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‘We do have utterly outstanding allyship in the BPS’

The new Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Sexualities Section, Dr Rob Agnew, spoke to Ella Rhodes about his work, experiences, and hopes for the section’s future.

30 October 2023

Tell me about your work as a clinical psychologist.

I’ve been a clinical psychologist since 2008 and for most of my career, I’ve been a locum. I was told once, by an accomplished, lovely, and well-meaning supervisor, that I need to ‘grow up’ and get a permanent job if I want to be taken seriously. But it has allowed me to keep an awful lot of skills fresh and I’ve had some great roles as a head of therapy, managed teams and even designed and set up new NHS services.

Every time I’ve changed posts, I’ve had to review literature and legislation, reignite dormant skills, actively learn and re-learn for my role, and I’ve loved that. I’ve never seen the pinnacle of my career as being in management or leaving clinical work behind me, so I’m very lucky to work in the way I do.

At the moment that work is in my own practice, nothing grand but I love the contact I get with my clients. Most of my clinic is made up of people with ADHD and/or autism traits – on a day-by-day basis I call this ‘neurodiversity’ – neurocognitive problems after a head injury, and people from the LGBTQ+ communities. What I end up treating is a lot of OCD, BDD, health anxiety, fatigue, identity-based trauma, addiction, depression, and psychosexual issues.

I’m involved in the Practice Guidelines Review Board and the Mental Capacity Advisory Group for the BPS, and I love being able to interact with the rest of the psychological disciplines and seeing where we are different and where we are the same.

Can you tell me why you wanted to be Chair of the Sexualities Section?

At the time I came to the Section, about two years ago, I had been in contact with the BPS about providing an LGBTQ+ awareness CPD programme. I’d been involved as an expert in a fitness to practice hearing for the General Medical Council regarding trans youth healthcare and it made me realise the state of things for trans people and the difficult position clinicians can find themselves in. I wanted to do something constructive with the CPD programme and I was put in touch with the Section for a steer.

After that, the BPS’s Diversity and Inclusion team and I ended up organising a BPS presence at Pride in 2022 which was a hoot. It meant I had to interact with all the different departments of the BPS a little bit, and I could immediately see there had been a real gear shift in the BPS. It had come through hard times and seemed to me to be genuinely learning from them and trying to change things. Before, if I’m honest, I had seen the BPS as well-meaning but pretty inert. However, there seemed to be an enthusiasm for public engagement and social relevance, and I guess I was energised by this.

At the time Adam Jowett was the Chair of the Section and his research on conversion therapy was all over the media. It really gave me a sense of hope and a direct line of sight to the potential psychology, psychologists and the BPS have to impact society positively. I don’t think he likes it when I point this out, but it is simply the most important piece of psychological research done for LGBTQ+ people in the last 50 years. That’s the calibre of people we have in the BPS… and I’m ashamed to say I’ve only just recently realised it.

I have a lot of friends who are trans and surviving a lot of aggression in the world, I’ve been active in the LGBTQ+ communities in some way for many years and I’m gay. I’ve been disheartened by failed academics, self-declared experts, and people flying the flag for their pet theory on gender and sexuality diversity trumpeting microaggressions and misinformation into society. 

The BPS’s mission is to set standards, disseminate and advance psychological knowledge, and this has never been more important for LGBTQ+ people than it is now. I genuinely believe that the LGBTQ+ communities will save themselves, and we will do it through reason, facts, talking and learning. How can psychologists not be at the forefront of this?

What are some of your hopes and plans for your time as Chair?

Something that we need to remember as a Society is that the Section was not awarded to LGBTQ+ members easily. There was a great deal of resistance from within the BPS, it took multiple attempts and four entire lesbians (Celia Kitzinger, Sue Wilkinson, Rachel Perkins and Louise Comely) to start the campaign… and it still took eight years. They were trailblazers. That resolve still exists in our LGBTQ+ members and we need to tap into it.

There is still a tiny minority of psychologists who deny the existence or validity of trans and non-binary identities and same-sex preferences. Visible LGBTQ+ members of the Society are still singled out on social media by a handful of psychologists, and anti-trans misinformation and rhetoric is shared by some of our members online under the flags of ‘free speech’ or ‘safeguarding concerns’. Where these attitudes exist, LGBTQ+ members and our Section live under the threat of regression to ignorance and erasure.

We need to ensure that we are reaching LGBTQ+ BPS members and allies and inviting them to get involved, not just in the Section, but in all the other things the BPS has going on. As LGBTQ+ people we should represent ourselves and make the decisions that affect us. But it has to be said we do have utterly outstanding allyship in the BPS, there is no question about this, I know it from my own experience and I interact with it almost every day. I see it as a safe space for LGBTQ+ members at all stages of their careers to stand up, speak and be heard.

Increasing Section and BPS visibility to the LGBTQ+ communities and to the external world is vital, so we will continue to attend Pride; this is such an important gesture from the BPS. We also want to increase the dissemination of LGBTQ+ perspectives in psychology so we are looking into organising a regular podcast to reflect on LGBTQ relevant things that happen in politics and the media from a psychological perspective. 

We want to contribute directly to the standards expected of psychologists who work with vulnerable LGBTQ+ populations so we are looking into setting up an LGBTQ+ affirmative practitioner register and accredited CPD programme, created by LGBTQ+ members and allies. There’s already some great work going on at a smaller scale in the BPS so we’ll be reaching out to those providers to collaborate.

I’ve massively enjoyed my modest contributions to the Section so far, and I’m really looking forward to building on what has come before.

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Editor's note: See also this response, from Dr John Higgon, with Rob's own response in turn.