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An Interview with Dana Finnegan and Emily McNally

Meet the married lesbian unsung pioneering heroes of LGBT substance abuse research and counseling: An Interview with Dana Finnegan and Emily McNally

Emily McNally (left) Dana Finnegan (right). This picture was taken by one of our friends in the home of a lesbian couple we were visiting in London about ten years ago. We were staying with them in their apartment near St Paul’s Cathedral and we traveled all over London seeing museums, parks, and many wonderful places in the city. We went to plays, ate in some marvelous restaurants and were fortunate to be guided by women who lived there. We love London and have visited many times. Photo by Emily McNally & Dana Finnegan. Reproduced with permission.

Fundamentals of LGBT Substance Use Disorders,” the new book released by Columbia University Press-distributed LGBTQ publisher Harrington Park Press, Philadelphia clinician Michael Shelton sums up what is known about the prevalence of LGBT substance abuse and treatment, and emphasizes the importance of affirmative therapy practices—counseling that supports and embraces client sexual identity.

His book continues the work began by Dr. Dana G. Finnegan and Dr. Emily B. McNally, the married lesbian professional counseling couple widely considered two unsung pioneering heroes of LGBT substance abuse research and counseling.

Below, following a little background, is an interview with Dana and Emily by the book’s publisher, Bill Cohen, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of Harrington Park Press.

Photos of the couple include their own sweet captions, giving you an insight into the lives of this extraordinary couple.

1987, Dana Finnegan and Emily McNally co-authored Dual Identities: Counseling Chemically Dependent Gay Men and Lesbians for Hazelden Press. This was the first book in the addiction field about counseling LGBT individuals with substance use problems.

In 2001, they wrote an important revision, broadening the scope of the original work, Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Substance Abusers. Published by The Haworth Press (now part of Taylor & Francis/Routledge), it was the first definitive LGBT handbook in the addiction and recovery field.

Publications by Finnegan and McNally

In 2014, Harrington Park Press re-purchased the rights to “Dual Identities” from Routledge. Under Emily and Dana’s stewardship, Michael Shelton was commissioned to completely re-write its successor as “Fundamentals of LGBT Substance Use Disorders,” for which Emily and Dana wrote foreword.

Both Emily and Dana have been members of the Board of Directors of NALGAP, the Association of LGBT Addiction Professionals and their Allies, and are both widely acknowledged pioneers in helping advance our understanding of alcoholism and substance abuse in the LGBT community, as well as developing clinical interventions and standards of care.

When did you first meet and then decide you were going to be a couple? For how many years have you been together?

In 1974, we met each other through a mutual friend and we became good friends and fell in love. We have been together since then and recently we celebrated our 42nd anniversary. We lived in the suburbs, 30 miles outside of NY city, in northern New Jersey, from 1974 to 1980 and then we moved to Greenwich Village and lived there for almost 20 years. We retired and moved to Florida to be closer to family and in 2012, when marriage became legal in New York, we got married in City Hall in New York City and have enjoyed the many benefits of being a married couple.

What interested each of you in the field of LGBT substance abuse? Was it purely professional or have personal involvements contributed–which we know also motivates so many counselors and therapists in this area.

Both of us were and are in recovery from alcoholism and both of us were interested in psychology and in helping others. Our professional and personal lives have always contributed to our major life decisions. We were both working as counselors when NJ began to certify alcoholism counselors in the mid-70’s. We worked together on an inpatient alcoholism treatment unit in a general hospital and we began to notice that the needs of LGBT patients were not being met.

In 1979, we attended the Rutgers Summer School of Alcohol Studies and met others who also were concerned about good treatment for LGBT people with alcohol and other drug problems. We helped to form the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Addiction Professionals and our lives changed as we became involved in the Gay Health Coalition and the LGBT health movement with other health professionals.

In the 1980’s, we became very active in the LGBT health movement, as AIDS became the center of LGBT health concerns. We were almost the lone voice advocating for treatment of LGBT alcoholism and drug addiction. We wrote the first book (Dual Identities) to try to address the need for compassionate and knowledgable treatment of LGBT substance abusers. We were also involved in trying to raise the consciousness in the LGBT community about the destructive nature of addiction. Alcohol and drugs were rampant in the LGBT community, because the primary safe places to socialize and meet others were bars.

Dana Finnegan (left) Emily McNally (right). “We are at a social event at our Clubhouse in the community where we live in Florida. We are wearing name tags because we belong to a private women’s club and the members are required to wear name tags. We attend dances, parties, special events, holiday meals, art and music shows, entertainers, educational speakers, workshops, and many other activities. It is an interesting and fun place to live.” Photo by Emily McNally & Dana Finnegan. Reproduced with permission.

Have you ever seen clients together as co-therapists or have your practices been distinctly separated?

We created and owned a counseling center together, we were in supervision together for many years, and we consulted with each other about cases. However, our individual practices have been separate. We taught workshops and courses together and we wrote two books and numerous articles together.

What personal philosophies do you bring to the field of substance abuse counseling? Do you feel that real advancements have been made, say, in the last decade?

Substance abuse (alcoholism, chemical addiction) is a treatable disease. There are many paths that people can follow in order to recover from addiction. Another part of our personal philosophy is that all counselors must be as unbiased as possible, must know themselves, and must be knowledgable about the culture within which the patient lives and functions.

Yes, we both believe that many advancements have been made in the last decade. This country has become a safer place for LGBT people. Many young people, who are coming out in high school or college, have no idea what being closeted was like and how being closeted affected recovery.

“Fundamentals of LGBT Substance Use Disorders” was first conceived as a 2nd edition of your classic handbook, “Dual Identities: Counseling Chemically Dependent Gay Men and Lesbians.” What made you decide to have the book entirely re-written anew under a new title and how did you come about finding Michael Shelton as the new “successor edition” author?

Having had the experience of writing the first two books, we knew when we were asked to write another edition of “Dual Identities,” that we were not in a position in our lives to undertake such a project again. Dana is retired and Emily is working full time as a psychologist at a VA. We had met Michael Shelton at conferences after he joined the National Association of Lesbian and Gay Addiction Professionals (NALGAP). He has authored two excellent books, so we thought of him to write the book.

In the social media we commonly read about shell-shock in the LGBT community following the recent elections. Do you see this reflected or discussed in the substance abuse treatment/recovery practice arena. If “yes,” in what ways?

Neither of us is currently working in the LGBT substance abuse treatment arena. However, we live in a lesbian community where we share a lot anxiety with other women about our future and what is happening in our country and in the world.

Can a “straight” therapist really work effectively with an LGBT substance abuse client? Or do you think LGBT persons should seek out therapists/counselors who are also from the LGBT community? Should a lesbian patient always see a lesbian counselor and should a gay male client always see a gay male therapist?

Yes, a “straight” therapist can work effectively with an LGBT substance abuse client. If a therapist is a good, well-trained, self-aware, compassionate person, he or she can work effectively with LGBT substance abuse clients. The same qualities need to be present in an LGBT person who is a counselor or therapist.

What special issues and problems do trans persons bring bring into counseling and therapy? When they are transitioning, do they gravitation toward substance abuse, and if so, for what reasons?

Trans people often gravitate to substance use to medicate their pain. Many therapists do not understand what it is to be a trans person. A therapist, as stated above, needs to be well trained and informed, empathic and sensitive. Many trans people have been disowned by their families and are de-valued in our society and they may use substances to cope with their lives.

LGBT persons, especially those who are socially isolated, might seek out friends and even lovers in new group settings. Are LGBT therapy groups potential “hunting grounds” in this respect? If “yes,” is that necessarily bad?

When LGBT people are struggling to recover from substance abuse, they are emotionally vulnerable and they need to learn to focus their time and energy on their recovery. They often need new, sober friends and having them is helpful. However, more experienced people in recovery or counselors will advise them to focus on their recovery for a while and to not get involved in new lover relationships.

What is your opinion of marijuana for medicinal purposes insofar as LGBT persons are concerned?

There is a concept of co-addiction in which one’s dependence on one substance makes a person more vulnerable to addiction to another substance. It is risky for people who are in recovery to use other substances, so an LGBT person who is in recovery from alcoholism risks losing his or her sobriety by using medicinal marijuana.

Have mainstream “straight” substance abuse clinics become more “inclusive ” insofar as helping LGBT patients or clients? What types of rejection or prejudice still remain, say, in the Deep South or rural areas which are more conservative?

Our limited observation of “straight” substance abuse clinics is that they are more “inclusive” and sensitive than they were many years ago. Many staff members are out to other staff and many straight counselors have LGBT friends. The world has changed to a great extent. However, we are also aware that there are places that are not safe and people who still hold strong homophobic views. Many of these places are in the south and in rural areas and we should not assume that homophobia is a thing of the past.

Emily McNally (left) Dana Finnegan (right). We were signing our marriage license at City Hall in NYC on November 9, 2012 after being together for 38 years. We lived in Florida at the time, but we had lived in Greenwich Village for many years, so getting married in lower Manhattan was very special for us. In addition, Emily’s parents, who were always supportive of us as a couple, had been married in the same City Hall in 1928. Photo by Emily McNally & Dana Finnegan. Reproduced with permission.

Do you think the legalization of gay and lesbian marriage might have any impact on LGBT substance abuse/recovery, or not really? Do you see many gay and lesbian married couples who singly or jointly battle alcoholism or drug abuse?

Many treatment centers have family programs and are concerned about the spouses or significant others of their patients. The legalization of LGBT marriage should have an impact on treatment staff being able to understand and include their LGBT patients’ family members. Many of the gay or lesbian clients who enter treatment struggle with the same issues that straight clients have–that their spouse needs to understand addiction and recovery.

What was your reaction to Nancy Reagan’s prescription for substance abuse (“Just Say No”) insofar as the LGBT community was concerned?

We were both distressed and disgusted by Nancy Reagan’s statement. It shows great ignorance and misunderstanding about substance abuse. It was destructive and did not account for the fact that addiction is a brain disease and as such, it is not a disease of “choice.” If addicts could “Just Say No,” they wouldn’t be addicts! Good quality treatment should be designed to help substance abusers make better choices for themselves, the most important one being that they are able to choose not to use alcohol or other drugs one day at a time. •