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Support network gives gay and lesbian people who stutter a second chance to be a whole person

Christine Simpson, Barry Yeoman | 01.09.2001

Interview with Barry Yeoman, by Christine Simpson.

At the World Congress for people who stutter in Ghent this July I attended a workshop led by Barry Yeoman called 'Coming Out Twice, Gay men and lesbians who stutter.' Barry is a gay person who stutters from the USA.

Passing Twice websiteYou might ask what I, as a straight woman, was doing there. Partly, I'm really interested in equality issues around stammering. One of the reasons I have come to terms so well with myself as a person who stammers is because of the support of gay friends who encouraged me to be me, I was OK as I was.

Barry's ideas really struck a chord with me and I wanted him to tell you about them and the organisation Passing Twice, an informal network of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender stutterers and their friends. This is a transcript of an interview I recorded with him.

Christine: I'd just like you to tell us what it is about please.

Barry: Sure. For the last nine years or so I've been thinking a lot about the parallels of being gay or lesbian and a stutterer. Many members of minority groups, black or Jewish or Turkish, grow up in families and neighbourhoods and environments where there are a lot of people like them, and their entire growing up experience provides support for the way that they are different from the culture at large. Neither gay men and lesbians nor people who stutter have that advantage most of the time. In most cases we grow up in hostile environments around people who are different from us, and who don't fully understand us, and who send us either implicit or explicit messages, that that characteristic is shameful and is something to be overcome and is something that will destroy our ability to have relationships with others and cause rejection in our lives.

And because of that, a lot of us either who are gay or stutter have tremendous shame and at some point in our lives try to eradicate that part of ourselves, often in the earlier part of our lives. We deny our sexual orientations, we pass as straight. I dated women, as most gay men at some point in their lives have. Or we try to pass as fluent which is much harder because we wear our stutters on our sleeves. We circumlocute, we don't talk about our speech, we avoid certain speaking situations, we screen our words/sentences in advance to make sure that nothing we say has a stutter, even if we are rendered to the point of illogic.

Both are self-obliteration processes, that we euphemistically call passing, and our liberation comes when we come out. And if you stutter that means talking about your stutter, avoiding avoidance, jumping into situations which are new and scary and become less scary as they become familiar, making links to people who are like ourselves, saying "Buzz off!" to professionals who want to change us, who want to obliterate that part of ourselves.

Until 1973 homosexuality was listed as a psychiatric illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Stuttering is still in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that APA publishes and revises every few years. And the removal of these conditions from the list of pathologies is part of our liberation. So it's my belief that when we 'come out' both as stutterers or as gay men and lesbians, and bisexuals, we are doing the same thing, we are purging ourselves of shame, we are no longer trying to blend into the mainstream world, we are celebrating ourselves and declaring ourselves so that these two things about ourselves just become two more characteristics that we have.

Christine: What you said in the workshop, which I was really interested in, was about some of the problems that gay and lesbian people face when they go to speech therapy. I wondered if you'd like to say a bit about that.

Barry: Speech therapy situations like most situations in life are heterocentric. There are assumptions of what normalcy is. And they're not hostile assumptions, they're just assumptions.

And it's not just speech therapy, it's also within the self-help movement. I remember a National Stuttering Association convention in the States - and it happened more than once - where there were workshops on learning to talk to the opposite sex. That's an alienating thing to see for someone who's gay because there's this assumption you don't belong here because this workshop isn't for you and there's no equivalent workshop on talking to the same sex or no gender-neutral workshop on talking to somebody you want to date.

I know this from talking to clinicians that some speech therapy assessment tools are gendered or are hetero-specific - spouse's name or husband, whatever - and speech therapists generally don't give a lot of thought to this because it's not their baby. But what they're perhaps not realising is that by alienating gay clients they aren't creating the safe conditions that are needed for the client to build trust and self-confidence and be able use the tools that he or she is getting.

And there are very simple ways to alleviate some of this. In the self-help movement, attention to workshop names is tremendous. But also in the speech therapy situation, looking at forms, looking at questionnaires, and also listening to your own language if you are a speech therapist - and also putting out materials that make everybody know this is a place that's inviting to everybody, including lesbians, gay men and bisexuals - putting in the waiting room gay magazines along with news magazines and the women's magazines. There's no reason why you can't have The Pink Paper along with Woman's Own and GQ and Newsweek. There's no reason why you can't have one of those "safe haven for gay people" stickers on the window that leads into your office, as many school teachers do, many university counsellors do. It's not saying this is a gay space but rather that this is a safe space for everybody, including lesbians and gay men.

Christine: That safe haven sticker sounds a brilliant idea. I don't think we have it in the UK yet, but ...

Barry: I bet somewhere some university official who works with gay people has produced these.

If you could imagine being a sixteen year old kid, in school, and walking down the hallway and there's all these classrooms - each teacher has their own classroom - the classrooms all have windows - and one of them has a safe haven sticker, which teacher are you likely to seek the confidence of, and how much better would you feel knowing that somebody else is thinking about this stuff, whether they're gay or straight, it doesn't matter, as long as they understand it's a place they can talk about themselves. And I think that that creates a much more inviting set of conditions, a much more conducive set of conditions for speech therapy to work, particularly because so much speech therapy these days is based around self-confidence and effective communication.

Christine: Yes exactly. Is there anything else you'd like to like to add to that, to the readers of Speaking Out?

Barry: Only a shameless pitch ...

Christine: Absolutely, go for it.

Barry: Passing Twice, our organisation of lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgender stutterers and our friends doesn't have the type of presence in the UK that we would like it to. We are primarily an American organisation, but we have clusters of members in Australia, and in Canada, and in Germany, and in Scandinavia, and I would like to see our presence in the UK increased, because I believe that it is an electronic age. National borders don't mean as much in terms of the type of support that we can give each other.

If you are a gay and lesbian stutterer and you're a member of our listserv you can share what happened today in your life to several dozen people on the listserv and you can get immediate feedback within an hour from people who might be time zones away but who know you because of what you've shared.

And I know that in my life my work with Passing Twice has been some of the most gratifying and important work I've done in my life, because I've seen people use the safety we provide to really grow and really bust out of their own prisons. I have watched people who were deeply causative and deeply shameful about both parts of their lives suck up the strength like through a straw and within a year, two years, feel so much more self-confident, their shoulders just thrown back as they walk into our workshops, and you look at them and say "Is this the same person?" They've grown so much, they've flourished and I know that people we've never met but who have been connected through the listserv have blossomed and have gotten the strength to come out in different circumstances. Most of the time when they've come out, people we know, they feel grateful that we've been honest with them, and I'd like to think that Passing Twice has given a lot of people that strength to go back to the straighter part of their life and be their own selves and get the kind of love and support that they're likely to get.

So I hope that anybody who reads this who is gay or lesbian and who stutters does feel very wanted and invited into our family and feels like they can contact me and that we will gladly put them on our mailing list or newsletter and invite them to join our listserv. Passing Twice is an informal organisation. We have no formal structure. We survive entirely on voluntary contributions. They are truly voluntary, so just contact us and we will get you on the list and introduce you to your own family.

Christine: Oh that's great. Thank you, Barry

Passing Twice's website is at: www.passingtwice.org

Barry Yeoman's website is www.barryyeoman.com

From the Autumn 2001 edition of Speaking Out