Chapter 1: Histories, herstories, theirstories

In this chapter we will read stories of how the field of Narrative Therapy took up the challenge of addressing heterosexual dominance. We will honour the definitional power that histories (those told and those untold) have to erase, marginalise, and to uplift, make visible and celebrate. And through personal, professional and political reflections we will gain a sense of the endless movement, tensions and fluidity in traditions of thought relating to expansive gender and sexuality.


How did conversations about challenging heterosexist assumptions in therapy begin within the Field of Narrative practice? Cheryl White (she/her) reflects on the contributions of lesbian and gay practitioners

Seeking a therapy free from heterosexist assumptions in A memory book for the field of narrative practice.

Joan Nestle (she/her) took on the challenge of thickening subjugated stories of lesbian lives at a time and in a context where being gay or lesbian was almost unspeakable. She sought ‘to give people back to themselves’. 

Responding with History and Story: An Interview with Joan Nestle— David Denborough.

Janet Bystrom’s (she/her) reflection on the establishment of a narratively informed grassroots community organisation, RECLAIM, is a delightful account of a community coming together to reclaim their storytelling rights.

Thinking Queerly about Narrative-Informed Organisational Development: A conversation with Janet Bystrom, founder of RECLAIM— An interview with Julie Tilsen.

The history of the relationship between Feminist movements, poststructuralism and people of expansive gender and sexuality is multistoried with tension, exclusion, challenge, embrace and expansion.  

In this video from our Feminisms and Intersectionality project, Aaron Munro (he/him), a trans man from Turtle Island describes how his relationship with feminisms has evolved across time and gender in a conversation with Vikki Reynolds (she/her).

In 2003 Arthemis Rohanthy (she/her), a transfemme therapist wrote a letter in response to the 2003 paper, ‘Feminism, therapy and narrative ideas – Exploring some not so commonly asked questions’, compiled by Shona Russell and Maggie Carey. 

Correspondence to the ongoing project on Feminism, therapy and narrative ideas — A Letter from Arthemis Rodhanthy.

Joan Laird (she/her), who identifies as a lesbian, feminist, postructuralist, wrote this letter in response.

Continuing Correspondence in Relation to Feminism and Transgender Issues – A Letter to Arthemis Rodhanthy from Joan Laird.

And finally, meet Laura, Frances, Jama, Crystal, Shaun, Nicole, Anusstasius, Curtina, Lay, and Darren (all use she/her), sistagals of the Tiwi Islands telling their stories in ways that make them stronger*. 

Reflection questions:

  • What are the histories told, re-told and untold of gender and sexual expansiveness in the context you work or live in? If you’re not sure, what ways might you have of researching those histories? (Speaking of local histories, this publication compiled by Suzy Stiles in 1995 was a key contribution to Dulwich Centre’s engagement in these realms). 
  • What role might you play in your practice to support the reclamation of storytelling rights of those whose identities have been subjected by dominant accounts of history?


* Telling stories in ways that make us stronger is the wisdom of Aunty Barb Wingard. Check out the Aboriginal Narrative Practice Course to learn more.

This Post Has 12 Comments

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    I found in this chapter that I was thinking about how I could provide the safe space for someone to want to talk about gender and sexuality. As well as how I could make them feel comfortable, and what a safe space would need to look like. For me it was also about being conscious of acknowledging and validating the emotion that come with having had the topic suppressed for such a long time, and recognising how difficult telling their story may have been.

    I found the sistagirls story very powerful. I found myself thinking about how difficult it must have been for them to not be able to be themselves in their own environment. To feel that they had to leave their homes in order to be able to be who they really are and to enjoy life.

    I also thought about the organisation that I work in and how there has been progress to be welcoming of all, we still have a long way to go.

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    This chapter is has had me questioning why I don’t have any queer friends or acquaintances? This has led to me having a very limited, one-sided understanding of the queer community, and probably unconsciously participating in normalising organisational discourses. I am a keen seeker of knowledge; I believe education will lead me to become a more inclusive practitioner – being a kind and compassionate person is not sufficient. My hope is that this learning will give me the confidence to queer the way I work. The Sistergals helped me to understand the importance of an accepting, loving, openminded community, one where they can freely express themselves in a normal environment. The Sistergals opened my eyes to the struggles they come up against in all facets of their lives. I’m so grateful for their sharing.
    Hamilton, NZ

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    Great discussion and information from Aaron and Vikki video seeing feminism from the leans of transgender people. I have got so much learning from Sistagals video demonstrating the barries of identity in our society and to be accepted in their Community group.

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    What are the histories told, re-told and untold of gender and sexual expansiveness in the context you work or live in? If you’re not sure, what ways might you have of researching those histories? (Speaking of local histories, this publication compiled by Suzy Stiles in 1995 was a key contribution to Dulwich Centre’s engagement in these realms).

    On reflection of the histories told, re-told, untold of gender and sexual expansiveness, I thought how even in difference states / Territories of Australia and deeper within different communities and cultures. People are are /can be complex and very complexed beings. Historically and in some instances today there is still oppression / exclusion in subtle and non-subtle expressions for e.g in verbal language, body language, through heterosexual and cis-gender traditions through-out many cultural, religious and spiritual values, ceremonies such as songs / dance, stories etc. While bearing this in mind, the impacts this can and sometimes does cause people, let alone genetic intergeneration trauma and trauma a person has directly experienced and how this impacts a person’s SEWB (social emotional wellbeing) / Mental Health and the community/ communities in which a person’s lives in / is connected to and societal views. I guess this is just part of the reason why I wanted to do this course, because often Queer people are not always given the respect, dignity, safety, care, ear and voice to other counter paths.

    My local community, I planted a seed for an organisation I worked for to be culturally and inclusively safe for all clients to access, I promoted specific days that were within my role and provided friendly informal education. Was told be sources that this has come up historically in the organisation and it’s keep being put of the priority list. I started working with Business support staff where I did a simple activity that got them to look at there own identity from as far back as they could remember to their present moment to support them to understand why and how services can be open, safe places for all diversities. I left a few months later so I’m not sure what’s happened since.

    Since than I joined a new organization, and planted seeds of change for my own wellbeing and other current staff, future paid and volunteer staff and visitors. Our Human Resources persons have listen , implemented a toilet for anyone to use and kept other toilets as traditional men’s and women’s toilets, and are looking at how to best change written language in workplace policies for inclusion and safety. It’s not huge and while this are still changes to be had, for both cultural, sexual and gender expansiveness/ diversity, it’s refreshing to know some service provider’s will be open and wanting change and how detrimental this is.

    What role might you play in your practice to support the reclamation of storytelling rights of those whose identities have been subjected by dominant accounts of history?
    An important role of using culturally and and inclusively safe queer/ LGBTIAQ language in communicating verbal, written, non-written and particularly body language, when introducing myself and while encouraging dialogue of storytelling from clients. While being a non-judgemental sounding board / support guide. Using empathy, motivational interviewing skills to draw out more story details in conversation with a clients consent. This will help me understand individual people and their identity / identities, so I can provide inclusively safe evidence based practices, and where individual clients feel safe they can access me.

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    As a heterosexual woman therapist (cisgendered), I have worked (I hope respectfully) with clients who identify as being gay from time to time. However, I have never had therapeutic conversations as rich as this, that were about the complexity of sexual identity, and I now suspect that this was because of my limited education on this, rather than my clients! I can see how educating myself is politically important if I do not want to contribute to the oppression of marginalised groups through my inability to be appropriately curious about the lives of others. The video about the lives of the Sistagals was wonderful. It really moved me to consider what it would be like to be denied the right, by some in your community, to be called by the name you call yourself. What an attack on your mental health! And yet, countering that, how wonderful to see the resilience built through acceptance and friendships.

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    The beginning reminds me of when I attended a LGTBQ-focused health fair. I could get off for something cool. There were two tracks at this convention–teenagers/youth LGTBQ practice or adult LGTBQ practice. At the time, I was working with adults, so the latter made sense to me; it was put on by my city’s premiere LGTBQ mental health agency.

    And it was a mess. The first panel was about pronouns, but despite that, there were no trans people, but two white gay cis men instead. I suppose that’s not terrible. Not the best, but also not terrible. However, that changed when the pronoun talk or panel started. Someone in the audience asked, “what if people just try to get you to guess their pronouns just so they can be mad?”

    I was horrified. How can you think the dysphoria of being misgendered is some sort of insidious trap? I hoped the panelists would react better, but they mumbled agreed. There was no walking back or an apology or an expansion. It was treated like a “debate” rather than a reality of dignity and health for clients. One person said, “what if a client asks you to call them Nick instead of Nicholas? You say yes, because there’s no reason to say no. Pronouns are just like that.”

    That person was right; it was such a fitting analogy, especially in context to work. For pride month, I contributed to our office newsletter, and to make it short–we work with clients of all cognitive functions, who might 96 but hates being called ma’am because it makes her feel old, if we can do that, we can learn how to communicate better with clients. Their needs and wants.

    My co-workers were older than me–I was very young at the office. Some of them hadn’t grow up the times I did, but some of the people we saw in nursing home were survivors of the AIDs pandemic.

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    Soumya Jagatdeb

    After I went through the resources available in this chapter, the one poignant thought that stayed throughout was that we can tend to believe that we are moving away from pathologization just because we are immersing ourselves into the infinite knowledge of what gender and sexual expansiveness mean, but we can still be so distant in understanding the history of the erasure and marginalization of queer, trans and gender non-confirming individuals which is still ‘symptomatic’ of the very historical pathologization. I am a cisgender heterosexual therapist practicing in India. Conversations around mental health in India is still fighting to break through shackles of years of stigma, the mental health of queer and trans people riddled with systemic denial, ridicule and other forms of marginalization on lines of class, caste, religion and ability can still struggle to find awareness. Often those spaces where they get articulated can be invaded by heterosexual dominant ideas. I have witnessed many cis-heterosexual therapists in India who continue to confuse gender and sexual identities. Many transgender people are often labelled as just gay or lesbian and the concerns reduced to only difficulties in coming out. This diktat on the kind of knowledge available forces therapists to take on the expert position, often misplacing the unique identity on the margin that needs to be centered along with the problem. The conversation between Aaron Munroe and Vikki Reynolds moved me to also examine the gatekeeping of transgender people in Indian feminist practices, for e.g- spaces that talk about reproductive rights of women don’t address the rights of trans women, often endangering their health. Trans people are often painted in binaries of good (their presence will bring immense blessings on occasions like childbirth) vs evil (cultural notions like reprimanding a child that they will be forcefully taken away by a trans woman if they will not finish their task) are microaggressions fueling macro aggressive practices against the community, ultimately de-humanising them. Incorporating lived realities and felt experiences in work has to be among the first set of steps to challenge the heterosexual dominance that is very implicitly ingrained in our practices. Arthemis Rohanthy’s words were again humbling in visualising the boundless nature of gender and sexual identities, while learning about Janet Bystrom’s grassroots community organization shed light on so many ingenious ways in which heteronormative hierarchies can be defied and spaces be reclaimed simultaneously.

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    Sanjana Mishra

    I went through these readings and videos shortly after finishing In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. Something she wrote in the beginning of the book has stayed with me:
    “In her essay “Venus in Two Acts,” on the dearth of contemporaneous African accounts of slavery, Saidiya Hartman talks about the “violence of the archive.” This concept—also called “archival silence”—illustrates a difficult truth: sometimes stories are destroyed, and sometimes they are never uttered in the first place; either way something very large is irrevocably missing from our collective histories.”
    As a queer person and a therapist practicing in India, I’m often made aware of the erasure of our own queer histories, herstories and theirstories. The rich history of the hijra community, for instance, is one that has been passed down through word of mouth and in an intra-community context – one that we are not privy to unless we seek it out. When queer history is spoken about, the rhetoric is often that of “India was very queer before colonisation, and colonisation took away our freedom of expression”, which is an oversimplification at best and deliberate erasure of struggle at worst. There are so many stories left in the margins even when they are told. The conversation between Aaron Munro and Vikki Reynolds reminded me of how prominent feminists in India have also often been operating from a non-intersectional place – one that does not incorporate trans or gender non-conforming people, or is not caste- or class-aware. I’m thinking of these things in the context of what Joan Nestle said: “it wasn’t that we were missing from history, it was that we only existed in the terms and structures that others had built for us”.
    Somewhere, there are stories of queer history, resistance, pain, struggle and survival missing from our spaces, and I can’t help but wonder what sort of impact it has on young queer, trans and gender non-conforming people – I know a very common rhetoric amongst the parents of young queer and trans people in India is that “this is a Western concept and doesn’t exist in our country”. In seeking to integrate principles of social justice in my practice, I think this has made me reflect on wanting to collectivise more queer and trans voices somehow – I would love to have access to an archive like the Lesbian Herstory Archives! I think I’m going to be taking out time and space to search for archival projects and accounts of queer history in India, both for the sake of connection to my own queer history and to collectivise more voices to be shared with the young people I work with.

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    Anderson Oliveira

    Hello everyone, my name is Anderson and I write here from Brazil. I am a psychologist and I would like to say that I was deeply moved by the video “Sistagals: Australia’s Indigenous Gay and Trans Communities”. An extremely beautiful and touching video, of people so dignified and simple and that, at the same time, left me questioning the reasons why there is, all over the world, so much hatred, prejudice, violence against people who just want to live their lives and have every right to live them. I wonder why it is so difficult, for example, for so many people, to call that woman by her name Laura. For me, it is something so simple! I was very moved, and I am also pained knowing that thousands, probably millions of people worldwide will be deprived of living their lives, their dreams. Experiences that for me are so usual, for the Sistagals are dreams that, unfortunately, they will never fulfil. As I realised this, tears came to my eyes. And Brazil, tragically, is the most violent country concerning the LGBT community. In contrast, here there is a universal health system that is public, free and homosexuality is not considered a crime. So, hormone treatments, psychiatric and psychological follow-up, sex reassignment surgery, and other follow-ups can be done for free here in Brazil. The other interviews and all the texts were also wonderful, because they are broadening my understanding of the subject and also helping me to break down my own prejudices, many unknown to myself. That’s why science and constant learning are important because we can always become better versions of ourselves every day. Gratitude!

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    Megan M. Matthews

    Hi, I’m Megan (say it: MEE-gan), writing from the Cleveland, Ohio, USA metropolitan area.

    What are the histories told, re-told and untold of gender and sexual expansiveness in the context you work or live in? If you’re not sure, what ways might you have of researching those histories?

    The city of Lakewood (a small city immediately west of Cleveland, Ohio, USA), in which I live, has a well-established and decades-long history of progressive attitudes and beliefs that makes it a safe (or in these current times, at least safer) space for pagans, queerfolk, polyamorists, transfolk, and anyone out of the mainstream. I know that from people who have lived here and flown their Pride flags here for years. What I don’t know as much about, is how my city came to be so progressive, inclusive, and accepting in the first place – and the best way I know how to find out about that is once again to talk to people who have lived here for years, under what at least some of them have called ” the Rainbow Flag of Peace”.

    What role might you play in your practice to support the reclamation of storytelling rights of those whose identities have been subjected by dominant accounts of history?

    In essence the entire purpose of my practice is to help people who are experiencing erasure of their identity to reclaim it and overcome the shaming, and the pressure to allow their own erasure, to which they have been subjected; and to learn not only to accept but to take genuine pride in the multiplicity of interwoven story-threads that make up the tapestry of who they are.

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    I really appreciate the interviews. I am repeatedly reminded of the power of individual testimony and the ability to engage with politics through outsider witnessing of personal stories. They offer a unified resistance against the reductive dominant stories on offer.
    It helps to be reminded that there is so much that has happened and needs to still happen, which is why I really appreciate the inclusion of global stories in these accounts.
    Personally, it touched me in remembering my own queer history. The dark times of the aids crisis in the 80s and the loss of so many activists. In some ways, it amazes me that we have come this far considering the leverage that this gave conservative right-wing politics. More of these stories need to be told.

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    Jake Peterson

    re: seeking a therapy free from heterosexist assumptions
    I remember reading this as part of the Masters. It always made me think of this quote Queer scholar Celia Kitzinger describes the challenge of responding to overt discrimination (homophobia) but ignoring heteronormativity:
    “While LGBT activists are campaigning against blatant oppression and overt discrimination, at the same time all around us a heteronormative social fabric is unobtrusively rewoven, thread by thread, persistently, without fuss or fanfare, without oppressive intent or conscious design” (Kitzinger 2005)

    Sometimes it’s the little (or not so little) ‘micro aggressions’ that are so tightly woven into culture that it can be hard to even notice them. I often think about what I might be replicating inadvertently in my work with folks … which is why I also appreciated your sneak into practice – could be great to externalise that!

    Re: reflection questions
    These questions also have me thinking about heterosexual dominance and heterosexist assumtpions which sometimes ‘sneaks into our practice’ to borrow from your introduction.

    In terms of diverse identifies as a therapist, I often wonder how we create room for folks in relation to all aspects of their identity? How do we locate ourselves and others in each consultation by responding to heterosexual dominance and also colonisation and white supremacy?

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