Liebe und Arbeit – To Love and To Work. Retirement Reflections

According to Elms (2001), Sigmond Freud never said that love and work are the cornerstones of what makes us human or that the ability to love and work is the hallmark of a healthy life. However, the idea that to love and to work were key to mental health or normality were not foreign to Freud and could be seen to be the point of psychoanalysis. The idea has moved way beyond psychoanalytical thinking and permeates much psychological thinking, popular culture, and self-help movements. Even the early social model of disability movement placed great emphasis on work as a core concept. There is undoubtedly some truth to these ideas. However, there are critiques of the idea that work makes us human and linking humanness or worthiness to work (productivity) reeks of ableist and capitalistic ideologies. We are more than what we do. I know many people who do not currently work and some who have never worked who are very human, have meaning and purpose and have contributed to my growth and development. Still, there is something important about the place of love and work in psychological health, and I have thought a lot about the apocryphal saying of Freud since I retired one month ago yesterday.

I know for myself that I need to feel a sense of productivity, getting things done, making a contribution to others and society. Every job I had as part of my social work and academic career was an embodiment of that need. As the comments people made at my virtual leaving gathering evidenced for me, I did make a difference and contributed to the development of others. In my own way I have helped make the world a little bit better. But now that I am no longer working, what happens to that need to feel productive, to contribute, to get things done?

On a very micro level getting things done can include activities like those that took up yesterday: completing a long list of household chores, baking some bread, doing some needed shopping, cooking a healthy dinner, exercising and meditating. I hate those days when I footer about and get nothing done or accomplished, and yesterday was definitely NOT one of those days. I crossed off most of the items on my to do list and that kind of productivity feels good. However, that type of productivity will not sustain me over time. It’s not enough.  

A lot of the chores I did yesterday also fall into the “to love” category as they were things I need/want to do in my role as a caregiver. Caregiving considerations did play an important part in my deliberations to retire early, so my balance of to love and to work have shifted. But as important as the caring and the loving are, being focused on only that ‘side’ of Freud’s apocryphal love and work equation would be bad for my mental health.

The initial shape to my retirement life I’m creating does support the sense of accomplishment I need to feel each day on the micro level. I’m still finding my feet regarding the larger sense of feeling productive/contributing to society.  So far in my 1st month of retirement I have engaged in doctoral supervision, blogging, reviewing manuscripts for journals, beginning reading for an article I am writing, and beginning to do a small piece of work for Irish Social Work professional and regulatory body. I’m also exploring doing a very small amount of volunteering with an LGBT+ organisation. Time will tell if these activities help me to feel productive and to feel like I’m contributing to the greater good. I also wonder if my need to feel productive will wax and wane as I continue this journey into retirement. I have been reflecting on my sense of doing versus my sense of being, so who knows. But I am pretty certain I will always want to find a way to contribute to my community and my society. Just what that shape will be is anyone’s guess at the moment. For the time being, I am content to continue exploring and see what happens next. 

Elms, A. C (2001). Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s most famous “quotations” and their actual sources. In Annual of Psychoanalysis, XXIX, pp 83-104. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press. 

Early Emotional Responses to Retirement and Developing a Structure to Test

My first official day of retirement was the 1st of January 2022, though my last official day at work was the 17thof December. I was technically on annual leave from the 18th of December until the 31st. I say technically I was on annual leave because, like most academics, I still did some work while I was on leave. I didn’t quite get everything done before my ‘final’ day. I finished the last reports I needed to complete before I could retire in good faith on the 30th of December. I then made sure all my emails were cleared and all personal files were off university systems. It was such a strange feeling when all of that was done, and I was a bit surprised by the strange hole that suddenly opened in my gut. I had a momentary panic, but that soon passed. But then, the reality of retirement hadn’t really sunk in yet. In many ways it felt like being on Christmas break. 

On the 2nd of January I had a real moment of, ‘oh shit this is real’ when the University changed my IT permissions. I knew that I would briefly lose access to all systems and then some would be restored because of my emeritus status. But when it happened, I actually felt hurt, like ‘how could they do this to me? Don’t you know who I am?’ I had to laugh at myself and my reaction. Of course, that must happen. I’m not an employee anymore, I don’t need or want access to all that sensitive data anymore, and more importantly, it would be corporately irresponsible and against GDPR if the University still allowed access to all those systems. I knew all of that, but it still took my breath away when it happened. It was the first moment that it was clear that I was no longer in role and was retired. My position of privilege and power was over. By the end of that week, I received the formal confirmation that the Emeritus was now in the system, and I had access to the university resources I was entitled to as an Emeritus Professor…. another marker of the transition.  

It wasn’t until it was time to ‘go back to work’ last week that I finally began to feel retired. Even that was delayed a wee bit as we had a friend visiting for the 4th and 5th of January, so it wasn’t until the Thursday and Friday that I felt like I ‘should’ be at work. In those two days I was able to do my bits on a co-authored paper and do an article review for a journal. I also began the planning for another article I am starting to work on. I also had longer exercise sessions, longer meditation periods, long walks with my husband and dogs at lunch. Those were nice days, but not quite the shape I think I want. 

This past weekend felt like my first retired weekend. Normally on a Sunday (or the day or two before going back to work after holiday) I would start worrying about all the things I needed to do before Monday morning and/or for the week ahead. Suddenly that anxiety was gone. I am still getting that occasional pang of sadness that the important chapter in my life (being an academic and a Dean) was over.  I have moments where I think it ended too soon and that there was still unfinished business to take care of. But mostly, I feel a sense of hope and optimism about what is next. 

I’m really aware I need to have a shape and a structure to my days/time or I’ll become anxious and unhappy. Work gave a lot of shape and structure to how I lived my life, but now I’ll need to create my own shape and structure. I’ve reflected on my first 3 ½ weeks of retirement, my pre-retirement planning and goal setting, and my theme for the year (restoration) and have come up with a shape for my days. I’ll try this structure out for a month or two and see how it fits, how it nurtures, how it supports the restoration of my physique and my psyche.  I won’t be rigid about it, but having a basic structure will be helpful to me. 

Early Morning – The plan is to wake up at my regular time (6:30ish) and after walking the dogs, do my exercise, mediation, have breakfast, complete morning ablutions. This was my pattern for most of my working life especially for the past 6-7 years. Now, however I have more time for exercise and meditation so I am spending more time.

Mid Morning- Complete routine tasks and errands from to do list

Lunch- Healthy lunch and nice walk with dogs and husband

Afternoon- Spend 2-4 hours engaged in activities to feed the mind: writing, blogging, doctoral supervision preparation, learning French, other learning activities, etc

Evening – fun

We’ll see how this basic shape works.

Reflections on Retirement

As I have just retired, I thought I would use my blog to share and reflect on my transition. I doubt there will be any earth-shattering discoveries or anything particularly new about my experience, but sometimes reading someone else’s experience can be helpful. I am sure that my reflections will be helpful to me. I tend to think and figure things out as I write. I am certain my brain is really in my fingers. 

One of the other things I am sure will emerge in this journey is that my experience will likely fit into the research or theoretical understanding of retirement and early old age transitions. One of the things that frustrates me is that I am not special or unique. As much as I want to be different or want to not have to experience things because I ‘know about such things’ – I can’t seem to escape being human like everyone else! For example, years ago I was doing a talk/workshop in a geriatric hospital where I was working to a group of caregivers whose spouses were currently in the psychiatry or dementia wards. My partner at the time had bi-polar illness. As I was giving the workshop about self-care all I could do was think…I should be sitting in the seats with them! Just because I knew about the stresses and strains of caring, didn’t mean I could escape all the stresses and strains. Another example, I have reflected on my life at regular 10 -15 year intervals and built new structures to prepare for the next phase of life….just like Daniel Levinson wrote about in his normative research on the Seasons of a Man’s Life. Because I’ve spent my career looking at ageing and life transitions, I think I should be exempt from having to experience the uncomfortable parts and just get to the good stuff. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Well that’s what goes on inside this brain of mine. I get to learn the lesson of humility on a regular basis.

I’ll make regular posts about my transition, but I’ll make this first blog post about the decision to retire. It’s a bit historical now, but it will set the scene for future retirement posts. 

My Decision Making Process

My husband and I have been together for just over 20 years and he is 8 years older than me. I always planned on retiring a bit early so we could have good healthy years together in retirement. Prior to this relationship I had always thought I would be one of those academics that was found dead in their office at 85 years of age. But then, before this marriage, I was married to my job. One of my pensions allowed for retirement at 59½ without penalty so I knew that was the earliest I could retire – never thinking I would retire that early. But knowing that date set an early financial parameter.

Two years ago (just before the pandemic) we took a 3-week holiday over Christmas and New Year and booked a cottage on the Kyle of Lochalsh. I hadn’t had such a long period of down time in 20 years. I used this time as a ‘taster’ for retirement. Could we stand to be in the same place all by ourselves for this period of time? What would it be like to have a long stretch of unstructured time? Would I get bored? I also used this time to start some serious retirement planning. I’d done a lot of reading and some financial planning previously, but this was now done in earnest and with the potential reality on the 4-5 year horizon, rather than something abstract. This three-week period was really useful and a couple of things emerged. The 1st was that we really did like each other enough to survive being cooped up in a cabin all by ourselves for 3 weeks (The 1st lockdown confirmed this even more). The 2nd was that I was okay with unstructured time. I wouldn’t want to do it indefinitely so I would need to develop a structure and pattern when I retired (duh…that’s that all the research says).  Finally, I outlined what I needed to do to get ready to retire and get a firm plan. This included some serious financial planning with our financial advisor and doing a proper retirement planning course. At this point two years ago, I was still thinking of a retirement date 4-5 years away, but knew I wanted to get the planning started now and done soon. I put those wheels in motion. Then the pandemic hit. 

Despite the pandemic I was still able to have a planning session with my financial adviser (virtually of course) and also enrolled in a great online retirement planning course that covered every aspect of retirement. It was well worth the money. Through both of these processes I discovered I really could retire at 59½ if I wanted to. I still loved my job and was getting great intrinsic reward from it. The pandemic made things a bit more stressful, but I’ve always thrived in a crisis (one of the benefits of growing up in a dysfunctional family). Being a good leader and helping my school and staff survive and thrive themselves while also providing excellent education despite the pandemic was rewarding, exciting, but also VERY exhausting. 

Though I was still thinking of retirement being 4-5 years away, we decided to start making changes to prepare for retirement.  Again, some of the research talks about the importance of planning and getting structures in place prior to a transition. I wasn’t thinking about the research, but I can be so normative. Anyhow, we loved Dundee and the Tayside region. It is one of the most beautiful places on the planet and the City of Dundee is a small vibrant city in the midst of a remarkable transformation. It’s simply an amazing place. Yet, it wasn’t quite right for us in retirement. We decided it would be better for us to retire to Glasgow for a range of personal reasons – including being close to family and friends who could help out with caregiving and being part of a larger gay community. We decided to move before retirement so we could establish a good social network and be part of the community. And that’s what we did. We downsized further and bought a small flat in the City Centre, close to all amenities and travel links. (Sounds like a retirement planning cliche)

During this time there had also been a series of leadership changes at the University. Previously I had been very influential within the University and was making a very positive contribution both to my School and the wider University. With the changes in leadership I began to feel pushed aside. Having been central to many important developments and having a lot of influence over a number of years, it was painful and frustrating. I know that universities across the world do these sorts of things from time to time – in with the new and out with the old – and it is not personal. But it is still sore and feels personal at times. There was also a period of considerable moral distress when processes were occurring that were wrong (in my opinion) and I was unable to influence the processes to be fit for the light of day. It also became apparent to me that my face did not fit for future leadership roles. There was great sadness about this. I also knew myself well enough that if I stuck around in a lesser role, I would turn into one of those people that could be destructive rather than facilitative. In my family of origin, I learned how to be fantastically passive-aggressive. Luckily, I have a very good Superego that keeps that sociopathic ID-driven part of my psyche well controlled. However, occasionally that passive-aggressive side does break through my defences. I worried the temptation to be a snide, snarky grenade thrower would be too great. I didn’t want that to happen and wanted to leave my career with integrity intact. I went back to my financial advisor to discuss moving up the timeline, and there was no real financial reason to delay retirement. 

At this same time, I was approached by two head-hunters for other senior posts in two other universities – I was the ideal candidate for both. Head-hunter’s always butter you up, and it feels nice. At the same time, they also can talk straight about how you sit in the pool of potential candidates.  They were both really keen on me and said both universities were keen on me too. In the end I decided to not go forward for either of these positions, even though it felt fantastic to be wanted by two good institutions when I felt pushed aside by my own. I believe if you go for a senior role, you really need to commit to at least 4-5 years to the job or its unethical to go for it or take it. With my husband’s decreasing health and my increasing need to provide care, I knew I couldn’t realistically commit to that length of time. This brief interlude did help with my discernment process, and I decided to make the decision and actually retire early. 

Once I made that decision a huge weight was lifted, and my stress levels plummeted. Ironically, a new senior appointment was made at my university who quickly began to fix the processes that were so wrong in my opinion. I had a momentary twinge of…did I jump too soon? But quickly realised, no I haven’t jumped too soon. This is the right decision for me and my family. I have had a long discernment process, did a lot of planning, and made changes to support the transition. I feel prepared and eager, and I believe I have built the structures that will support the life I build for the next life stage.  

My next retirement blog entries will chronicle the transition as I go through it. 

Fathers and complexities

Today I was listening to a Russel Brand podcast and his guest was talking about his father and how his relationship with his father grounded him and allowed him to hold steady in times of difficulty. It made me reflect on my father and how this was true for me as well. I then began to ponder some of the real contentious issues of the day surrounding the so called culture wars. We seem to be living in such a polarised time, and this polarisation just doesn’t make sense to me. I think Hegel’s dialectic is an important concept, but as we don’t seem to be able to talk about differences today, the dialectical process won’t happen. Anyhow, as I was thinking about these two ideas (fathers and polarisation) I thought again about my father and his ability to live in the grey, liminal spaces, embracing both the light and the shade. I went back and read the eulogy I gave at dad’s funeral, and once again thought that his life has something to say about the crazy polarised world we are living in. Perhaps if we could embrace the complexity like dad did, we’d find a way to counteract these harmful centrifugal forces plaguing us today. I share that eulogy with you now.

Eulogy for Patrick C. Kelly

Written and delivered by Timothy B. Kelly

Transfiguration Catholic Church

Marietta, Georgia

18 August 2017

 

Mom asked me to speak at dad’s funeral and told me to talk about what he meant to me, about what he meant to the family, and about who he was…but to leave out the bad bits. I told her that the bad bits were part of what made him such an amazing person. She said, “well I guess so, but make sure to say good things about your mother.”

So I thought I better play it safe and start off with something good about mom. There is one thing for certain, she knew how to pick a good man…and she, like dad, had endurance. They both really needed it! Even if you find your soulmate, it’s still hard work.

In a world that wants everything to be black and white and good guys vs bad guys, we try to get rid of complexity. Life is complex and filled with shades of grey. Somehow, we all have to find our way through that mess of uncertainty and find a way to live decent, generous, principled and meaningful lives. My father did that and I will always have his example to guide me for the rest of my life.

My father was badly damaged in his childhood and carried ghosts with him for most of his life. He suffered abuse and neglect in all its various forms as a child. Despite those traumas he became a man capable of deeply loving others and forgiving those people and institutions who so badly failed and hurt him. Take for example his mother. He found a way to have a relationship with her as an adult and helped us kids to have a good relationship with her.

He was also able to forgive the Church and hold on to his deeply rooted faith, despite what had happened to him as a child and to our family. Outwardly his faith could be seen by his being a founding member of Transfiguration, being active in the life of Transfiguration for decades and being very involved in the Knights of Columbus. His faith was amazing to me. His was not a blind adherence to dogma or doctrine – for he knew his history all too well (and didn’t mind sharing that ad nauseam). He saw the Church and all her foible’s and loved her anyway. This love of the Church comes in no small part from the good priests and religious brothers in St Vincent’s in Latrobe Pennsylvania who taught him and nurtured him when his mother basically dumped him out of the house as a young boy. These good priests and brothers also helped dad develop his understanding of faith as a matter of conscience – rather than a faith built only on the dogma or doctrine. This matter of conscience is what guided dad.

Both of these examples, his relationship with his mother and with the Church, illustrate one of dad’s bests characteristics, and one I wish the whole world could emulate. Dad could see, hold, tolerate and embrace both the good and the bad in people and institutions. For all of us have good, bad and everything in between. 

It’s hard to believe that a man whose own childhood was in many ways emotionally impoverished could be so incredibly imaginative, playful and attuned to children. But he was that. Some of my fondest memories of him as a very young child involved imagination. He could take us to imaginary worlds, create flights of fancy and plan for great adventure. We were in his world of make believe and took absolute delight in his play. He also liked to lay in the grass, look up at the clouds and see shapes. He was a practical joker, and he liked to play games. I think Kathy and I learned to play Rook, Pinochle and Cribbage before we learned our ABCs. He built model airplanes with Terry and me when we were as young as 5 or 6. He was very fond of Reney’s imaginary playmate – Emily. He and mom pretended to have magic and make our plates move during dinner. Dad was also VERY affectionate. Cuddles on the couch while watching TV, an arm around the shoulder while walking, kisses goodnight or of greeting – all of these were natural and second nature to dad. And then of course there was the music – man could he play the piano and sing. Dad also encouraged all of us to play sports and engage with other people. Both he and mom were involved with our sporting activities and friends. It was not unusual for our friends to come over to our house for fun, but many also developed their own relationships with dad…and some of you are here today.

So Dad was a gentle, nurturing, creative, affectionate loving and fun filled parent, but that is not the whole picture. It’s important to acknowledge all of who dad was and not whitewash the dark parts. He had a temper and could be quick to anger and that was really scary. There was also a period of several years when he became haunted by his own demons and they got the best of him. He started drinking too much and did things he regretted. But even during this dark period, that picture of the gentle giant that I painted was still also present in our house –  darkness and light in one person.  Life is complex and messy and good people sometimes do bad things. Eventually he came to terms with what he had done and was able to forgive himself –helped considerably by knowing we forgave and loved him.

Another key message from my father’s life is the value of unconditional love and he has been an amazing example of true unconditional love. Once he made the decision to love someone, his love was a rock – steadfast and unbending. His marriage to mom of 61½ years is testament to this. All of us kids have also felt that rock of dad’s unconditional love. The older 3 of us kids have each really put that to the test in different ways over the years, but dad’s love was unwavering.  Well I think I almost did push it to the breaking point once. He almost disowned me when I came out as a vegetarian!

Dad was full of seeming contradictions. He was:

Playful – stern

Gentle-dangerous

Damaged-whole

Troubled-peaceful

Romantic – realistic/practical

Principled – but not rigid

A towering intellect who loved being a grunt

Imaginative – mechanical

Committed to his religion – embraced matters of conscience

Hilarious – dead serious

Light-filled – dark

Idealistic-cynical

Full of sorrow and hurt – yet joyful

Maybe it was his Celtic spirit – holding all these false dualities together into a whole. We Celts do love our simultaneous laughter and tears. Complexity makes life divine…and dad was truly divine.

I hope that dad’s life can be an example to us all about how to embrace the complexities of life and celebrate them. Let’s not try to put everything and everyone into boxes. Dad touched each and everyone here today and each of us will have the light/dark/shades of grey to who we are. And yet he loved because of our complexity.

One final note to you young people here, and especially to my nieces and nephews, one day it will be your turn to mourn your parents. Remember today, what I’ve said and the life of my father. All parents have their flaws, some are deeply flawed. And yet, despite dad’s flaws, he was able to leave this world having given each of us kids the sense of being deeply loved and this allows us each to flourish. I am so grateful that each of us kids was able to embrace the complexity that was our father and love him for who he was – the good bits and the bad bits. Dad died in the knowledge that his family reciprocated that unconditional, steadfast, accepting and unwavering love that he had for us. As a surviving child, this gives me great peace.

 

 

 

 

So when did I become a caregiver?

lot of hands form the word caregiver

Since I became a social worker in 1986 I have had a keen interest in carers – though back then and in the States we called them informal, unpaid or family caregivers. Here in the UK we use the term carer. I think caregiver and carer are terms that can be confusing as these words are also used for nurses, nurses aids, paid care workers, etc.  One of my doctoral students has started using the words caregiver to mean  informal/family carers and occupational caregivers for all those whose jobs it is to provide care for another person. I really like that distinction and will use that here (thanks Marianne). Anyhow, as I was saying, I’ve always had a keen interest in caregivers and worked hard to support them while I was in practice and as a doctoral student my research focussed on stress and coping in caregivers. One of the things I discovered in my doctoral research was that knowledge was important for coping, but that knowledge could also increase stress. If as a carer you don’t know that much about dementia, for instance, but learn what the disease progression can look like while the person you are caring for is in the early stages, you can get scared out of your wits! By and large knowledge is a good thing and even though stress might increase at first, I find having access to good information when it is needed is a key component of the support carers need. 

Later in my career I was involved in research about how to identify caregivers early. The idea was that we should identify caregivers as early as possible to make sure that they received the supports needed early in the caring trajectory. It was shocking to hear how often caregivers were not identified as a such. Other times they could be ignored or seen as a hinderance to the professionals’ roles. So we wanted to see if we could help professionals recognise earlier when someone was in a caregiving role and offer support. 

Interestingly one of the things we began to hear from this early identification work is that many caregivers reacted negatively to the label of carer or caregiver. They objected because they did not see themselves as caregivers – they were simply a wife, husband, partner, parent, sibling, daughter or son doing what any spouse, parent, child would do. And yet, many of these people who initially objected to being called a carer would at some point begin to identify as such. It’s this transition from being ‘just’ a spouse (or whatever relationship descriptor that is appropriate) to being a caregiver. On a personal level, that is what the rest of this blog post will be about. I’ve recently realised that no longer am I just a husband, but I am also a caregiver, and I’m not exactly sure when that happened.

Certainly as a spouse I have taken on a wide range of caring behaviours and I have altered my life choices in the interest of the relationship. I’ve also nurtured, supported and cared for my husband when he was ill or injured. He has done likewise. This ebb and flow of support is part of any mutually supportive and healthy relationship. Even during periods of intense caring behaviours, it all felt part of ‘normal’ caring…. the kind of thing you do in a relationship. 

There was an event some years back and a deterioration in mental well being that necessitated me taking on significantly more responsibility in our relationship, but even then I didn’t feel like a caregiver. Again, it was just what you did as a spouse in a committed loving relationship.

There was that first chronic illness that began to impact on functioning and a reduction in his working. That made me the primary bread winner and gave me another thing to worry about, but still I didn’t think of myself as a caregiver, though looking back I was increasing my caring. 

Then there was the 2nd chronic illness that came with pain and fatigue…but being a caregiver never crossed my mind…despite increasing worry and providing extra support.

There was the realisation that my husband was ageing and no longer middle-aged and signs of declining mobility and functioning were beginning to emerge more. I was doing more of the lifting, jar opening, heavy chores…but still I wasn’t a caregiver.

Then I noticed I was getting irritated, grumpy and short over little things like why few chores were done while I was at work, or mistakes were made, or I was having to clean up dribbles off the toilet seat everyday, or I had to repeat myself for the 12th time because he still hadn’t put in his hearing aids yet, or that I was making more and more choices to accommodate his increasing needs. I found myself getting a bit more angry/irritated about such things. 

And then I thought….damn I recognise all of this. I am a caregiver. When did this happen? I have no idea when that happened, but I woke up one morning and it dawned on me. I knew it did not happen over night, but I couldn’t put a finger on when it happened. Somewhere along the line I became more than just a loving, caring and supportive spouse – I became a spouse who was a caregiver. That realisation made such a difference to me as so much of the resentment, irritation, blame I had been feeling for a while just kind of drained away. Suddenly it all made sense. 

And then I had to laugh at myself a wee bit. As I wrote earlier, since 1986 I’ve either been supporting caregivers in practice, researching caregiver’s issues, or teaching about caregivers and how to involve them in health and social care…..but despite being an expert in the field – I didn’t recognise what was happening to me and my relationship. 

Having knowledge really does help. Now that I know I am a caregiver, things are much easier for me emotionally. Sure I still get frustrated, but I know that I am consciously choosing to do this. I no longer am accidently falling into being a caregiver. That strangely gives me a sense of control. You would think after all that research I would have figured it out for myself quite a while ago!

https://carers.org

The importance of role models and allies: A personal reflection

LGBTQ+ rainbow flag Quasar "Progress" variant

In September 2017 I was asked to speak at the University of Dundee Court Retreat on my experience as a gay man in academia. It was part of an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion awareness raising programme for Court members. I recently came across the text of my presentation and decided to publish here on my blog 4 years later. Though 4 years old now, the messages of that talk still resonate. Enjoy

Before I get to my talk I hope you will indulge me in a quick little exercise.

I would like you to turn to your neighbour and in 30 seconds say what you did last weekend without using a gendered pronoun; anything that might indicate boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife…and you can’t use the word partner either.

Now imagine having to do that every day as if your job (or life) depended on it. 

To further contextualise my personal comments and reflections tonight, here are some facts and figures from a UN Free and Equal Report:

  • In the US, UK and Thailand, between ½ and 2/3 of LGBT students are regularly bullied at school. Up to a third skip school.
  • Up to 40% of homeless young people in major US cities are LGBT
  • Gay and lesbian young people are 4 times more likely to contemplate or attempt suicide and trans young are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide.
  • 1 in 5 LGBT employees in European countries report being discriminated against in the past year
  • LGBT people have higher rates than their straight peers of joblessness, poverty, food insecurity and depression
  • On a macro level, a World Bank pilot study estimated that LGBT discrimination cost the Indian economy $32 Billion annually

Stonewall’s 2013 Gay in Britain report echoes the findings from the UN report. In the workplace 20% reported experiencing verbal bullying based on sexual orientation in the past 5 years, 13% did not feel confident reporting homophobic bullying and 25% say that they are not at all out to their colleagues. 

In 2009 a study of HE in the UK found that only 38% of LGB staff are out to everyone – those that aren’t out cite fears of employment discrimination and job security, students might respond in homophobic ways or that their research agenda may be compromised (ECU).

The same study also found that approximately a third of LGB staff experienced negative treatment by colleagues, 20% from students and 25% from those working in other parts of the university.

Trans staff report even higher levels of difficulties and 23% of trans staff reported being denied promotion due to their trans status.

The student experience is similar – but the fear (and experience) of losing financial support from family is an additional stressor for students.

So though we have recently celebrated 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, there is still a long way to go and people are still being discriminated against and some are viciously attacked because of their sexuality.

I can say that I have experienced everything these statistics suggest (and then some), yet I have been successful in my career. Sometimes successful minorities are held up as examples of “how great things are now” or used to suggest “well she made it, why can’t you?” I want to push back at both of these. There is still considerable homophobia in workplaces and even more widespread  is heteronormativity.

I am going to give a fairly personal account of my career development as a Gay person with the aim to bring to life what the literature describes. I hope this will demonstrate the importance of working to increase visible diversity, equality and inclusion for people from all protected characteristics. 

I grew up in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains – in the deep south, smack dab in the middle of the bible belt. We were the only Catholic family in the southern half of a VERY large county. My immediate family protected me and taught me how to survive in a culture that allowed discrimination as well as open hostility toward us. This is a key point – most other minority groups are raised in families that share the minority status and these families socialise children in ways of survival. The majority of LGBT people do not have families to teach protective skills when it comes to homophobia. Role models and allies are needed to teach these skills. 

I kept my sexual orientation hidden but lived in terror of other people finding out. I went away to University and found a bit of freedom and slowly started to come out – but I lived in fear that my roommates would find out. A lot of energy was spent on trying to cover up. My first 3 university years were fraught with personal and emotional difficulties all tied up with my sexual orientation, my studies suffered greatly – and I almost flunked out. Here’s where a bit of dumb luck comes in. I got a part-time job as a secretary in the Dean of Student Service’s office. He was an openly gay man and introduced me to some other gay students and kept a watchful eye on me. I also was assigned an academic advisor who, though straight, was comfortable with gay people. When things fell apart for me in my 3rd year due to issues with my sexuality, they were both there for me and helped me get back on track. My experience is an example of what the literature says –  LGBT students need visible role models and allies. 

After graduating I had a partner who died of AIDS in the early days of the AIDS crisis. I faced extreme discrimination due to my sexuality and status as an “AIDS widow” and these experiences informed my decision to stop hiding and really be out. This was a political decision on my part, but I didn’t realise that this would increase my chance of being successful in my career. Anyway, during this period I started my post-graduate education, enrolling on an MSW programme. I was a “bit” of a militant gay person during this period. “Hi I’m Tim I’m Gay and and AIDS widow…get over it” Again as luck would have it, I was assigned to an academic advisor who turned out to be a LGBT ally. Lockhart was an African-American woman who had experienced huge prejudice to get where she was. Lockhart was somewhat alarmed by my in your face approach and shared with me her strategies for tackling racism. She helped me begin to think about how to survive in an oppressive and sometimes dangerous environment. An ally was able to provide me with survival socialisation as I did not have that naturally in my own life. 

There was also an older lesbian on faculty who took me under her wing. As was the way for many in her generation, she wasn’t exactly out, but she wasn’t really hidden either. These two women – one a role model and the other an ally – helped me learn how to be gay AND a professional. As the research suggests, LGBT students and those early in their careers need visible role models and allies. 

My first job after my MSW was in a rural mental health centre. I did not hide my sexuality from my boss or co-workers.  However, it was suggested that the clients might have some difficulty with my orientation so I shouldn’t self-disclose, after all, they said, they didn’t disclose their sexuality. These same people would, when with clients, casually and naturally refer to their husband or wife, wedding anniversary, children, etc. Or they would have a family picture in their office, or wear a wedding ring or have some other outward and implicit disclosure about who they were – this is heteronormativity. Though I loved the job, after a year it became very tiring and the emotional cost of trying to not self-disclose was too much, and so I found a job where I could be authentic.

This experience mirrors what the research suggests. Not being able to be authentic at work impacts negatively on productivity. Also, organisations that make it difficult for people to be authentic at work face a talent drain.

I went back to do my PhD and Lockhart and Ruth were both still there. But now there was also a “modern” lesbian also on faculty. We ended up doing some research and teaching together – Nancy saw it has her responsibility to help the next generation along a wee bit. The leaky pipeline, which we see very clearly for women in academia, also happens for LGBT and BME people. Nancy demonstrated the value of having open LGBT people to help plug the leaky pipeline.

As I was finishing my PhD I had already published several articles, had taught for a couple of years, and also had good clinical experience and as such I was a rare hot commodity on the job market–– and it was all because a couple of lesbians and an informal LGBT ally took me under their wing. One of the interviews I took, against Lockhart’s advice, was a great job for me. However, the offer of the job was blocked as the chair of the search committee said “they weren’t interested in gays and refujews”. This discrimination was lawful then and still is in many places.  Of course it is illegal now in the UK, but discrimination does still happen in more subtle ways.

Other interview processes were exceedingly heteronormative, and draining. 

Here is an example of a typical conversation that I experienced back then (and I’ve had similar ones here in the UK)

What does your wife do? I don’t have a wife

Oh you are single, there are lots of places to meet women here. 

I am not single, I am dating someone but I’m not sure if he will be joining me or not. 

What does she do? 

He, Marcus, is a fund raiser for a charity. 

I’m sure she’ll find something similar here….. 

Lockhart put me in contact with a University because she knew the Dean was a great guy, he was building the kind of school I was looking for, and she knew my orientation wouldn’t be an issue. She was right. I was hired and it was a great fit. Again I was taken under people’s wing and my career was advanced. This time by the Dean who was openly gay and the woman who became my mentor – an ally. They both opened doors for me, allowed me to be authentically me and this enabled me to thrive and flourish as an academic. Under their guidance I rose to prominence in the US and Canada in my area of expertise before moving to the UK. I am an example of the research that shows that people who are able to be comfortably out at work are more likely to have positive career progression than those who are not.

When I moved to Scotland in 2003 I immediately had legal protections that were unavailable to me in the States. My working life in Scotland has been free from homophobia on a formal organisational level. Heteronormativity, however, is still very present. But at this point in my career it does not take up psychic strain, sometimes it is an irritation and sometimes it can actually be humorous. To younger academics or professional services staff, it can be more than an irritation. 

My experience at the University of Dundee has been neutral, positive and negative in different ways and at different points.

During my interview for Chair of Social Work, the then Principal Alan Langlands immediately picked up on my use of pronouns for my Civil Partner (now Husband), and used the appropriate gender whenever referring to my spouse. Strangely though it took me about 4 years to actually meet another gay or lesbian person. If an out gay man like myself didn’t easily find others like him, how hard must it be for those members of staff who are afraid to come out. What might this be doing to their ability to be truly authentic at work? What kind of productivity or creativity loss are we experiencing as an organisation? What will happen to the LGBT students who might be struggling as I did as a student if we are not more visible?

Unfortunately, over the past year I have experienced some homophobia in the workplace. Luckily for me, the University Executive has been incredibly supportive and clear about my experience being homophobic, and they have also been very clear about intervening. This experience has demonstrated to me that the top level of management at the University is values driven, and are prepared to do the right thing. Their recognition, naming and willingness to act and provide support have been incredibly affirming. Not only has this increased my loyalty to this organisation, but I am even more committed to delivering on the University vision. As the research suggests inclusivity and LGBT support are good for productivity and retention. 

In my experience, the senior management has shown itself to be welcoming and inclusive of LGBT people. However, there is still work to be done to make sure that inclusive spirit and practice filters all the way through the organisation. Though times are better in many respects, our society still has a lot of ISMS – whether its racism, sexism, ableism, classism, ageism or homophobia. Those isms still emerge is subtle ways. A concerted effort is required on all fronts.

The re-energised Staff LGBT+ Network has been an important step to demonstrate the University’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion.  The Network is working with the Stonewall organisation to help make the University uniquely welcoming and supportive to LGBT staff and students. Using their yearly Workplace Equity Index as a baseline we have developed an action plan to strengthen LGBT inclusion at the University. As a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champion Programme the University is benefiting from consultation, workshops and access to a wealth of resources to improve policies, processes and culture practices – not just for LGBT people, but for all protected groups. The action plan is now embedded in the University’s Equality Outcome Plan.  Stonewall suggest a 5+ year journey for tackling workplace discrimination – beginning with ensuring organisations have the essential ingredients: Strong values, driven diversity leads, and senior buy in. The University has the right values and is getting diversity leads in place. Senior buy-in also exists, but we could be better at making that visible across the organisation. After this Stonewall recommends organisations work to improve inclusivity and visibility for LGBT people (and other protected characteristics too) in policies, monitoring, training, procurement, communication & marketing. Working with the E&D Office and the E&D Structures we are engaging in this process. Having the Court’s explicit support for these efforts will demonstrate one of the essential ingredients – buy in at the highest levels of an organisation. 

Thank you.

True Confession: I have racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, and classist friends and family members

Do you ever wonder how you could possibly have emerged from the environment you were born into and brought up in? I wonder that all the time. Clearly some of my best traits I get from my father with a good bit of my mother’s zest for life and her interminable positive outlook mixed in to counter dad’s pathos. Dad had a strong sense of social justice rooted in the working class struggle and the anti-Catholic/anti-Irish prejudices that the Kelly/Casey families from which he sprang faced. I can see those elements in who I am….but so much else of who I am and what I value/believe is completely out of step with my family, many of my old friends, the communities I grew up in, and certainly in the Trump loving region I come from.  This really hit home recently when I reconnected with an old high school teacher – also gay, Catholic and from a rural Southern background. His most recent e-mail was filled with beliefs and attitudes straight from the conservative playbook on topics such as race in America, immigration ruining American culture, anger at what he experiences as white people being blamed for everything. He was espousing many of the same things my family of origin espouse. I was shocked as I had assumed our beliefs would be similar and not diametrically opposed. Dad used to say that our heroes do have clay feet – so I shouldn’t be surprised. 

I wish I understood how I escaped all of that value inculcation/indoctrination. If we are a product of our upbringing, how is it I am so different in my beliefs from my parents, my siblings, the teachers who shaped my education? I used to think it was my experience of being gay and Catholic in an incredibly homophobic and anti-Catholic KKK influenced culture. But as my old teacher demonstrated, being gay and Catholic does not necessarily help one understand other forms of oppression.  That shouldn’t be a surprise to me as I know many gay people who, for example, hold racist beliefs – any black LGBT+ person will be able to attest to the racism in LGBT communities. It really saddens me to know that people I love and cherish can hold such racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and transphobic beliefs and values (though most would vehemently deny they have those beliefs). I realise that some of those beliefs have entered my unconsciousness and they do emerge at times to my shock and embarrassment. But why can I acknowledge that is a part of me and not get defensive, when so many of the people who shaped who I am today and love dearly are not able to do that? Why have the scales been peeled from my eyes so I can see so much of the various forms of oppression in our societies? If I knew that I could be a real force for good in the world. In the meantime I continue to gently speak my truth to those I love despite their racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic beliefs. 

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I sometimes worry that I become complicit in oppression by maintaining relationships with people with views I consider abhorrent.  But as I see the world becoming polarised, made up of echo chambers and unwilling to meaningfully engage with the ‘other side’ (whatever sides those are), I see fascism across the globe increasing. I wonder if there is a connection there?  I think one of the successes of the struggle for gay rights is that it became harder to ‘other’ and demonise gay people as we became visible. Through visibility and engaging with others, while being out, we became the gay brother, sister, uncle, aunt, neighbour, co-worker, politician, shop keeper, doctor, teacher, lecturer, street sweeper, delivery driver… Everyone, it turns out, had someone in their life who was gay. When allies started ’owning’ that they had positive relationships with gay people, that message got even louder. Demonising the ‘other’ is a powerful tool for oppression (just look at the anti-trans discourse for example), and through engagement we can disarm that powerful tool. So I will continue engaging with those I care about who also hold abhorrent views and gently speak my truth. It’s difficult to do this and I do experience moral distress, but perhaps my ability to love and gently confront at the same time is my superpower. I hope this superpower may put a few chinks in their echo chambers until the scales fall off their eyes. Now if I only really understood how those scales fell from my eyes…

Freedom of speech versus causing offence: Do we really need cotton wool?

Nearly 20 years ago I visited the Ann Frank house in Amsterdam for the first time. The museum highlighted for me both the best and the worst of humanity, and I was visibly moved. Though I have reflected back on many elements of that house and the visit, there was an exhibit at the end of the tour that has continued to emerge in my consciousness on a regular basis over the years….particularly in recent years.  The exhibit was the interactive Free2Choose instillation. This instillation was in a small room and around the room film clips were displayed which contained images of conflicting rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. After each short film clip people around the room voted on whether they would allow such things or censor/ban/stop them, and the results were immediately displayed. I was amazed at the range of the diversity of opinion that was expressed.  I would look around the room wondering who possibly could have voted differently from me, as I believed freedom of speech trumped almost everything else. I assumed that everyone would believe freedom of speech was an inalienable right, just like me. But, some of the film clips did challenge my “inalienable” stance. Clearly if someone was inciting violence against others, societies need to take a stand. If only life could be so black and white, but our world is made up of shades of grey, contradictions and ambiguities. Indeed, there are limitations to freedom of expression in the UN Convention on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (see Article 10). The ECHR lists such limitations (e.g. national security, territorial integrity, public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of health or morals, the protection of the reputation or rights of others, prevention of disclosure of private or confidential information, impartiality of the judiciary). When looking at these acceptable limitations, it’s easy to see why there were such differences of opinion in the Ann Frank Free2Choose instillation. This list is full of competing rights and grey areas.

The reason this instillation has come into my mind so much in recent years is because I am becoming increasingly concerned about the number of areas that seem to be becoming off limits in universities, in academic discourse, or in public debate.  So many things seem to cause offence or insult a person’s sense of self, and if this happens then there are calls for limiting freedom of expression, or worse yet, demonising the person who has dared to question or challenge or say something. There are ideas, values and beliefs that have become sacred cows – to question one of these is to cause offence and bring the wrath of an incensed mob.  One of the confusing things for me is that often the incensed mob is made up of people who, like me, lean way to the liberal side of things.

The other confusing thing for me is that I am fully aware of the power of language to promote and support injustice and oppression. The words we use are important. And yet, I am concerned that the PC police have become overly zealous and punishing of people who are perceived to have used offensive language or express offensive ideas. Yet, I also don’t want to go back to the days when words like poof, queer, pervert were used in the press or to the days when homophobic rants were rife and acceptable (e.g., during Section 28 debates). At the same time, when words/ideas/beliefs that are offensive to me are expressed today, I don’t think the initial reaction should be a call to silence the person making such comments.

In the university sector we’ve seen things like no platforming, the demonising of academics who do research in or write about controversial issues or challenge current thinking, and the cancelling of controversial speakers – often out of a fear of causing offense. I think this diminishes the world and makes it less safe. It also diminishes the educational experience. Some academics I know have pulled back from researching and writing in certain areas because of the abuse they received by those who were offended by their work. This diminishes the world and makes our knowledge base less robust. I want to live in a society where citizens are not wrapped in cotton wool or shielded from controversial and uncomfortable ideas.  Any of our ideas could be seen as offensive and off limits and any one of us could be silenced or punished because of our ideas and beliefs.  In my lifetime advocating gay rights has been seen as offensive, dangerous and subversive. I’ve also been required to swear never to join the communist party in order to get a contract of employment. I thought things were getting better, but if we keep going down the road we seem to be on, we could end up back in some Orwellian,  McCarthy-like world. That frightens me. Let’s be brave enough to be offended and engage, rather than enrage and shut down.

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The Importance of Visibility and Institutional Support for LGBT+ People

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In June of this year (2018) the Univeristy of Dundee’s LGBT+ Staff Network hosted a Trans Awareness Session delivered by Stonewall Scotland. The seminar was designed to give attendees knowledge about the lived experiences of trans people in Scotland. It also focussed on how to step up as an ally to support trans colleagues and students, to help ensure that the University of Dundee is an inclusive and accepting place to work and to study. The seminar was really good – informative, interactive and practical. But the quality of the seminar is not what has provoked this blog entry. Two things did.  Firstly, it was the mere fact that the Trans awareness seminar occurred at all and that senior members of the University (including two University Executive Group members) were in attendance and participating meaningfully.  Secondly, shortly after this workshop (though not related to the workshop), the University agreed to be a Gold Sponsor of the first LGBT+ Pride event in Dundee. These two actions have moved me in surprising ways. Here’s why:

I made the personal and political decision to be an out gay man during the early days of the AIDS crisis after experiencing significant homophobia. Being out both prevented and ensured that I would experience homophobia.  An example of how this worked is that  I was told I did not get an academic job because the institution was  not interested in gays or “refujews”. (Interestingly John Boswell in his 1980 book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality traced and linked anti-semitism and homophobia in the Catholic Church. Oppression of a group, it seems, seldom comes alone.) If I had not been out in my interviews, it would have been horrible to be employed in an organisation that held such blatant homophobic views. As it turned out I ended up working for a university that was informally supportive of LGBT staff members and my academic career blossomed. However, there was not a LGBT staff network, we did not have seminars on LGBT inclusion, policies were all heteronormative, and there was no official mention of LGBT people that I was aware of in the decade I was there. The support was informal, it could have changed at the drop of a hat, and there was no formal recognition that people like me existed or were part of the organisation.  At the time, this informal support seemed good enough and as much I could hope for.

Fastforward 20+ years and I now find myself in an organisation where there is plenty of informal support, but people at the very top of the organisational chart are also committed to making the organisation a welcoming, accepting, inclusive and supportive place to work and study. The institution wants to do more than its public sector equality duty. This combination of informal support and a commitment to embed equality, diversity and inclusion in all policies and practices is mind boggling to me.

The seminar and Dundee Pride sponsorship agreement had me reflecting about how much the world has changed in my lifetime.  LGBT+ people experience many more freedoms and protections then we did when I was an 18 year old going to university. Yet LGBT+ people (especially T people) continue to experience considerable prejudice, discrimination, violence, and a host of other negative outcomes. I found myself reflecting on and almost moved to tears thinking back to the 18 year old I was. What would he have thought had he known back then that there would one day be a university that was willing to sponsor an LGBT+ Pride event or  where the Director of HR would be committed to ensuring that policies were trans inclusive or where someone could be disciplined for calling an LGBT person a derogatory name? If such a place existed back then, how much easier would that 18 year old have had it when he experienced hatred and homophobia as he moved into and through early adulthood?  That is why visibility matters. Homophobia, bi-phobia and transphobia still exist and damage the young people of today and prevent LGBT+ staff from reaching their full career development.  Having visible institutional support and visible LGBT people and allies provides a beacon of hope to LGBT+ young people (and to this older gay man too).

Thank you Miss Mary – What do MG & IDS know?

Note: This blog post was initially made back in 2013. In the relaunch of my blog I decided to keep this on as it is one of my favourite pieces of writing.

 

I made good ole Suthin Biscuits this morning for breakfast. I haven’t eaten any for years, and it has been even longer since I made any. For all you folks not from the Deep South (and I’m not talking about SE England), Suthin is how to properly say Southern. Biscuits from that fantastic part of the world are not sweet twice baked confections. Rather, they are savoury, fluffy, light and can be served with breakfast, lunch or dinner. They are a truly gorgeous, simple and versatile foodstuff. If Moses had been lost in the pine forest in my home state of Georgia for all those years, I’m sure biscuits would have rained down instead of manna.

I’m not sure what put the notion of biscuits in my head, but as I thought of making them I was transported back to the late 1980s when I was running day programmes for mentally ill older people based on the psychosocial clubhouse model. This is where Miss Mary taught me to make biscuits. I spent this morning thinking back about this client (that’s the term we used back then instead of service user). Miss Mary was the child of slaves and lived through all the Jim Crow laws. Her entire life was marked by extreme racism, sexism and oppressive poverty. She worked at one of the few jobs available to her – as a domestic in someone’s home: low pay, no benefits and no taxes. As an older person she developed a chronic mental illness and was unable to work to support herself. Miss Mary became dependent on the state that had sanctioned oppressive systems that caused her dependency.

Recently Michael Gove attacked social work education again and suggested that university lecturers are teaching idealistic students to blame society rather than teaching them to make people take responsibility for their own actions. Gove’s comments rubbish C. Wright Mills’ concept of private troubles and public issues and the rather large evidence base regarding the negative impact of social inequalities on the lives of individuals. I thought of Gove’s comments while making the biscuits this morning and wondered what Gove would think of the woman who taught me to make them. Would it be wrong to consider that the very difficulties she was experiencing as an older ‘negro’ woman were perhaps caused by the society in which she lived? Would it be wrong to teach students to help Mary while also working to bring about social change?

I also thought of Mary again when reading the article in the Observer this morning about Iain Duncan Smith’s latest cuts . I also thought of the thousands of disabled people I have worked with over my career, who like Mary required support from the state. Many of the disabled people I have worked with have faced a lifetime of oppression, harsh social systems and dehumanising treatment. The messages coming from IDS continue to add to the dehumanising experiences of disabled people. These messages are often couched in terms of savings through individualism, privatisation, and the evils of public services. The messages I hear from the Westminster government suggest that people who are poor, disabled, ill, old and fragile, unemployed, experiencing difficulties in living or facing stressful life conditions are responsible for their own lot in life and therefore need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. People who fall into these categories are a drain on society and have little value – people like Mary.

And yet, here I am nearly 30 years later still thinking about and reflecting on what Mary taught me. This women who was a daughter of slaves, poor, ill, disabled, had no economic ‘value’ and was a total drain on society. Yet, she taught me to bake biscuits despite being psychotic, delusional and demented. More importantly she also taught me how to be a better social worker. That second lesson I took with me into all the work I have done since. So in many ways Mary has influenced and touched thousands of people because of what she taught me…..and the biscuits are pretty darn good too!

I think the coalition knows the cost of many things, but the value of little.