Thursday, 9 April 2009

In celebration of friends

In difficult times, it's only natural to turn to our friends for comfort; having a sustainable support network is in part what friendships are all about. Lately though my friends, unasked and unknowingly, have been brightening up my life simply by making me enormously proud. Not through any seismic acts of brilliance – none of them has collided a large Hadron, or saved the whales, at least not yet – but by achieving something of personal significance against all odds.

Take Stephen for example. After years of bouncing between jobs in various sectors, admittedly doing very well in them all, Stephen recently took a huge plunge and, embracing a long-held ambition to perform, retrained as a drag artiste – yes, such courses do exist! He's now topping the bill every Sunday at one of London's top cabaret venues, Clapham's 2Brewers, as his hilarious alter-ego Lady LaRue.

Then there's Paul, the youngest of three adult brothers who lost their wonderful mum to cancer last year. Despite being the 'baby' of the family, Paul has taken on the role of linchpin, helping not only his brothers but also their families – including his four teenaged nephews and nieces – through their grief, whilst managing his own with immense dignity.

And I'm bursting with pride for my life-long bestie Andrew. He realised about two years ago, aged 31, that he wanted to be a doctor. He'd always loved medicine – at school we nicknamed him Doctor Andrew – but hadn't considered himself good enough academically despite having gained a first in Anatomy from a top university. He needed more Science A-Levels so he went to night school, achieving an 'A' in Chemistry. Knowing what medical school would cost, he tightened his belt, took a weekend job and saved up. Then he spent hours getting work experience with GPs and on hospital wards. The final objective - getting into medical school – is in sight. What's making me so proud isn't whether he becomes a doctor or not, but the selflessness and tenacity with which he's pursued his dream.

I'm telling you about these amazing men for no more profound a reason than this: that while in the wider world the news may all be doom and financial gloom, if you just look at the people you love, admire them, do as R.E.M. once sang and 'Take comfort in your friends', like me you'll soon feel, at least spiritually, very rich indeed.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

A Love There Is No Cure For

Benjamin Disraeli once supposedly scoffed that "There are lies, damned lies and statistics", and like Britain's erstwhile Prime Minister I tend to take survey outcomes and the like with a large pinch of salt. I couldn't however ignore recent reports of a study, published in the journal BMC Psychiatry, which according to one headline had found that 'One in six psychiatrists has tried to 'turn gays straight''.

It was reported that researchers had canvassed over 1300 mental health professionals and found that 17% (or one in six) had at some time in their career 'assisted at least one client/patient to reduce or change his or her homosexual or lesbian feelings'. In layman's terms, the statistics suggested that a substantial minority of psychiatrists and other mental health practitioners were willing to try to 'cure' homosexuality. Incredulous, I resolved to discover more and to inquire as to why, in 21
st century Britain, anyone would want to be 'cured' of their sexuality.

The first stage was to read the report to see if the newspapers had sensationalised or manipulated its findings at all. They hadn't – the 1 in 6 figure was clearly explained in (as my boyfriend would put it) language so simple even I could understand it – although the blanket use of the term 'psychiatrists' to cover a group which also included psychotherapists and counsellors was slightly misleading. If anything I felt that some of the articles I'd read had actually missed some of the report's more disturbing findings. For example, 72% of all respondents who had 'treated' a patient's homosexuality
still believed that such treatment should be available. Also, while the survey covered a period of four decades from 1963-2003, 79% of all the cases fell in the last ten years; even allowing for the proportionally fewer respondents who would have been practising in the earlier decades this nonetheless pointed to there having been no decline in the number of patients seeking to be 'cured' of homosexuality from the years pre-legalisation and in times far more intolerant than our own.

What really alarmed me were some of the verbatim comments from practitioners invited to justify why they believed it was acceptable to attempt to 'reduce or redirect' someone's attraction to the same sex. One spoke with apparent pride of a man he "helped to become heterosexual" because the patient "came from a working class background where it was completely unacceptable to deviate from the norm". Another alluded to similar considerations, saying that a patient was afraid of the reaction of "the local community – which outside London is still very homophobic", placing the capital on a pedestal which even its most satisfied gay residents would consider lofty.

There were several variations on the theme of 'the client knows best', with respondents stating, in essence, that if a patient wanted to be 'cured', then they were duty-bound to attempt to do so. Finally, the most distasteful comment – fortunately, as the report observed, one of only 'very few' that were discernibly homophobic – stated that "The physical act for male homosexuals is physically damaging and is the main reason in this country for AIDS/HIV. It is also perverse…" prompting me to wonder if the psychotherapist quoted was more part of the problem than the 'solution'. I could only conclude that he must be from 'outside London'.

So much for the professionals; who, I wanted to know, are the patients? The report offered a breakdown of reasons for patients seeking help, with by far the most common reason being 'confusion about sexual orientation' at 57%. This greatly outweighed the next most common reasons, 'social pressures including the family' at 14% and 'mental health difficulties' at 11%; 'religious beliefs' represented a surprisingly low (I thought) 7%. Other than this there was little specific information about why, today, anyone could be so distressed by their homosexuality that they would want to be cured of it, so I decided to undertake some research of my own.

First off I spoke to Jack Jones, agony uncle for GT (Gay Times) magazine, to find out whether he'd come across anyone seeking to be 'cured'. He certainly had, the most recent being in the last couple of months. What, I asked, were the sorts of reasons correspondents offered for wanting to become straight? Predominantly, it would seem, religion – in some cases their own, in others that of their parents – but also a general difficulty in coming to terms with their sexuality, manifesting itself as a desire to avoid the problem in hand by 'turning straight'.

"Some of the guys who write to me are very vulnerable and confused," Jack told me; "they want or rather need explanations for
why they're gay, and because this isn't something that's easily rationalised, they instead seek other ways of making the situation 'better'." In Jack's most recent case, a young guy of about 20 wrote asking whether he should accept the 'cure' being offered by his parents' church, despite the fact that his deeply religious parents had actually shown some degree of acceptance when he had bravely come out to them. Jack's advice to this correspondent was the same as he gives to anyone who writes to him about a 'cure': "I sympathise with the confusion they're feeling but emphasise that sexuality isn't something that needs to be cured, and instead advise them to get help with accepting it." Common sense, you would think, but evidently not for the one in six headline-making professionals in the survey.

I still couldn't quite get my head around why someone would want to be cured of their sexuality rather than accepting it. From a personal point of view, I know that I was very fortunate growing up in that I never, ever had any problem accepting that I was gay. Try as I might to empathise, I found it impossible to imagine a situation so bad that it would make me want to not be gay, or that could justify a professional in trying to 'cure' me. So, knowing that among my myriad happily-gay friends there had to be some different experiences, I asked about forty people the same question:

Thinking back through your lifetime, as opposed to how you feel now, has there ever been a point where had it been available, you would have accepted treatment to 'cure' you of being gay?

The responses I received were fascinating for their variety and candour. Fairly predictably, most answered unequivocally 'Never', with a few saying that while there'd been times where they had thought life would be easier if they weren't gay, they'd never actually wanted to turn straight. Indeed, several respondents said that their sexuality was something they drew strength from, with one describing his being gay as "the one constant that has never left me" and another saying that "I always revelled in it." Others were less sure, with about 15% being able to identify a time (all while in their teens and still coming to terms with being gay) when they were sufficiently distressed that they would have accepted a cure, but tellingly most of these respondents stressed that it wouldn't have been their sexuality they wanted a cure for, it not being clear to them what their sexuality
was yet, but the terrible anxiety and stress they were suffering from. All of these, natural enough to say, are now happy, fully-functioning homos with no lasting signs of damage.

The answers which most interested me were those that said not only "Yes", they would have accepted treatment, but also that this was as an adult, already identifying as gay and therefore putting them in the same category as the patients in the survey. One, Adam*, said that he happily identified as bisexual for many years, making the mental distinction that men were purely for sex and that he would eventually settle down with a woman and have a family. When he realised however that he was gay and not bi, he was so upset at the prospect of never having a family that he would have considered a cure had it been offered. In some cases it would appear that it
is on offer: the report found a number of professionals considered bisexuality "was not a stable category of sexual orientation" and would be willing to try to realign a patient's feelings – towards being heterosexual, of course. Other respondents, living as they were then in communities where they would not have felt safe had it been known that they were gay, described feelings of isolation and indeed of endangerment so severe that they would have been open to having their sexuality 'cured'.

Now, with hindsight, all agree that their sexuality wasn't the problem and that by moving away they were able to accept themselves as gay, as now have the families and communities which they felt compelled to leave. What if they hadn't had social mobility and had found themselves in the hands of one of the psychiatrists who considered acceptance by a homophobic community as being of greater worth than acceptance of oneself as gay? They'd be, most likely, in the same situation as the patient quoted in the
Independent who, as well as admitting frankly that the treatment he underwent had plainly failed to suppress his attraction to men, said that, "The very structure of my being [was] torn apart in the name of science."

One good news story emerged from my survey which serves to prove that mental health professionals can – and do – play a positive role in the lives of gay people today. In her twenties, Jenny* sought counselling because as she says, "I didn't want to be different from all my friends or to disappoint my family; in my vulnerable state I would have jumped at the chance to make myself straight." Fortunately, that chance didn't arise; instead, Jenny saw a (coincidentally) lesbian counsellor who rather than take her down the route of 'redirecting' her feelings, "thankfully understood the whole process [of coming out]" and helped her towards becoming the confident, loved and loving lesbian she is today.

Dominic Davies, founder of specialist independent therapy organisation Pink Therapy, explained just how important this understanding of a gay person's thought processes is: "Straight therapists can find it hard to empathise with a LGBT patient and not appreciate the social context they're coming from and how they're living their life. They're more likely to collude with straight, patriarchal values of what's 'normal' rather than understanding what is possible; for example, that it's possible to be queer and have a family, or to identify positively as being bi." Pink Therapy have over 300 'queer-friendly' therapists on their books, all able and willing to help anyone experiencing confusion over their sexual identity.

The time people devoted to answering my 'survey' and the openness with which they did so showed just how emotive the very idea of anyone trying to 'cure' us of being gay is. Many were furious that the question should even be being asked in 2009, "morally repugnant" being one of the more printable comments. Overwhelmingly though, the message to come out of my research - and the message I would like to send to all mental health professionals, whatever their current views on 'treating' gay patients are – was that the best and surely
only 'treatment' to offer is to help individuals to accept themselves as they are and to allow them to see that they can lead a fulfilled and happy life being gay.

I couldn't hope to summarise this better than my dear pal Robin; would he ever want to be cured of his sexuality? "NO NEVER. And you can publish my answer in NEON LIGHTS in the national press with my name and photo if you like. Purely and simply I love men, and I love being gay. I mean can you imagine life not being gay? How dull." Robin – and all the proud, happy, incurable queers who I spoke to – I salute you.

*Some names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of respondents.

Friday, 6 March 2009

My Grown-Up Gap Year

So, here's the first of my pieces for your perusal, an overview of what I've been up to on my 'gap year' and how it came about. Please do let me know what you think!

Given the opportunity, I can't imagine anyone would pass up the chance to take a year off from working, travel the world, spend time with their loved ones and enjoy a life of leisure. For many it will only ever be a dream, but last year I was lucky enough to be able to make the dream a reality.

I'd been growing increasingly disenchanted with my job, a fairly senior and very well-paid public sector management role, for some time, but because I was heavily in debt I couldn't afford even to take a pay cut, let alone give up work completely. Then, suddenly, my circumstances changed. My mother, who suffers with mental health problems, decided that it would be best to sell her house and a rental property she owned in Dorset and move to a retirement flat in Norfolk, nearer to my sister and not too far from me. As well as being best for mum, it was great news for me too: I owned a third of her house and so when it sold, I would come into a pretty decent amount of money, enough to pay off all my debts, squirrel plenty away and fund a year or so of not working. I took the plunge and gave my notice; the next twelve weeks couldn't pass quickly enough, but time flew and in May 2008 I began my 'grown-up gap year'.

The first two months were somewhat like still being in full-time work, with daytimes taken up by the myriad dealings that selling two properties and sourcing and buying another necessitates. Notwithstanding my vested interest, this experience was very rewarding; emotionally, because of finally being able to do something tangible to help my mother after years of feeling helpless faced with her illness, and practically, because it gave me a valuable insight into the complicated processes involved in buying property.

Once at leisure, top of my dream to-do list, as I'm sure it would be for most people, was to travel. I'd toyed with the idea of disappearing around the world for a year, going everywhere I'd ever wanted to go plus a few places I hadn't, but two things stood in the way of this. One, having always liked the finer things in life, I could never envisage myself back-packing, and two, at around the time I quit work, I'd met someone who by the time my notice was up I'd fallen in love with and couldn't contemplate being apart from for too long. So, instead of going 'travelling', I settled on taking a series of individual holidays. I spent a month exploring Spain and three weeks in Italy, had a week larging it in Ibiza, enjoyed two weeks travelling around Mexico with my boyfriend to celebrate our anniversary, stayed with an old school friend in Bermuda for a fortnight and enjoyed three weeks spanning Christmas and New Year with friends in Sydney. Before the year is out, I've another couple of long weekends in Spain booked in, and I'm in the process of planning one last long trip to somewhere new.

While in London, I've indulged my culture vulture tendencies, attending dozens of exhibitions, visiting the major museums and many minor ones, and seeing tons of plays, films and gigs. In one especially memorable week alone I enjoyed Elaine Stritch's genius one-woman show and an afternoon Q&A with the lady herself, plus Kylie's X tour at The O2; recently I went to both plays showing at the two-space Trafalgar Studios in the space of ten days. My boyfriend and I spent a whole day enjoying the V&A and Science Museums, and another at Tate Modern taking in every exhibition. Going out of an evening knowing that there's no work to get up for in the morning, and having the free time to go to major exhibitions and attractions avoiding peak hour crowds, makes these activities even more enjoyable

The best aspect of all of the year off though hasn't been the travel or the leisure pursuits, but having been able, whenever in the country, to spend time with my much-loved mum. When she had a bit of a 'wobble' in November and was hospitalised for a while, I was able to visit her twice a week and attend all the necessary meetings with care staff that my sister couldn't because she was tied up planning her November wedding (planning, incidentally, which I was able to be more involved in than if I'd been working). Once mum was out of hospital, I devoted time to helping her settle back into her home and manage with day-to-day tasks; since then she's recovered brilliantly and our days together now comprise boozy lunches, shopping trips, cinema trips, cooking...all the things that we both enjoy, but enjoy ten times more when done together. It's bliss.

Of course, soon this all has to come to an end and I can't pretend that I'm not nervous about returning to work, if there are any jobs to return to. I don't want to go back to anything like the level of seniority I had before; I've overheard enough banal business conversations on trains and planes to know that corporate bollocks is not for me. I'm hoping to find something creative, perhaps in fashion, or involving my writing. My year off has helped me to re-evaluate my aspirations and values: acquiring knowledge through travel and culture and spending time with family and friends are what matter to me now, not professional status or a £50K salary.

My advice to anyone would be that if you ever get the chance at least to take some time out of the rat-race, from a few weeks to several months, then DO IT. Use the time to follow your ambitions, live a life you like, and spend time with the people who matter to you. I know that I've been extremely lucky to be able to do so, and for that I'll always be thankful.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

It's Not You, It's Me.

OK, so I know you're all waiting for the latest travel update - I promised, almost two months ago, to tell you all about Mexico, which I visited nearly four months ago - and in some cases (well, Richard's), waiting for my write-up of my stay in your particular corner of the world to see a) just how much I love you and b) if I really did enjoy myself as much as I claimed to have to your face (the answers are a) very much indeed and b) yes I really did). Well, I'm sorry to have to say it ain't gonna happen. Or at least, not yet; see, the thing is I've decided that the blog's not working in the way I want it to and so it's time for a bit of a change.

Writing at length about my travelling has been fun, as has been receiving your comments about it, but try as I might - I started, re-started and finally gave up on my Mexico write-up about fifteen times, for example - I couldn't master doing things succinctly and just felt that rambling on about everything I did, everywhere I went and everyone I met wasn't, well, interesting enough for a blog. If you want to know about my travelling, I would love to tell you - in as much or as little detail as you prefer - but face-to-face; let's do it over drinks or dinner, my treat, in a world city of your choosing. When I started my blog a couple of years ago, it was with the intention of writing about life as it happens, the highs and lows, things that were occurring, activities I was enjoying (or not) and my cultural, culinary and carnal exploits. Travel blogging is fun but I should have done it as I went along; after the event, even a few weeks, it seems cold, retrospective and...OK if I'm honest, too much like hard work. In a nutshell, I just feel I've lost my traveloguing mojo.

That explains why I've let the travel writing slip (I hope?); so what's next? Well, I haven't just been sitting on my arse watching Trisha since my last post, although that has taken up an hour most weekday mornings (yeah yeah, mea maxima culpa). I've been writing all sorts of stuff for pleasure - reviews, comment pieces, rants and random musings - but not posted it because it felt inconsistent with the travel theme that I'd established. Some of it - in fact probably most of it - is total crap, but some of it might, I think, be of interest to others. Additionally, buoyed in no small part by the very favourable comments I've received on some of my past posts, I've decided that as well as returning to some form of paid employment when my 'Grown-Up Gap Year' comes to an end in May, I'd also like to try making a go of it as a writer in some professional capacity. And this, my loves, is where you and this blog come in.

From now on, TS&F is going to be a 'showcase' for everything I write, from one-line musings on any given day's TV viewing, via restaurant, theatre and cinema reviews, to essays and potential articles. Not all of it will be for submission, but all of it will be for your comments. If I'm going to achieve anything through my writing - other than entertaining a loyal few around the world, to whom I am forever grateful - I need to know first if what I'm doing is good, or accurate, or interesting...or not. I also need exposure; a post on here that might just be good enough to get published in a magazine is going to be so much more saleable if I can say that it excited chatter on my blog.

So what can you do to help? Three things spring to mind. Firstly, you can comment on and critique what I write, either directly to me or preferably on the blog so that others can see them; I promise not to be offended by anyone's views and in fact would value any comments be they positive, negative or ambivalent. Secondly, you can spread the word about the blog to any friends you think might be even slightly interested; the more exposure my waffling gets, the more comments and criticism I can hope to receive and accordingly learn from. And thirdly - and this is the cheekiest one - you can help by being my international ideas people, letting me know if there's anything going on in your neck of the woods (wherever that may be in the world) which you think I could do justice to and let me know of any publications you think I could potentially pitch it to, whether that's the Sydney Star Observer or the Walthamstow Guardian. Firing off unsolicited articles to magazines might not get me anywhere fast, but it'll be a start.

I really want to make something of my writing. Your support of my blogging to date has been so valuable and I appreciate it so, so much; now I hope you can help me to take it to the next level. Oh and as for Mexico? It was amazing; let me tell you about it over a burrito some time - I'll treat us with my first pay-cheque from Vogue...

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