The best way to tackle the stigma of gender stereotyping is with an open heart. DDN talks to Beck Gee-Cohen.
‘I was pretty functional when I was using. It was easy because I hid my gender and sexuality, so it was easy for me to hide my addiction as well.’ Beck Gee-Cohen, clinician, trainer, consultant, and trans person in recovery is reflecting on why members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to misuse drugs and alcohol.
‘When we have to hide our authentic self, when who we are is not what society says we should be, we turn to drugs and alcohol for relief,’ he says. ‘We might do things we wouldn’t normally do – and a lot of that is about finding acceptance and relieving the pain of being not wanted and not seen.’
Gee-Cohen became addicted while working as a bartender. ‘My friends would go out to the pub and we would all drink, but I would be the one who would go home and continue to use, and continue to drink late into the night by myself,’ he says. ‘I’d surround myself with people who drank the same as I did, so people who didn’t use or didn’t drink were no longer a part of my life.’
Later, in recovery, he went back to college to study sociology looking at gender and sexuality, and then on to do addiction counselling. He thought back to his nights at the bar, ‘seeing a lot of people dying who were part of the LGBT community because they weren’t getting the best services they could get’ and knew his vocation. Then as a clinician he realised he wanted to make a bigger impact and ‘help to shift the culture around LGBTQ people in treatment’.
‘Addiction treatment can get set in its ways – “this is how we’ve always done it”,’ he says. ‘That’s like a red flag for me. Addiction is crafty – drugs have changed, alcohol has changed, the community and society have changed around it. So we need to change around it too.’
So how can we find and reach out to people who may be struggling? ‘It’s about noticing, recognising and not being afraid to say something,’ he says. ‘I think many of us are afraid to say something – we don’t want to cause any conflict or make a wrong judgement. But asking “is everything ok?” is the number one thing we can do.’
Asking the right questions is the first lesson for treatment centres, and Gee-Cohen emphasises that the process should be formalised into policies and procedures, starting with the intake form.
‘I work with plenty of facilities and institutions that say “we don’t have LGBT people here” and I say “how do you know if you’re not asking the question?”’ He tries not to feel frustrated, but it underlines the need for a systems overhaul. ‘They’ll also say “we’ve never had a trans person” and I’ll say “well statistically, you probably have”.
Getting the paperwork in order is an essential part of becoming more responsive, but he also likes to get to work with the staff team – not just the clinicians ‘who are more likely to get continued education’ but the auxiliary and admissions staff, ‘the ones answering the phone or spending the most time with the client’. It’s important to create change from that very first phone call, or the advert that you do, he says. ‘You have to think about the whole picture.’ It’s also vital to link with mental health services in a meaningful way, making sure all the staff along the therapeutic chain are knowledgeable about the community and ready to be accepting and affirming.
The ‘whole culture’ change needed involves working on awareness – thinking about ‘meeting the community where they’re at’. He’s mindful of the fact that this works both ways and talks about the ‘disconnect in any huge society’. We get into a bubble, he says. There are topics that are ‘hot’ and important in the community, but when he’s talking about LGBTQ issues, he’s ‘learned to slow down and realise that not everyone has the experience and knowledge that I have, and that this could be new information’.
It takes patience to dismantle stigma and stereotypes, but Gee-Cohen uses his experience – and his engaging personality – to open the conversation. ‘Sometimes I’m the first transgender person people have met – just like sometimes I’m the first person in recovery someone has met,’ he says. ‘So I use that as a way of lessening anxiety and use a little bit of humour to make it human and draw people in. Once that anxiety is lessened we can get to talking – I’m able to effect change in that way.’
When people first come into treatment they are at their most vulnerable state, he points out. ‘They’re not super-happy, they’re very scared and can come off as angry, entitled – all of the things that we like to place on people.’ If a trans person comes into a facility they are likely to be angry because they are coming off drugs, and ‘there’s so much more going on besides them being trans’. But we tend to focus on that and place people in a box – ‘all trans people are angry, all gay men are entitled and bitchy, or whatever. We like to lump people into all these identities and that does a disservice’.
So he tries to come in as being a person in recovery, as being trans, and as being a clinician. ‘I don’t speak for the community – I try not to – but I want people to have a good first impression. And when I talk to families, especially of young people, the fear of their kid being trans or whatever can lessen a little bit when they see one that has had success, has been to college, who’s married and who’s in recovery.’
And taking away the fear – of the unknown, of messing up, of getting even the acronyms wrong (‘Is it LGBTQ? Do I put the “i” in? Do I put the plus? I’ve changed my own website five times!’) – is a great big part of the message.
‘We need to make this a place that is safe and open so people can express themselves in a genuine way,’ he says. ‘When we talk about recovery, we talk about honesty. And if we can’t get honest in this setting, then we are of course at risk of relapse.’
At his forthcoming workshop with Adela Campbell, a psycho-drama therapist, he’s relishing the thought of involving his London audience in exploring language, relationships and plenty of experiential work. He talks of ‘diving deeper’ into each subset community – gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and intersex – and exploring the issues that arise.
‘I really like to challenge people’s comfort levels – make them a little uncomfortable, but also walk with them through that discomfort so they know they’re not alone,’ he says. ‘When they leave they’ll be more comfortable in working with this community and have some resources.’
If it’s anything like the experience of chatting to Gee-Cohen, it promises to be an enlightening day and a real opportunity to embrace a more open-hearted approach to treatment.
‘Healing trauma in the LGBTQ+ community’, presented by Beck Gee-Cohen and Adela Campbell is on 25 November in London. Book at www.icaadevents.com