The Psychology of Sexualities Section

History of the Psychology of Sexualities


Below is a brief history of the founding of the Lesbian and Gay Section of the British Psychological Society, written by Sue Wilkinson, one of the founding members. This essay originally appeared in the Newsletter of the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section of the British Psychological Section, which was a forerunner to Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review.

On December 18, 1998, a British equivalent to APA Division 44-the Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section-was officially founded within the British Psychological Society (BPS). This historic event is the culmination of nearly a decade of campaigning--creating, for the first time, a formal organizational framework for lesbian and gay psychology in Britain. Three previous proposals had been turned down (in 1991, 1993, and 1994) by the BPS Scientific Affairs Board and/or Council on the grounds that the field was "too narrow" and "too political." Anti-lesbian and anti-gay correspondence was published in the BPS journal, The Psychologist, under the heading, "Are you normal?" Members of the steering group were sent abusive hate mail by BPS members. The membership ballot which finally approved the formation of the new Section was notable for having more "anti" votes than ever before recorded in any parallel BPS ballot--1988 voted in favor, and 1623 voted against the formation of the Section.

The struggle for the Section began in 1990 when four lesbians-two academic psychologists (Celia Kitzinger and myself), a clinical psychologist (Rachel Perkins), and an educational psychologist (Louise Comely)-formed the "Lesbians in Psychology Sisterhood" (LIPS) to act as a steering group. Our first proposal for a "Psychology of Lesbianism" Section was rejected by the Scientific Affairs Board (SAB) and BPS Council in 1991. However, it sent serious ripples through the BPS, which changed its rules to make it harder to form new sections in the future. The founding membership now has to be more than double the previous figure. This first proposal also precipitated a major split within the Psychology of Women Section, of which all four of us were members, two of us on the Committee (c.f. Comely et al., 1992; Sayers, 1992). The Psychology of Women Section (equivalent to APA Division 35) did not originally support the proposal (Ussher, 1991), and it was only with a change of Chair that it subsequently decided to do so (c.f. Beloff, 1993). LIPS tried once again to establish a Psychology of Lesbianism Section in 1993, but we were again turned down by both SAB and Council.

The following year saw a major change of strategy-an alliance between lesbians and gay men-none of whom had previously been forthcoming. Six of us submitted a revised proposal-now for a "Lesbian and Gay Psychology" Section-which, this time, made it through SAB. We sensed that the tide of Society opinion was turning, but we were faced with major disappointment in October, 1994, when the BPS Council rejected this proposal by just one vote. This apparently caused some internal embarrassment, and the proposers of the new Section were invited to meet with senior officers of the Society, including the then President, to discuss the way forward. The tenor of the advice was "not to make waves," "to be patient," and "to expect success in due course." (Outrageous, maybe, but those of us behind the initiative from the outset were actually not averse to having a "rest" at this point!)

In late 1997, four of us (Adrian Coyle, Martin Milton, Celia Kitzinger, and myself) put a revised version of the "Lesbian and Gay Psychology" Section proposal forward once again, and this time it quickly obtained SAB support. It was evident that there had been a sea change. Although we still faced virulent opposition from a significant minority, there was also a groundswell of support. When the Council eventually approved the proposal on Valentine's Day, 1998, their vote in favor was overwhelming. The next step was a membership ballot (a new requirement which had been introduced since our first proposal). This involved a further tranche of hard work. We carried out a personal mailing of the entire Register of Chartered Psychologists, lobbied our known supporters to vote, and publicized the Section via a lead article in The Psychologist (Kitzinger et al., 1998). On December 5, 1998, the ballot result was announced at a Special General Meeting, which the four of us attended. We got our Section!

We are delighted finally to have achieved a BPS Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section as a forum within which to pursue lesbian and gay psychology. The proposal approved by Council explicitly states that the aim of the Section is "to contribute... to removing the stigma of mental illness that has long been associated with gay male and lesbian sexual identities and to contribute psychological perspectives to social policy initiatives which provide for better quality of life for lesbian and gay people, their families and friends" (Kitzinger et al., 1997). Recent events in Britain, such as the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, the parliamentary debates on the gay male Age of Consent, and the "outings" of various members of Parliament, illustrate the extent to which ignorance, prejudice, and bigotry are still rife in this country. The new Section will enable lesbian and gay voices to be heard.

Other aims of the Section include: (a) providing a forum for the systematic study of lesbian and gay psychology which draws together those working in different specialties; (b) developing research and teaching in the area, in both academic and applied contexts; (c) fostering the exchange of ideas, research, and information (via workshops, conferences, newsletter, and, eventually, a journal); and (d) establishing links with others working on lesbian and gay issues, including, of course, APA Division 44 and other lesbian and gay psychology organizations worldwide (such as the one within the Australian Psychological Society).

Although our primary focus is lesbian and gay psychology, we expect to become a forum for related research (and policy initiatives) on a broader range of non-heterosexual identities, including bisexual, transsexual/transgender, and intersexual. Research that uses lesbian and gay theory to problematize heterosexuality (e.g., Wilkinson & Kitzinger, 1993) also falls within our remit. Our name reflects the BPS requirement that we demonstrate an already-established British research base in the key areas covered by the Section. We hope to see research on bisexual and transgender issues flourishing in Britain in the future. The Section will foster a wide variety and diversity of topics and approaches, and will welcome debate about the implications and utility of different perspectives. We are keen to bridge theory and practice, recognizing the key role of counselors, therapists, and educational and occupational psychologists in promoting better understanding of lesbian and gay issues.

Over the last three decades, psychology has dramatically developed and expanded its capacity to recognize human diversity. Future development of lesbian and gay psychology will expand the scope and enrich the content of the discipline of psychology as a whole, better equipping it to address and improve the millennium.

Copies of the full proposal for the BPS Lesbian and Gay Psychology Section are available from Sue Wilkinson, Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire LE11 3TU, UK. Members of the Section Committee would welcome trans-Atlantic dialogue. The inaugural officers are: Chair, Peter Hegarty; Secretary, Victoria Clarke; Treasurer, Clair Clifford.



Beloff, H. (1993). Progress on the BPS Psychology of Lesbianism front. Feminism and Psychology, 3(2), 282-283.

Comely, L., Kitzinger, C., Perkins, R., & Wilkinson, S. (1992). Lesbian psychology in Britain: Back into the closet? Feminism and Psychology, 2(2), 265-268.

Kitzinger, C., Coyle, A., Wilkinson, S., & Milton, M. (1997). Proposal to the Council of the British Psychological Society for the formation of a new Section of the Society on "Lesbian and Gay Psychology." Unpublished document.

Kitzinger, C., Coyle, A., Wilkinson, S., & Milton, M. (1998). Toward lesbian and gay psychology. The Psychologist, 11(11).

Sayers, J. (1992). A POWS reply. Feminism and Psychology, 2(2), 269-270.

Ussher, J. (1991). Letter to Chair of BPS ScientificAffairs Board, 21 May. Reprinted in British Psychological Society Psychology of Women Newsletter, 8, 66.

Wilkinson, S., & Kitzinger, C. (Eds.). (1993). Heterosexuality: A "Feminism and Psychology" reader. London. Sage.