming out with it. I’ve been feeling a bit like a champagne bottle that’s just had its cork popped, which is how I often felt on the MA course. Not all the time, though. It was strange to go back to Bath Spa University just a week or two ago to hear Tessa Hadley’s inaugural lecture as professor – in fact a beautiful short story. The event was held at the university’s main campus, not at lovely Corsham Court where we studied for the MA, but nevertheless it was good to be breathing that inspired atmosphere again. I didn’t feel so much like coming out there, with so many fellow-students around who had already published books or were about to do so. “Well, no, I haven’t actually got anywhere yet. Oh yes, I’m still writing. No, I’m not going to give up,” I managed to avoid saying, and pushed the cork firmly back in. However, it’s soon popped out again as I unrepentantly continue to post poems in the group and make comments, appropriate or not, on other people’s work.

When I say that more of me is coming out, more seems to be emerging into the public domain. For the poetry group I’ve written Jewish poems, a Buddhist poem and a therapist poem – all aspects of myself and my background, none of them unknown to people who know me and all of them in some way woven into the fiction I write. I’ve admired other people’s courageous poems about their own backgrounds and families, and applauded those who have come out more directly about themselves. I’ve been reluctant to do that – though again these things have been part of my fiction and on the whole are not hidden from the people I know. When I posted a piece not long ago about gay conversion therapy I said very little about myself. I did refer to ‘those of us who find ourselves elsewhere on the sexuality spectrum than at 100% heterosexual’ but deliberately left it at that. However, the urge to come out more fully on this blog hasn’t gone away.

If asked, I’ve usually chosen to define myself as bisexual, though over they years I’ve fallen in love with more women than men. I have been and still am attracted to men, but when I fell in love again recently it became very clear that I’m more attracted to women and that probably isn’t going to change. When I’ve told people about the experience I’ve tended to fudge it by saying ‘the person’ and ‘they’ (dead giveaways in themselves), but then I’ve thought, “What the hell? The sky isn’t going to fall in if they know.” If anyone couldn’t deal with it, they probably wouldn’t be the kind of person I’d want as a friend. I think my carefulness says more about my own lack of acceptance, which after all these years of therapy has rather surprised me. I still cringe a bit at the thought of defining myself as ‘a lesbian’, especially with that stigmatising ‘a’. If I use the term, about myself or anyone else, I prefer it to be an adjective rather than a noun: that way it doesn’t label the person as a whole. In the same way I wouldn’t want to define someone as ‘an epileptic’ or ‘a schizophrenic’. ‘Gay’ still seems to me easier and more manageable, though, perhaps because it doesn’t have to be gender-specific.

One of my concerns about coming out on this blog is not only that I’m making my sexuality public – though this isn’t very public. The blog only has about 50 followers, whereas the poetry group has over 500 members. It’s also that if I do so people may start to pigeonhole me as a ‘lesbian writer’ rather than simply a writer. I do write about lesbian relationships in my novels, among other relationships, but I would like to think that the novels are about more than sexuality. I’m glad Sarah Waters wrote Tipping the Velvet as an explicitly lesbian novel but I’m also glad some of her later books include other themes and relationships – and that her work is popular with the public at large. Although Alan Hollinghurst writes about relationships between men, he too isn’t seen simply as a ‘gay novelist’, perhaps because the quality of his books takes them out of that niche. While I’m obviously not comparing my novels with theirs, I would also want mine to be read by people who could see past the label.

So there we are. I’ve said it and I’ve yet to see whether the sky will fall in. And I’m continuing to enjoy coming out, as a human being, in all the ways I’ve mentioned above.

 

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Poem is a poem is a poem is a poem

You’ll have to excuse the title: I’ve been reading Gertrude Stein. Or rather I’ve been reading Diana Souhami’s engaging biography of Gertrude and her other half Alice B Toklas (perhaps her other three quarters, considering how much Alice did for her), and trying to read some of Gertrude’s own writing. There’s no doubt that in different places it is baffling, repetitious, excruciatingly tedious and sometimes screamingly funny – whether intentionally or not I’m not sure. Here is part of a piece from Tender Buttons (no, I don’t know what it refers to either, though some people have hazarded a guess):

A SUBSTANCE IN A CUSHION.

The change of color is likely and a difference a very little difference is prepared. Sugar is not a vegetable.

Callous is something that hardening leaves behind what will be soft if there is a genuine interest in there being present as many girls as men. Does this change. It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.

A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.

So there you are. I’d like to be able to dismiss it completely but somehow I can’t. What Gertrude Stein is trying to do is to get below the ordinary rational level of consciousness into a place where language makes sense in a different way, if it does. She wrote poems as well as prose and the poems work similarly, except that they’re written down the page instead of across. But even if they don’t seem to make sense, what the poetry and the prose both have is rhythm and their own particular kind of music. Gertrude Stein is some sort of poet, even if not the sort that most of us would want to emulate. And she wrote regularly, dedicatedly and fluently. Sometimes she only wrote for half an hour a day, but those half-hours soon added up. She just kept on writing without worrying about it, and let whatever came find its own level.

On Sunday I went to a workshop with the poet Penelope Shuttle, whose beautiful collection Sandgrain and Hourglass I’d definitely recommend. Without making it seem too arduous, she got us to write six poems in the course of the morning and another one at the end of the workshop. We had time to read two of our poems to the group and I was blown away by the depth and quality of the work that had emerged in such a short time. I should say that many of the participants were published poets, some of them very well-established, and had obviously written a great many poems before. But even I, who have only just begun to take myself seriously as a poet and have not written nearly so many poems, found I was producing work that was better than I would have expected. The message seemed to be: just write and don’t think too much about it; trust that it’ll be OK. We did have time to revise what we had written before reading it, but some people seemed hardly to have needed it. Sufficient unto the day were the poems thereof.

Until now I’ve often had to psych myself up to write a poem. Even if I have a half-formed idea – a phrase or an image or a vague sense of something – there will often be a gap between jotting it down and actually getting to work. Having a deadline – for a course, say – will usually push me into it, but even so I may well find myself hesitating, faffing around, writing a line and crossing it out, writing another line, looking at it and thinking it won’t do, blocking in the odd line or stanza further down and then thinking that won’t do either, and then leaving the poem for another time because it won’t come right. The trouble is that, much more than with prose, there’s something in me that feels any poetry I write has to be Very Good if I’m to be allowed to write it at all. I’m working on a novel at the moment and don’t mind churning out a not terribly good first draft which I will then revise, but somehow I have the feeling that even a rough draft of a poem has to show its quality in order to justify its existence. Which is why, of course, I’ve never written all that many poems.

I’d like to hope this is changing. I’ve just joined an online poetry group where people are given a suggestion every week for the subject of a poem. Some people post only one poem a week, some rather a lot, some possibly none. The quality – though very high  – can vary as the aim isn’t to send polished poems but to get feedback and encouragement. And to keep writing poems. I didn’t do NaPoWriMo (National Poetry Writing Month) this year, though I had thought that for the first time I might. The aim of that is to write a poem a day, just for the sake of writing poems. Some of them may be good and worth keeping, others possibly not, but like Gertrude Stein with her half-hour a day you keep on doing it and see what comes. I’d be very happy if I managed to write one poem a week, and if I do I’m hoping the emphasis may shift from This Is Poetry And It Has To Be Good (and therefore I have to get uptight about it) to simply writing poems as a natural thing to do. I write poems therefore I’m a poet; I’m a poet therefore I write poems.

This morning I was sitting in the garden of Gaia House retreat centre down here in Devon, drinking fresh ginger and lemon tea and watching the fountain in the pond. The water rose up inexhaustibly, spreading out and breaking into tiny droplets as it reached its full height. It’s not exactly an original image for the creative process, but I couldn’t help feeling that was how I wanted to write poems: one after another, letting them fall when they are ready. Keats said: ‘If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.’  As far as I’m concerned that doesn’t mean don’t craft or don’t revise but it does mean don’t get too self-conscious about it. Poem is a poem is a poem is a poem. It has its own existence and needs me to get out of the way.

 

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The spirit of competition

The writing world is full of competitions, for published and unpublished work alike. Several of my writing friends and acquaintances have won competitions, or at least been long/shortlisted in them, and it’s tangible proof that their work has reached a standard of excellence – that people think it’s worth publishing or, if already published, worth selling. There is of course a subjective element, in that the judging is done by a particular person with their own particular preferences, but nevertheless I can almost always see why a certain novel or short story or poem or collection of poems should have been selected. Yes, I think, X’s work has really got something. Of course people like it.

When it comes to my own work it’s much harder to see straight. I’ve entered for a good few competitions now – novels, poetry, short stories – and am growing used to the long and ever more disillusioning silence that follows the initial excitement. This one I’m submitting is so much better than the last one, I always think, I’m sure they’ll really go for it this time. Only of course they never do, and never tell you why because there are far too many entries – holding a competition must be quite a lucrative thing to do. The piece of work that you’ve laboured over with such love and care is lost without trace in the ranks of the mediocre and the not quite good enough. Or so it seems. I’ve no idea whether any of the work I’ve sent in has been rejected as hopeless or been a carefully considered near-miss, but the fact that nothing I’ve written has even been longlisted may be telling me something.

It hasn’t stopped me entering, though. At the moment I’ve got three poetry pamphlets and two novels, one finished and one still in progress, waiting in the endless limbo, and I’m about to send work off to at least three or four more competitions: single poems, pamphlets, novels again, perhaps even a short story. All of it costs money – usually at least £10 a throw – and all of it involves not only polishing the work to its absolute best but taking the time and trouble to make sure the entry fits all the competition’s requirements for layout and presentation. Why do it, I ask myself, when I know what the outcome is likely to be? Why keep throwing money into a black hole? But why not? Nothing venture, nothing gain, as people must surely feel when they buy their weekly lottery ticket. I don’t know if the odds for winning a competition are any better than those for winning the lottery – perhaps they’re in thousands rather than millions – but somewhere inside me there is still that little spark of hope or belief or self-delusion. If my friends can do it, why can’t I? People tell me my work is good, but I know good may not be good enough.

What will happen remains to be seen. Hope springs eternal, sometimes restrained by realism, but always lurking somewhere not far from the surface is the longing to become, even at my advanced age, a writer who not only writes but is published and recognised. Could it happen? I don’t know. In the meantime I can congratulate and celebrate those friends of mine who at different times and to differing degrees have had success in competitions: Tanya Atapattu, Daisy Behagg, Penny Deacon, Clare Donoghue, Hadiza El-Rufai, Emma Geen, Rebecca Gethin, Jane Shemilt, and most recently N J Hynes. All splendid writers whose reflected glory I’m proud to bask in. And I’m not giving up.

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Back again

If you read the post before last you will have heard from Adelina about my bad back. (You will also have heard her views on Poetry, but I take no responsibility for those.) I’m pleased to say that I’m now well on the way to recovery and have begun doing things again that for the past few weeks have seemed well nigh impossible: weeding the garden, going out for pleasure, even sitting at a desk. I’m only taking painkillers occasionally and the frozen sweetcorn is soon destined for the compost – though I have still got a rather neat gel pack that you can either freeze or heat up.

The thing about back pain is that it hurts. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such intense pain before, or had such difficulty finding a comfortable position to sit or stand or lie in. What happened was that an old injury from a fall I had in my teens, which normally hardly bothers me, somehow got disturbed. I felt it getting worse for a while, but the final undoing came when I had to empty the old garden shed and then put everything back into the new one. As with so many physical ailments, though, there was another layer. I’d just been through what you might call a romantic misadventure – a relatively mild one – and although nothing very much had happened it shook me up far more than I realised. At my age one doesn’t take these things lightly – not that I ever did. The physical pain and the emotional pain were tightly woven together, creating something that for a while was truly agonising.

As a psychotherapist and the sort of person who has been engaged in self-exploration for most of my life (meditation, Focusing, my own therapy and, in a different way, writing), I couldn’t help knowing that the emotional pain was not only connected with the current situation. Our bodies carry trauma from the past, often from times well before we were able to speak or register it consciously. I was certainly in touch with plenty of that. I’m very lucky to live in an area where it’s easy to find good complementary therapists (for those who think I should tie my camel as well as trust in God, I have also got a very good GP) and I’ve been fortunate to have an excellent craniosacral therapist, who has been working with me intensively for the past couple of months. As the pain has gradually lessened I’ve come to the point of cutting down on the sessions, but without them I would have been in a sorry state. Craniosacral therapy works gently but deeply with all that the body is holding and allows it to release, be it physical or emotional or – more usually – some combination of the two. I could have gone to an osteopath or chiropractor instead, except that a previous episode of pain in the injured area some twenty-five years ago was triggered off by some over-zealous osteopathy. Softly, softly seems to be the order of the day.

It’s only in the past week or two, as spring has unmistakably announced its arrival and we’ve begun to remember what sunshine is like, that I’ve started to get my life back properly. Since mid-January I’d hardly been out anywhere except down the road into town, and that only for treatments or shopping or to do a very small amount of work. I’d been having sessions with my psychotherapist on the phone as I couldn’t get to Exeter to see him, and also Focusing with friends via the phone or Skype. I even joined in a couple of meetings with my writing group – which meets in the Bath/Bristol area, some way from here – on Skype. The rest of the time I was in semi-hibernation: feeling sick and woozy with painkillers until the GP found me some that weren’t so disabling; struggling to get through my dissertation marking and other paperwork; reading; distracting myself with emails and Facebook and videos on YouTube; and sometimes feeling able to be with the process in meditation – walking meditation more easily than sitting. Apart from that I was simply trying to manage the pain as best I could – an enormously time- and energy-consuming process.

However, as Adelina told you, I did also do some writing. Not only did I finish the work for the poetry course; I also entered two novels for a competition, one finished and one still in progress, and put together some pamphlets of poems to enter for other competitions. The first pamphlet doesn’t seem to have been shortlisted but I won’t know for some while yet about the others. Completing the poetry course was a real rite of passage – I’ve now got my ‘poetic licence’. I said to my writing group that it was like getting a pilot’s licence, and lo and behold someone came up with the perfect image. Not only is the plane ready for take-off; it looks as though the pilot herself is about to take wing unaided. Ah, the power of poetry!

aviatrixb

The whole experience of being confined at home has been in some ways rather isolating, despite phone and email contact with friends. Some people have said it must have been like a retreat, but it was notably lacking in the focus and discipline that I associate with being on retreat. However, it has in its way been a time of regeneration. Coming out of the house again, in the beautiful Devon spring, I’ve been rediscovering a simple joy in the natural world, whether in the gardens at Dartington Hall – for a long time one of my favourite places – or up on Dartmoor, wandering through the woods or stopping to gaze at the wide sweep of hills and fields. I’ve been enjoying my own garden too. Though there’s still a limit to the gardening I can do, I’ve managed to start planting all the plants I’ve bought for a herb bed and a new herbaceous border. I’ve even got a tree peony – a magical plant – for the front garden.

The sense of coming alive again in the spring is always wonderful, but this year I’ve been even more poignantly aware of it. Walking in Dartington gardens, recognising the spring flowers, daffodils, primroses, bluebells, grape hyacinths, fritillaries, anemone blanda, and the pink and white magnolia trees down the flight of stone steps, was both a sharp reminder of previous springs and an exquisite pointer to this moment now, just as it is and unlike any other. The beauty of the setting, the vista of hills and fields and river, the terraced landscaping of the gardens themselves, the fact that just as I arrived a wedding party was assembling, all touched something in me that after a time of solitude and pain was perhaps more open to being touched. Eventually my back told me it had had enough – there’s a little way to go yet – but still it felt like a privilege to have been able to be part of all this: not only the trees and flowers and fields but the wedding guests struggling to carry oars up from the car park for the guard of honour, the bride in her cream silk dress, the families with noisy or curious or bored children, the elderly people with walking sticks hobbling up the steps, the staff bustling about too busy to notice what the rest of us had come to see.

It’s good to be back in life again.

 

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Happy or normal?

The American website Upworthy, which in the past I’ve found unexceptionable, if at times rather sentimental, recently posted a video that brought me up short. It was praising an American Christian company that, unlike the infamous Hobby Lobby, was apparently funding its employees’ healthcare insurance without exceptions. So far so admirable. The first employee interviewed was full of praise for his employers’ generosity: they had funded all his therapy. “And what therapy was that?” asked the interviewer. “Gay conversion therapy,” he said, his eyes shining. Her reaction: “Wow, that’s wonderful!” When he then said how many people there were who needed it, I’m afraid I stopped watching the video. For ‘religious’ reasons Hobby Lobby refuses to fund female employees’ contraception; I had a strong suspicion that for the same reasons this other company might be only too delighted to fund gay conversion therapy rather than have gay employees.

As many people know, there is a good deal of evidence to show that gay conversion therapy doesn’t work – never mind that it has sometimes been seriously abusive and has undoubtedly left many people feeling depressed and even suicidal. What it has tried to do – with, in some cases, a certain gloss of depth psychoanalysis – is to help (for ‘help’ you may wish to read ‘coerce’) gay people who are unhappy with their sexuality to become heterosexual, or at the very least to refrain from homosexual behaviour. Often the methods seem pretty crude: getting a gay man to dress like a ‘real’ man, making him go to sports events instead of concerts or art exhibitions where he might meet other gays, teaching him to imitate heterosexual men’s behaviour and date women, encouraging him to marry and father children. Aversion therapy used to be part of some of these programmes, but it has had a bad press and has not been widely used for some time. It still has its advocates, though it’s hard to see how making someone vomit every time he sees an arousing picture of a man will enable him to feel positive about sex with women.

Several of the gay conversion therapy organisations have been forced to admit that people’s sexuality seldom, if ever, changes in response to this kind of brainwashing – I find it hard to not to call it so – and have softened many of their attitudes. Nevertheless, to judge from this video gay conversion therapy is still alive and flourishing, particularly among the American religious right. One of their assumptions is that homosexuality is a choice and people have been ‘converted’ to it – meaning, of course, that they can then be converted from it. According to them people aren’t gay by nature: they have ‘become’ so and therefore may potentially convert others. In the wider Christian anti-gay movement, alongside the assumption that people have been ‘converted’ to homosexuality often lies the uglier assumption that anyone homosexual is also a paedophile. From there it isn’t too far to the various gay conspiracy theories – which to me sound disturbingly like some of the Jewish conspiracy theories. I don’t want to start talking about Fascism but can’t help being aware that it casts a shadow.

One of the conversion therapists’ arguments is that the human genital organs are designed by nature for heterosexual sex – which clearly they are. However, it seems that a good number of non-human species, including dolphins and many of the apes, are quite happy to use their heterosexually-intended organs in other ways as well, and do so without obvious harm. It’s possible that some of the gay conversion therapists don’t accept our evolutionary links to other animals, and many more would make a distinction between instinctive animal behaviour and human moral choice. But the fact that we are not the only species to include homosexual behaviour in our repertoire suggests that perhaps it’s not as alien to us as we might like to think. Undoubtedly people do have a moral choice as to how they use their sexuality – and for some that may include the decision not to use it – but in the paradigm I prefer to follow it is their individual choice and not behaviour imposed on them from outside.

As a psychotherapist I’ve been aware that sometimes people’s sexuality does undergo surprising changes, whether temporarily or permanently. In my experience such changes, if they happen, don’t come about from deliberate choice or from any conscious attempt to make them happen. And they may occur either way – from straight to gay as well as gay to straight. As people begin to explore their feelings they tend to encounter areas in themselves that they had not known about before, and sexuality may be one of these. Most psychotherapists and psychotherapy organisations would say that the therapist’s role is not to influence the outcome but to support the client in finding what’s right for her/him. If homosexuality isn’t seen as a dysfunction (it was removed from the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual some time ago), it’s not appropriate to ‘treat’ it. Accept it, yes, explore the feelings around it if the person wishes, see it in the context of their whole life, but not try to make it go away.

I’m also aware as a psychotherapist that quite often – I can’t say always – there do seem to be factors in someone’s very early experience which may have influenced their sexuality. The view of some gay conversion therapists, following the notorious Charles Socarides, is that through psychoanalysis and ‘reparative therapy’ these factors (which Socarides seems to have reduced to a stereotyped few, rather than seeing them as unique to each individual) can be reversed. Exploring them in therapy can certainly bring greater acceptance and understanding, but time and time again it has been shown that there’s no guarantee it will change someone’s sexual orientation. One might see it as poetic justice that Socarides’ son is openly gay.

It’s common to most of us that early experiences – sometimes very early indeed – which have not been ideal may have led us to adopt a particular career or lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean we have to be ‘cured’ of the life we are living. I can think of all sorts of less than perfect reasons why I’ve so much wanted to write – perhaps even more why I wanted to become a psychotherapist – but those reasons don’t mean I have to see what I do as invalid. Someone who is lesbian or gay may well have been inclined in that direction from before birth, certainly from before the onset of conscious memory. It is what they feel and who they are; expecting that they should change is both a tall order and an unnecessary imposition. In a way that I have no control over, my body tells me I like celery; at the same time I know people who do not merely dislike it but feel physically revolted by it, and this too is outside their control. Imagine how preposterous it would be if the celery-haters tried to make celery-lovers like me hate it too, or convinced us there was something wrong with us for liking it.

Many years ago, back in the 1970s, I was powerfully impressed Arthur Janov’s The Primal Scream. Among his many assertions he insists that people who are gay are living an ‘unreal’ life. His view is that by feeling and experiencing the original trauma in his particular way, i.e. through Primal Therapy, people will then be able to let go of the need for their homosexuality. In some of the dramatic accounts of his clients’ therapy this seems to have happened: the person becomes more ‘masculine’ (if a man) or ‘feminine’ (if a woman) and vilifies their previous ‘unreal’ relationships. Again stereotyping is rife. (Janov later modified his view that all homosexuality could be ‘cured’ by Primal Therapy and moved more towards acceptance of it.) For a while –  before I became a therapist – I almost bought into Janov’s ideas, but then as I explored my own confusions about sexuality I began to look at the lesbian and gay people I knew. Were they necessarily any more ‘unreal’ than anyone else, or more neurotic and unhappy? I have to say I didn’t find them so, except perhaps in relation to the pressures and discriminations they encountered from the rest of society.

We are fortunate in this country that religious conservatism doesn’t have the same hold as it does in the United States. Nevertheless  homophobia, including the internalised homophobia that seems to drive people into gay conversion therapy, does exist, as do the dilemmas of gay people who try to reconcile their sexuality with conservative religion. At the same time we have just celebrated the coming of gay marriage and greater tolerance – though the word makes me want to ask why those of us who find ourselves elsewhere on the sexuality spectrum than at 100% heterosexual should have to be ‘tolerated’. There are many options open other than gay conversion therapy, and many more opportunities than there used to be for being happy without having to be ‘normal’.

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An Announcement from Adelina

Adelina

Dear Blogg Readers

Some of you may be wondering why the Belated Writer hasn’t done any Belated Writing for such a long time. She has asked me to let you know that it’s because she has had a Bad Back, which has meant she has spent a lot of time taking Pain-killers and lying down on top of a Hot Water Bottle or a packet of frozen Sweet-corn. (She has promised me that she won’t eat the Sweet-corn afterwards, because of Health and Safety.) The Pain-killers have sometimes made her rather sleepy and also a bit forgetful – though she is often that anyway – and she has told people she has not been quite her Usual Self. I’m not sure I know what her Usual Self is, except that normally she goes out a lot more and doesn’t spend so much time in Bed. It’s fortunate that my Husband and I have been able to keep her company beside the bedside, as it seems that Bad Backs can make people quite miserable sometimes.

As well as taking Pain-killers and spending a lot of time looking at things like Face Book and You Tube on account of not being able to think properly, the Belated Writer has been writing Poetry (or trying to – I still don’t think her Poems are a patch on my Husband’s beautiful Compositions). She has had to finish the Nodules for her Correspondence Course, which has been all about how Poems are made and how to write them. The strange thing about a Correspondence Course is that you don’t see the other students and only talk to the Tutor by E-mail, but perhaps there are real people there somewhere too. Some of the Poems the Belated Writer has written have also been a bit strange, if you ask me. There was one about a Pepper Mill and another one about black Mould. We have unfortunately had some of that in the Bathroom, but I wouldn’t have thought it was a subject for Poetry, would you? I think Poetry should be about Serious Things like Love and being miserable and the Meaning of Life, or at least about Nature and so on. The Belated Writer once wrote a Poem about Vegetable Soup where all the naked Vegetables got together, and I didn’t think that was in very good Taste. (My Husband has told me I have just made a Pun. I’m not sure where it is.)

Anyway, I’ve told you now why the Belated Writer has been neglecting her Blogg and I hope you will understand. I think she will probably tell you more about it herself quite soon, but in the meantime I do like to be helpful. I hope I have put the Belated Writer straight about Poetry as well, as she does get some funny ideas sometimes. (She doesn’t mind me saying this as she knows I like her to Do Things Properly.)

It’s been very nice to talk to you again. I wish you well with your Poetry, if you write it.

Adelina xx

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