Silence is Killing Your LGBT Relatives

*This article was first published on Truthdig.

LGBT Pride Month 2016 will always be remembered for the worst mass shooting in American history to date, one which took 49 lives at an Orlando, Florida, gay club June 12. Yet in the past week, I have spoken with too many queer people whose families did not reach out to them at all, not even to simply ask,”How are you?” or say, “I love you and I’m thinking of you.” Too many. (And of note, some of them hadn’t heard from family during last year’s historic pride month either, when marriage equality became a national reality and there was cause for celebration rather than mourning).

As a psychotherapist and a queer person, I must say that such silences are killing us.

Silence has been the greatest threat to queer lives throughout historyHomosexuality was pathologized and criminalized in the early 20th century, and it would take decades of suffering in the closet and enduring “witch hunts” before the Stonewall riots of 1969 busted open the doors of LGBT identities, leading to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness and the pursuit of civil rights across the country. But in the 1980s, the lethal plague of silence struck again, when the Reagan administration’s disavowal of the AIDS crisis led to the deaths of tens of thousands of gay men. In response, founders of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP introduced the image: SILENCE = DEATH.

And it’s true that the disease of silence surrounding homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia in general may have been in remission long enough for us to be able to choose the spouses we love and the bathrooms in which we feel safe, and for straight allies to put rainbow filters on their social media profiles whenever it fancies them. But as the Orlando massacre and the responses to it have shown—by politiciansjournalists and even our own family and friends—silence continues to infect us.

The lack of meaningful acknowledgement that the worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 was directed at queer people has reminded so many of us not only of the numerous times in our lives we’ve been personally threatened with violence, but also of the far more numerous, subtle, yet considerably damaging moments, during which even our most well-meaning relatives whitewash our very real experiences of abjection. Such as when our straight brothers say things like, “We all get called ‘faggot,’ get a grip.”

To call what happened in Orlando an “attack on America,” or the act of a “radicalized Islamist,” or not to call your LGBT family members at this time, sends the message: “Things are just as bad for you as they are for me.” And that is simply not true.

As The New York Times reports, “LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group”—and that cannot be pinned on radical terrorists from the Middle East. More than anything else, these specific attacks are due to the socially conditioned fear and hatred of women and of gender nonconformity, and of effeminate men, and of men kissing, and of same sex love. And all of this untalked about—and therefore unprocessed—hatred is cultivated and maintained through complacent silence by neighborly, law-abiding citizens like you and me, right here on our homeland. Every time we fail to use words to make explicit links between queerphobia and attacks on queer people, the hatred, fear and danger grow stronger. (For example, a disturbingly ironic post by a straight woman announcing her engagement popped up on my Facebookfeed this week, including a photo of her diamond ring and a shot of the Orlando skyline from the boat on which she and her fiance were celebrating, along with happy, hopeful thoughts about their heteronormative future, yet she wrote nothing about the 49 murder victims whose futures were taken from them by an act of homophobia only days before in that very city, or about the queer individuals still alive whose futures will continue to be plagued by hate, fear and danger).

 

So, here’s a tip for all those straight, cisgender relatives of queer people: We do not have “victim complexes” and we are not asking to be coddled. We are first and foremost asking for recognition of the very real and obvious fact that, no matter what we do or don’t do, we are specific targets of violence in ways that those who are not L,G,B,T or any other deviation from a heteronormative orientation, are not. To avoid or deny this is to be part of the problem and to allow this murderous hatred to grow, unidentified and therefore unstoppable.

I have to emphasize the “no matter what we do or don’t do” part of that tip. A good number of queer people, including my clients, my friends and myself, often hear from our families that they don’t associate us with the LGBT folks they see on the news who are in danger, either because of our ability to “pass,” or our marital status, our race or any number of privileges they assume protect us from being targets. To these people I say, “Think again.”

The one thing the wide variety of queer people I spoke to this week had in common was the horrifying awareness that no matter our skin color, income level, professional success, education, body type, religion, age or social status, the Orlando tragedy has reminded us that we are all equally in the crosshairs of homegrown hatred. We need our straight, cisgender families to recognize this openly and explicitly.

And perhaps we have been too silent with our straight communities about what our daily lives are actually like, even at the best of times. As one gay man—who sometimes passes as “straight” and makes a very good living—told me:

“We have worked hard for acceptance by the straight world. So hard that we have convinced our allies that we are ‘just like them,’ save for one little difference, like the color of our eyes or hair. But, the differences between us are not at all little. Unlike most of our family members, we live in constant fear that people want to destroy us. And they actually do. I don’t think our straight family members get that.”

To this man’s point, when I post smiley photos of myself and my husband enjoying our “normal” looking lives, say on a beach vacation, I don’t tend to mention the threats that were directed at us off camera, sometimes by “decent,” hard-working, Christian Americans, with picture-perfect families. Like many queer people, I omit in my social self-narratives the daily dark sides of being gay, out of want of acceptance and of respect, and to avoid being dismissed as a “Debbie Downer” or a “perpetual victim.” But perhaps we curate our lives too much. Maybe more of our families and friends need to know that to walk in our shoes means to look over our shoulders at every turn, and to be prepared to defend ourselves against people just like them.

But the insidious disease of silence finds nuanced ways to harm us even when our relatives do recognize that we are targets, and even when they reach out to us out of love and concern. More than a few queer people whose families actually contacted them this week were advised to “not go out”; or to “avoid drawing attention” to themselves; or to keep their “pride inside.” In other words they were told to go back in the closet, which is precisely where and how the very self-hatred that led to the Orlando shooting metastasized in the first place.

The answer is not for queer people to retreat inward, but for our straight allies to join us in coming out. They must claim us openly; they must identify, unpack and challenge the socially conditioned queerphobia that lives within them and in their communities; and they must never stop talking about the danger in which they leave us when they stop talking—to us or on our behalf.

For inspiration, they can look to the band Florence + the Machine, whose lead singer, Florence Welch, took an extraordinary stand in solidarity with the Orlando victims and their families, and the LGBT communities at large, as she waved a rainbow flag while running fearlessly across the Barclay Center stage in Brooklyn, during a live performance of her song, “Say My Name”:

Say my name,
And every color illuminates,

We are shining,
And we will never be afraid again

The words of this chorus remind us that we are all united in our capacity to recognize difference. As humans we have the capacity to empathize with the distinct and various ways each of us must walk through our lives. When we acknowledge how our differences make some of us more vulnerable than others, we can eliminate some of the danger and the fear that destroys us.

So if our families truly want to help keep us safe, they must say the names of the Orlando victims; and the names of the trans people of color who are murdered on a regular basis; and the names of all of the various forms of hatred that contributes to the everyday terrorizing of LGBT people.

They must also say our names, loud and proud. Preferably while we’re still alive.

 

The Same Sex Parent-Child Wedding Dance

*This post first appeared on Psychology Today.

“Despite feeling totally normal about being gay, I feel weird about dancing with my mom.” –Woman engaged to another woman, wondering which parent she should dance with at her wedding.

Standard wedding traditions have advantages to be sure. They give your guests something familiar to hold onto and orient them to the big event. Where are we? Oh, we’re at a wedding. But the more mindful you are about the traditions you deploy, the less likely you’ll be to find yourself staring at the crowd, gobsmacked, wondering what’s going on. So as you plan your wedding–or any other celebration–break down the meaning of each tradition you choose to include, and reflect on why you’re using it. This will connect you to its purpose. One of the most significant of which is to celebrate where you’ve come from and to pay homage to those who have contributed to the life and love that you enjoy. In many cases, that means honoring your parents.

The most popular Western tradition of this kind is the father-daughter dance. Why? Most likely due to that good ol’ history of weddings as property transaction, a bride getting passed from a father to a husband. Although, the mother-son dance has almost caught up in popularity over the years. But you see, I would have liked to dance with my father at my wedding, had he been alive at the time.

Feelings? Thoughts? Reactions?

The topic of same-sex parent-child dancing at weddings is never discussed–especially with two men. And on the very rare occasion that it is, our internal normative police are instantly summoned, handcuffing us in discomfort, confusion, and fear at the thought of this unprecedented proposition–I’ve never heard of that.

I once asked my friends X and her wife M, if either would have considered doing a mother-daughter dance at their reception. (They chose to dance with a father and a brother respectively.) They both winced, as if smelling something foul or getting squirted in the eye with a lemon.

X instantly said,”No. That would be sad. It would suggest that we were two old ladies who had been passed over that nobody wanted.” I’d like to take a moment to reflect on her reaction. X is a fiercely intelligent, superhero advocate of LGBT rights, and has fought passionately, like a titan, for her own freedom and happiness. In other words, she is known to be incredibly self-reflective. So her statement here is notably out of character. I mean, why would the absence of a man in a parent-child dance indicate either bride was “passed over” and not “wanted”? The whole premise of their wedding was that she and M wanted and had chosen each other. But this shows just how strong a headlock the genderbinary/heteronormativity holds on us all, especially regarding parent-child narratives. Even the smartest, most passionate, and insightful among us are easily possessed by such narratives, like a deep sleep from which we are cursed to never wake up.

 

M’s response was also delivered from the clutches of fear, though less reactive, and more reflective. She said:

“My mother had already come a long way as far as accepting me as a lesbian, accepting our relationship, and accepting our wedding–announcing it to all her family and friends. I wanted to respect her efforts, and wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat by pulling her out into the spotlight like that. But, truthfully . . . I wouldn’t have been comfortable with it either . . .”

M thought of several strong reasons to spare her mother the discomfort of a mother-daughter dance. Yet when it came to her own discomfort, she was blocked.

I’m not saying that she should have wanted to dance with her mom. But, as with every ritual we consider, it behooves us to understand all the options and our own feelings about them. This way we avoid saying yay or nay to anything based on a knee-jerk reaction alone.

To be fair to X and M, their choices in this case reflect great efforts to include their families in their celebration (which I found to be absolutely wonderful) without alienating them. And I’m not even sure I would have been comfortable asking my dad to dance in reality, though I would have wanted to. I can talk a big game now, given I didn’t have the option, but I likely would have felt a discomfort similar to theirs.

So what is this plaguing discomfort, and how can we get past it?

Celebrating Erotic Development

My friend Lyn–having danced with her mother (who raised her) at her bat mitzvah, but danced with her father (who did not raise her) at her wedding–says,”I think brides in particular want that father-daughter dance so we can feel, I hesitate to say . . .’normal.’” She then added,”In a . . . heterosexual way . . .”

 

Emphasis on “sexual. And therein lies our answer. The sexual implications of Daddy’s Little Girl are considered to be so “normal” that we never even notice them. For instance, my mother’s favorite memory of her father–which she frequently, indiscriminately, and proudly shares with any kind stranger who will listen–is of her having breakfast with him as a child, during which he would allow her to call him by his first name,”But only until your mother wakes up,” he’d say. (Oedipal theory anyone?) By contrast, with Daddy’s Little Boy, the sexual element is all we think about, immediately concerning ourselves with words like incest and pedophilia.

In other words, due to social conditioning, we consider a child’s erotic/sexual fantasiesabout a parent to be perfectly normal if they are co-ed, but we consider them to be sick, disturbed, and problematic if the sexes are the same. (This might help us understand X’s knee-jerk reaction to Mommy’s Little Girl and how “sad”–sexless?–she found that idea.)

So, yes, I’m saying it:

The traditional parent-child wedding dance is a tribute to the erotic fantasies the newlyweds once had for (at least) one of their folks.

Though you won’t hear too many people describe it like that. Yet. (Try Googling father-son dance. You’ll get a lot of,”huh?”) If this had all been broken down for me when I got married, and my dad were alive, I would have definitely elected to dance with him. I would then be confident that the implications are really no different from traditional father-daughter or mother-son dances.

Now, when I say erotic fantasies I don’t necessarily mean conscious ones. I’m referring to the process, of child development during which we all, universally, dream ourselves into adulthood. Erotic and sexual feelings are of course a big part of this process and fantasies of this kind show up in our play and in a variety of our behaviors. When our parents are appropriately validating of our erotic dream life, while also maintaining safe and clear boundaries, we gain an internal sense of self-worth, and the confidence to one day pursue romantic love as adults.

Case in point:

A photograph of me lying on my dad’s chest. I’m about six. I’m nestling my small head in the crevice between his collarbone and his neck. My eyes are wistful. And he’s kissing the top of my head. Sixteen years later, I would nap on my now husband’s chest, soon after we fell in love. I would nestle my rather large head in the crevice between his collarbone and his neck. My eyes would close. I would feel safe and loved. And that’s why I wish I could have slow danced with my dad at my wedding.

There are, of course, various ways to dance with your parents, or to honor your roots at your wedding, if you so choose. But however you perform a ritual of this kind, and whoever you choose as a partner, know that it will be more significant if you are aware of its meaning and intentional in your presentation.

For example, my husband and I had very specific intent when we each danced with our moms at our wedding reception. As we swayed to Mama Cass’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” I recalled how my mother sang that song to me as a kid when she’d tuck me in at night, preparing me to dream. Her constant encouragement of my dream life was perhaps her greatest gift to me. It inspired me to try and change the world, so that I could live and love in it more openly, fully, and more freely. And I got to honor that with this dance.

*This post has been adapted from Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s book, Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional, 21st Century Weddings.

Tips to Disinherit Your Daughter Without Guilt

*This post first appeared on Psychology Today.

I wrote a list of tips, (below) for how one might disinherit their daughter without feeling guilt.  I did this as a way to expose the age-old misogyny that continues to show up, every day, in every area of our lives.

Like racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, transphobia, and every other insidious form of hatred and fear, misogyny does not only reveal itself in overt acts of discrimination and violence but more often it lingers subtly in our justice systempolitics, religions, entertainment, media, workplaces, and day-to-day social exchanges.  My intention here is to not only spotlight how we continue to harm women—and anyone considered to be “less than”—but also to deconstruct the various ways we seek to justify the actions we take against them.

As psychological studies have proven, many of our pervasive biases are socially conditioned.  But, as this study shows, if our subliminal prejudices are made conscious, we often attempt to correct them.  And that is my hope for you as you glance over the list below.

Notice which of the “tips” that you consider to be ludicrous; which of them resemble thoughts you’ve had yourself; and which you recognize in the thoughts of your friends, colleagues, and communities.

Hopefully by exposing our own subliminal forms of hatred and disdain for other people —especially those who lack social power and privilege—we can work to reclaim our daughters, sisters, mothers, sons, and everyone else we disinherit when our biases go

So, how does one go about disinheriting their daughter without guilt, you ask?

  • Name her Eve.
  • Whenever Eve speaks, get the whole family to roll their eyes at her, especially when she carries on about being left out: There she goes again, All about Eve.
  • Name her Megyn Kelly. Name your son Donald Trump. Then follow his lead.
  • Adopt her from non-white birth parents and pretend she’s absolutely no different than your white kids. Even when they tease her or when she always happens to be the one to “go to jail” or to “get shot” when they “play.” And when she finally gets angry at your white kids, point your finger at her and say, “You see? That’s why you’re out of the will!”
  • Remind her, every day, how hard it is, for you, that she was not born a boy. And if she was born a boy but is no longer a boy, say, “Why’d you have to go and ruin a good thing?” But if she was born a girl and is now a boy, say, “What happened to my sweet little girl?” Then wait for her outside the gender neutral bathrooms at Target, in protest, along with a posse of your new friends–the ones who really care about you–and shout, “Why are you doing this to me?!”
  • Blurt out things like, “Emails!,” or “Speeches!” or “How dare you want to be president?!” And then just stare at her.  Because she knows what she did.
  • Invite her and her wife to a barbecue in Texas or Alabama or Mississippi or North Carolina, and when she declines, due to concerns for their safety, say, “You obviously don’t want to be part of this family.” And if she doesn’t have a wife–or a girlfriend, for that matter–accuse her of being a closet lesbian and of always shutting
    • you out.
    • Keep track of every cruel thing you ever did to her, and then write her a nasty letter–with bullet points–explaining how she did those things to you. Because someone did those things to you. Right? Someone who looms large in your life, and is hard for you to challenge?
    • Encourage her to take ballet and tap and to be a contestant on The Bachelor, and then feign ignorance about the subtle viciousness of girl-on-girl bullying, and look at her with befuddled Scooby Doo-eyebrows when she enlightens you about said bullying, and when she leans on you for comfort, say, “C’mon now, don’t be paranoid,” and be surprised when she (suddenly, out of nowhere) becomes emotionally unstable, “Way too unstable to manage money,” your sons will say, while their obedient wives nod in agreement–thinking only of what’s best for you, of course–and then take the advice of your loving sons, and their good wives, and reason with her: “Honey, if I left anything for you I’d be contributing to your problem.”
    • Wait til she’s over the hill before you die. By the time she’s in her thirties she’ll have long forgotten her silly, childhood dreams of being treated fairly.
    • Remind yourself that not every daughter deserves to be cut off, just the ones likeher: the independent-minded, loudmouthed, sl&tty, c#nty, b$tch, wh@re(link sends e-mail), f%ggots. (That’s right, you said it, “f%ggots,” because she might not actually be a daughter at all, she may be a gay son–or some other black sheep among your otherwise normal flock–but, either way, you are certain you would have loved her all the same if only she did not insist on drawing attention to herself–and casting shame on your house–in all those classic ways that vain daughters and flamboyant gay sons do: with their revealing outfits; and sibilant S’s; and brazen bids for recognition, the indecency; and their shrill, redundant, migraine-inducing, Roars for equality …I mean, c’mon, she was asking for it all along. Wasn’t she?…)
      • Ask yourself: Does she bring me anything but down? (I mean, she can’t tell a joke without referencing the sober truth, killing the family buzz, or being the Debbie Downer.)
      • Remind yourself what King Lear said: “Nothing comes from nothing.” (See? You know Shakespeare… You’d think she was the only one who ever read a book the way she goes on about herself. Well, Lah -tee-dah. If she’s so much better than the rest of you, she obviously doesn’t need your help.)
      • Badger people to nod in sympathy about your choice to dispossess her. More than half of them will oblige. If not, go to your local pub, college, or bigoted elected official, and try again. Repeat as needed.
      • Try disinheriting your son: the straight, white one, who never had an abortion. Super hard to do, right? Now cut off the daughter. By comparison it should be a cakewalk.
      • Don’t overthink this. Few will challenge your decision to disinherit your daughter. And if they do, their whiny little voices will remind you of her, and why you had to do it in the first place.