Celebrating Marriage Equality’s One Year Anniversary

*This post first appeared on Marriage.com.

How have things been different for loving couples since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality, one year ago?

As a therapist who works with a range of individuals and couples, both gay and straight, I’ve noticed that more of us can now imagine having a wedding without shame or inhibition.  It’s not just that we can get married, but that we feel free enough to ask for recognition for who we are and whom we love, openly, authentically, and in front of lots of other people, with less self-hatred and less self-censorship than ever before.

On some level, we all have doubts about having a wedding, regardless of our gender or sexual orientation.  We wonder, Is it ok for me to ask for this attention?  Am I allowed?  Will I be judged for being indulgent or provocative, or for ‘making a scene,’ or for shoving something in everyone’s faces?  This is what I call “Spotlight Ambivalence,”a hesitation to share ourselves out of fear that we’ll seem like we’re “showing off.”  “Spotlight Ambivalence” is rooted in shame, and there’s no greater way to debilitate a person with shame than by making it illegal for them to be who they are or love who they love.

Marriage equality: Lets us celebrate our love

When the law says, “You belong. You have the same rights as everyone else,” that has a profound impact on how we view ourselves and each other. And so, marriage equality has

lifted some of the shame that has historically blocked all of us from fully celebrating our love.   Laws are not just words and rules.  They are powerful cultural messages about who we consider to be full human beings and who we don’t.

For example, when U. S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, announced that the Department of Justice would sue North Carolina for discriminating against transgender people, she emphasized the lawsuit’s main purpose by speaking directly to transgender Americans and saying, “we see you, we hear you, and we stand with you.”

So, though I’m sure lots of changes have trickled down as a result of marriage equality, the most significant changes I observe have taken place deep within individuals who have wanted to get married but were always told– for most of their lives!–that they were not allowed.  Until now.

In my book, Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional Twenty First Century Weddings, I remind the reader, no matter who they are, that their unique wish to share their love with their communities is righteous and wonderful, and something to be revealed as opposed to concealed.  I guide men and women alike, to tell their unique stories their way, and to not hide in the name of  modesty, or conformity, or fear of being deviant or indulgent or some kind of freak show.  If you are aware of your specific intentions in any performance, you will capture the attention of any crowd. And make no mistake, a wedding is a performance.  You’re inviting people to witness your life and your love.  If you take ownership of that, your wedding can be a wonderful exchange of genuine, loving attention, as opposed to an awkward, slogging, through the tired steps of conformity.

Since down-with-DOMA, several of my queer clients have shared with me pictures and memories of the beautiful ceremonies they created in their own ways, including table settings–some of which had pictures from LGBT history–or ceremonies that featured readings from Plato and other historical sources–even religious ones–that celebrate same sex love, or just poems or songs or speeches that their friends have written and performed for them.  They have enjoyed taking the wedding spotlight and described feeling that they deserved to be there, sharing themselves with their friends and families.  And what’s more, they felt permitted to present themselves in their own individual and fully expressed ways.

But LGBT people are not the sole beneficiaries of marriage equality, it has inspired freedom of expression in all of us. Many of my straight clients have been inspired by the same sex weddings they’ve attended over the years because they have observed that these celebrations don’t have to be about sleepwalking through traditions. You can be awake, and alive, and creative, and really tell your guests who you are, and do it on your terms.  Not your parents’ terms or tradition’s terms or anyone else’s.

This is actually the genesis of my book. Straight women friends of mine shared how they hadn’t wanted to have a wedding until they saw mine, and realized they could make it personal, as opposed to simply submitting to the tradition of a woman being given away.

Also, DOMA getting struck down has opened discussions about how wedding planning isn’t just for straight women.  Straight men have now become more interested in wedding planning when they consider the purpose of the event. It’s not “the bride’s day.”  It’s their day, to be creative and to tell a meaningful story about who they are.In short, no matter their gender or gender identity or sexual orientation, people are now making the choice to get married, as a way to express their authenticity, rather than to hide behind conformity.  With this freedom of creative choice as the foundation of modern marriage, all couples are more capable than ever before to negotiate their needs and desires throughout their lives together.

Tony Nominated Director Liesl Tommy Makes More Than History

*This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post. 

Liesl Tommy is the first woman of color ever! to be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Director of a Play. But this great artist has done much more than make history on Broadway. She has continuously given voice to the voiceless with her revelatorywork.

I have known Liesl since the 90’s when we were both training to be actors at Trinity Rep Conservatory (now the Brown Trinity Consortium). My first chance to work with her was a small directing class project for which she had an hour to stage Maya Angelou’s poem, “The Traveller.”: 

Byways and bygone
And lone nights long
Sun rays and sea waves
And star and stone

Manless and friendless
No cave my home
This is my torture
My long nights, lone

 First she let me and the other actors read those words silently. Then she listened to what we had to say. Intently. Searching for the human truth deep inside each one of us. This was my first encounter with Liesl’s unwavering desire to absorb the specific experience of every person she meets.

She told us how the text affected her. It reminded her of late nights at clubs; strangers bumping up against one another; so close together yet so far apart.

And then she took charge—the way she does, with authentic warmth and gravitas—and asked us to get up and dance. As she watched us move—in all those awkward ways one does in mixed company—she suggested internal monologues for each of our “characters,” based on our individual reactions to the poem.

The finished piece—performed in a stairwell—featured an entanglement of friendless strangers dancing the night away, troubled by their own private thoughts. Whenever the music stopped, all but one would freeze, giving each lone dancer the chance to put words to her internal yearnings. Then came that hideous finale to a night of clubbing—with which we’re all familiar—when the rude bright lights obliterate the sexy illusion of closeness to reveal the raw chill of isolation.

Then and there I became a lifelong fan of Liesl Tommy, and her passionate drive to spotlight the interior lives of those who have remained in the dark.

I gleaned from her not only a way to make art, but a way to build a meaningful life. I think of her when I tell my psychotherapy clients how rewarding it is to stay on your own side while being endlessly curious about the inner lives of other people; to make yourself heard and to absorb various points of view at the same time. With those goals in mind we can find riveting moments of recognition between us and the world.

Liesl has created numerous moments of this kind with theater, from directing small conservatory performances in stairwells, to her current crowning achievement on Broadway, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed. And through her decades of work she has given artists and audiences myriad opportunities to identify with people that both the entertainment industry and the society that produces it, too often keep silent and invisible.

As a storyteller she not only searches tirelessly for the truth of every character, but also of every actor. As a result, her audiences become intimate with people they would never even think about in their day-to-day lives, or get a fresh perspectiveon characters they may have seen before, but not necessarily with the urgent specificity, or contemporary social relevance, with which Liesl imbues them.

As a talented actor herself, she became disenchanted with auditioning in New York, since the industry did not produce stories about anyone remotely like her, or like the spectrum of lives across the globe in which she had a personal interest. So she began to tell those stories herself, and shifted the paradigm.

As a director she searched for new scripts about all kinds of people we rarely see in the straight, white, athletic-bodied, gender conforming, western, male, “naturalistic,” world of New York theater. She cast plays from the canon with diversity in mind, not as an exercise in political correctness, but as an investment in unique, passionate human beings who have a lot to say, but rarely get the opportunity to speak.

For example, I was lucky enough to be in a contemporized production of Love’s Labor’s Lost that she directed, in a parking lot no less. This Shakespearean romance involves four royal women who are pursued by four royal men, and who are all typically played by gender conforming, white actors. Never one to sleepwalk through the steps of conformity, for the ladies, Liesl found three African American women, each with highly distinct personalities and points of view, and for the fourth she cast me and adapted the role to be a gay man—which is what I am, though I almost never had the chance to play that at the time, and certainly not in Shakespeare. This way the audience got to experience specific journeys of love and loss from the perspectives of people who are marginalized and stereotyped in the mainstream.

Years later, she would cast her version of the universally popular musicalLes Miserables, at The Dallas Theater Center with a similarly open mind, and garner international attention and critical acclaim; the production was called“revolutionary,” “fresh,” and “thrilling.” And cut to Liesl’s stage adaptation of the blockbuster movie Frozen, now playing at Disneyland’s 2,000-seat Hyperion Theater, where racially diverse audiences get to see racially diverse actors inhabiticonic roles.

My point here is that when we share our authentic stories and listen carefully to those around us, we all win. We can willfully break from the march of conformity—which always eclipses our potential—and create opportunities to know one another and to be known. We can do this through our art; our activism; and in our everyday lives, with our voices, minds, and hearts, whether we reach two people or two billion. And we can thank people like Liesl Tommy for showing us how.

I’ll never forget one brutal morning when Liesl and I were struggling New York actors, waiting on an impossibly long line for an Equity open call. She glanced at the throng of dedicated artists, all looking as degraded and forlorn as we did. Then she looked to me with can’t-be-bothered eyes, and said with captivating conviction, “When I’m a big star, I’m gonna make some changes.”

Well, Liesl Tommy, you’re a big star now, and the changes you’ve already made have inspired lonely travellers all over the world to speak for themselves.