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Encountering Biphobia And Challenging White Supremacy In Western Psychology

Western psychology was developed under and exists within a white supremacist society that more often than not works hard to quell any and every revolutionary bone in your body. 

TW: biphobia, racism, and ableism in Western psychology, mention of death

By J.R. Yussuf

I was drawn to therapy with hopes that it would help me become more comfortable with my bisexuality, but I quickly found that would not be a simple task. In an idealized world, therapy is a place where the most up-to-date tools on mental hygiene are provided, where bias does not exist, and there is no risk of harm. As I’ve learned first-hand many times over, that is simply not true. Western psychology has a history of pathologizing and harming LGBTQ+ individuals, and that continues to exist in the field. Many of its models and practices are rooted in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, ableism, and ultimately anti-Black racism.

I have a personal history of being averse to conflict — as the thought often brought up fear of volatility as recourse, feelings of unworthiness and of abandonment. All things considered, I did not want to have to become my own bisexual advocate in the therapy room. But, recently, when I pointed out a therapist’s biphobic attitudes and language for the first time, something shifted. I didn’t know my healing was on the other side of showing up for myself by having productive conflict.  

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Seeing my first four therapists set me back on my mission to embrace my bisexuality. I had to navigate not being believed, not having treatment specifically geared toward supporting my particular needs as a bisexual man, and having my already-fragile enthusiasm toward engaging with women shot down with attempts to redirect it exclusively towards men. As recently as a few months ago, I had to tactfully point out to a fifth therapist how their words and theories they’d learned in their schooling pathologized queerness (a la, queerness is born from trauma in utero or in childhood) and their language surrounding bisexuality (“changing sexuality” from straight to gay) was biphobic and inept. After a bit of time, they came around, apologized, thanked me profusely, implemented change, and got themselves on track to study with a Black queer feminist collective of mental health professionals that I provided them. 

Showing up for myself in the moment to say I felt caught off-guard and harmed, then listing exactly what I needed in that moment to the person who caused the harm was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Normally, I’d just get quiet, numb myself, never bring up sexuality again, or perhaps find another therapist. This time I stood my ground, spoke clearly while using as little accusatory language as possible, and allowed myself to be vulnerable. In that moment, I felt my capacity within relationships expand and shortly after, I cried. I was so overwhelmed by working up the courage to do that, and by being heard, validated, apologized to, and shown a plan for growth and atonement afterward. But…this never should have happened in the first place. 

It was widely inappropriate for me to have had to be a bisexual advocate in that setting, and it was a lot of emotional labor. I was there to heal, receive support, and potentially unlearn internalized biphobia but was instead pushed into being an “activist” — something that happens to me time and time again. I’ve talked about the ways therapy is not automatically a good place for bisexual+ men, or Black people in general; at the same time I find this to be a tricky thing to talk about because therapy has helped me immensely. It has helped me heal some deep wounds, develop the necessary tools to survive, and work up the courage to advocate for myself, while also feeding me flawed dreams that the country is improving incrementally because of democrats who are “on the right side.” It legitimizes white supremacy, which has created and exacerbates many of the local and global circumstances that have made it necessary for me to seek out therapy in the first place. For a long time, this fostered a desire to cling to neoliberalism for comfort and eventual salvation. And because of this, a Western talk therapy that upholds white supremacy must go.

I do not want to make therapy better with my user experience. I do not want to spend another second invested in reforming something so violent, so unconscionable, so depraved. I may use it for now but I must also remember that it, along with every other oppressive system, must go when the time comes.

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I reflect on the ways I’ve been harmed and yet I felt a tinge of guilt speaking up for myself and a tinge of guilt writing about it now. Guilt over saying anything bad about therapy — a thing that can be a life-saving resource, and something people oftentimes put on a pedestal. Guilt over mentioning a therapist’s mistakes and shortcomings. I ask myself: Will sharing this help other bisexual+ people? Will it deter them from a potentially life-saving resource? Will it swallow more LGBTQ+ people whole? And that is the conundrum; will speaking up deter others and potentially leave them worse off or will remaining silent usher them into a psychological death-grip? The truth is, Western psychology was developed under and exists within a white supremacist society that more often than not works hard to quell any and every revolutionary bone in your body.

At the beginning of quarantine in March 2020, many people online advocated for mental health professionals and social workers to replace law enforcement after seeing videos of police officers harming people. I could not help but roll my eyes because this assumes that therapy is the solution opposed to revolution, that mental health professionals and social workers are one size fits all, and as though many of them are not carceral and lethal themselves.

A huge driving force for my life over the last decade centered on my optimal health. Health in every area of my life has been central to my identity since I began my therapy journey – something I naively thought was a neutral and untouched-by-white-supremacy sect of what it meant to be human. Over the last few years, I’ve come to deeply understand that the foundation of Western psychology – both in study and in practice (see the Medical Industrial Complex graphic) – is ableism, heterosexism, and anti-Blackness. The resolve I’ve come to is Western psychology is a tool with sharp edges that I must keep at arm’s length while learning more about and trying to access decolonial therapy, healing justice and restorative justice. Calling out biphobia in therapy was healing, justice is in the revolution.

J.R. Yussuf is the award winning author of the The Other F Word: Forgiveness. He has written for Men’s Health Magazine, Black Youth Project, Thrive Global, Queerty, and Queer Majority. Yussuf created the tag #BisexualMenSpeak for bisexual+ men & masculine identified folks to have the space to speak for themselves & talk about how being bisexual+ impacts the way they move through the world, and he maintains a YouTube channel devoted to emotional intelligence, mental health & bisexuality. Learn more here.

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