Playing in the Spaces

This piece was first posted on Mark O’Connell’s Psychology Today column, “Quite Queerly.”

In Harvey Fierstein’s Tony nominated play, “Casa Valentina”, men embody women. Or rather they reveal themselves through women’s clothing, mannerisms, and identities. Set in 1962 and based on real events at a Catskills resort, the story follows (self identified) straight men who escape the constraints of their everyday lives through opposite gender identifications. Under the masterful direction of Joe Mantello, the varied, mellifluous, and vibrant ways these men come to life as their  alter egos emboldens us to question the word identity itself. And the roles gender plays in it.

As psychoanalyst Adrienne Harris writes, “Some…are caught up in the losses and emptiness of identity, some in the deep enmeshment of body and psyche, and some in the sliding and playful paradoxes of performance and authenticity.”

The men in the play are initially caught up in the deep enmeshment of body and psyche, as their coherence as a group depends upon strict rules when dressed in their female embodiments: e.g., they must address each other by their chosen female names. This doesn’t leave room for recognizing the losses and emptiness of identity, as we witness the novice newcomer, Jonathan, getting ignored as (s)he makes her/his virginal entrance as “Miranda,” fumbling to the dinner table unkempt. But when Miranda attempts to make a coy exit, empathy and a strong sense of play spontaneously take hold of the seasoned cross dressers. They all agree to give her a makeover together, emphasizing the playful paradoxes of performance and authenticity with regard to identity, despite their rules.

And here is where the production becomes magical, luring us into the characters’ secret, enchanted world; their “garden of eden,” as one of them refers to it. This is not Rupaul’s Drag Race; they are not trying to outperform one another. During this sequence you get the sense that these men-as-women are being rather than doing. As each of them delights in decorating Miranda in their own unique, authentic, and playful way, we begin to forget who’s a man, who’s a woman, and who cares. One could appreciate here Adrienne Harris’ suggestion that gender is not rigid, fixed, or binary, but rather that it is “softly assembled.” We become absorbed in the shared playfulness among the characters, particularly in the ways they shower Miranda/Jonathan with loving recognition. As Harris writes, “There is a deep expansiveness that comes from recognition and belonging, and there are the quirky spurts and frissons when the unexpected, the transgressive, the novel emerge into view.”

But as with any story with a “garden of eden” a snake must slither in to keep things real. Before dinner is over, the game of dress-up becomes one of Axis and Allies as a discussion about a rule to ban gays from joining their revelry fractures the group. The two leaders rigidly defend the “no queer’s allowed” policy, effectively turning the soft light of their rarefied, idyllic play space into one more common and harsh.

Founding psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theories may help to explain this split between “good” straight crossdressers and “bad” gay men. As I have written elsewhere, Klein theorized that in states of anxiety–such as being a “straight” man who feels the need to secretly dress as a woman–we split self and other. We create a them versus us, pushing away feelings of vulnerability, dependency, and need. In such moments, we fail to hold both “good” and “bad” feelings–we continue to split and project rigid notions of “good” versus “bad,” “masculine” versus “feminine,” “straight” versus “gay.” A current example of such splitting is the palpable transphobia that runs through the LGBTQ communities.

The climax of “Casa Valentina” erupts in Act II, during a festive dance party when one of the men kisses Miranda, causing her to instantly split by turning back into Jonathan with an aggressive, defensive, punch. The party is over.

In 1991, nearly thirty years after the play takes place, psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner argued that “gender coherence, consistency, conformity, and identity are culturally mandated normative ideals” and that “to conform to their dictates requires the activation of a false-self system.” The play makes this point as its unsettling conflicts are born out of the characters’ rigid conformity to normative ideals, causing them to uphold a brittle, ultimately destructive, ”false” sense of self: e.g., as unquestionably “straight” men by day and as women with entirely different biographies by night. They could take a page from Goldner, who suggests that “the ability to tolerate the ambiguity and instability of gender categories is more [desirable] than the goal of “achieving” a single, pure, sex-appropriate view of oneself.” Twenty some odd years after Goldner penned her article we are still in need of its message.

Thinking back on the enchanting, dreamy delights of the play’s Act I, reminds us that the characters had within them the capacity to tolerate the ambiguity of gender categories that Goldner envisions. To “stand in the spaces” between genders, to invoke psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg, or as I say, to play in the spaces: maintain reverie while also embracing the painful need to negotiate self states. How can we find this capacity within ourselves?

Perhaps playing in the spaces becomes possible when play is inclusive (of men, straight or gay, and of women, however they dress, behave or identify). When Jonathans are allowed to wear dresses and heels without being forced to be called Miranda. When unkempt rookies can be engaged–playfully, empathically–without the shaming pressure of being either a dapperly dressed man or a glamorously dressed woman and nothing in between. When play can take the form of a mellifluous dance of various bodies, minds, experiences, conflicts, and identifications, all at the same time, without having to crescendo to one abrupt, violent, necessarily definitive climax. Such a climax makes for an evocative ending to a great, thought provoking play, but as inspiration for our own lives we might look to the gauzy-lit, ambiguous, revelry, of “Casa Valentina’s” Act I.

Bromberg, P. (1998). Standing in the Spaces. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Goldner, V. (1991). Toward a Critical Relational Theory of Gender. Psychoanal. Dial., 1:249-272.

Harris, A. (2009), Gender as Soft Assembly. New York, Routledge.

O’Connell, M. (2014): “Review of A Kid Like Jake,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 62: 363-371.

The Shakespearean Art of Throwing Back Thursday

I posted eight images for my first TBT (Throwback Thursday): a weekly social media ritual during which users “share” photos from the past. This internet holiday provides a thin veil for the vain, arbitrary, impulse to post any old pic of one’s own face. It’s popular. But I myself had never before indulged in sharing my younger visage with all of my “friends.” Why now? And why eight?

Could it be the melancholy I was feeling, having just gotten some devastating news? The fact that it was mid April and still so so cold? The Spring holidays inspiring themes of death, memory, and rebirth? Maybe all of the above…but there was something more: an inextricable pang of grief and an unusually heightened desire for connection.

The photos I posted were from a professional production of Romeo and Juliet in which I played Romeo. I accompanied the pics with this message:“Before my dream to be a therapist came true, this one did.” I added the hashtags: #TBT, #Romeo, #HappyBdayShakespeare (It was his birthday after all, I had at least that warrant for this bit of narcissism). It was days before I realized the production took place that very week, twelve years earlier. And that my father had passed away, abruptly, shockingly, exactly one year before that.

Looking again at the pictures I had chosen to share, I saw beyond their superficial finish; behind the sparkle of my twenty four year old self, costumed as the best romantic leading man ever written. Inside my eyes in each photo was an urgent need to express extreme love, longing, and the brazenness to dream. I could also trace expansive feelings of grief. The shock and horror of abrupt loss.

These emotional memories live in my body. So too do memories of a creative act of survival and a survivor’s act of creativity.

In posting the pics I suppose I wanted my friends (and friends”) to know that creativity is survival. A way for us to move forward without having to forget our past. Through the act of creating we transform loss, passion, and need into art. And by sharing our art we might access similar emotions in the bodies of other people; wake them into life; inspire, and encourage them to use their own pain to create their own art. Such sharing is how we help each other to face life.

When my father died without warning in 2001, I was kicked out of a self-involved stupor and roused into perspective. As a young actor in New York, struggling to find my footing, it was too easy to waste time fixating, neurotically, on meaningless dead ends: e.g. How do I break into commercials? Why is so-and-so on Broadway and not me? Why am I the only actor in the history of actors who hasn’t appeared on Law and Order?! But my father’s passing connected me instantly and deeply to the reason I wanted to act in the first place. I wanted to share the experience of my challenged, flawed, and impassioned, existence with other people. In the form of a story they would all understand.

I made a deal with my late father: I would move on to another career if need be (I had always wanted to be a therapist) if I had the chance to play Romeo. If only once! One year later I got the job. And I kept his picture in the room I was staying for the run of the show.

The fact that I was fired up to portray a hot blooded Shakespearean character at that time is likely more than a coincidence. A newstudy called ‘William Shakespeare as Psychotherapist’ suggests that Shakespeare’s plays, which often feature intensely passionate, flawed, self reflective, characters, might have helped his audiences access their own unconscious–in the way Sigmund Freud would do years later.

Also another recent study entitled, ‘How Shakespeare Tempests the Brain’ suggests that Shakespeare may have been an early neuroscientist. The paper discusses how his heightened language continues to help actors and audiences get his meaning on several levels at once. I must have had a sense that portraying Romeo would allow me direct access to my severe heartache through those wonderful words, and also afford me the ability to connect intimately with an audience.

To this day feelings of grief for my father are entangled with memories of connecting to other people via creativity. Perhaps this explains my impulse to “throwback” all of those photos on that cold, April, Thursday.

Have I just composed a flowery excuse for posting some pictures of myself? Probably. But just as Shakespeare’s plays have always proven, we benefit from creatively sharing with one another our dreams, joys, pain, loss, imperfections, and self reflections.

Don’t Act, Don’t Tell Is In Effect

“If they smell gay on you, it’s over!”

So declared a prominent casting director to me in my acting days. She was referring to the flat rejection actors face if they “seem gay” at auditions—a professional danger faced by all actors whenever they enter the room regardless of how they identify—gay, straight, or otherwise. At the time, I didn’t realize how prescient her words were.

The very same statement could apply to people around the world—in Africa, Russia, and portions of the United States—wherever it is legal to discriminate against LGBT people. But who determines “gayness,” and based on what criteria? Sight? Sound? Smell?

Anti-gay laws have metastasized globally over the past few years and now prescribe a variety of consequences for being—or seeming—gay. They range from the death penalty to imprisonment, public lashing, or employment or consumer discrimination. While frightening in their range of punishments, these laws share one thing in common: the implied message that those who seem gay—a highly subjective, perception-based determination—are socially acceptable targets of discrimination and violence.

Nations such as Nigeria and Uganda are obvious examples of this targeting, as their laws insist on punishment for those who engage in “known homosexual acts.” But countries with laws less explicit—Russia anyone?—have still effectively sanctioned general violence against anyone with a “non-traditional” gender presentation. Sadly, the U.S. is no exception. After twenty years of repeated introduction and subsequent languishing in Congress, our country still hasn’t passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The need for such uniform federal protection could not be more apparent. In the past month alone, the legislatures of Kansas, Arizona, Mississippi, and Georgia have all introduced bills seeking to allow anyone to “stand their ground” and refuse service to people who seem gay if it would compromise their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” (Those bills have all been vetoed or slowed for now, but the cultural message rings loud and clear.)

It’s one thing to be denied a wedding cake by a baker who can’t think outside the Bible. It’s quite another to be physically attacked for simply walking down the street. But the implicit messages in all of these anti-gay bills is that such targeting is fair game—and people are getting the message, right here in America.

Consider the man who last week suffered a broken nose after getting punched in the face by a stranger in a Greenwich Village subway station—just for seeming gay. He was gay, as it turns out, and celebrating his anniversary with his partner of ten years on the night of the attack. But consider alongside this story the one of Jose Sucuzhanay, an Ecuadorian immigrant who in 2008 was beaten to death in Brooklyn by strangers who thought he and his brother – who were holding each other in cold weather on their walk home – seemed gay.

The regular and flamboyantly ignorant statements of Representative Steve King’s (R-Iowa) remind us how those perceived to be gay can easily become targets of hatred and violence, and how such perception is an essential part of a paranoid, homophobic worldview. In 2012, the Congressman stated that those who are gay or lesbian do not need legal protection so long as they don’t wear “their sexuality on their sleeve” or make “their sexuality public.” Just last week, King implied that victims of anti-gay discrimination are asking for it because their sexuality is “self-professed,” “mutable,” capable of being “willfully changed,” and therefore undeserving of constitutional protections.

Now how many of the LGB or T people you know wear “their sexuality on their sleeve” by engaging in “homosexual acts” in public? Right, me neither.

Representative King is not talking about people having sex in public. Much like the Christian Tennessee pastor who recently stated that God punishes gays and lesbians by making them “effeminate” or “mannish,” the Congressman’s views about perceived sexuality are based upon a person’s gender presentation, i.e. the way one “acts.” His relentless implication being that so long as guys butch it up, and gals femme it up, everyone will be safe. (And, presumably, actors will have a fairer shot at nailing their auditions). I call this pressure to closet oneself Don’t Act, Don’t tell.

But even if we were to accept this oppressive logic, who gets to decide if somebody is acting “too gay”? Whose rubric of gay or straight, masculine or feminine, is being used?

In New Jersey, seeming not-gay apparently means “being a guy,” not being “weird,” not enjoying “peculiar fetishes” like “getting a manicure,” and instead enjoying “good Scotch and a cigar.” In Olympic skating – a seemingly gender non-conforming sport to begin with – seeming not-gay apparently means not wearing a costume with sleeves, if you’re a guy, and always wearing a skirt if you’re a girl. Where do these subjective judgments of perceived sexuality end?

And, more significantly, what happens to those of us who are perceived to be gay, at any given moment?

A client I worked with in my therapy practice suffered facial disfigurement after he was beaten unconscious at a high school party in suburban Connecticut. Not in Uganda, Russia, Arizona, or Mississippi, but a state with marriage equality and good laws that nonetheless got the message that “acting” gay makes someone an acceptable target of hatred and violence. The perpetrator, a teenage male at the party, was heard saying,“I’m going to beat up the gay kid,” while knowing nothing about my client aside from his self- presentation—voice, mannerisms, personality, etc. And when I consider that alone, I’m frightened to think that any one of my straight brothers could have been attacked that night, in just that way, based on just those criteria.

My client continues to live in a state of fear and hyper-vigilance, due to this trauma. As should you. When our own laws discriminate against a particular group, it encourages hatred and violence against that group, which is disturbing enough. But more disturbing yet, when membership in said group is open to subjective perception, it makes targets of us all. Homphobia based on seeming gay makes the world a more dangerous place for every person, however one identifies.

Three Ways Marriage Is A Queer Choice

“I don’t” is a strong statement, more so than “I’d rather not” or “I’ll pass for now.” It’s a position, not a preference. It’s also a provocative title for an article about same-sex marriage, like The New York Times‘ Sunday piece “Gay Couples, Choosing to Say ‘I Don’t.’”

The article features LGBT folks who are wary of diving head-first into marriage just because they can, and who want you to be wary too. Fair enough. We should all test the waters before making the choice to dive into anything. But this is where the article (and others like it) has a blind spot. It suggests that most same-sex couples are rushing into marriage with eyes shut or blinded by novelty, and overlooks the fact that, to many of us, the choice of marriage is a highly informed one.

Here are three ways that I find nuptials to be a liberating queer choice — for straight and gay couples alike.

It’s a Choice

Traditionally, marriage may have been predicated on one man dragging a woman by the hair and throwing her at the feet of another man. But it has evolved far from these roots, from women being property to women proposing.

Today women and men are choosing marriage with eyes wide open, having spent years together. Years of arguing and cohabitating and compromising; rupturing trust and repairing it; failing at sex, failing better at sex until getting it righter than a one-night-stand ever could; learning to recognize each other’s emotions and verbalizing them with empathy; surviving deaths and illnesses together; supporting each other creatively in careers and the arts and as parents. We’ve come a long way since the final scene of the 1967 film The Graduate, in which a young couple rails against their parents by breaking up a traditional wedding, only to abruptly commit to each other with blinders on — the way their parents likely did. Now when we say “I do,” we know what we’re getting into. We’re awake at the wheel, fueled by the power to choose.

The word “queer” has always emphasized rousing choice as opposed to sleepwalking conformity. Those who identify as queer might consider this when staking out an “I don’t” posture.

It’s Ironic

Queer sensibility is inspired by the ironic. The Times article quoted the filmmaker John Waters, who said, “I always thought the privilege of being gay is that we don’t have to get married or go in the Army.” The quip grabs attention through its eloquent, provocative irony.

But these days, many couples enter marriage aware of its many ironies. More than ever there exists a queer understanding that weddings are not ends in themselves — or beginnings, for that matter. They are collaborative performances that we stop for on a rocky train ride. This isn’t to say that weddings can’t be fairy-tale bliss, because there’s a glossy theatrical way in which they can. Nor can it be said that weddings aren’t disasters. There’s a backstage (and sometimes an onstage) way in which they always are. But embracing these ironies and multiple realities and negotiating between fantasy and reality — as queer artists and thinkers have always done — is how we make our lives, and our marriages, work.

The juiciest irony of all is the inclusive nature of same-sex marriage, as opposed to its commonly critiqued exclusivity. By participating in marriage, LGBT folks are finding kindred experiences with many straight folks who share in a queer approach to marriage, one that celebrates individuals and individual couples rather than a rigid position, tradition, or dogma.

It Recognizes One of Our Truths

Where there’s queerness, there’s truth. Where there’s queerness, there’s need.

At its core, queerness is not about being deviant for the sake of being deviant or preserving a deviant identity. Queer behaviors, performances, and identities spring from the desire for a life more livable, a life of recognition as we are and not as we’re expected to be. So when we want our primary relationships to be seen, acknowledged, and immediately understood — at Thanksgiving, at the hospital, at parent/teacher conferences, when we need to keep our apartments after our partners die, or at any social gathering when someone simply asks who we are and when we got married — we can appreciate the many ways that marriage allows our truths to be revealed.

As many noted in the Times piece, the law doesn’t change two people’s feelings about each other. I agree. But in our imperfect system, laws are the imperfect means we have to gain crucial recognition of our rights, our dignities, and our truths. One of the most difficult struggles for LGBT folks has been bringing the truth of our lives out from a culturally imposed darkness into light. If being in a long-term relationship with one person is what we want, I can’t think of anything queerer than getting married, to have an event that everyone unequivocally understands to be a “wedding,” by the light of day in front of our families, friends, and communities.

The first rule of improv comedy comes to mind here: You can respond to your scene partner with “yes, and…” (adding to what’s been said) or “yes, but…” (changing the direction of what’s been said), but you can’t say “no.” “No” brings the scene to a standstill, extinguishing all potential life.

We don’t have to say “I do” to marriage, whether we’re gay, straight, or otherwise. But taking the position of “I don’t” actually stops movement, evolution, and queerness from flourishing.

The Right To Bare Breasts


It’s hot.

So take off all your clothes… or at least the ones you can legally lose in public. A shirt, perhaps? As long as you’re not dining at the Four Seasons, go for it! Guys in New York City do it all the time! And gals? Well…

Last summer — which rivaled this one in its Al-Gore-foreshadowed, end-of-times heat — I was walking on a Manhattan street when I noticed a naked back ahead of me. It appeared to be that of a petite, professional woman. Her shoulder-length, strawberry blonde hair was neatly cut and styled. She wore Capri pants, flats and a small purse over her left shoulder. But unless there were seashells or pasties on the other side, she was completely topless — a fact that the hateful looks of passers-by from the other direction seemed to confirm. Now, the day was a scorcher. Doffing the top is logical, I thought. But is it legal? I didn’t know. I also didn’t know why I cared.

Come to think of it, why did anyone care? The man with the disdainful eyebrows, or the giggling gaggle of teens, or the woman of the hand-on-hip-superiority, dangling cigarette and grave eyes? No one could fathom the woman’s shirtlessness as a right and/or choice, so instead, we all indulged in aggravated confusion. Did she have a costume malfunction on the way to work? (Corporate casual from the waist down, after all.) Were we witnessing a meltdown? Was she insane?

Then I changed the channel from confusion to curiosity. Was she a performance artist? An activist, perhaps? Maybe it’s legal, I pondered, and we’re all the fools! Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! Yup, with this last thought I was right.

Since 1992, it has been legal for women in New York state to bare their chest in public for non-commercial activity, just as it is for men. Nor is New York alone in this regard: several states have similar laws, and there is a demand for more to follow suit. (Go Topless Day — an annual protest seeking gender equality across the globe — took place earlier this week). Unfortunately, there are far too many people who are ignorant of this law — like me, last summer — and even more people who actively judge and even police women for exercising this right.

Not only did I learn about the law that day, but in under a minute on Google, I also discovered the identity of my agitator-by-default — an activist named Moira Johnston. (Given the legality of bare breasts in New York, it’s worth considering how quickly I found this one particular woman). After reading about Ms. Johnston online, I contacted her via email to pick her brain. She explained that she first chose to go “top-free” during a yoga class because:

“I simply wanted to exercise without a shirt. When other adults responded by complaining, I realized it is an issue that our culture may need to address. I made a choice to regularly demonstrate in public after that experience.”

When I asked Johnston why she thought people often react angrily to her as a top-free pedestrian, she said, “[i]t threatens their sense of the status quo, and is therefore intimidating.” Johnston also added there are many people who “view exposing the female body as an overtly sexual or flirtatious act” and are therefore threatened by it. Her observation poses an important question: Would bare breasts be threatening to us if we hadn’t been conditioned to blame male sexual impulses on the female body, and thus brainwashed to fear female sexuality, since the dawn of time? On every continent, in every culture, and within every major religion? An online video interview with Johnston (which has since been taken down) exemplified this internalized demonization of the body female. While Johnston discussed her choice to be top-free in New York’s Union Square, several pedestrians abruptly approach her, including a woman who cries out, “Jesus don’t like that!”

Really? As a friend of mine quipped, “Did Jesus not breastfeed?” How did this woman know what Jesus likes? Why wouldn’t Jesus like the sight of a woman’s breasts? Was this irritated bystander implying that Jesus liked boys? Or does her statement imply something more complex than even she was aware, something we see in almost every religion that encourages women to cover their skin: namely, that women’s bodies are a malevolent, seductive disruption of male power? But if this was her point, how interesting — disturbing? — that a woman appointed herself the “breast police” while simultaneously, arguably, a victim of the same regime.

The impact of social power on all of our systems — religious, political, psychological — is easily overlooked. If people never challenged the status quo, women and African-Americans would still be disenfranchised, we would have no female rabbis or ministers, and homosexuality and transgender identifications would still be considered mental “disorders.” Yet despite these formerly controversial milestones that are very much today’s “normal,” we still cling tightly, and lazily, to other social norms in ways that unjustly police our neighbors, even within our own communities.

By doing so we also contribute to hate crimes, if only inadvertently. As President Obama recently pointed out in his famous impromptu speech on the shooting of Trayvon Martin, we remain in the dark if we fail to link common prejudice (nervously clutching a purse when a black man walks onto an elevator) to needless violence (Trayvon’s death). Parallel links can be made with a host of minority communities, including LGBT people and most certainly women. Too many times have we heard violent crimes against women explained by the words, “she asked for it.” When we operate from a place of bias, rather than curiosity, we may unnecessarily, even egregiously, take “police work” into our own hands.

But change is on the horizon. After being arrested and detained for “indecent exposure” in May 2012, and repeatedly informing NYPD officers, in her own words, that “it is LEGAL for females to go top-free, just as males may do,” Moira Johnston filed action against the city for false arrest. Nine months later, in February 2013, Johnston reports that:

“The NYPD did send out a notice at 10 consecutive roll calls to inform police that it is legal, and that topless females are not to be subject to punitive action if a crowd forms around them. It is a police officer’s duty to protect the top-free person and disperse the crowd accordingly.”

Can we all agree to send a copy of that memo to the police within us? Imagine a group of women enjoying the summer sun top-free in a public park. Undisturbed. No controversy. No activists, and no breast police. Just people enjoying the freedom they’re entitled to, and the rest of us focusing not on them, but on the option we have to do the same.

She’s So Trauma

“Omigod, she’s so drama!” his friends jeer at him, laughing.

The word “drama” goes off like an alarm; the punitive voices from his past ringing in his head: “Don’t play like a girl, don’t talk like a girl, don’t act like a girl, don’t cry like a girl, DON’T BE DRAMATIC LIKE A GIRL!” Like a fugitive running from the law, he’s in a perpetual state of emergency, though he knows not what he’s done.

The phrase “she’s so drama” is used to needle someone who acts too “girly” (the “she”) by expressing more emotion than social conventions allow (the “drama”). This dramatic “she” or “drama queen” is a character we’ve come to know as both annoying and hilarious, especially when a man inhabits the role. (Bill Hader’s portrayal of a shrieking fireman on Saturday Night Live is a recent example). But if we consider the internal life of such a person, as in the vignette above, as well as studies showing that people underestimate the severity of social pain, we might ask ourselves whether he (or “she”) could be the victim of a social trauma, the trauma of being viewed, treated, and dismissed as “like a girl” (deemed the worst possible thing for a man to resemble), rather than the perpetrator of an indulgent “drama.” And if this is the case, why are we laughing?

Women have been stigmatized for heightened emotion throughout history. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote that intense affect in females indicated a “wandering womb” (the word “hysteria” was later coined from the Greek word “hysterika,” meaning “uterus”). Western physicians later explained hysteria as sexual deprivation in women, prescribing “massage to orgasm” as the “cure.” In 1895, Sigmund Freud linked hysteria to sexual repression in women and developed psychoanalysis, in part, as the “cure.”

Fortunately, the last century has given us Erving Goffman’s Stigma, Michel Foucoult’s The History of Sexuality, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Nancy Chodorow’s Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistomology of the Closet, and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, to name only a few works placing traumas related to misogyny and homophobia in a social context, and spotlighting the subtle spectrum of anxieties lived by anyone other than a perfectly heterosexual, perfectly masculine, perfectly powerful, cool, calm, and collected man — a “stoic king” as opposed to a “drama queen,” a “he” vs. a “she.”

The American Psychiatric Association has helped maintain this binary of stoic, healthy “he” vs. dramatic, pathological “she.” For example, the APA’s third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (“DSM-III”) defined post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) as experiencing “an event that is outside the range of human experience.” This definition was challenged on the ground that the words “human experience” were, as psychotherapist Laura Brown wrote, viewed through the narrow lens of “the dominant class”: white, young, able-bodied, educated men (stoic kings?). In other words, to be understood as a victim of trauma, one would have to experience war, plane crashes, massacres, or events of such magnitude that even Bruce Willis’s Die Hard-ened John McClane character wouldn’t survive emotionally unscathed.

If that was the baseline for clinical trauma, what was the implied diagnosis for those whom society pressures to conform, to contort themselves, to keep secrets, or to conceal shame? How would we classify people who simply can’t walk our streets with a sense of safety because they are perceived as less than “manly”? Drama queens? Failed kings? (We might consider here that kings don’t “play” the role of “king”; their power comes from how they’re treated.)

The newly released DSM-V is more descriptive regarding gender than previous editions. It defines PTSD as the experience of events involving “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation” and acknowledges that women have a “greater likelihood of exposure to traumatic events such as rape and other forms of interpersonal violence.” While this is certainly a step toward greater empathy and understanding, the manual could go even further. It could, for example, acknowledge and describe various and specific states of helplessness, heightened affect, and hyper-vigilance into which people are rendered when they are targeted for being less than manly, or less than desirable to men. The little girl who is constantly ignored may seem as anxiously alert as the girl who is touched inappropriately or the girl who is told she is “ugly” and “fat” every day of her life. Or the boy who internalizes his parents’ palpable disappointment when he can’t catch a ball may seem as panicky as the boy who is called “faggot” every day of his life, or as the boy who is beaten unconscious for seeming effeminate, or as any of the aforementioned girls. Without making such scenarios explicit, we run the risk of dismissing signs of trauma for being mere flights of drama.

Not only are those who suffer from traumas of the “not boy”/”not man”/”not manly” variety oft-dismissed, but we also tend to laugh at them. In the SNL sketch referenced above, Bill Hader shrieks excessively in a high-pitched “girly” voice, expressing more emotion than appears necessary over the break-up of a two-week relationship, and disrupting the mellow masculine vibe at the firemen’s fundraiser by vogueing to a club song containing the lyrics “all eyes on me.” Clearly he’s “making a scene.” Hilarious! Or is it? At the same time, his intense affect, shortness of breath, blood curdling shrieks, and ungrounded body indicate the severe suffering of one who has been made to feel helpless and unsafe. Hader intends to make us laugh, but he commits to this character so deeply that a dark and complicated truth reveals itself beneath the comic veneer.

So why do we laugh at “her” when “she” clearly suffers? Many explanations have been offered across the centuries. According to Aristotle, we laugh out of contempt for the “ridiculous.” Italian Renaissance author Castiglione said we laugh at exaggerated “affectation,” while Shakespeare’s Hamlet advised the court actors to avoid a “whirlwind of passion” or else risk getting “whipped for o’erdoing Termagant.” (Termagant, incidentally, was shorthand for an overbearing woman.) English author Henry Fielding wrote that of the most laughable vices is “vanity.” Throughout history we’ve found it acceptable to laugh at another’s suffering if we can write them off as un-masculine, excessive, artificial, and therefore vain — and perhaps we’ve become conditioned to think these words are synonymous with each other. It’s certainly easier to dismiss other people with laughter — denying our own vulnerability (femininity?) by doing so — than to identify with their palpable plight.

Laughter isn’t the problem here, though. I laughed at Hader’s sketch; it was fresh and ticklingly uncomfortable. Laughter grabs our attention. It’s where we go next that matters — hopefully to a place of curiosity and empathy as opposed to one of contempt and derision.

As psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin writes, “[t]he recognition of pain and vulnerability, the wound to the phallic version of masculinity, offers a release: a letting go of the destructive illusion of … stoic loneliness and denial.” With white men leading in suicide rates among all demographic groups, we can safely assume that there is more suffering taking place than the “stoic king” persona allows for, and that there are far more “trauma queens” in need of recognition than meets the eye.

A final fleeting image from the 1998 Academy Awards: Italian actor Roberto Benigni accepted two Oscars for Life Is Beautiful, physically gesturing with exuberant “dramatic” excess. Later, the stoical writer Tom Stoppard accepted his Oscar for screenwriting and said, in calm, measured tones, “I feel like Roberto Benigni on the inside.” Like Stoppard, perhaps we can learn to recognize the “drama” and the underlying trauma we see in women and men not just as “hers” but as belonging to all of us.

Michael Douglas Liberates as Liberace

Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderberg’s highly buzzed-about final bow, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, has arrived on HBO, and it has made Douglas’ father uncomfortable. In an interview with ABC, Douglas said, “My father was uncomfortable with–,” before pausing. With what? With the furs and makeout scenes, to which the press constantly, anxiously directs our attention? Not exactly. The actor continued: “With my death scene.” Douglas had been diagnosed with stage-4 throat cancer prior to filming Candelabra, so his mortality was understandably on his father’s mind. But with all the talk of these “brave” straight actors stepping into “flamboyant” roles, Douglas’ poignant admission may clarify the discomfort this film more generally evokes, revealing what lies beneath (or behind) male anxieties about homosexuality, feminine behaviors or anything we associate with vulnerability: the fear of death.

Fear of death “will culminate in a disparagement of the feminine,” writes professor Jerry S. Piven, explaining that internal conflicts that men have about women (e.g., lust vs. rejection, love vs. loss, power vs. vulnerability, etc.) are often “displaced onto those feared and detested women, and they become sirens, murderous temptresses … while the men gain moral victory.” Ironically, two of Michael Douglas’ iconic characters are seduced by “murderous temptresses,” in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. So when the press marvels at his “risky”/”risqué” turn in Candelabra, it may have less to do with him kissing a man than with his willful and thorough embodiment of a “temptress” (a seductively feminine rather than victoriously masculine character) and the great vulnerability he reveals, which we’ve never before seen from him. Perhaps it’s no accident that he embraces this effeminate role at a time when he has no choice but to confront his own mortality.

Douglas gives an emboldened performance, and though he consistently moves and speaks with a mellifluous, feminine sensuality throughout the film, what’s most uncanny is that he seems to be playing Michael Douglas. Rather than impersonate his sparkly subject superficially, his flame is lit from within, and as if by anesthetizing his own famously gruff, straight-leading-man-persona, he exposes a playful, gentle, compassionate version of himself. (Watching him in the role, one imagines that he understands Liberace’s vanity and struggle between public and private life much more deeply than initially meets the eye). As the complicated, glitzy piano man, Douglas is confidently life-affirming and love-affirming and boldly death-aware, reminding us, by contrast, that when we limit our expressive possibilities, we deny ourselves access to such empathy and creativity, instead perpetuating fear and hate (of death, of women and of those more vulnerable than ourselves).

Do all men have to wait for death to flutter so close to be allowed such freedom? Douglas praises his co-star, Matt Damon, for risking “career death” and taking an effeminate, gay role while still in his prime, but Damon is an outlier among his peers, and films about gay, effeminate or just plain vulnerable men are nearly nonexistent, even to this day. (Behind the Candelabra was turned down by every major film studio.) Are men and boys expected to limit their expression to forms of dominance and aggression until death taps on their doors?

Here we might consider the great resources within women: the willingness to play a range of emotions and gendered behaviors onscreen among them. Studies show that women cope with stress, grief and loss more openly and seek support (including mental health treatment) more frequently than men do, suggesting that they generally have a stronger grasp on researcher Brene Brown’s conclusion that “[v]ulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is courage.” If we allowed more men to believe those words, we might see fewer of them anxiously grasping at illusions of virility and impenetrability, as if to cheat death. We might see less aggression and derision at the expense of women, gay men, effeminate men and emotionally sensitive men. For example, when Ben Affleck presented an award to his good friend Damon before filming for Candelabra began, he felt the compulsion to facetiously impersonate Damon’s father, saying, “Terrific, Matt. I can’t wait to see you up there blowing Michael Douglas under a piano.” In contrast, Candelabra producer Jerry Weintraub says that while on set during a sex scene between Damon and Douglas, he turned anxiously to Damon’s mother, who simply stated, “That was beautiful.”

Hopefully we won’t view this as a masculine/feminine divide for long. The new Star Trek film, for example, indicates that men embracing vulnerability could be the way of the future. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto (as Kirk and Spock, respectively) give wonderfully sensitive performances, and although we are reminded that their characters are both unquestionably straight (Kirk constantly flirts with every species of female, while Spock frequently kisses Zoe Saldana), the film is undeniably centered on the love story (or “bromance,” if you like) between the two men, both of them affected and changed by the possibility of the other’s death. This focus on a male/male emotional relationship only strengthens the story rather than weakening it, allowing both actors to play a variety of emotions, freely and without restraint. We can see more of this if we allow it. Men don’t have to be at death’s door, or play the most bedazzled guy who ever was, in order to express themselves with emotional freedom.

Michael Douglas’ performance as Liberace is vital, revealing what is possible beyond fear of loss, fear of emasculation or fear of death. Maybe soon we’ll see more leading men playing emotionally diverse roles and more films about women and gender-nonconforming people, and maybe more of these people will be able to play themselves. As for the rest of us, perhaps we’ll risk more discomfort as we perform our own lives, enriching them with vulnerability rather than enshrouding them in fear.

American Psycho(analysis)

125282-124069“Man up, dudes.”

This was how American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis summarized, via Twitter, his recent op-ed for Whether reflecting a conscious decision or something less self-aware, the tweet helpfully and revealingly distills the gay writer’s piece down to its basic intent: to split the LGBT communities in two, pitting, for example, “manly dudes” against “femmy queens,” “real” guys against stereotypes, and “us” against “them.” It’s not entirely clear why Ellis must bifurcate thoughts, people and factions throughout his article, but exploring his consistent tendency to do so may give us insight into more than just the prolific author himself and can further serve as an illustration of how the most vulnerable members of our communities become the primary recipients of social aggression, even from within our own communities.

Ellis begins his op-ed by making points on which we can all agree: that it would be nice if coming out didn’t have to be a “brave” and “daring” act in 2013; that equality would feel more real if all newly out public figures weren’t made into talismans; and that the LGBT community is often spoken about in a homogenized way that carries oppressive expectations, like any other generalizing norm. Nevertheless, as much as anyone may agree with these valid points, the author can’t seem to make them without angrily contradicting himself. At first he acknowledges that the aforementioned limitations pervading queer lives are a result of what he calls “tyrannical homophobia,” particularly within the straight-male-centered (“dude”) sports world. But then he abruptly turns on a dime and blames queer people, specifically those he calls the “gay magical elf,” the “simpering Ka-ween” and the “stereotypical” (i.e., effeminate) gay man, for bringing these painful limitations upon themselves. (In noteworthy contrast to the “elf gays,” he aligns himself with another category of his own creation, the “chill gay dude.”)

How can this split in Ellis’ thinking be understood? Why must he attack some of the most vulnerable members of his own community for themselves being targets of attack? Founding psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theories may help to explain this. Klein theorized that in states of anxiety, we split “self” and “other.” We create a “them vs. us,” pushing away our vulnerability and need. In such moments, we fail to hold both “good” and “bad” feelings; we continue to split and project (maybe even tweet) rigid notions of “good” vs. “bad” as adults. Perhaps Ellis’ contradictions reflect a lack of Kleinian integration regarding his identity as a gay man, a dilemma of “good Bret” vs. “bad Bret.” Perhaps identification with the “elf gays” would make him feel like a victim (“bad Bret”), whereas identifying with a straight “dude” makes him feel powerful (“good Bret”). His article seems to support such a theory, as he writes that “straight dudes” often tweet homophobic slurs at him, and that he simply, “shrug[s] it off,” suggesting that the queer targets of his own slurs should do the same and “man up,” as he tweeted.

(A split between “man/good” and “woman[ly]/bad” is not terribly surprising for a guy whose film writing career is bookended by American Psycho, about a man who horrifically decimates women with power tools, and the as-yet-unreleased The Canyons, whose extended pre-release clip involves Lindsay Lohan being assaulted by an angry man as she searches for her cell phone.)

This read might be of little concern if Ellis weren’t a renowned author with a Twitter following in the hundreds of thousands. But he is, and his words, projections, tweets and articles potentially influence those who struggle with concepts of identity, gender and/or sexuality — and who may even use his words to justify acts of hate against effeminate men, transgender people and/or women. Consider the “them against us” mentality being touted by the Gaybros, an online group that, like Ellis, accuses “stereotypical” gay men of alienating them because of their identification with straight “dudes.”

If Ellis wanted simply to critique our society’s harmful tendency to categorize people, few would argue with him. But argument seems to be what he intends. He does not appear content to privately enjoy his self-identification as a “real” gay “dude.” Instead, he insists on asserting his “dudeness” by publicly splitting himself from the “elf gays.” For Ellis there seems to be no realness, no masculinity, no power (and perhaps no self) without a despised, feminine, vulnerable foil. When he writes that he was “ostracized” by GLAAD (the very organization he chides for creating the “magical gay elf” phenomenon, and for throwing “hissy fit[s]“) in being disinvited from their awards ceremony this year, I can’t help but imagine another scenario: Ellis as a high school student, getting picked for a sports team, but then suddenly accusing the effeminate gay boy sitting on the bench (still unpicked) for rejecting him. One wonders why Ellis would even want to attend the GLAAD awards if his status as a “chill gay dude” is working so well for him.

The author also claims further victimization by the “gay elite,” whom he says “punish” him for not living a “normal” gay life. This rhetorical move is what I call the bully defense, in which those associated with minority groups are accused of being “sanctimonious,” “on high” and “elite” by those who attack them, sometimes with brute force. (Refer to the garden of American politics to witness the flourishing of this defense.) Sadly, by using this framework, Ellis only reinforces the problem he seeks to undo. He is certainly not alone in wanting to explode stereotypes and expand notions of queer identity, but as queer theorist Heather Love says, “[r]esisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable,” and by splitting queer people into “elves” and “dudes,” Ellis does just that. He can’t deny that the types of characters GLAAD has drawn attention to, those he writes off as “bitch clowns” and “queeny best friends,” not only exist in real life but are among the most vulnerable people on Earth. Acceptance of our community’s most targeted members in mass media only means more possibilities for all of us, not less.

There may be hope yet. For example, Ellis has publicly “apologized” to director Kathryn Bigelow for his misogynistic outbursts about her last year. (He credits his mother for helping him with this apology, which could mean his primary caregiver is helping him to integrate “good Bret” and “bad Bret,” à la Kleinian theory.) Perhaps, in similar fashion, he will eventually be ready to discuss queer identities with less rage, and with the capacity to consider a variety of selves, not just “elf” vs. “dude.”

In the meantime, we might all reflect upon our own damaging tendencies to split our communities. Media representations of our lives may be limited, but we can create and encourage many more, including those that depict us as vulnerable. Owning our most vulnerable selves, as opposed to destroying them, allows us to move. Splitting, on the other hand, only keeps us stuck.

Equality Crept Into The Wedding

family-76781_640My brother in-law’s family of origin is two gay men — my husband and I — or, at least that’s how he symbolized us at his wedding.

Over the course of our thirteen years together, my husband and I have found ourselves to be the novelty “wild card” at weddings, including our own; the image of our togetherness often evoking some mix of discomfort, fear, awe, and/or the hope of change yet to come. But as we both read verse during my brother in-law’s ceremony — the only ones asked to stand and represent him in this manner before the hundred or so guests — it struck me that change has arrived. We had the privilege to be recognized not only for what we were but for who we were: a married same-sex couple and, quite simply, his immediate family.

The past decade has taught all three of us a lot about family units, my husband and his brother having lost their mother, along with the loss of several other relatives between us, in that time. Family units can develop deliberately or accidentally, forming out of need as easily as they form out of want. They shift, morph, lose and gain parts, and can revitalize entire relationship systems through processes of adaptation.

 My husband embodied this adaptation while toasting his brother and new bride with the gravity of a parent, the teasing of a sibling, and the sharp reflection of one who has shared in great loss and in the rebuilding of life with great hope. The flame of our family unit burned strong before relatives and friends that my husband, his brother, and I have made efforts to cultivate relationships with since their mother’s death–including faces they hadn’t seen in two decades or hadn’t even met before that day. Our identity as a family was clear and was only made clearer by my brother in-law’s choice to keep us front-and-center.

Perhaps more importantly, the guests recognized us as the groom’s primary family exactly as we were. Gone were the days of disguises or omissions, gone the circa 1996 hijinks of The Birdcage, in which a gay couple attempts to deceive their son’s fiance’s family into believing one of them is a woman. My new sister in-law’s entire extended family approached and embraced us, eager to meet and connect with those closest to the groom. (“We hear you’re great cooks!”) My husband’s cousin introduced her four year-old daughter to us using the word “husband” as effortlessly as if she had said “Disney.” My grandfather-in-law, a lifelong Republican who now suffers from dementia, couldn’t remember where he was, but he did hug me when he saw me, laughed with recognition, and remembered my name.

Regardless of how the Supreme Court responds this summer in the DOMA and Proposition 8 cases, marriage equality has already been woven into the fabric of our culture so intricately that no laws — and no amount of fear or hate — can unthread its effects. Families are forming, transforming, shrinking, growing, and sometimes staying the same, with a great deal more choice, recognition, and acceptance than ever before. Same-sex spouses can be spotted as the first in line for the groom at art deco altars, and as the last to say bon voyage to the newlyweds on a radiant Sunday morning-after. I know this because it happened to us at an unforgettable wedding last weekend. My husband and I are no longer his brother’s immediate family, of course; as I said, families change. That mantle now passes to his lovely wife, and our generation–with all of its beautiful varieties and evolutions–gains another happily married couple.

To Be, Or To Be “Well”: How Therapy Works

A guy walks into a therapist’s office — sadly this is no joke — and says, “I just read an article in the New York Times, and I’ve got some questions. What do you know about my condition? What’s your success rate with people like me? When will I get well?”

More and more, psychotherapists are fielding such questions due to the recent onslaught of articles proclaiming that short-term “evidence-based” practices — e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT — “work” better than long-term psychodynamic treatments. The bottom line is, there is “evidence” supporting the efficacy of both. But I don’t intend to go there, or to define “CBT” and “psychodynamic” for the many people have no idea what the terms even mean; to do so would only fan the flames of the Republican vs. Democrat-style wars between the two. Instead, I’d like to discuss how therapy works (all therapy) as opposed to why it works, and how specific people, such as those in the LGBT communities, are affected when we presume to know what makes someone mentally and emotionally “well”.

First, what does “well” even mean? We can all agree that our bodies are unwell when attacked by the common cold, cancer, or even ourselves (e.g., self-mutilation or starvation). But who determines the wellness of the boy who feels more like a girl, or the girl who wants to marry a girl, or the girl who feels ostracized for lacking “sex appeal”? One such arbiter is presumably Harriet Brown, the latest writer (and non-mental health professional) published in the Times this month, who asserts that motivational therapy techniques based on “scientific research” are “working,” while clinicians who are “good with people” — as opposed to being “scientific” in their approach — are wasting your time. The idea of wellness underlying Brown’s op-ed piece is summed up in comparisons she makes between psychotherapy and buying a car: Brown quotes a psychologist who cites studies indicating that less than half of psychotherapists use “motivational techniques”, and who reasons, “You wouldn’t buy a car under those conditions”.

This is a conveniently tidy analogy, but the wellness of a car is objectively determined and the emotional wellness of a human being is, obviously, not. Cars have malfunctions, not subjective experience. They don’t have to conceal their sexual desires fearing discrimination or physical attack. Cars do not privately suffer from identity conflicts or body dysmorphia. (I’ve yet to hear of an anxious SUV that feels like a Mini Cooper on the inside.) If “well” for us means our “parts” are in order, who gets to decide what our sexual, emotional, and gender-expressive “parts” should look like? Who can say if we’re running properly?

When a client enters my office I don’t know them until I know them, and knowing a person requires time, patience, and the wisdom to dispense with assumptions. I may use “evidence-based” directives at the beginning of a treatment with someone who can’t focus, or washes her hands until they bleed, or starves himself (and may refer them for medical treatment, if necessary). But even if such a client were to increase focus, reduce hand washing, or begin to eat, is that where treatment ends? Is she well? Engine fixed, exterior painted, let’s sell this car?

Let’s say a lesbian-identified client with severe anxiety enters therapy. We could use scientific research to explain why there are more straight-identified women in the world than women like her. We could also find studies that explain why she might have anxiety as a result. We could even prescribe evidence-based techniques to help reduce her symptoms. But would any of this validate her unique experience or give her space to discuss how she lives, how she struggles, and how she survives — not all lesbians with anxiety but She, with her specific history and challenges?

The benefits of psychotherapy are in being seen, heard, and having the space to, as psychoanalyst Donnell Stern says, “formulate experience”– often, experience that never before had the chance to breathe. Therapy is ideally a safe relationship in which to discuss how our bodies, desires, and sociopolitical contexts impact our lives. It is an opportunity to discuss the undiscussable and how this very lack of discussion has influenced our behaviors — a point I have made on Huffpost earlier this year, regarding the discourse on guns and mental health. No matter what method, style, type, or technique is being used, good therapy allows one to be; to awaken to one’s adaptive, or perhaps maladaptive, patterns; and to consider the propensity for these patterns, once “healed,” to strike again in another form. (Not unlike fat cells accumulating in one’s arms after one has had liposuction everywhere else– I’ve seen it happen.) Therapy helps us to be us, to genuinely be, feel, and think in relationship with another.

As I stated above, a variety of therapy approaches can be useful at different times, but to be inundated with New York Times-endorsed articles about types of therapy that “work,” fix,” or make us “well,” to the exclusion of other types, is damaging. It is damaging not only for therapists who have dedicated their lives to the art of empathic recognition, but also for the multitude of people whose complex stories, needs, and longings remain unsung — including lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people who are regularly told that they are “not well” by much of society.

Renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jack Drescher once explained in a paper how “traditional scientific viewpoints discredit personal voices” and, consequently, how his approach to therapy had shifted from “a scientific view…toward a hermeneutic one,” particularly because of his identity as a gay man and his desire to help other queer people.

All of us deserve to have our unique stories heard in a therapeutic context, beyond our “symptom” pictures and beyond the “scientific” solution to our “problems.” As a client recently said to me, “getting well implies returning to the way I once was, but therapy has helped me to adapt and to grow. Simply erasing my symptoms would be like retreating, and why would I want to do that?”