Interview: US Sexologist Joe Kort
Yikes: A shame-based culture? Psychological disorders? As if being gay wasn’t tough enough, today feels a little bit like So So Gay is in therapy. Of course, it would do, given that we’re having a lovely chat with renowned American sexologist Joe Kort, currently in London to run two workshops for the gay and lesbian community. The workshops are the first of their kind in the UK, and you could say we’re having something of a trial run ahead of the big day.
Kort specialises in Gay Affirmative Therapy, as well as IMAGO Relationship Therapy – a method programme involving communication exercises designed for couples to enhance their relationship, and for singles to learn relationship skills. ‘The term “gay affirmative” was first used in an article by [clinical psychologist] Alan Malyon, where he described the most complete definition of “gay affirmative therapy”,’ explains Kort. ‘It is about using psychotherapy techniques with lesbians and gays without stigmatising them.’
Gay Affirmative Therapy, we are told, takes the position that there is nothing inherently wrong with being gay or lesbian. ‘Of course there isn’t!’ we want to shout, a little disconcerted at the suggestion there are gay people out there who believe their sexual identity is something to be ashamed of. ‘What is wrong is what is done to gay men and lesbians by a homophobic, homo-ignorant society and heterosexist therapy,’ Kort explains further. ‘Living in a shame-based culture creates a variety of behavioural and psychological disorders.’ Ah, we see.
‘Gay men often don’t understand their own subtle forms of low self-esteem and anger from growing up gay and being rewarded for lying, pretending and burying our true selves,’ Kort goes on to suggest. ‘This can get in the way of finding relationships – and keeping them. Sabotaging behaviours between gay men often manifest themselves through competitiveness, putting each other down, jealousy, and valuing a sexual connection over an emotional connection with each other.’
Sound familiar? How many times have you made disparaging comments about a fellow gayer? About the way they dress or talk? Or how many times have you put yourself down because you’re not the one guy in the bar turning heads? Jealousy comes in many forms: but none more potent than the fact you don’t have a) muscles like him, b) a tan like him, c) that outfit.
‘I hear straight women tell me all the time how wonderful gay men are, how emotionally available they are,’ adds Kort, ‘but while gay men are that way to straight women, they are rarely that way to each other. The negative and hurtful things I see gay men say and do to each other astound me.’
Kort believes that gay men tend to act this way because they are behaving against a childhood imprint of running away from and despising each other’s, or one’s own, sexuality. ‘The gay men’s groups I run are for gay men with all kinds of issues, such as depression, anxiety about coming out, sexual addiction, sexual abuse, and relationship issues. The common denominator in the room is that we are all gay men, which is the main healing of the group. Usually therapists create groups on one issue that is the focus, which make the group strong and run well: with a gay men’s group it is often the first time gay men have come together in an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance, where there is an openness to vulnerability that allows for feedback and encourages members of the group to reveal personal things to one another.’
According to Kort, gay men’s groups go against the imprint of running from each other and being isolated, to the possibilities of connectedness and the bonding that gay man, he says, crave, yet don’t know how to establish. ‘This is not only a gay thing, but a guy thing! Men, in general, don’t know how to show emotions and bond. Women teach them. Gay male culture doesn’t have women to teach them, so these groups offer opportunities for gay men to learn what was never installed growing up gay.’
I ask Kort whether he thinks it is becoming easier to grow-up gay, and therefore easier for gay men and women to grasp an understanding of their own psychology, and our conversation turns to the media and the way TV shows handle gay characters. ‘I absolutely know the media plays a role in translating to audiences what it means to be gay. And I’m glad for it,’ he says. I ask him what TV shows in particular do it well: ‘Well, we had Will & Grace. That was a start,’ laughs Kort, before noting how predominately heterosexual shows are now become more adept at showcasing gay characters. We mention So So Gay favourite Glee and creator Ryan Murphy’s characterisation of gay teens Kurt and Blaine, plus ABC’s Modern Family, which Kort says his young nephews watch all the time: ‘They’re always telling me that watching these shows help them understand my life as a gay man, and as their uncle. It’s great.’
Of course, Kort is no stranger to the media himself, having already written a number of books for gay men. He is also a regular on national television and radio; having guested on chat shows such as The Montel Williams Show and The Tyra Banks Show.
‘OMG, she was so nice and so pretty!’ squeals Kort as we discuss the America’s Next Top Model presenter. ‘I have been on other talk shows, but really, she – and her producers – were so gracious and so nice. She is really tall though, so in the video of me on her show she had to stand on the step below me, just so we could be face-to-face. Honestly, I’m not that short.’
He also explains how the model and presenter kept calling him ‘Dr. Kort’, though at the time of his appearance he didn’t have his doctorate. ‘I tried to get her producer’s attention so that she’d stop calling me “doctor”, but I was unsuccessful. So I went up to Tyra on a break and told her that I was not a doctor yet and could she just use my name, and very nicely she said, “Yes. But I can’t see the monitor very well. I’ll have to memorize it”, and she just said, “Joe Kort, Joe Kort, Joe Kort”, over and over, and then, “Got it”. I went back to my seat and turned to this young, 25-year-old woman in the audience and said, “Tyra Banks just said my name three times” in a glazed, star-struck voice. The woman just looked confused and said, “Aren’t you the professional on the show?” As if I could not be star-struck because I was the expert?!’
It’s not just supermodels that get Kort excited, either: he’s also thrilled about spending time in London. ‘I have never been to London before and am extremely excited,’ he enthuses. ‘My partner has a lot of anxiety about traveling to another country, so we’ve never gone before. But since this would be work-related as well a vacation, I pushed for him to come with me as I didn’t want to come alone; he’s now as excited as am I.’
Kort’s arrival in the UK is thanks to fellow therapist Mic Austen, who had noticed the void of gay and lesbian relationship workshops in London. ‘She knew I offered these types of workshops in the States, and asked if I would come, she also knew I worked with gay men on issues around sex, love and intimacy, and we talked about what I could offer to UK audiences in that capacity as well.’
I ask him why he thinks there’s a lacking in these kind of workshops in the UK, and Kort laughs before explaining, ‘I think it’s because UK gay men are more open and out in identity and sexuality; in the US, we are so conservative and sexually repressed. Still. In 2011!’
He’s not a total stranger the UK either, having already worked with some London-based gay men via Skype. Though he’s aware it’s hardly the same thing. Now he’s over here in the flesh, his biggest concern is navigating the language barrier: ‘One time one of my UK clients came on cam and said, “Excuse my dressing gown, but I am going to bed after this”, I was like, “What’s a dressing gown?” and he stood up and I shouted, “That’s a robe!” So, yeah, I’m really looking forward to learning the different ways of communicating here.’
As our time on the couch comes to an end, talk – inevitably – turns to porn. ‘I have recently become a sex expert, getting my Ph.D. in clinical sexology, and am writing a book and doing teleclassses on Internet infidelity, helping individuals and couples to understand the role of porn and the Internet in their lives,’ Kort proudly announces then when I ask him, ‘what’s next?’ ‘Gay male couples navigate porn and the Internet much better than straight couples do, and I want to teach straight couples how to get better at this.’
You do work with straight couples then? ‘Yes, absolutely!’ he laughs. ‘I always get phone calls from straight men and women asking if I see straight people because I am an openly gay therapist. I always respond, “Yes I see straight people”. I feel like that kid in The Sixth Sense. “I see straight people”.’
Joe Kort’s Couples Workshop, for gays and lesbians, runs over the weekend of 7th and 8th May; his Reclaiming The Man In The Mirror workshop, for gay men, runs on 5th May. For more information please visit: www.joekort.com/workshops.