When Jay Weissberg, son of psychologist Norman Weissberg, PhD, came out of the closet in 1984, he expected his parents to exude support.
"As a child my parents created an atmosphere that was incredibly supportive," Jay says. "And there was no doubt in my mind that there was anything that could change that...Foolishly, I didn't expect the negative reaction I received."
Although Norman Weissberg felt he had no "conscious" bias against gay men, he--like many people with gay family members--avoided "coming out" as a gay parent at first.
"I was initially embarrassed," he says. "I thought, 'This is not something that I'm proud of.' And I felt uncomfortable. But I had to deal with those feelings."
Nearly a decade after his son came out, Weissberg came to grips with his son's sexuality and began discussing it with close friends and family.
"From the outset, I never had any problem accepting him," he says. "But it was difficult for me to incorporate that into my life expectations of him getting married and having children...I also became concerned that he would be subjected to discrimination."
Then in 2000, Weissberg's Alpha Phi Omega fraternity brother Marvin Goldfried, PhD, sent an e-mail urging APA members with lesbian, gay, bisexual and trangender (LGBT) relatives to join the group AFFIRM, short for Psychologists Affirming their Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Family. Weissberg decided that the group could help him help other psychologists who were undergoing experiences similar to his own.
As a result, Weissberg--who now serves on AFFIRM's Steering Committee--is one of the more than 550 psychologists who use AFFIRM to share information and experiences with colleagues and to increase awareness of the large presence of LGBT family members in the psychology community. They also seek to help reduce heterocentric and homophobic societal attitudes by providing a support network for the group's members and by supporting clinical and research work on LGBT issues. They encourage sensitivity to the role of sexual orientation in all clinical and research work in psychology.
Weissberg's experience is not unique, says Donald Freedheim, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, who suggests that too often when children come out of the closet, their parents head in.
In fact, that realization is what led Goldfried to create AFFIRM in 2000. The year before, Goldfried and his wife, Anita, a social worker, marched in support of their son Michael with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) at the June PRIDE March in Manhattan. As they marched, hordes of lesbian and gay onlookers cheered and shouted variations of "We wish our family would march."
The cheers left a lasting impression on Goldfried.
"I knew that parental support was important," he says. "But to experience the crowd's cheers brought home the idea that there might be something that I could do [to support lesbians and gay men] with my professional time."
As he spoke with colleagues, Goldfried realized that a number of psychologists had LGBT relatives, and as a result, similar experiences. The foundation of AFFIRM was born.
Primarily, the group serves as an information clearinghouse, with a listserv that shares LGBT information and news, such as the United Church of Christ's affirmation of gay marriage or which universities are discussing whether to incorporate LGBT issues into their clinical training.
The group also has five committees--public education, conferences and publications, membership, research and education, and outreach--that aim to increase the presence of LGBT issues in mainstream psychology.
"Psychologists need to get more exposure to LGBT issues," Goldfried says. "They need to see and understand the benefits of working with a sexual minority."
In its six-year existence, AFFIRM has found a niche due to its slightly different perspective on LGBT issues, says AFFIRM Steering Committee member Peter Nathan, PhD.
"We have a very strong community because we've all seen our family members wrestle with being different," he says. "As a result, we have a very strong commitment to LGBT issues--even if we're not LGBT ourselves."
Freedheim adds that the group's structure helps keep the group committed, yet casual.
"We've remained an informal group," Freedheim says. "We have no dues, a limited organizational structure and no voting."
Nathan says it's important for the group to understand its role as an LGBT advocate within the mental health world.
"In some ways we're preaching to the choir when we discuss the issues within APA or other mental health areas," he says. "But we are what we are, and we have what we have."
Yet not everyone in that choir is listening, says Goldfried.
"We have 550 members, but there are more than 100,000 people in APA," he says. "I suspect that among those other psychologists, there are people who are in the closet about their LGBT family members."
In addition to reaching out to other psychologists, Goldfried hopes that AFFIRM can serve a useful role as an LGBT advocate.
"The more family members speak up about LGBT issues, the more people will begin to think differently about sexual minorities," he says.
For more information on AFFIRM, visit www.sunysb.edu/affirm.
Ronner, A.D. (2005). Homophobia and the law. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
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