Pride in Mental Health Series: Visibility

NORMAN JEAN ROY
Dior Vargas
 *This post first appeared on Psychology Today.  

I had the privilege of speaking with experts, activists, and advocates about the various mental health needs we have in the LGBTQ communities, at an event hosted by 
Crisis Text Line.  We all agreed that a supportive and continuous, therapeutic relationship is key, for everyone really.  But for those of us who face constant discrimination it can be a matter of life and death.  The trouble is that psychotherapy is stigmatized; not enough clinicians are competent, curious, or empathetic enough to make a connection with LGBTQ clients; and too many people simply can’t afford therapy, or their insurance won’t cover it (if they even have insurance).  The experts I spoke to all fight tirelessly against these obstacles, in order to connect people to the safe, loving, and supportive relationships they need and deserve.  

COLE LEDFORD

For this segment of my Pride in Mental Health Series, I talk with Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist, Dior Vargas, who is also the Outreach Coordinator for Child Mind Institute(which is dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders) and Social Media Influencer and Award Winning Activist, Cole Ledford, about the role of visibility in LGBTQ mental health.

Tell me about your work.

Dior Vargas: I’ve been a crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line for about two years.  And I was volunteering with different mental health organizations and I thought I wanted to do more than just bring awareness, I wanted to perform direct service, to really help people.  So that’s why I started doing that.  But I’ve also been doing a lot of activist work and advocacy.  Telling my story.  I live with anxiety, depression, and I’m also a suicide attempt survivor.  And so I’ve been able to do a lot of speaking engagements.  Not only because of that, but because I started a photo project. [called “People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project,” which intends to destigmatize mental health care for people of color].  I’ve been able to do a lot of different things with that.  I’m actually going back to NYU in the fall to get a masters in public health.  Because I love doing awareness but I also want to make sure that I’m involved in those policies so people can get the best care that they need.

Cole Ledford:  So last summer I drove through every state in the United States, filming a series called “50 States of Gay,” and we interviewed one LGBTQ+ person in every state.

How did you find them?

Cole Ledford: I’m very lucky to have a social following, so I was able to tweet out kind of an application to join it.  And then pairing with organizations, including The Trevor Projectand Crisis Text Line, promoted it out to get followers to join in.

Who participated?  Was it a diverse sampling?

Cole Ledford: The whole point was for it to be very diverse.  We picked them in advance.  I will say that eighty five percent of the applicants were white cis gendered males.  But I did make a concerted effort to get people who represented different identities across America.  Because that was the point of this.  To show young kids that there was someone out there who was just like them.

Were you surprised by the kinds of people you found in certain states?  We all have preconceived expectations of what state populations look like.

Cole Ledford: We were surprised by the trans person of color we met in Mississippi.  She actually stood on the steps of the Mississippi courthouse and called out the governor on his anti transgender bathroom bill.  So she sat down with us for about an hour.  And her story is amazing.  She now lives out in L.A., working for the L.A. LGBT Center, but goes back to help with all the things happening in Mississippi.

What are some of the specific mental health needs both of you observed through working on these wonderful projects?

Dior Vargas:  It seems really general, but the need to be acknowledged to be seen to be heard.  That’s the really important step in order for them to be open about what they’re going through.  I think that’s the catalyst of that.  To be able to get that support.  To be able to be part of groups who are understanding of their experiences.  So they know they’re not alone.  I think that’s really important.  Even in terms of just knowing how to get mental health services.  Because I feel like a lot of times they don’t know where to go.  They don’t even know how to look.  They just don’t know how best to do that.  Also thinking about in terms of if they do get a mental health professional, is it a person who has a sliding scale?  Are they culturally competent?  Because I feel like a lot of times, whether you’re queer or you’re a person of color you have to educate the therapist.  And the main point [of therapy] is to get things out, to learn about yourself.  If you spend the whole time educating someone.  That’s not helpful to you, and that’s also a waste of the time that you need to take care of yourself.

And it’s re-traumatizing in a way.  To be made to feel *other.*  Like you’re an alien who has to describe exactly what it’s like on your alien planet.  As opposed to being met with warmth and empathy, and openness. By someone who makes the effort to imagine what it’s like in your shoes.  

Dior Vargas: Right.  And that first experience is so crucial.  Because I know so many people who went to a therapist and say, “I went to a therapist.  It did not go well.  I’m not going back. It’s a waste of time.  They just don’t understand me.”  And I can understand that one experience… you don’t want to have to go through that re-traumatizing.  But I think in a lot of other situations, you have to try again.  It’s like dating.  You’re not going to date someone and fall in love that second.  You have to shop around, you have to it’s a process.

How do you give people the will to try again?

Dior Vargas:  I guess help them to identify what they didn’t like.  Help them figure out what places they can look for a therapist.  How they can filter.  Because I feel like a lot of people don’t know, if you do have health insurance, going on that website, and already knowing that the therapist accepts your insurance, so you don’t have to worry about that.  That’s a parameter in itself.  It’s important to be able to know how to filter.  And know that it’s something you can tailor to yourself.  You have the upper hand and if it didn’t work one time, this is a transaction.  Rationalize it in that way.  Your care and your well being is the most important thing, so if something was wrong with them, and not anything wrong with you.  There are a lot of other people.

Cole Ledford:  One of the amazing things, or maybe not amazing but surprising, is that there are so many people who face the same struggles.  Like, [what I discovered, working on the documentary,] that black transgender woman in Mississippi was having the exact same feelings that the white lesbian woman in Virginia was, and the kid in Arkansas who was twelve years old as well.  Every person felt like they didn’t belong, or at some point felt like they didn’t need to carry on, they weren’t needed.  So I think it’s important to show each other, “Look, we’re all in this together, we all feel this way, let’s work together.”

Dior Vargas:  Also sharing, you know, I didn’t have the best experience with therapists but I kept on searching because it was about my well being. It was about my quality of life.  So making it something overarching.  It’s going to affect your whole life in a positive way.  So trying to find different ways to talk about it.  Also to help them look for a therapist.

What are some reliable mental health resources for LGBTQ+ people?

Dior Vargas: Callen Lorde Center is amazing.  Hetrick-Martin is amazing.  Even going to the LGBT Center.  Going to the places you feel most comfortable, and seeing what kind of resources they have available.  Because then you won’t feel like you’re not being heard and that people understand you.  I think going to those communities is important.

Cole Ledford:  I think it’s so difficult because everyone thinks that they can’t get help.  I think every person just knowing that there are resources out there is such a big thing for them. So knowing the Crisis Text Line and Trevor Project, are out there as resources.  But also knowing people that use it.  When I openly talk about how I used Trevor Project when I was a kid, that makes people think, “Wow, I actually can trust this.  They are there for me.  They’re not just some random robot out there.  They are real people you can talk to.”

So the fact that you used those services is helpful to other people.  Modeling for them that it’s ok to reach out for help.  

Cole Ledford:  Yeah, modeling and just showing people that there are people who have had this experience who made it out on the other side.  So many times people are like, “My mom’s going to find out if I call this number,” or “Someone’s gonna be mad that I did it,” or “It’s not gonna help.”  But it helped.  It worked.

That’s interesting because, as a therapist I find  that people are sometimes ambivalent if not afraid to be dependent on others, and to ask for help.  But to see people like you two―who have made it out of periods of despair by asking for help, and who continue to ask for help when you need it―is encouraging.  

Cole Ledford:  Yeah.  One of the things I always talk about is what I was feeling back then, or I still struggle with anxiety and depression now.  Recently I had a full on panic attack and anxiety attack, and I decided to turn on the camera and record it happening.  And so that was just so people could see that I go through this too, it’s ok.  Here’s what it’s like, and here’s my thought process while it’s happening.  And I talk through how Candy Crush set off my anxiety attack.  And I think that just allows people to see a real human experiencing that, and surviving that.

How do we make it more of a good idea for people to find a therapist?  To de-stigmatize therapy?  It’s not about being sick.  It’s about having a continuous relationship so you can be seen and heard, like you said.  

Dior Vargas:  Yeah.  I think redefining what it is to have a therapist.  And kind of defining it in your own terms.  There may be this overarching idea of what a doctor is or what a therapist is, or a psychologist.  And kind of bringing it down into, this is someone you meet with once a week, and it’s about maintaining your mental health.  Maintaining your self care.  Emphasize wellness rather than “mental illness.”  Make it more palatable.  Redefine it for yourself.  Because there are so many things that are fed into people from society.  But thinking about what wellness means in your community.  It’s about your quality of life.  No matter who you are or what communities you’re a part of.  And finding pride…for lack of a better word…and prioritizing your well being.  Thinking of it through a social justice lens, I can’t be there for other people unless I’m there for myself.  I can’t really work to push our movement without really investing in myself.  By investing in yourself you’re also investing in your community.

You can be more of an advocate, more of an activist, if you take care of yourself.

Dior Vargas:  Exactly.  So it’s also important to think about it what I’m going through individually, matters.  But it’s also not just you, it’s a slew of other people.  So thinking about it in terms of, when I take care of myself I take care of my community.

Cole Ledford:  Also, on a macro-level I think we need to reduce the need for services by passing a non-discrimination law.  If we had a federal protection against discrimination, people would know they were welcome.  They would feel that they were accepted in society.  And that’s the number one cause for it [major mental health challenges in the LGBTQ communities] because we don’t feel accepted in today’s world.  So if we could pass sweeping federal legislation to protect LGBT people legally from discrimination, that would be a big solution to the big problem we’re facing.  But then on top of that I think having more of a focus on mental health on the national level would be a great way to start inspiring kids.

After I finish editing all these videos, I really want to run for office.  I think the only way we can make actual tangible change―and we need to―is on the national, political level.  And so I want to start organizing and run for office as soon as I can.

When young people see someone like me, or like others who have or have had mental health issues, running for these offices, it says you can live through this, openly.

Without having to disguise something about yourself.

Cole Ledford:  Exactly.  There are so many elected officials who have depression, have anxiety, have some mental anguish, but we don’t talk about it because it’s stigmatized.  They don’t want people to know about it.  They just want votes.  But I think we can show people you can still be an amazing leader and ask for [mental and emotional] support at the same time.

How do we reach people who do not advocate for themselves. Who suffer in silence and are too afraid to seek help?

Cole Ledford: I think there’s a lot of passive activism.  Even just by being themselves, that is activism.  If you are willing to come out of the closet [and if it’s safe to do so] that is political, that is activist, that is showing that you aren’t afraid to be yourself.  And it’s good to remember that it is activism in itself. That you don’t necessarily have to be speaking out, all the way.  You can just be proud of who you are and that’s ok.  That’s phenomenal.  To connect to people who are less visible, I think… God bless him, Donald Trump in this one regard has made everyone political.  He’s made everyone none passive now.  Even if you don’t want to speak out.  Because we’re seeing what happens when you don’t.  A lot of people didn’t speak out in the last election… And this is what we got.  So I’m hoping that in the future, more people will be speaking out.

What motivated you to become activists?

Dior Vargas:  Growing up I guess there were so many parts of my identity that weren’t heard.  I felt like I couldn’t speak for myself.  I was shut down.

By family and community?

Dior Vargas: Yeah, yeah.  And coming out to my mom, telling her I’m queer, telling her that I tried to end my life. That I live with these mental illnesses.  There are so many parts of my identity that I felt weren’t accepted.  And I had to fight for that.  And so there’s a feeling of always having to fight for something.  And it’s funny, I was just thinking, does anyone truly want to be an activist?… Because the truth is that you’re fighting for something because it’s coming from feeling left out, from feeling excluded, from feeling pain.  It comes from pain.  So you don’t want to have to be fighting every single day, but it’s like I just, seeing how other people are experiencing the same thing, and just wanting to help others, and seeing myself in other people.  I don’t want what I’ve been through to just be siloed.  I want other people to see themselves in me.  To feel like, and I’m in no way perfect at all. I still have my struggles, I still have times when it’s hard to get out of bed. But I don’t want people to feel like they’re alone.  And if I can do that for one person, that’s… I don’t know if it’s just me, or if it’s an activist personality, but I don’t want to live a life that doesn’t do for other people.  It’s not a life worth living if I’m not helping people.  If I’m not helping them move forward.

You are both such great examples of living out loud.  It shows people that one can live a full and open life.  Complete with challenges and struggles, but also creativity, joy, ambition, and generosity.

Cole, what motivated you to become an activist?  

Cole Ledford: November 6, 2014, I was punched in the face for kissing my boyfriend at the time, goodnight.  And what happened, I sent out a picture of my black eye, along with a message saying, “I’m sorry that you punched me, but I’m not sorry that I’m gay.”  And it was retweeted forty seven thousand times and I went from fifteen hundred followers to forty thousand overnight.

What was that process like?  In a short amount of time to go from the horrible shock of being punched, to going viral?

Cole Ledford: Yeah.  Only about an hour passed before I went from punch to viral.  Because I was kissing my boyfriend goodnight.  Went back to my fraternity house after I had gotten punched.  And walked in my fraternity front door.  My brothers all freaked out trying to take care of me, check in on me.  And I was like, I didn’t really want to talk about it, I was kind of embarrassed, I was still kind of new to being out.  It had only been about a year.  So I went into my room, and to not have to explain it to anyone ever again what had happened, I took the picture so my friends would see it, and I wouldn’t have to explain it.  And little did I know, once I tweeted it, I threw my phone on my bed and didn’t look at it for three hours, and when I came back upstairs to unlock it, I was the number one topic in the United States.  And Ellen had retweeted it, Tyler Oakley had retweeted it.  The rest is history.

I’ve never been that private of a person.  So, it definitely helped to share it.  I’m only private with the things I don’t want you to know.  But the things I do I’ll share willingly.  I think that’s almost a defense mechanism.  You can tell me, you’re the psychotherapist.

I would call that survival.

Cole Ledford: Yes, survival, absolutely.  The year before that I had opened up in a Ted Talk about my suicide attempt at sixteen.  So a lot of my life has been kind of met with moments of bravery by sharing what had affected me at some point.  And I think this was just another one for me where I realized, “Alright, this is a time when I become an activist once again, and people are wanting to hear from me once again.”  My story.  And I did my best to embrace it.  We did a lot of T.V. interviews, like local news. And then we kind of shut it down, we pulled it back.  I was getting a little anxious.  My mom was like, “Are you sure you want to do this?”  And we pulled it back for about a year.  And then I put myself back out there.

So, you don’t suffer in silence.

Cole Ledford:  Well, I think I did until I was sixteen.  I attempted suicide and I survived that.  I kind of found my voice after that.  And so after suffering in silence for so long, you just don’t want to do that anymore.  I’m me, I have my flaws but I’m going to own them.

It’s a real opportunity to discover your resiliency at a time like that.  Because people can go either way when faced with that intensity; sink or swim.

Cole Ledford:  Absolutely.  I lost friends.  But I made so many new ones.

Where did your bravery come from?  To be on your own side after the suicide attempt?

Cole Ledford:  You know, I don’t know where it came from.  I found my voice when I got to college.  And before I came out of the closet I was talking about my suicide attempt.  And my mom is the bravest woman I know, and somehow that just got passed down through genetics.

She doesn’t suffer in silence either?

Cole Ledford: She goes kicking and screaming.

Final words?

Dior Vargas:  There  are not enough people in this space [Activism/ Advocacy.  Openly sharing personal struggles and ways to survive and move through them].  The more that there can be, the better.  Not everyone will relate. But at least there will be a point of relation.  There needs to be as many examples as possible.

More Articles in the PRIDE IN MENTAL HEALTH SERIES:

LGBTQ+ Mental Health Resources:

Crisis Text Line (Text 741741 for free, 24/7) http://www.crisistextline.org/who-we-are/

The Trevor Project http://www.thetrevorproject.org/

Psychology Today Therapist Finder https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/?tr=Hdr_SubBrand Refine your search based on therapists’ experience with people who are LGBTQ+

New York City-Based Resources:

The Ackerman Institute for the Family: Gender & Family Projecthttp://www.ackerman.org/gfp/

The LGBT Center https://gaycenter.org/

Lighthouse LGBT (LGBTQ Affirmative Therapist Network) http://www.lighthouselgbt.com

Institute for Human Identity Therapy Center http://www.ihitherapy.org

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from theCrisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

 

*This post first appeared on Mark O’Connell LCSW-R’s Psychology Today column, “Quite Queerly.”

 

 

Big Little Truth: When Women Get Along on Screen we all Win

“You’re a very big person,” says Reese Witherspoon to Laura Dern, on “Big Little Lies” (the HBO hit miniseries that helped a great many of us escape the onslaught of panic-inducing news for a month.)

Witherspoon’s character, Madeline is right: Dern’s Renata is indeed “big”/ emotionally mature. After publicly ridiculing and shaming Shailene Woodley’s Jane for most of the series, without due cause—and with odious, Type-A, uber-privileged-histrionics to boot—Renata goes where (almost) no woman has gone before her in mainstream, crowd-pleasing, entertainment: She apologizes. Genuinely. To another woman.

And then we behold the radical and surprising final event of the series: Five very different women openly support one another.

If you haven’t seen “Big Little Lies,” see it. I won’t spoil the satisfyingly, twisty, murder mystery plot for you, but the plot isn’t really the point. Yes, the whodunnit framing device kept us watching each week with urgency. But the multitextured relationships between the women kept us captivated, and continues to do so.

That a series with terrific writing is led by five women is alone a rare triumph. That those female characters are each distinct, interesting, layered, and played by top-notch actresses capable of expressing heightened eccentricities, along with grounded, emotional nuances and fierce sharp intelligence, with a sense of grace humor and truth, is miraculous. But the creators of this remarkable television event went even further. They consciously chose to show us multiple examples of women being compassionate to one another, even as their world conspires to make them primal enemies. The result: women and men alike tuned in every week, and were left wanting more.

Think how different the country would be if producers, politicians, and the rest of us, deliberately prioritized and celebrated empathy, curiosity, and connection between women, on screen and in everyday life. Instead of lazily maintaining the status quo of women tearing each other apart to gain the approval of men. (Insert your “Fatal Attraction,” and “Dynasty,” and “Real Housewives,” and “Lifetime Movie Network” examples here.)  Really, think about it.

Think how viciously divided America is at the moment, and the role that gender plays in that divide  Think how the divisions in “Big Little Lies,” directly parallel the current divisions between American women with regard to the presidential election: Namely, in both cases a male sexual abuser is at the center. On the show, it is only when each of the women finds a way to push back against their own internalized sexism that they can truly see and support one another, and stop the cycle of abuse that had kept them disempowered and at each other’s throats.

Think how much better women and people of color and those of us who are LGB or T would get along with one another, if we refused to tolerate the abuses of power that keep us down. If rather than remaining “small,” by internalizing our own oppression, we named what oppresses us, pushed back against it, and chose to be “big,” by building each other up, we could together consider better alternatives. This would ultimately be better for straight white men as well—and not only the legions of them that were hooked on “Big Little Lies.” The more all men can feel comfortable in our own skins without the pressure to keep women—or anyone else—subordinate to us, in order to validate our own “masculinity,” the less likely we are to “treat others badly.” (O’Connell, 2012; Flood, 1997).

It should be noted that straight white men are often implicated in discussions about oppression, and that is not at all to say that all men are born to be active threats. (In fact, many if not most of the straight men in my life consistently speak out against prejudice, discrimination, or violence, directed at any particular person or group.) But the fact is, straight men, especially those who are white, are born into an abundance of social power and privilege. And those who inherit power easily abuse it. So, it is our systems of power and privilege we must fight against much more than just individual men who abuse women and other minorities. But we can’t deconstruct our systems of power and privilege if we can’t acknowledge our own places in it.

So, check yourself, own how systems of power impact you, and then get out there and produce more stories about various women, and people of color, and those of us who are lesbian or gay or transgender, or who are overweight, or living with disabilities, or any other group of people who are divided by those who abuse their power. And make sure those characters have the internal resources to be “big,” and to openly connect with each other. Sure, it may not always be “realistic” for characters to have the capacity to conquer internalized oppression.  But let us see what that looks like anyway—preferably with actors as capable of transmitting truth as Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley. And remember the truth is not necessarily “realistic.”

For instance, as the 2016 election made clear, it is not realistic to expect women who have learned to tolerate abusive men to support one another (let alone put one of their own in The White House…). But as “Big Little Lies” show us, it is definitely possible. Many marketing executives will tell you it’s not realistic to expect shows about women to succeed, but the truth is that “Big Little Lies” is a great success.

*This post first appeared on Psychology Today.

References:

Flood, M. (1997, April). Homophobia and masculinities among young men (lessons in becoming a straight man). Presented at the Teachers, Professional Development Training, O’Connell Education Centre, Canberra, Australia. Retrieved from http//www.mensadviceline.org.uk/Files/ Homophobia-and-masculinitiesamong-young-men.pdf

O’Connell, M. (2012). Don’t Act, Don’t Tell: Discrimination Based on Gender Nonconformity in the Entertainment Industry and the Clinical Setting. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 16:241-255.

Three Relationship Tips, Courtesy of the Obamas

*This article first appeared on Psychology Today

We do not require our presidents to model exemplary marriages for us.  But for the past eight years, Barack and Michelle Obama did exactly that.  The generosity with which they shared their relationship with America and the whole world, is a rare and valuable form of leadership that we benefitted from on a daily basis, and will be sorely missed. However, even now, we can look back on what they showed us, and apply some of their practices to our own lives.

No matter what you think of the former president’s politics, I can’t imagine any parent who wouldn’t want their daughter or son to find a life partnership with the palpable love, chemistry, respect, affection, mutuality, playfulness, and stability, of the Obamas.

Whether posing for the camera or caught candidly; dancing, kissing, teasing, or bumping hands; addressing the nation formally or informally; hosting events or being part of the crowd; Barack and Michelle consistently transmitted evocative signals to their public about the value of good and effective relationships.

Below are three of the major tenets I observed in the Obama’s partnership over the years. I suggest you consider them this Valentine’s Day, as you reflect on all the significant relationships in your own life, not only the romantic ones.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

1) Identification: We’ve all seen that look of obvious attraction in the eyes of a romantic pair, but the Obamas reveal something deeper: identification with each other. They don’t just seem to see an amorous object in the other, but a subject, a whole person with whom they can empathize, and in whom they can see themselves. This manifests not only in the ways they look at and treat each other, but also in the ways they consistently talk about each other.

Take for example this deeply moving moment during President Obama’s farewell speech when he addressed the First Lady.

“For the past 25 years you have not only been my wife, and the mother of my children, you have been my best friend. You took on a  role you didn’t ask for, and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style and with humor.“

These are the words of a person recognizing and appreciating another person, in whose shoes he can imagine walking himself. As opposed to a “man” simply giving a nod to his “wife.”

Likewise, in her 2012 DNC speech, FLOTUS said of her husband that even though on the surface he always seemed very different from her in that he was a guy who picked her up for dates “in a car that was so rusted out,” and who had political ambitions that were somewhat incongruent with her own life goals, it was her identification with his experience of family that connected her to him inextricably.

“[W]hen Barack started telling me about his family—that’s when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine.”

If you similarly challenge yourself to seek identification with your partner, your friends, family, and acquaintances, no matter how different from you they may seem on the surface, the rewards will inevitably be great.

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

2) Equality: It’s only fitting that Marriage Equality became a reality during Obama’s administration, as he himself is in a marriage of equals.  Barack and Michelle coexist as two highly independent people, (who also clearly love and like each other, a lot).  The palpable equity in their union is something to aspire to for any two individuals, no matter their genders or sexual orientations. From their distinct senses of style and humor, to their points of view, and public platforms.  Each of them is uniquely self possessed and empowered, and extremely respectful and enamored of the other for standing in their own light.

As Michelle has said on this point, “You don’t want to be with a boy who’s too stupid to appreciate a smart young lady.”

And in Barack’s words: “It’s not as if Michelle is thinking in terms of, ‘How do I cater to my husband?’ I think it’s much more, ‘We’re a team, and how do I make sure that this guy is together enough that he’s paying attention to his girls…’”

A crucial function of equality in a relationship is that it allows for a necessary separateness between even the most intimate and loving of people. As Michelle has put it: “I also had to admit that I needed space and I needed time. And the more time that I could get to myself, the less stress I felt. So it was a growth process for me individually and for us as a couple, too.”

One of the great ironies of any effective relationship is that the capacity to be separate allows for a greater, deeper, and more meaningful connection than can be achieved by trying to subsume oneself into your partner’s life. And holding the concept of equality in mind allows such separateness to exist.

In fact, if we commit to approaching all of our relationships on equal terms, and with the willingness to survive and respect each other’s differences (when they are not blatantly harmful to us), we could resolve a great deal of our country’s current divisiveness.  On the personal, local, national, and also international levels.

Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

3) Generosity:  The generous attention the Obamas offer each other–in affectionate looks and gestures, kisses and embraces, as well in their sweeping speeches—extends beyond the two of them. The love, empathy, and supportiveness they practice together is clearly shared with their children, with their peers and staff, and with the whole country.

In his final speech as president, Barack said to Michelle, “You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. When the new generation sets its sights higher it’s because it has you as a role model.”

And as Michelle has said of him, “I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as “us” and “them”—he doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above…he knows that we all love our country…and he’s always ready to listen to good ideas…he’s always looking for the very best in everyone he meets.”

When you practice openness—of spirit, warmth, and ideas—at home, you’ll prepare yourself to extend that generosity to every contact you have in the world.  Approaching other people in this way can only lead to a life with more connection, generativity, and creative possibility than will be available to you by hoarding your loving feelings in private. The more love we offer to other people, the more we have for ourselves, and vice versa.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thank you Obamas for these great gifts. We were lucky to have world leaders like you to model inspiring and effective relationship behaviors for us on a daily basis. Who knows if or when we’ll be granted this favor again.

 

Boys Will Be…. What We Let Them Be: Ken Corbett’s “A Murder Over a Girl,” and the 2016 Election

*This article first appeared on Psychology Today

A passage from psychologist Ken Corbett’s recently published bookA Murder Over A Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, could describe the mindset of Donald Trump and many of his supporters in the run-up to the presidential election —

“Paranoia, the best of guard dogs, exquisitely splits good and bad. Guards look out in order to find the bad, they do not look in. The world shrinks as the bad is pinpointed on the horizon. Unwanted badness, vulnerability, guilt, and injury are pushed out and into others.”

Corbett is actually writing about Brandon McInerney, who in 2008, at the age of 14, shot and killed his classmate, 15 year-old Larry King, at school in Oxnard, California. But the excerpt above also describes the kind of victim-blaming groupthink that took place at McInerney’s 2011 trial for first-degree murder, as well as the ways any of us might think in our most destabilized states — when we feel threatened by the unfamiliar or the unknown.

It is this broad insight that raises Corbett’s book beyond thoughtful reportage on a devastating crime and trial, and into a must-read psychological diagnosis of our current political and cultural climate.

As Corbett observes in his book, Larry was biracial and had begun to identify as transgender, while Brandon is white, masculine, and identifies as heterosexual. Larry flirted with Brandon at school. These facts were enough for the (what appeared to be) mostly white jury – as well as the all-white, tightly-knit community of witnesses who spoke on Brandon’s behalf – to cast Larry (or “Leticia,” as she named herself) as the perpetrator and, accordingly, to blame for her own gruesome murder. In contrast, although he was sentenced to 21 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, Brandon was largely thought to be just a boy being a boy.

(The parallels between this story and the current presidential campaign are legion – Trump reframing his boasts about sexual assault as mere “locker room talk,” or a Congressman condoning one of Trump’s many outbursts at Hillary Clinton by saying, “I think sometimes a lady needs to be told when she’s being nasty”— but perhaps most disturbing of all is Trump’s own statement, “I could…shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”)

Like the media’s election coverage, reading A Murder Over A Girl is by turns similarly mind-boggling and infuriating. Hateful biases reveal themselves in plain sight, and are relentlessly justified. But Corbett not only rouses his readers to take action against injustice; his poetic writing also moves us to look inward, and to mourn the life that was stolen from Larry/Leticia — both in the classroom where s/he was killed, and in the courtroom where her true identity and sense of self were never fully understood, contemplated, or even really named.

Corbett effectively uses “Larry” and “Leticia” interchangeably throughout the book, as a way to illustrate multiple realities coexisting at the same time — e.g., a court record, the community’s perception of the victim, and Leticia’s own underappreciated and subjective sense of self. Corbett also poignantly evokes Leticia’s palpable absence from the storytelling that followed her murder, by describing all the ways in which the major players in the tragedy veil themselves both from full recognition of her, as well as from the horrific, dumbfounding, way s/he was torn from existence.

Corbett describes how each of the witnesses at trial sought to reconstruct “logical” narratives of the inexplicable event, sometimes with embellishments as if to justify, or at least explain, what took place in a more normative, palatable way than the complex truth. A dress that Leticia wore to school – and which she was reportedly wearing while flirting with Brandon – is far more shimmering, bustling, and provocative in the witness accounts, than the “sad” “little girl’s party dress” that is exhibited in court. Corbett also keenly observes the substances some of the witnesses he interviewed consume as they talk with him, perhaps to numb themselves from the complexities and trauma of the events. (Larry’s parents chain-smoke in anger; the white-supremacy expert witness sucks down coffee after coffee as he attempts to explain the unexplainable.)

In all of the varying accounts of what happened between these two adolescents, the reader notices a conspicuous absence: the full recognition of a human life that was not allowed authentic expression. Corbett explains that one of the particular reasons that Larry/Leticia failed to be recognized — in both the classroom and the courtroom — was due to a lack of education and experience about how to think through the concept of gender variance.

“Living gender, especially as it blooms in adolescence, brings forth a host of emotions and counteremotions or defenses. When a group of people, such as schoolteachers, cannot consider those emotions, cannot discuss what is being felt and thought about gender, cannot learn together, then gender variance can be felt as too much, and reactive discipline short-circuits any building of community.”

With Corbett’s careful guidance, the reader appreciates that without such recognition of a life, we cannot grieve the loss of it. And without such grief, we cannot move through tragedies like the murder of Larry/Leticia King and evolve as a people. We are instead left to hold tight to paranoid and divisive ideas about who belongs and who does not — an all too familiar approach in an election season that has seen the vilification of Mexican, Muslim, and persons with disabilities, to name only a few.

Corbett offers possible ways to move through such fear, trauma, and divisiveness by showing us with imagery, rather than simply telling us with psychological theory. He shares his own vivid nightmares, daydreams, and self-reflections throughout the course of the trial, and in so doing he models how each of us might become acquainted with our own minds — especially in moments of crisis, ignorance, and/or isolation.

He suggests that we face our fears of the unknown, as well as the whole gamut of feelings like guilt, grief, or loss that make us vulnerable. Corbett’s writing asks that we share these feelings and fears with other people, and allow their life experiences to enter our consciousness in turn, so that we may navigate our way through tragedies and struggles together, despite our differences.

He illustrates this concept movingly in his final interview with Brandon’s mother, a year after the trial. By this point she is in remission from a major drug addiction, as if waking from a dream. She says to him, “My life is a blur, until recently.” With a clear head she is able to experience the raw grief of the tremendous, unthinkable losses that have taken place — Leticia’s lost life, the King family’s lost child, Brandon’s lost freedom, and the years of her own life that she can never get back. She is also able to put that grief into words and to share it. She can now imagine herself living a life connected to other people — however different from her they may be — without substances, without denial, and without the need to push her unwanted feelings into those around her.

Indeed, this resonating final message of Corbett’s book can be summed up in the two current presidential campaign taglines. “I Alone Can Make America Great Again,” implies that some of us must be destroyed to save the “greater good”; while “Stronger Together,” grants each of us a shot at a meaningful life.

Tips to Survive Thanksgiving in Post-Election Turmoil

2016-11-22-1479844647-5477755-Thanksgiving_Under_Fire.jpg

*This post first appeared on Psychology Today

The election will come up at our Thanksgiving dinners.

We will have things to say and questions to ask.

And we will need to feel safe for those necessary exchanges to take place. (None of us can think or speak clearly when in physical or emotional danger.)

But how can we create safety between us when we’re all severely split between them and usright and wrongblack and white? This election has been more vicious, personally divisive, and chaotic than any we have known, and none of the self-helpy platitudes we are told—e.g., “put your differences aside,” “it’s time to move on”—are enough to make us feel safe together. We can’t even agree on what the word “safe” means…

 

 

We All Feel Unsafe

This past weekend, President-elect Donald Trump, tweeted, “The theater must always be a safe… place,” and accused the cast of the Broadway show, Hamilton of having “harassed” Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience the night before. The incident to which Trump referred was a post-show curtain speech, in which actor, Brandon Victor Dixon, addressed Pence directly and open-heartedly asked him to consider the rights and freedoms not only of the diverse people on stage but also of those all across the country who feel incredibly unsafedue to Trump and Pence’s proposals—which discriminate against womenMexicansMuslims, and the LGBT communities—not to mention the disturbing news of Trump appointing men who espouse white nationalist/ supremacist ideologies to his cabinet, and refusing to disavow the neo-nazi groups who have embraced him.

So, in reality, who is actually unsafe: Pence? The actor who shared his concerns? Both? Neither?

That depends on who you ask. And you will get lots of different answers from different people all over the country, each of whom is fired up with certainty that they are right. The objective answer may seem (painfully) obvious to you, but logic and fact mean nothing to those whose minds have split into us vs. them—which is all of us when we feel desperately unsafe. And we all feel that way right now. The legions of minorities who have been targeted by Trump and physically attacked by his supporters, as well as the straight white people who continue to scapegoat them. (Consider that those who live in homogenous, isolated, communities tend to feel threatened by people who are very different from them, and no amount of explaining the value of diversity to them will transcend their fears enough to engage their minds.) Our various perspectives could be understandable to one another if we had the opportunity to do intensive family therapy as a nation. But we don’t, and we are all stuck in this hot perpetrator/victim dilemma together for the foreseeable future.

So we’ll have to do our best to simply get through this Thanksgiving holiday without harming anyone or being harmed. And that means keeping our expectations low, and our goals super specific.

 

 

Connect

Make your primary goal to connect over being right.

That means don’t look for stats and videos and memes and other bits of evidence on your phone to prove your point on this particular occasion. But instead make efforts to look family members in the eyes and tell them how you feel. And let yourself be curious and empathic about how they feel in turn. You don’t have to understand their feelings completely. Just be sure to let them know, in a neutral manner, that you have taken in exactly what they said. And assure them that you will keep them in your mind as you continue to process what is happening in our country. And ask them to do the same for you.

 

 

Use “I” Statements

Again, in order to share your feelings effectively, you’ll need to make sure that everyone feels safe. A simple practical way to do that is to begin each statement with “I”—as opposed to “You,” which will automatically make your listener defensive and defeat your purpose.

Here are some examples of appropriate “I” statements: “I’m thrilled about the possibility of getting a job, after five years of unemployment! Once Trump comes through for me, I’ll be able to take better care of my family,” or “I’m scared to death that I will lose my right to choose what I do with my own body,” or “I’m scared to death that I will be deported” or “I’m scared to death that my family or my friends could be taken to internment camps,” or “I’m scared to death that my children will be attacked or murdered (either because they have brown skin, or they are Muslim, or Jewish, or gender nonconforming) and that they will not be protected under the law,” or “I’m scared to death that my marriage rights could be taken away and I won’t be able to visit my wife in the hospital,” or “I’m scared to death that electroshock therapy for people who are gay, like my son, will become mandatory.”

In the same spirit, make sure that your questions on this topic are of the, “How has this election affected you, personally?,” variety. And encourage them to use “I” statements in their answers as well, to help you take a walk in their shoes.

 

 

The Debates are Over

If you exchange personal perspectives using “I” statements, there is nothing to debate. Once the conversation strays into battling opinions about scandals, emails, the electoral college, or policy proposals, it’s over. You’ll be caught in an escalating power struggle between us and them, and the divide between you will widen. Like I said, we are split into emotional extremes at the moment. No amount of “objective fact” is going to change anyone’s mind about what happened. We will do better to let each other know how what happened impacts each of our lives.

 

 

Sip

Drunkenness only aggravates passionate disagreements. Save getting your buzz on for later, when you can decompress with a close friend or significant other in peace.

 

 

Prepare a Line

Open and close the discussion with a prepared line that everyone can agree on. This will give you all something to hold onto. Try something like: “We need more jobs in America AND we need to stop the hate. We ALL need to advocate for both.”

If you can all agree on that, then there’s really no more to be said on the topic at this time.

If you can’t, then the split in your family is clearly too great to make a connection, and you’ll have to footnote common ground for later.

 

 

Draw a Line

I always encourage people to build bridges instead of walls, unless their safety will be compromised by doing so. So if you feel unsafe, threatened, or attacked, in any way, then extricate yourself from the situation. You don’t owe anyone anything more than an attempt to connect in a safe environment. That also means there’s no need for you to attend a family event if you have nothing to look forward to but a lack of recognition and lots of hostility. (e.g., If you know in advance that when you say, “As a minority I fear for my safety,” the only response you’ll get is “You liberals are hypocrites,” then spend the day somewhere safer and better).

 

 

Not the End

Think of this holiday as the beginning of a long process of mutual recognition between you and your family members. Don’t expect to feel fully seen by the end of the evening, or to see them clearly either. Think of the long game. Again, the ultimate goal is to be connected, not to be right. So do what you need to do to feel safe and connected at the same time during this one day, if that is possible. The things you say may not make sense to all of them in the moment, but some of them very well remember what you said, and reflect on your words over time. Especially if you stay in contact, including in easy, non-committal ways, such as over social media, or email, or text. Eventually you may be able to see each other’s points of view more clearly, and if not, at least you will be more likely to have each other’s backs when the government turns on one of you or the other.

 

 

Seek Information From Multiple Sources and Consider Them All

Don’t just follow my advice, I would never presume to have all the answers for you. I only offer suggestions based on my own clinical and personal experience. Use what helps you. And be open to contrasting ideas. For example, The New York Times has published a list of post-election holiday tips as well, and some of them conflict with mine. But consider them all anyway. Check out a variety of approaches, and choose which ones might work for you in various situations, with various people, at various times. There is never just one way.

Remember, our lack of capacity to hold multiple perspectives in mind at the same time is partly responsible for the toxic divide in our country right now. Practice thinking in terms of multiplicity and possibility instead of one way or the other/ my way or the highway.

 

 

Self Care

For most of us, Thanksgiving won’t be emotionally nourishing this year. But it can be a small part of a long, productive and meaningful, conversation with our families. That is, if we are clear on what he have to say, what we need to hear, and what we do NOT need to hear under any circumstances (e.g., hateful language directed at any particular person or group.)

And we can find opportunities to nourish ourselves independently. That means indulge in that yoga class you attend the day before; or the run in the park with your dog the morning of; or the on-demand movie you’ll enjoy when you return home that night, snuggled up in a warm bathrobe on your couch, along with homemade waffles and fresh whipped cream.

And make sure to exchange loving words with people who make you feel seen and heard, and whom you see and hear in return. The more you care for yourself, and the more contact you have with those who care for you, the less thrown you’ll be by relatives who could not care less how this election has affected you.

 

Who Looks After You?

WLAY*This post first appeared on Psychology Today.

“So, I’m your Mary Poppins?” I asked twelve-year old Viola.

“I wish,” she replied.

Viola was auditioning therapists for the role of “emotional caretaker/ family mediator” (her WANTED ad was highly specific), and she cast me. “I like you,” she said, “but I also think you’re tough enough to keep them in line.”

By them of course she meant her parents, who had divorced a few years earlier and were at each other’s throats ever since. (Of note, they did not accompany her to the initial consultation at my office, but sent an assistant instead). Viola made them sound like children. And in a way, they were.

They had more than enough resources to raise a child, but privilege seemed to stunt them from becoming grownups themselves. When I finally met them in person, they seemed like characters from the movies Big or Freaky Friday; children trapped in adult bodies.

Viola harbored a dream that her parents would one day grow up and reunite.  But repeated disappointments made her too pragmatic to believe this would ever come true. Reality reduced her hope to having dinner with both of them, on her birthday, “just once.” But, bickering, nasty name-calling, and tantrums—usually over text, as the kids do—made it impossible to accommodate even this simple request.

The shipwreck of her parents divorce took place half her life ago, but when Viola washed up on the shore of my office, it was as though it had just happened. There she was on my couch, orphaned and alone, wishing me to reassemble her family.

How can this be?, I thought. This kid can have anything she wants. Why can’t her parents make her feel whole?

Ironically, the relational chaos in this extremely wealthy family reminded me of the families in abject poverty that I had worked with at community mental health clinics. Lack of resources made it extremely difficult for many of those parents to be emotionally attuned to their children. It was hard enough for them to keep their families safe, with a roof over their heads and food on the table, let alone to make their children feel fully seen and heard. And at the time I thought that more money would make all the difference in the world for them. But now, having seen how regressed and self-involved money had made Viola’s parents, I wasn’t so sure that was enough

Certainly money did give Viola obvious advantages, not least of which was the luxury of having a therapist. (This is not exclusively an essay about the necessity of mental health coverage for all Americans, but please do keep that crucial topic in mind). However, financial resources did not make her feel any more seen by her parents than children with far less.

Is this just how it is for all of us?, I thought. Rich, poor, and everything in between, are we all orphans seeking magical nannies to put our families back together again? (If they were ever “together” to begin with.)

Then I saw the
The Humans, on Broadway, which supports this hypothesis. The brutally realistic characters in the play have everything and nothing at the same time. They are all very much part of a family and also completely on their own; literally lost in the dark. I wondered if every one of us feels we are wandering alone in darkness and if we all harbor a wish similar to Viola’s, that someone will eventually turn on the lights and let us know they are looking after us.

These reflections helped me to empathize with Viola’s parents, whose own parents were either dead or checked out. I encouraged them each to meet with a therapist of their own for emotional support. I recommended two therapists with whom I had worked personally, and who had both helped me through very difficult times in my life.  These are the best possible people for them to lean on, I thought, motivated by something deeper and more ineffable than “clinical judgment” alone.

As I reflected on this—by myself, as well as with a mentor and with peers—I realized that the referrals I had made represented my own yearning for support. Professionally speaking, Viola’s case was certainly challenging, but beyond that, I was going through a personal transition at the time that made me feel emotionally shipwrecked as well: lost, alone, and without a family. My mother was moving into a senior facility halfway across the country, only a decade after my father’s death. By matching Viola’s parents with therapists to whom I felt emotionally attached, I wondered if I was enacting my own “Mary Poppins” fantasy, and hoping in some way to put my family back together again.

It became poignantly clear that this was exactly what I was trying to do, when one of my former therapists contacted me to coordinate care for Viola’s mother. As soon as her face popped up on my computer screen, I smiled. I had missed her.  I missed the care she had provided, as well as the confidence she instilled in me to carry on with my life. This one brief encounter revived me, making me feel looked after but also capable of moving forward—independently, personally and professionally.

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I thought, maybe that’s the next best thing to having the ideal parents we all long for. After all, that’s exactly what therapists provide for people: The opportunity to be seen by a caretaker when we need that—which we all do, from time to time.

Like Viola, we can all actively seek this kind of support. In lieu of perfect parents (or Mary Poppins), we can depend on psychotherapists to guide us through our disappointments, losses, traumas, and broken hearts.  They can make us feel less alone as we navigate our ships in the dark

(And hopefully our insurance will help us pay for the mental health care we all need, which unfortunately, too many Americans simply cannot afford without it.)

As we continue to de-stigmatize talk therapy as a culture, we must remember that making the choice to seek relational support is crucial to our emotional wellbeing, no matter who or how old we are.

As I deliberated what to call Viola in this piece, to protect her privacy, at first I considered adopting and adapting the names of Dickensian orphans like Oliver (Olive?), or David (Davida?), or Pip (Pippa?). But then I recalled that Dickens tended to romanticize the concept of adults looking after us, ubiquitously, whether we know it or not—a lovely idea that we unfortunately cannot count on in reality.

But by contrast, the protagonist from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola, takes no one for granted as she comes to realize her relational needs. Upon finding herself abandoned in a strange land she relies on herself to secure relational attachments to fill the gap left by a separation from her twin brother.

We can all take a page from both Violas—the Shakespearean character and my client—and seek relational supports when we need them.  Even if they aren’t exactly the same as the families we once knew, or thought we knew. article continues after advertisement

At the end of the day we are all Viola, and we are all Viola’s parents: small children crawling further and further up the stairs, but looking back once in a while, to make sure that someone is watching.

 

Leslie Jones is a Movie Star Who Makes Me Laugh and Cry

*This post originally appeared on Huffpost.

Last week, a viral internet post about Leslie Jones made me cry. It was a clip from her guest appearance on The View, where she discussed her leading role in the reboot of Ghostbusters. Jones herself was misty eyed as she told Whoopi Goldberg what it was like to see her on screen when she was a little girl, saying:

“I kept looking at my daddy going, ‘Oh my God! There’s somebody on TV who looks like me! She looks like me! Daddy! I can be on TV.’”

She continued:

“I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart because now I know what I’m doing when I put on that Ghostbusters suit and little girls see me on TV now. They’re gonna go, ‘I can do it,’ and you gave that to me.”

It was hard not to share in her tears during this uplifting moment, which showed just how important and impactful on-screen diversity can be.

This week, yet another viral story about Leslie Jones made me cry. Only this time out of despair and not joy. After a successful opening weekend for Ghostbusters, a swarm of racist misogynists took to Twitter to spew vile hatred at the film’s only black star. The comments and images that were sent to Leslie Jones publicly — which are all too base and disgusting to be repeated or described — left me wondering how anyone could possibly be so miserable as to feel the compulsion to attack another person this way. Even if Jones had given the worst screen performance in the history of cinema she would not have deserved such reprehensible treatment, nor would anyone under any circumstances.

But the loathsome attacks are especially perplexing and ironic given how truly wonderful Jones is to watch on the big screen. She has proven herself to be a real movie star.

Leslie Jones is always vibrant and laugh-out-loud funny in her stand-up routines, and in her work on Saturday Night Live. But she transcends her comedic persona in Ghostbusters, by tempering it, and revealing a soft charisma, nimble wit, and subtle intelligence, that we don’t necessarily see when she’s performing in sketches and bits. We also get to witness her radiant, if unconventional, beauty in the movie, which is a refreshing deviation from the dainty, ultra skinny, white women, with teeny-tiny features, that Hollywood has traditionally set as our standard for leading ladies. All of the same is true for her Ghostbusters and SNL, co-star, Kate McKinnon, who smooths over the spastic, comedic edge for which she has become famous, to allow a character to shine through, at whom we may laugh, but with whom we can relate — even if she’s somewhat strange. It is a complete pleasure to watch both actresses work with their more seasoned big screen co-stars, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, and to experience the rare thrill of seeing complex, funny, women, as protagonists in a big-budget action movie, who are all showcased respectfully by the film’s creators, and who seem to actually like each other.

We rarely see women at the helm of movies like Ghostbusters, so before I return to the unwarranted, heinous vitriol that was vomited at Leslie Jones, let’s take a moment to consider how we got so lucky as to see her and the other women in these comic/action hero roles.

In a recent article in New York Magazine, the director of Ghostbusters, Paul Feig — who also directed the hugely successful women driven comedies, Bridesmaidsand The Heat — discussed the drought of leading roles for funny women, and his drive to create more of them, crediting in large part his close friendship with his mother for this. Similarly, director JJ Abrams has described his own wish to see more women protagonists on screen — such as the character of Rey in the Star Wars sequel that he directed — saying that he wanted his daughter to see herself embodied by an action hero on screen.

So, it would seem that until we have more directors who are women and/ or people of color, and/or queer, we will have to rely on straight white, male directors who love, and respect, and admire, and value, the women, and people of color, and queer people in their lives enough to put characters like them in their movies.

And as I’ve said manymanytimes, in manymany, different ways, casting matters. The more diversity of characters and actors we see on our stages and screens, the more opportunities we can create for identification and empathy between one another.

Furthermore, the greater varieties of skin colors, and body types, and forms of beauty, and intelligence, and charm, we are able to see on screen, the less people will be targeted for not fitting into the Hollywood mold.

We hate and fear change more than anything else. Just look to our current political crisis for clear examples of this. But we cannot give in to that fear and hate. Like Paul Feig and JJ Abrams, we have to make choices — in our movies and our lives — that make more of us visible to one another. This way we can share both laughter and tears, with more of our mothers, and daughters, and sisters, and friends.

One way we can do this right away, is to buy a ticket to Ghostbusters, and to use the hashtag, #LoveForLeslieJ, and buy the Leslie Jones action figure, and celebrate her brave, bold, radiant, and true talent. She is a movie star worthy of your love, your respect, your laughter, and your tears. Despite the undeserving obstacles in her way, she continues to cultivate and to share her great gifts. And that is her gift to all of us.

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.

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.