A Small Cancellation

How we are failing our rainbow youth

It’s no secret that I’m massively ambivalent about Twitter.

I joined the platform during the first lockdown in early 2020, mostly out of boredom, but also because I wanted to see what I could discern regarding the “culture war” I had been hearing so much about in recent years. 

My closest friends will tell you of my aversion to hyperbole, fashionable trends, or “making a fuss”.  I’m one of those people who tends to sit at the back, listening rather than talking. My behaviour on Twitter reflected this: watching, absorbing, occasionally tweeting something pithy.

Unsurprisingly, I quickly became aware of the cultural schism currently at play in western discourse (which I alluded to in an earlier piece), including many alarming tales of individuals being “cancelled”, that is, being exposed to the wider public for some apparent bigotry or transgression on their part, and calls being made online for the termination of their employment, or something similar.

I’m a pretty good bloke, raised to model integrity, kindness, and transparency as much as humanly possible. I read these cancellation stories with a slightly suspicious squint in my eye. No smoke without fire, right?

However, back in February of this year, I found myself “mini-cancelled”. This has brought things to a head for me.

A long-standing LGBT youth support organisation here in Aotearoa New Zealand, which I’ve enjoyed a cordial eight-year professional relationship with, decided to remove me from their list of “rainbow-friendly services”.

The organisation concerned is Rainbow Youth.

My crime? Apparently, I was “aligned” (their words) with certain dubious persons during my comparatively brief time on Twitter. Individuals who apparently espouse bigoted views around feminism and LGBT issues.

This piece isn’t about them, and, for the record, I align with no one.

I have my own mind. I appreciate by default the complexities inherent in any debate. I try my level best to stay across any wider discourse, warts and all, which led me to trial Twitter in the first place. I attempt to read as widely as possible, including material that may offend or anger me. 

Though the details as to my supposed transgression remain a mystery, I imagine that I must have innocently followed someone on Twitter that Rainbow Youth had beef with. Or perhaps some likewise dubious individual liked a tweet of mine. I have no idea. I followed a lot of people, many of whom I disagreed with on many issues. Twitter being what it is, I certainly had no control over who saw or liked my occasional tweets.

I was removed without consultation from the rainbow-friendly services list by Rainbow Youth’s management in early February. I had a strong intuition that something was amiss after randomly googling myself one day and finding my entry absent. The online Wayback machine, which enables users to pinpoint when specific changes were made to websites, provided me with all I needed to know.

I contacted Rainbow Youth to inquire as to what may have occurred. Their response is published here in part:

I was aware that the listing had been taken down, it was recommended by the team and I was happy to take their recommendation based on their reasoning. I understand that you're aligned online with [redacted] and other folks who are central in the transphobic rhetoric happening in NZ. As you know, most of the young people that come to RY seeking support are transgender or questioning their gender. It is central to our kaupapa that we uplift and empower them, that we affirm their experience and make sure they feel validated and supported to the best of our ability. This means that there is no room for grey area when it comes to questioning trans identities or experiences. We need everyone in our circle to be 100% supportive of trans identities, self-determination and 100% against biological essentialism. This position is informed by the young people that RY supports and as always, that is the way that RY makes decisions.

As you know, RainbowYOUTH is not outspoken on these issues. We do not participate in public debate. Our priority is to be welcoming, to be here for young people who need support, and to do that in a way that is true to our values. This is why you weren't approached about this. I respect your space to explore these issues and have your own perspective as a member of this community, and it's not our role to monitor or inform that. I understand that there is a lot of nuance with these topics, however RY's position needs to be firmly in support of the young people that we are here for.

So, my warm, friendly relationship, nearly a decade old, simply extinguished, without conversation, and without dignity. No warm, collegial discussion amongst peers. Just deletion.

An experienced gay therapist, passionate about helping the wider LGB and trans communities through life’s difficulties, passive-aggressively “informed” he is not rainbow-friendly (and, through implication, “transphobic”).

It is hard not to regard this surreptitious move as profoundly disrespectful, and more than a little cowardly.

I became a counsellor a decade ago for several reasons, the main one being that I wished to work within the broader LGBT community. This has always been my raison d'être, my mission, my guiding kaupapa.

The week following my removal, I informed my supervisor, a woman of considerable standing in New Zealand’s psychotherapy community, as to what had occurred. I also told a great many of my colleagues. We have subsequently had frank and fulsome discussions, and they have had many questions. 

Most knew nothing about what is happening in the LGBT space right now (more on that shortly), but they do now, and they are uniformly disquieted. Many have said they will never again refer clients to the organisation that censured me.

So, this quiet boy at the back has decided to speak. I am unafraid to do so. My reputation is impeccable, and I believe strongly in the principle of speaking truth to power, particularly when that power appears to be increasingly wielded by those who lack the attributes necessary to do so. 

Additionally, just to be clear, I am breaking no ethical codes in writing this opinion piece. I am writing in my capacity as a private citizen in a democracy built on the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.  I also speak from a place of some authority regarding the issues I will soon expand on.

I am writing this to caution those who might otherwise not be aware of the current situation as to what to expect when referring vulnerable young people and rangatahi to Rainbow Youth.  

So, what is my gripe here?

Let me start by saying that I do not believe I have a transphobic bone in my body. My late uncle was transgender. His life was abruptly cut short as he began his transition 20 years ago, and I loved him very much. To accuse me of essentially speaking against what would have been his rightful place in the world had he decided to remain longer on this earth is a revolting assertion and I reject it outright.

I have worked therapeutically with transgender people for the past nine years, educated myself extensively in trans health issues, and am fortunate to be connected to some wonderful transgender people in my acquaintance circle, including someone who taught me more about acting and theatre than she would care to admit during my past life as a performer.

I am fully aware that bigotry against transgender people exists, and I abhor it as I would abhor any attempt to belittle, abuse, or silence a group of humans who simply wish to live peacefully and enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

I also wish to acknowledge and honour the mahi and good work delivered by Rainbow Youth since their inception in 1989. It’s hard however to regard it with the same level of gratitude in recent years, and this is where my main difficulty lies.

There has been an ideological shift within the larger LGBT community which I have alluded to elsewhere on my blog. Much of this shift is ostensibly concerned with “trans rights”, and it has caused support organisations such as Rainbow Youth to change their focus in the last decade.

Anti-discrimination and marriage equality rights are now entrenched in New Zealand law, so it made sense in some ways for an outfit such as Rainbow Youth to ask, “what’s next?” This is reflected also in overseas trends in organisations such as Stonewall in the UK.

This is where my disquiet arises however, and it is keenly illustrated in this key phrase from the email I received: 

“… there is no room for grey area when it comes to questioning trans identities or experiences.”

Regrettably, as a counsellor, I can tell you without doubt that this runs counter to what constitutes solid, ethical therapy.

Psychotherapy exists to assist individuals with making sense of their life. We listen, reflect, expand and explore ideas, and work on understanding the various strands of our client’s world. We’re in the trenches with them. It is often difficult but profoundly rewarding work. 

We are also by necessity neutral. We have our own beliefs and biases, of course, but these are (or should be) lightly held, and regularly examined. Ideological contamination is not permitted within a therapeutic space. To allow bias into the room is anathema to sound, effective therapy.

In short, as a therapist, I will have questions. How can I make sense of the whole human who sits in front of me otherwise? And I mean whole human being, not a collection of “identities”.

In the case of Rainbow Youth, firmly alluded to in their email to me, they specifically practice a heavily biased approach known as “affirmation-only”.

If a young person who is questioning their gender comes to see me, I will over the course of many sessions explore their personal world: their family of origin, their likes and dislikes, their defences, their level of resilience, their experiences of mental unwellness, possible trauma in their history, their possible positioning on the autistic spectrum, any likelihood of a personality disorder (as much as I loathe labels such as these), their core values, their level of self-esteem, their social supports, their history with substance use, their worldview, and so on.

Much is made nowadays of “safe spaces” for minorities to shelter in. Well, if you want the ultimate safe space, it’s a therapist’s couch. I’m not interested in pathologizing you, labelling you, nor judging you. Tell me your story, with all its multifaceted layers and nuance, and I will hear you.

I am not interested in creating hierarchies of oppression or applying politically-tinged lenses to human beings. To do so is explicitly forbidden in my code of ethics. It is the antithesis to sound, holistic psychotherapy.

Conversely, if a young person questioning their gender accesses Rainbow Youth’s services - if their email to me is anything to go by - they appear to be met with a blanket “you must obviously be exactly what you say you are – we accept you”.

Sounds all very warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?

Well, at the risk of sounding dramatic, it isn’t. Offering a one-size-fits-all model is potentially unsafe, and through a counselling lens, unethical. The young person will not receive anything other than affirmation, with little room for exploration.

Ironically, life is experienced in the very grey areas mentioned in Rainbow Youth’s email to me. This is where growth occurs. There is no black and white. Therapy is often painful for the client, but the ultimate result of this discomfort is a greater self-awareness, an increased acknowledgement of life’s complexities, and a toolbox full of resilience to help them navigate these. 

Simply validating or affirming someone’s experience uncritically is never enough, and risks merely perpetuating the individual’s pain if we do not explore it fully. 

Incidentally, if the young person who accesses Rainbow Youth’s services is questioning their sexuality, I’m equally as unnerved. Go to their website (www.ry.org.nz) and search for the word “gay” or the word “lesbian” in the search bar found to the upper left.  You will find nothing. This is another issue entirely, and one I will not go into here.

When Rainbow Youth write “we need everyone in our circle to be 100% supportive of trans identities, self-determination and 100% against biological essentialism”, then I will freely admit a red flag pops up for me.

They later state “I understand that there is a lot of nuance with these topics”  but nonetheless demand we align ourselves with what appears to be nothing more than an entrenched ideological position. Dogma, even.

This is all deeply troubling, and I fear as a broader community we are ultimately failing our rainbow youth.

I have had young gay, non-binary, and transgender clients of university age who have tried the support groups that Rainbow Youth offer, or the ones that most universities set up. Most have reported back to me (unsolicited, by the way) that they won’t be going back. One client half-jokingly remarked “everyone had blue hair”, while another stated “it was too political”.

Young people who are questioning their gender or their sexuality want to understand themselves further. They want to meet people like them so they don’t have to feel so alone. I vividly remember what this was like for me back in the late 1980s. 

They do not want to encounter uncritical, politically-slanted indoctrination. Again, this is anathema to forming and maintaining warm, respectful, and resilient real-world connections.

Young people need to learn that they can still get along with those they disagree with. The tone of the email I was sent suggests otherwise.

In this spirit - that of existing alongside those we disagree with - I would be more than happy to continue to support Rainbow Youth’s mahi as a whole if it was willing to return the favour. We need to keep doors of inquiry open, not close them. Anything less invites an authoritarian element into what should be a space that encourages wellness.

As I mentioned before, I am well aware that Rainbow Youth do some good work, particularly in the homelessness space. But they also appear to be firmly in the grip of the “culture war” I was so curious about back in April last year, espousing an ideology that can only contaminate the collective psyche of our rainbow communities, not heal it.

They have appointed themselves as an arbiter of “acceptable thought”, the high priests of gender-based philosophies, all bankrolled by substantial corporate sponsorship and well-intentioned donations.

They had every right to remove me from their list. They are an organisation that are free to make their own decisions, obviously, and I have never needed referrals from them. But decisions such as theirs back in February have consequences.

So, the agency that made an integrity-free, no-discussion decision to essentially cancel me (and that really should have known better) is now being surveilled by the psychotherapeutic community to a far greater degree than it may suppose.

I hope it’s ready for that.