Sitting at a restaurant in the heart of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, my friend and I fought back tears. He was telling me about the current fight for Transgender equality in his city and, at different points in the conversation, we were overcome with an awareness of the beauty and global nature of LGBTQ++ advocacy. As he played videos of brave gender expansive people telling their stories, we bonded over our shared passion for a just world that includes people of all identities and marginalized experiences.
Later, when I asked him what he would say to psychologists in the US, he said, “Tell them to be visible, to never stop fighting, and if they lose sight of the goal, let them hold hands.” He wanted us to know that the act of showing physical connection is powerful, though it may make us targets of criticism. His advice applies to work with LGBTQ+ people and to international, psychology partnerships in general.
At this point, you may be wondering how I ended up in the heart of Germany or why you should care. In mid-September this year, I was given the opportunity to serve as a representative of APA at the 2018 German Psychological Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie) Conference in Frankfurt am Main. Prior to being selected, I was largely unaware of the fact that APA signs Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) and participates in a MOU Partner Program with national psychological organizations in countries around the world.
These special agreements allow for close collaboration between psychological societies and organizations in a variety of locations throughout the globe. MOU initiatives are thoughtfully drafted, negotiated, and expertly executed by the Office of International Affairs at APA, currently led by Dr. Amanda Clinton and her amazing staff.
One of my primary responsibilities on the trip was to initiate collaborative relationships with German psychologists who share an interest in LGBTQ+ research, scholarship, clinical work, and advocacy. As someone who is often labeled “Julie Cruise Director” (a reference to the 1976 movie Love Boat) I launched myself into this role with the typical enthusiasm that I reserve for…well…everything I do. In short, I was prepared to “hold hands” with anyone interested in talking about our shared interests and goals.
If you have worked with LGBTQ+ populations in the United States, you know we are pretty easy to find, especially where Counseling Psychologists are involved. Given the presence and influence of Section on LGBTQ+ Issues and Society for the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, it is easier to find LGBTQ+ programming at national psychology conferences in the US than in some other locations around the world.
However, this does not appear to be the case everywhere in Germany, as demonstrated by the changes that LGBTQ+ organizations are calling for. A LGBTQ+ German Psychology Association does exist, but it is not formally connected to the German Psychological Society. Finding the few LGBTQ+ focused studies at the German Psychological Society Conference is time consuming and challenging. Terms like “sexuality” and “gender” generally refer to studies of heterosexual and cisgender populations.
This is not intended to be an indictment of German psychologists. In truth, Germany seems to be more settled in favor of gay marriage than are people in the US. If anything, the absence of a strong, focused anti-LGBTQ+ movement may mean that LGBTQ+ Germans are less visible. Also, psychology in Germany is heavily focused on scientific and empirical rigor. German psychologists may feel uninspired to research small, largely invisible populations or to engage in qualitative studies with limited sample sizes.
Whereas in the US too much may be made of the differences between LGBTQ+, cisgender, and heterosexual people, too little may be made of these differences in Germany. I’m no expert on international LGBTQ+ issues, but it seems to me that every country has its own nuanced approach to LGBTQ+ people and that psychological associations are varied in their treatment of these populations as well.
The point is that nobody gets it right when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues and working for LGBTQ+ equality can be isolating and exhausting when battles are fought on a country-by-country basis. This is why the APA MOU approach is so important. It is only through cross-pollination that the true richness and importance of minority research will be able to reach its fullest potential.
As my friend noted, holding hands is an act of bravery for LGBTQ+ people. It is something heterosexual, cisgender people can do to remind themselves of the risk involved in visible partnership. It is also something nations can do in an era of division. Hand-holding may be an uncomfortable thing when national emphases differ, priorities are out of sync, and values fail to align.
I am glad the APA has decided to reach out and to invest in partnerships with sibling organizations across the world. I believe my friend’s words perfectly sum up the spirit of international psychological partnerships, “Tell them to be visible, to never stop fighting, and if they lose sight of the goal, let them hold hands.
Douglas Knutson, Ph.D. (he/him) is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Douglas conducts research in LGBT health and his current focus is on transgender affirmative care.