An Interview with Dr Meg John Barker

Posted 23rd of February 2016 by Bay Whitaker

You are a writer, academic, psychotherapist and campaigner for rights in the area of sexual minorities and, especially, gender diversity. Many people have heard of transgender, but can you explain a bit more about gender diversity?

Sure. I guess I like Dominic Davies's term 'Gender and Sexual Diversity' (GSD) because it gets at the fact that there are a whole range of genders and sexualities beyond the 'sexual and gender minorities' that we tend to hear about: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT).

That range includes all the people who are attracted to the same gender who don't necessarily identify as bisexual or gay (around 50% of young people according to a recent YouGov poll). It also includes all those who are into kink or BDSM, and asexual people who don't experience sexual attraction. And, as well as trans people (whose gender is different to the one they were assigned at birth), GSD gets at all the people who experience themselves as something other than 100% male or 100% female. That's around a third of us according to one recent study.

GSD also reminds us that everybody has a gender and a sexuality - not just those of us who are somehow outside of the cultural 'norm'. In the books that I write about these topics I always make a point of including heterosexuality and cisgender (people who aren't trans) because those things can also have a big impact on people's experiences of life. For example, some heterosexual and cisgender people struggle because they feel such a pressure to conform to social expectations of what it means to be a straight guy, or a straight woman, in our culture.

Sometimes people fail to distinguish between gender and sexuality. How can this be problematic?

It can lead people to have stereotypical assumptions - for example the classic prejudice that gay men will be 'cissy' or feminine, and lesbians will be butch or masculine. Of course we know that's not the case. Where you sit on the spectrum of sexual attraction isn't necessarily related to where you sit on the spectrum of gender.

Beyond that I think it's also worth seeing both sexuality and gender on a number of dimensions, rather than just the ones we're used to thinking about. We've got very used to thinking about sexuality as being all about the gender we're attracted to (the same gender or the 'opposite' gender). There's so much more to sexuality than that. For example, whether we experience sexual desire at all and how much, whether we're more active or passive sexually, what kinds of people we find attractive, and what kinds of sexual practices we enjoy. Similarly with gender, it’s worth thinking about what we mean when we talk about someone being masculine or feminine. Very few of us fall completely into the 'manly' or 'womanly' stereotypes. (There's an illustration of this here that you're welcome to use if it's helpful -

What do you think are the most misunderstood aspects of non-binary gender?

I guess - as with many minorities - the biggest misunderstanding is that it's one thing. There are many different experiences of being non-binary, and many different ways of expressing those experiences. Some non-binary people experience themselves as having a pretty stable gender somewhere between male and female. Others have something more like a third gender which is different to either of those. Others see themselves as without a gender at all. Bigender people might feel male some of the time, and female at other times. Genderfluid people find that their gender shifts and changes over time.

How can counselling and psychotherapy support clients who are beginning to question their assumptions about their gender?

I think it can be very helpful so long as it comes from an affirmative stance which recognises that there are many ways of experiencing and expressing gender, all of which are equally valid. The important thing - as always - is to be led by the client and to create an open and safe-enough space for them to explore the possibilities. I think it's helpful if the counsellor or therapist is educated enough about gender to know what is out there in terms of community support and medical services, as well as what the options are, and how they are currently viewed in the wider culture and community. There are plenty of good books, websites and trainers that cover these topics. For example my colleagues Christina Richards, Walter Bouman and I are publishing a book on non-binary gender in 2016. And it's important to remember that it's always okay to refer clients on if you don't have enough knowledge yourself. Pink Therapy is a good place to find clued up therapists and counsellors.

As someone who argues against a conservative and often restrictive view of gender and sexuality, what worries you most?

The mental health statistics – sadly, compared to heterosexual and even to lesbian and gay people, bisexual and trans people (including non-binary people) have the very worst rates of mental health problems. That includes things like self-harm and suicide. In a world which assumes that gender and sexuality are binary (male or female, gay or straight) and that people will remain in the gender they were assigned at birth, it is still very hard to live as a bi or trans person. You're constantly having to come-out to people, to correct assumptions and to deal with suspicion. You rarely see people with your gender or sexuality on TV or in films, and when you do they are often represented as ridiculous or dangerous. You may find yourself being treated badly by family and friends, and by professionals. It can be a very alienating, shaming and isolating experience.

Those who seek to campaign and argue for new rights often experience exhaustion because it can be such a thankless task.  What inspires you to keep writing, speaking and organising on these topics

Great question! I think that burn-out is a real problem in this area. Although we see real progress in some ways there is often a backlash and it is hard when things seem to go two steps forward and then three steps back. Also when you're trying to move things forward in a way that will work you often find yourself being viewed as too radical by some people, and too conservative by others. For example there are difficult questions about whether it's better to work within systems like the NHS, government or education system, or whether it's better to work outside those areas because they are so entrenched in problematic ideas and practices. 

What inspires me is when I see the difference it can make to the clients I work with, or the people who read my writing on these topics. I feel like these conversations about how we shouldn't value people differently on the basis of their gender or sexuality tap into far bigger issues about how we treat people generally. So much of the current struggle we're having as humans relates to that kind of 'us and them' thinking. It feels good to be a small part of such a big, and important, conversation.

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