How My World Became The Real World

164915-169668This piece first appeared on The Huffington Post, November 13, 2014.

Before my husband was on The Real World, we met in a realer world: the closet.

As bullied — and consequently failed — high-school students, we found each other as “refugees” on “The Island of Misfit Teens”: an early-admissions college known as Simon’s Rock. Project Runway‘s Nina Garcia would have kicked us out for our “styling”: torn jeans, half-shaved/half-long hair, flannel, Birkenstocks, acne. We were 16, and it was 1993. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal; there was no Internet to learn how much “better” it would get; Ellen had not yet declared, “Yep, I’m gay”; homosexuality meant “AIDS.” There were no appealing realities for a gay teen to dream himself into.

But Justin was braver than I was and trusted that his own private world could be just as real as the one surrounding us.

After two weeks of watching me, stalking me, and making me laugh, he made a bid for his dreams: “I guess I’m attracted to you,” he said.

“I’m straight,” I lied back, “but we can be friends.”

And just like that, dreams were deferred.

Six years later Justin would put forth a dreamier image of himself, care of MTV: platinum-blond pixie do, fashion jeans, and crystal-clear skin. I would watch him — the way he had once watched me — and dream of a happier outcome for us. If only I had trusted my dreams, or his, when I had had the chance.

Before all of that, my mom had taught me to dream, singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” like Mama Cass, and “Sweet Dreams” like Patsy Cline, while changing diapers or folding laundry. But I never trusted the euphoria that flooded her when she wanted something, because she became equally flooded with fury and or despair when she didn’t get it. “That’s not how it was supposed to be!” she’d cry. She refused to negotiate with reality when it took her dreams hostage, and this not-so-sweet sight made me afraid to want things.

But her commitment to a world more livable than the one thrust upon her — not unlike 16-year-old Justin — was indeed a great gift, one she literally gave me in the form of a puzzle depicting a Pegasus flying by moonlight with the caption “Follow Your Dream!” I would eventually learn to receive this gift — though not before interrupting Justin’s bid for love, in the name of “reality.”

I received further instruction on following my dreams from the cartoon Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings, about a boy who made his own world with a piece of chalk. I loved it. I would sing along with Simon, “The things I draw come true….”

And then I drew my own world into reality with a piece of chalk — yellow chalk, turning the street where I lived into the Yellow Brick Road, you know, so I could be Dorothy and skip off to see the Wizard. I only got through about 12 bricks, but the world then had more room for my dreams to live than before.

In time I would be brave enough to draw a road to a livable life, one that would reunite me with Justin.

When I rejected him — with the nasality of a petulant teen — my dream to be normal had one up on my dream to love what I loved. But the road to normal only led me to… nothing. In black and white.

Fortunately my desires eventually jolted me out of the closet and into my body. I began to commit to my technicolor dreams, like my mom did. I took flight, made bids for love… and fell flat on my face. Again, and again.

But unlike my mom, I discovered how to fall better. Rather than revert back to the closet or fixate on how things were “supposed to be, I learned to have my dreams and reality too, to be a dream hostage negotiator.

Yes, reality would always be there to give me the hand and say, “You shall not pass!” — as I had done to Justin. But the trick, I found, was not to retreat or have a tantrum but to feel the blow of disappointment and then adapt, to keep drawing my yellow bricks — perhaps in a new direction — until the world, transformed by my impact, had enough room for me to be in it. My road may not lead all the way to Oz, but it could take me someplace better, where my passions, desires, realities, and dreams could live together. Free.

For example, flash-forward to the present and consider the legal status Justin and I now enjoy as a married couple. Back in 2006, as New York residents getting same-sex married in Massachusetts, our marriage was not legally recognized — anywhere — due to the state laws at the time. But we were not deterred. We. Were. Having. A. Wedding. So much conviction had we that when The New York Times rebuffed our bid for a wedding announcement, with the harsh hand of “reality,” offering the option to announce a “commitment ceremony” instead — as if to say, “But we can still be friends” — we declined. Now, just a few years later, our marriage is recognized to the fullest extent of the law. So you see, with time, facts may prove to be less real than dreams.

My dream to be with Justin took hold of me six years after I’d given him the hand. I was watching Tom Stoppard’s award-winning play The Invention of Love with my scholarly friend Dinah. Well, not really: Dinah never lets me forget I was asleep for most it. But I awoke for the most important scene: The protagonist, a college student, expresses romantic love for his male best friend and gets rejected. The words fertilized my dreams. One year later I would perform the very scene on stage, with Justin — then my boyfriend — in the audience, hearing me say the line “You’re half my life.”

So how did I negotiate with reality to rescue my dream? Well, I began by committing to it.

When my brother Mike said one day, “There’s this guy from Simon’s Rock on The Real World — he’s really smart, and gay,” I knew it was Justin. You see, he had colonized my inner world ever since the Stoppard play, so I had already drawn a few yellow bricks in his direction. It had to be him. Viewing parties with my girlfriends commenced.

We watched faithfully, every week, with starry eyes. I know, it sounds like we were all in our pajamas, facial masks and curlers, on a big bed, painting each other’s nails, right? Well, so what if we were? I needed support; the space between reality and dreams is too stimulating to occupy alone.

Justin was much cooler and self-assured and more glowing than I remembered. But I recalled his vital humor, and even more so his melancholic, no-one-understands-me sort of vibe, which made me gravitate to him. I mean, to the TV.

We were the two characters from the Stoppard play, he and I. But we were also both the protagonist — both having tolerated silent abjection, both pressured to contain our flames. My desire to find him, hold him, have him — the way things “were supposed to be” — was now ablaze.

Then came the pivotal episode. His TV roommate asks, “Justin, why don’t you talk to us?”

He replies, “Remember that school I went to? When I was 16? Well, there was this guy….”

Cue sounds of screaming girls, in pajamas and curlers.

Me [shrieking]: “What do I do?”

Real World roommate to Justin: “What happened?”

Justin: “His parents took him out of school and put him in a monastery.”

Me [shrieking louder]: “What do I do?”

My friend Joy: “Your parents put you in a monastery?”

Me: “Well, no, but he must have exaggerated that part.”

Joy: “You should write him a letter.”

And so I did.

He called me late one night. (My number happened to be on the letterhead.) I was watching him and his TV roommates travel through India, so his voice was in two places at once. We were in two places at once: the world of 22 and of sixteen, the world of reality and that of dreams. We talked all night. And every night after.

And then one day I told him what had inspired me to write the letter.

It was a sunny afternoon in Boston Common, six months into our coupledom. We were on a bench. He pointed and said, “Doesn’t that look like Ellen DeGeneres?”

“No,” I replied, giving him the harsh hand of “reality.”

You see, Justin was going through this phase where he’d “spot” iconic lesbians with regularity. (I mean, he had seen “Martina Navratalova” only the week before, in a deli in Providence, and “Melissa Etheridge” the week before that, on a Bonanza bus.)

But this time he was right! It was Ellen! She was playing frisbee with Anne Heche, and a film crew, on the lawn behind us. They were as validating a queer couple as we had in 1999, or more crucially, that’s what I dreamed them to be. (That was before we learned Anne was part alien.) What a perfect moment to discuss the trigger for our own romance.

I said, “Remember when you were, like, talking about me on TV?” Pause. “You know, about how you came on to me and how I left school? And then you said that thing about the monastery?” Double pause.

“That wasn’t you,” he said.

Oof. Narcissism interrupted.

My friend Joy, the one who’d told me to write the letter, puts it best. Joy officiated our wedding, and during the ceremony she told our “creation” story. She explained that Justin was not talking about me on the show.

And also that he was.

This post has been adapted from Mark O’Connell’s book Modern Brides and Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional Twenty-First-Century Weddings (Skyhorse, November 2014).

Hand-in-Hand: Marriage Equality and Gender Equality

This post first appeared on Psychology Today in Mark O’Connell’s column, Quite Queerly.

“Definitions of marriage are evolving,” says Liza Monroy, author of the memoir The Marriage Act (Skullcross, 2014).  Jenny, a newly-married friend of mine, recently observed that, “We’re all rethinking how to celebrate marriage on our own terms.”  Two other female friends have told me, “I wasn’t sure I wanted a wedding, until I saw yours,” referring to my same-sex wedding—an event obviously free of historical references to brides as property.  These different, straight ladies all make the same point: marriage equality is good for everyone, especially women.

As we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) to decide whether or not to address state bans on same-sex marriage, we can reflect on how quickly marriage equality has ricocheted across the country since SCOTUS struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.  We also do well to ask ourselves what these rapid changes imply about our culture.

Richard Posner, the known-to-be-conservative federal appellate judge who earlier this month concluded that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional — and whose eloquent, cogent, and entertaining opinion went viral — has been reflecting on this topic for years.  And his thoughts are not unlike what my female friends are saying above.

In a 2013 article for The New Republic, Judge Posner linked the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage to the “wide acceptance of sex outside marriage.”  The acceptance of “[o]ral and anal sex marital or otherwise,” he continued, “contributed to a growing acceptance of homosexual sex, which was traditionally non-marital as well as non-vaginal. With the decline of prudery, sexual practices formerly deemed ‘deviant’ created less revulsion in the straight population.”  Judge Posner argued in the article that, as in all cases involving discrimination, “[d]evelopments in society and culture mattered a great deal more than developments in jurisprudence”—and, specifically, that evolving attitudes on same-sex marriage have more to do with the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s than the effects or actions of the courts.

In other words, according to Posner, our laws are simply going with the flow of societal practices, and we are all practicing more equality and more sexual and creative freedom in our marriages – whether we’re male or female, gay or straight — than we ever have before.

This is a coup, for women in particular, for a number of reasons. To start with, the idea of equality between spouses — which many same-sex couples model for our straight friends — encourages women to be as proactive in asserting sexual preferences as their male counterparts.  For example, some straight couples today find it socially acceptable to negotiate open marriages, a concept that was considered to be fairly taboo only a few years ago.  (Check out this recent article in Marie Claire, and this one by renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel.) It is now socially acceptable for married women both to attend 50 Shades of Grey parties — at which they playfully flirt with their sexually deviant side — and to tell their colleagues at work all about it.  In addition to these distinctive examples, women are generally more encouraged now to make their sexual desires known to their spouses, these days, than they were in the past.

In addition to loosening us all up sexually, marriage equality explodes gender stereotypes in a broader sense.  “Traditional” couples, for example, can easily fall into heteronormative patterns concerning employment and parenting – e.g., husbands should be bread-winners, wives should be child rearers — but such couples can glean a more gender-neutral perspective on these relationship roles from their LGBT friends.  A new study reveals that, in many cases, homes headed by two same-sex parents are often more “harmonious,” due to the emphasis on gender equality, than those headed by opposite-sex parents.  And, in another positive contemporary development, women who have chosen not to have children, as well as those who are infertile, are less stigmatized, and receive more positive recognition, for their non-procreative reasons to marry.

As my friend Jenny pointed out, these societal changes have impacted the way we all celebrate getting married.  Much as same-sex couples have been doing for years, straight spouses-to-be are now creating weddings that reveal their unique selves – e.g., through very personally chosen venues, text, music, and outfits –facing their nuptials with eyes wide open, as opposed to sleep-walking through tradition.

We do have a long way to go, even if SCOTUS takes up the issue this fall.  But our society is clearly moving in the direction of marriage equality for all.  Take Judge Posner himself, who was opposed to same-sex marriage for many years, but has since changed his mind.  Or has he?  In his 1992 book Sex and Reason, the very same book in which he stated his then-opposition to same-sex marriage, he wrote, “Doctrine frequently lags behind changes in social practice, but when it does we predict — and observe — a growing refusal to abide by it.”  Interestingly, Posner seems to articulate this same principle to opposite effect two decades later in his New Republic piece and recent judicial opinion on Indiana and Wisconsin’s.  Both of these were penned, of course, at a time when same-sex marriage had become common social practice.

More than ever before, couples  of all stripes are demanding equality, freedom, and recognition in their marriages, and are refusing to abide by laws that lag behind.

As memoirist Liza Monroy says, “Until gender-neutral marriage is federally recognized, there is still a ways to go.”  She continues, “[I]t’s not a ‘gay’ issue.  It’s a human rights issue, an ‘everyone’ issue.”

You Can Be Womanly, Manly, or Both, at Work

This post first appeared on Psychology Today on Mark O’Connell’s column Quite Queerly.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) announcement last month–about forthcoming guidelines to clarify and enforce full protection of federal non-discrimination laws for transgender individuals–is great news for everyone.  Such great news that it should have been blasted all over every major news source–not just those associated with L’s, G’s, B’s, and T’s.

You see, DOL has declared an alignment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which in 2012 concluded that “discrimination based on a person being transgender is sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” (Macy vs. Holder).  But there’s more.  In aligning with EEOC’s interpretation of sex discrimination in Title VII, DOL is ultimately endorsing the protection of any employee from discrimination based on “sex stereotyping”: expectations for how a man or woman should act. (See the 2013 case of EEOC vs. Boh Bros. Construction Co.)

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That Includes you.  Even if you present like this:

This image is from an inspiring presentation I recently attended at a major corporation.  It was given by Denise Norris, who presents worldwide on the topic of gender authenticity and expression.  The talk was incredibly effective.  So often discussions about gender can seem abstract and esoteric.  But Norris connected with the entire crowd of professionals, awakening them to an immediate and intuitive understanding of how issues of gender expression and perception in the workplace apply to absolutely every one of us.

Norris’ work can help us flesh out what Title VII really means by discrimination based on “sex stereotyping,” in clear, accessible, human terms. To begin with, consider all of your reactions to the image.

In the diagram below, Norris puts language to the gender cues you are responding to:

She then introduces a model to articulate how we all send and receive gender cues all the time; consciously or not.


The slide below depicts the various factors that influence the gender cues we send to other people.

Some of these influences on our gender expression are hard-wired–e.g., sexual orientation, gender identity–and so the cues we send are involuntary. Denise used a great analogy to explain how these aspects of self, our orientation, cannot be changed saying:

You can’t kill yourself by holding your breath.  You’ll just pass out, and then start breathing again.  (Trust me, I’ve tried.)  So, you can communicate a different orientation or identity for an indeterminate amount of time; this is how we distinguish between expression, and identity/orientation.  You can monkey with your gender expression depending on the situation, just as you can monkey with your breathing when you talk.  But you can’t change your identity or orientation any more than your need to breathe.

Some of these influences are outside of us: e.g., gender stereotypes.  And in the flicker of each moment, each situation–e.g., social, professional–we consider the potential rewards or penalties for our gender expressions.  In some cases we voluntarily send these gender cues hoping for a specific result, but as Denise articulates in her analogy, there are many ways in which we just can’t control what we send.

Then there’s the person on the receiving end:

When you are in this position you are decoding the gender cues you receive from another person.  You use influences outside of your self–e.g., stereotypes, social circumstances–as well as those that are internal: e.g., your own sexual and gender orientations.  You engaged in this very process in this very way just now, while observing the image of the person above.

Trouble occurs when the observer of another person believes their perceived gender violates gender rules: i.e., the person they see presents with a non-conforming gender expression.  This is when people get fired without justification; are mistreated when applying for a driver’s license; are not allowed to go to the prom with a date of their choice etc.  This form of discrimination forces us to contort ourselves, to hold our breath and hide our gender expressions for fear of being treated unlawfully and unfairly; what I call don’t act, don’t tell. (I’ve written about this here, here, and here).

The Department of Labor’s announcement revokes don’t act, don’t tell.  It is now up to us to follow Denise Norris’ lead and put words to our own experiences of gender.  This is how we might hold DOL to their proposed standard: to protect us all from sex stereotyping.

Copyright Mark O’Connell, L.C.S.W.

Slides, Copyright Denise Norris