Meg-John Barker (they/them) is an esteemed author and former counsellor, specialising in Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity (GSRD) and subjects around self-care. We’re thrilled that they will be joining us in June for an online CPD day exploring Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity.
Meg-John’s books include their graphic guides to Gender*, Sexuality* and Queer* history, as well as Life Isn’t Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between*, and more. They are also the co-host of the brilliant Meg-John and Justin podcast exploring various facets of GSRD, mental health and self-care.
We appreciated Meg-John taking the time to talk to us ahead of their CPD day. In this interview we explore their career, ideas around GSRD including how we can be more inclusive in our therapy practices, and how their CPD day will work – with the facilitation of a safe space for exploration.
Interview with Meg-John Barker
1. We’re so excited you’ll be leading a CPD day for us on Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity (GSRD). It would be great for our followers to hear more about you. What drew you to the therapy profession, and what then moved you onto the work you focus on now?
I think I’ve always been driven to find out what makes people – including myself – tick. I had an emotionally ‘interesting’ upbringing and always had the sense that the way we did feelings in my family and wider community was off in some way. I studied psychology, then bits of sociology and philosophy, and then trained as a therapist, mostly in pursuit of a different way of doing things. It’s still an ongoing journey to blend the various wisdoms and practices that most speak to me together.
Back at the start I remember turning to the self-help section of the bookshop in the hope of finding some answers there and coming up with very little of use – and plenty that seems quite damaging in retrospect. I was increasingly struck by the gulf between the understandings available in academic, therapeutic, activist, and spiritual worlds, and what made their way into those self-help sections. Ten years ago I wrote my first self-help style book – Rewriting the Rules* – and I’ve been experimenting with creating various styles of self-help materials ever since, including comics, zines, blogposts, and podcasts as well as books. A couple of years back I was able to go full time as a writer to devote myself to this work.
2. What gives you your passion for the training you deliver?
These days I mostly train around GSRD (gender, sex, and relationship diversity) and around self-care practices of various kinds. Personally I’ve always seen our genders, sexualities, and relationship styles as totally bound up with our emotions and mental health, so it’s always made sense that my work weaves these things together.
Much of the most important stuff that I’ve learnt has come from communities who are at the cutting edge in doing gender, sex, and/or relationships differently – such as trans people, queer people, and non-monogamous people of various kinds. I’m passionate about bringing these wisdoms to wider audiences through my writing and my training. I love the way that flips the usual understanding that practitioners need to learn about marginalised groups in order to work better with people who are struggling in particular ways. My writing and training does provide those standard 101-type introductions, but the focus is more on what everybody can learn about gender, sexuality, relationships – and far more – from people at the current cultural margins.
3. Some therapists may believe that they don’t need training around GSRD because they are accepting of all clients. What would you say to this?
There is an important piece here that it’s always vital to be with the whole person in front of you, not just seeing them through the lens of their gender, their sexuality, or in terms of their current relationship, for example. But, at the same time, our gender, sexuality, relationship style, and a whole load of other intersecting aspects of us (race, class, disability, age, etc.) have a huge impact on how we are treated by the world around us, from our earliest years. I feel it’s important to hold that both/and: the unique individual, and all the cultural messages and social forces around them, which they may or may not fit in with in various ways.
My training is very much about increasing awareness of those cultural messages and social forces, and how they impact all of us, so that we can have a better sense of how this will play out for all of our clients. And we can also be more aware of some of the implicit assumptions that we will all – inevitably – bring into our work.
4. You mention in the event info that this day isn’t just about understanding those who sit outside normative identities – could you say a little about that?
Absolutely. The ‘101’ type approach to training in these areas is often to inform therapists about marginalised genders, sexualities, and relationship styles with which they might be unfamiliar. That is important, of course, especially given what we know about the toll that being cultural marginalised takes on people’s mental health.
However, in my experience, gender, sexuality and relationships style is relevant to all clients, and it’s actually often those who are more normative who struggle more with these issues, because they’re still trying to conform to rigid cultural ideas about what it means to be a man, a woman, straight, or monogamous, for example. Think about the suicide risk in men, linked to toxic forms of masculinity, for example, or the fact that around a half of straight people regard themselves as sexually dysfunctional, or the high rates of infidelities and relationship distress for monogamous people. A key message in my training is that it might well be worth exploring GSRD more explicitly with all clients.
5. And how will the day itself run? It being experiential, with discussions around assumptions held on GSRD, feels like a wonderful opportunity but one that may feel daunting to some. Can you share a sense of how you create a safe space for honest reflection and learning?
Great question. With online training I tend to move between self-reflection and group discussion (where I might have moved between small group discussions and big group conversations in offline training). The self-reflections give everyone a bit of time away from the screen and enable us to reflect in more vulnerable ways which we don’t need to share with everyone, but which will be helpful for our own learning.
I also always spend some time at the start of the day coming to a group agreement together about what we need to feel safe-enough in the space. Given that this is a basic introduction – assuming no knowledge – one vital piece is that the day is a safe-enough space to ask what you might consider ‘stupid questions’ and to be honest about what you don’t know. Others in the group will certainly appreciate it if you ask the question they were wondering about. There’ll be no shaming of ignorance or mistakes, and I will also point people to where they can find out more in areas they want to learn more about.
6. Aside from expanding understanding and challenging their own assumptions, how do you feel therapists can make their practice more inclusive for clients who identify across the range of GSRD?
The major one is to reflect on your own GSRD (we’re all diverse!) The more that we can know ourselves, and the ways in which wider culture has impacted our gender, sexuality, and relationship style, the better able we will be to work with other clients within this cultural context in aware and affirmative ways. If you want to work with marginalised groups in this area then it’s a great idea to immerse yourself in those worlds, from reading memoirs and watching relevant films and TV shows, to following people on social media who’ll keep you up-to-date about language and key issues.
It’s also fine to recognise where you’re currently limited – either by lack of knowledge or by fear of ‘getting it wrong’ – and to refer clients on until you have that more grounded sense of being familiar with that particular group. It’s so important – particularly for marginalised clients – that therapists are able to mirror their client’s experiences of themselves, when so many others will not have done so.
7. You are the author of so many books and the co-host of a fantastic podcast which we highly recommend. Are there any other books or resources you’d recommend therapists check out?
Thank you! Luckily we live at a time where there is a wealth of excellent material around these topics out there. I’d highly recommend a lot of the stuff that one of my publishers – Jessica Kingsley – is putting out written by trans people, for both therapists and general audiences. In particular my friend Alex Iantaffi’s book Gender Trauma* is an incredibly helpful perspective on how limited messages about gender can be seen – and worked with – as a form of intergenerational trauma. My friend Justin Hancock’s new book Can We Talk about Consent* is also highly recommended for young people, but also for anyone who wants to get a better handle on consent.
8. What are you excited for in your future? Any new books or projects lined up?
I’ve just finished ‘How to Understand Your Sexuality’ with Alex, which should be out before the end of the year, and we’re working on ‘How to Understand Your Relationships’ next. Both take a trauma-informed perspective on these topics, which is what I’ve spent much of lockdown learning about. My next graphic guide book – with Jules Scheele – will be on mental health, so I’m starting to work on that one. It feels really good to be weaving together all my different learnings on mental health. Meanwhile I’m continuing to produce blog posts and zines, mostly around the theme of plurality, and how parts work can be valuable for therapists and clients alike.
9. Where can we hear more from you? (eg, your own Blog, Website, Twitter, Email?)
My website is rewriting-the-rules.com and everything goes up there including lots of free books, zines, and other materials. I’m @megjohnbarker on Twitter and there’s also quite a lot of talks by me on YouTube. Finally, if you like my free materials, or use them with clients, feel free to support me on Patreon where I’m MegJohnBarker.
Big thanks to Meg-John for taking the time to talk to us. If you’ve taken something from this blogpost, please do share this with peers and colleagues. We’re so looking forward to learning more from Meg-John, and each other, at their CPD day in June – Gender, Sexual and Relationship Diversity. Here they are introducing the day:
* Book links in this post are affiliate links meaning we get a very small cut of sales. At no extra cost to you, this supports us at BTP in being able to continue helping therapists and clients.
Saturday 3rd February 2024. ONLINE via Zoom and CATCH-UP for 14 days. Event Times: 10.00am – 4.30pm GMT (London)/ 11.00am – 5.30pm CET (Paris)/ 5.00am – 11.30am EST (New York).…
Monday 19th February 2024. ONLINE via Zoom and CATCH-UP for 28 days. Event Times: 6.00pm – 9.00pm GMT (London)/ 7.00pm – 10.00pm CET (Paris)/ 1.00pm – 4.00pm EST (New York).…
Friday 1st March 2024. ONLINE via Zoom and CATCH-UP for 28 days. Event Times: 10.00am – 4.00pm GMT (London)/ 11.00am – 5.00pm CET (Paris)/ 5.00am – 11.00am EST (New York).…
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