Psychoanalysis and CBT go to Couples Therapy

*Originally posted on Mark O’Connell, LCSW-R’s Psychology Today column, “Quite Queerly.” 

Inspired by an article in The Guardian, from January 7, 2016, titled, “Therapy Wars: the revenge of Freud,” as well as the never-ending debates about psychoanalysis and CBT.

Cast of Characters:

Psychoanalysis — the original form of psychotherapy that involves the unconscious and talking about the past, and does not promise instant results.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — a form of psychotherapy that involves improving thought and behavioral patterns in the present, and does promise instant results.

Couples Therapy — a form of therapy used to resolve relationship conflict. 

———

Couples Therapy: So how long have you been together?

CBT: [Exasperated] Since the ‘60s… Wait, did that sound negative?  [Takes deep breath. Tries again.] Since the ‘60s. [Nods approvingly]

 

Psychoanalysis: [Rolling eyes] I’d been around for decades when this young thing barged into my life.

CBT: Don’t patronize me.

Psychoanalysis: Here we go with the defenses! Honestly, we’ve been at each other from the start. In fact, the day we met…

CBT: Wait, really? You’re gonna waste our time with the past? How about the here and now? Namely you! All talk, no plans, no action. I mean, we still haven’t taken our honeymoon. We’ve just talked about taking it for fifty years.

Psychoanalysis: Ah, this again. You know perfectly well that if we took our honeymoon now, we might feel good for a few days, but it won’t last. Anything meaningful in life requires time and reflection and TALK and you’re resistant to all of that. But hey, you want to take our honeymoon? Oh-kaaay. How would that make you feel?

CBT: [to Couples Therapy] You see? You see how he bamboozles me into doing NOTHING with his condescending nonsense?! [To Psychoanalysis] Nothing you say can be trusted — or scientifically proven. You’re not a spouse, you’re a scam artist.

Psychoanalysis: Wow. I’m not even gonna touch that “scam artist” business — I expect you to project all over me. But He? How dare you?! You know I’ve (mostly) been a She since the ‘90s! You’re seriously gonna shove the same dull, superficial, ideas in my face without listening to me in return, without noticing the changes I’ve made? How can you sit here like a victim and pretend that I’ve been on high, preaching classic structural/drive theory to you all these years when I’ve totally adapted to a relational/intersubjective/ interpersonal approach over the past two decades? Do you even know me anymore? [Collapses into tears].

CBT: There there, stop that. Don’t give in to your negative self-talk. Try tapping your shoulder five times.

[Psychoanalysis continues to cry]

Couples Therapist: OK, it sounds like you’ve been in conflict for a long time. Psychoanalysis, I hear how invalidated you feel and how hurt you are.

Psychoanalysis:  [Still crying] Don’t tell me how I feel, let me tell you.

Couples Therapist: Alright. CBT, how are you feeling?

CBT: Um, who cares how I feel? It’s what I think that matters. And I think he — or she, or ze, or whatever they want to be called —

Psychoanalysis: [Through sobs] Stop invalidating me.

CBT: — is manipulating me.

Couples Therapist: [To CBT] You don’t believe Psychoanalysis is really upset?

CBT: I believe my brain hurts because whenever she cries there’s nothing I can do to make it stop!

Couples Therapy: So when Psychoanalysis cries you feel ineffectual. Did I get that right?

CBT: No, I think she’s ineffectual when she cries. I think she wastes my time and my money, with a lot of blank staring and crying and sitting on the couch — sometimes several days a week — while life passes us by. And I want a divorce. That’s what I think!

[Pause]

Psychoanalysis: [Stops crying. Suddenly poised]. Listen here, my cocky little friend. You may think you’ve got it all figured out now, with your self-talk and your flow charts and your three steps to happiness and your obsessive need to reduce human life to uncomplicated robotic parts! But you’ll see, somehow, someway — yes, I just referenced a mediocre Madonna song from the nineties, and no I’m not allowing the momentary shame I’m feeling as a result to consume me, and not because I’m “changing my core beliefs” about Madonna, but because I’m talking, yes TALKING!, through my anxiety about quoting her drivelly song, damnit — anyway, as I was saying, one day, while you’re all alone jerking off with one hand and typing up your schematic manifestos with the other – again, alone, did I say alone? – you’re gonna wish there was a warm, complex, human being – who CRIES – in the room with you, who you can see, and who listens and holds you, all of you, in her warm, irrational, impractical, imperfect, human mind.

[Pause]

Couples Therapy:  [Inhales deeply and instructively.] So, let’s take a moment. Can you both acknowledge how you affect each other? How you invalidate the other person and refuse to listen to their point of view? I think you both really want the same thing — to help make life more tolerable and meaningful for people, right? But you’re both too afraid to admit that. Too afraid to truly listen to the other person or let them know that you actually understand where they’re coming from. Why is that so hard?

CBT:  [Bursting into tears] I’m sorry. I know I’ve been an A-hole. I wouldn’t exist without you, Psychoanalysis. You are the shoulders I stand on, the wind beneath my wings — ugh, I just quoted a mediocre Bette Midler song from the eighties, and I’m blushing with mortification, but you know?, you’re right. It feels much better to talk about it than to hold it inside or to force myself to get over it with random dumb exercises. The truth is I feel safe and free when I’m with you and I actually come up with some of my best creative ideas when we’re just free-associating. But I get afraid sometimes that l love that too much and that m

y life will end before I get the chance to do something that makes sense — to the insurance companies.

Psychoanalysis: Thank you, CBT. I needed to hear that. I have to admit, you influence me too. Sometimes I find myself getting didactic and coachy, like you — especially when I need sleep or if I’m hungry or about to jump off a bridge, or if I need to be reimbursed by an insurance company — and I do feel more stable after I talk to myself with clear repetitive directions. I have you to thank for that.

[Psychoanalysis affectionately wraps CBT in her holding environment. They kiss. Cue mediocre music.]

Couples Therapy: Great work. That’s all we have time for today. So, who’s paying?

[Music stops suddenly. Psychoanalysis panics. CBT puffs up his chest, grins smugly, and convinces an insurance company to cover the session by describing it in terms of “measurable goals.” Psychoanalysis rolls her eyes. They argue. The progress they made is undone.]

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

Stop, Breathe, and Think: Tips for Effective Pre-Election Posting

*This post originally appeared on Truthdig.com.

Now is the winter of our political discontent. Republicans, Democrats and Facebook trolls are all hurling barbs like there’s no tomorrow — as if the day after we elect a president we won’t have to face one another.

I know political rhetoric always gets nasty before elections, but this time it’s especially contentious, if not threatening, and social media have helped make it worse. Posting allows us to reactively demonize one another instantly and without a second thought.

We need help.

The moment we open our laptops we’re smacked with ultimatums involving “us” versus “them!” And yes, we can singularly blame Donald Trump for rousing this primitive strategy of dehumanizing anyone who challenges us, but we can blame only ourselves for allowing it to flourish. When we succumb to finger-pointing (and penis contests), we establish what psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin calls “doer/done-to relations.” Which basically means that rather than creating neutral space among us to discuss our individual and collective concerns thoughtfully and reflectively, we split our thinking into binaries of good/bad, victim/attacker, boy/girl, white/black, straight/gay, big dick/little dick, populist/elitist, Christian/Muslim, truther/liar, worker/moocher, citizen/immigrant, capitalist/communist, gun-owner/communist, pro-lifer/communist, American/communist, and on and on. This approach precludes any possibility of moving toward empathy and understanding, or what Benjamin calls mutual recognition, either in life or on social media, where it’s obviously much easier to dehumanize people than it is in person.

America needs therapy. And as I say to couples and families who enter my office with angry, red faces, begging me to take one side over the other: If winning is the only way out, we’re all locked in.

The only way to move forward is to find mutual recognition. And to achieve that we need to learn to talk–or at least to post–better.

Here’s how I suggest we do that:

Safety first. There’s nowhere to go in a relationship unless everyone feels safe–physically, emotionally and mentally. Yes, it’s usually ideal to have a dialogue before cutting people out of our lives (or blocking them, as it were), but if you are threatened or harmed by hateful language, extricate yourself from the situation right away, whatever the perceived ramifications–loss of friendship, loss of love, loss of financial opportunity, etc. It’s just not worth getting hurt. You might even report those who write hateful things in your feed to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or whatever the site may be. But if you do feel safe enough and inspired to share a piece of your mind, and do not intend to harm someone else in doing so, then try the following.

Step away, breathe and think. Do not pass “Go,” do not post, do not do anything before you look away from your screen, take a breath–a real one that you actually enjoy–and think. Wait, I see you typing–stop that! I mean it. Step away from the device. Breathe. And think.

Now listen. No, really, listen. Carefully, but carefully, read over the information to which you want to respond and make sure you understand it. So much wasted time and needless vitriol can be avoided if you review a news story, post or provocative statement several times until you are certain of its meaning. For example: A simple post about how Bernie Sanders gets a free pass on his appearance at campaign events while Hillary Clinton must always be aware of her hair does not necessarily imply that the poster has an agenda to give Clinton a free pass on everything she’s ever done. Right? So after rereading the post and thinking it through, you would be wise to refrain from typing superfluous references to Benghazi or Clinton’s email server or America going to hell in a hand basket because of elitist, corporate greed and instead stick to the poster’s point–which in that case would be hair.

Now, repeat this as a mantra: “Politics are personal.” There is a point of view hidden within every volatile and/or categorical political post. Stop and reflect on what that point of view might be before choosing to respond. Take for example statements like: “Lock her up!” “Keep them out!” “The socialists are coming!” These battle cries are never without at least a tinge of misogyny, racism, ethnocentrism and/or xenophobia, none of which is a good look for anyone. But that does not mean that somewhere underneath those nasty layers there isn’t a naked emotional perspective that you can understand, if not empathize with. Consider that the users of such statements are actually speaking from a place of extreme disempowerment, isolation, fear and paranoia, rather than a position of power. Think of them as betas instead of alphas, as toddlers having tantrums as opposed to adults having thoughts. That isn’t by any means to say you should condone their incendiary remarks, but that by addressing only their apparent prejudices you will effectively get locked in a standoff, an endless debate, a cycle of doer/done-to relations. And you will overlook the point of entry from which the conversation can move forward: their personal feelings of being disempowered.

One for them, one for you. Prepare to share one of the points you believe the person who got your attention was trying to make and reflect it back to her or him with a tone of understanding. For example: “It sounds as if you’re saying that you are overtaxed and feeling left behind financially while it seems other people are getting economic breaks. Is that right?” or “I hear you saying that college was prohibitively expensive for you and you’ve been working hard for little reward and that feels unfair. I can see why you’d feel that way.” Now, once you’ve established a moment of reflection and recognition, you can move on to prepare one clear point of your own. For example: “By blaming minorities for your own financial struggles, you are encouraging people to harm one another based on a prejudice. Can you appreciate that?” or “Have you considered how exactly taking rights away from women and queer people and immigrants would help you to make more money?”

Rehearse. Type out the two thoughts on a screen where oopsy-posting isn’t possible–for example, a blank Word document, a memo app or an email draft with no addresses entered. Read over your statements. Again and again. Consider if they accurately reflect what you want to say. Edit accordingly. And if you have the opportunity to first speak these thoughts aloud to another person to get some feedback, do it.

Post. Now, finally, you can post your two statements: one that attempts to “hear” the original poster and another that makes a clear point of your own. This way you have offered a mode of discussion that can be a neutral exchange of thoughts and reflections instead of just endlessly combative reactions. Your potential interlocutor now has the opportunity to respond in kind, and, if he or she does, feel free to see where that can take you, following and repeating the steps above.

Disengage and/or block. If, however, the other person does not respond in kind and instead continues to blow hot offensive air at you, stinking up your wall with arbitrary hate speech as if from the mouth of a spambot with logorrhea, then disengage, and block if you feel it necessary.

 At the end of the day–as in any time of relational turmoil–you may have to accept the sad truth that you can’t reach someone who refuses to be reached. But at least you will know that you tried.

 

The Oscar Speech I Wanted This Year: Mya Taylor from “Tangerine”

*This article first appeared in The Huffington Post

“I have a dream”
–Martin Luther King Jr.

“I should have been a great many things”
–Louisa May Alcott

“I want to play a superhero. I want to be a Bond girl. I want to play a man. I want to play a white woman.” –Taraji P. Henson

2016-02-24-1456336431-9323581-IMG_4934.jpg
Mya Taylor. Photo courtesy of Mya Taylor.

I love the Oscars. Yes, the telecast is long and superficial, but the speeches (occasionally) remind us that movies are our dreams.
Actors talk about being transformed–both onscreen and in life–by the characters they play. (Hilary Swank’s acceptance speech for playing Brandon Teena–a transgender man who was brutally murdered–comes to mind, after which Swank became a spokesperson for the queer youth organization, The Hetrick-Martin Institute). And sometimes, actors whose bodies, or skin colors, or identities, we don’t often see in the limelight, take the stage. (Watch Hattie McDaniels accept the first Oscar ever won by a person of color–in 1939!–presented by actress Fay Bainter, who described the award as,”more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America – an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today, recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color,” followed by McDaniels herself calling it “a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future.”)

If movies are our collective dreams, they should inspire us to have the greatest American dream of all: the opportunity to be a great many things.

This is why so many of us are disheartened that, once again, the faces celebrated at the Oscars are all white; the nominated directors are all men (and Todd Haynes, the gay director of one of the year’s best films, Carol, which makes a great case for movies about women, is not one of them); and the passionate cries for diversity on screen over the years (e.g., hereherehere, and here) have not shaken Hollywood up enough to create or to cast more roles for actors who are not straight white men.

So I’ve chosen to celebrate what should be rather than complain about what is–77 years after Hattie McDaniels’ historic win. And to that end I commissioned a speech from the performer who moved me the most in 2015: Mya Taylor, from the critically acclaimed indie film, Tangerine.

Tangerine is an off-beat comedy that follows two transgender sex workers as they work a downtrodden Los Angeles intersection on Christmas Eve. It is a collaboration of director Sean Baker, and the two leading trans actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Ms. Taylor, whom Mr. Baker met at an LGBT center near the film’s location. Mr. Baker was inspired to make a movie about this part of L.A., which is very different from the one we often see in movies. He says,”I thought there must be some incredible stories that take place on that corner.” And he was right.

The palpable chemistry between the leads at once references and transcends classic buddy films, transporting us beyond the limitations of gender or race. As Alexandra, Taylor effectively conveys a fierce survivor who is driven by her dreams. We get a glimpse of the life she could be living as she sings “Toyland” at a local club, bathed in a soft, glamorous, light that contrasts the gritty, sweaty, tangerine, hue of the streets she calls home. Scenes like this are what I love most about movies: the chance to be embodied by people whose stories are unsung.

2016-02-24-1456337832-1131255-1.jpgMya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

 At the same time I love seeing the same actors get to play a variety of stories and dreams. Hollywood at its best–beyond the crappy movies, discrimination, and damaging stereotypes–provides both a spotlight on marginalized people and the chance to see those same people inhabit a spectrum of roles. It’s fantastic to think that Viola Davis has not only played women severely restricted by their race–as in the two parts for which she was nominated for Oscars, Doubt and The Help–but that she has also portrayed lives that those characters could only dream of living. (Such as, Annalise Keating on the show, How to Get Away With Murder, for which Davis won an Emmy–a role of gravitas, charisma, and complexity that we typically associate with straight white men, e.g., James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, etc.)
That’s why I’m celebrating Mya Taylor during this year’s Oscars. Performances like hers open doors and move back walls and enable us all to embrace the whole of an America that we love. I hope to see her be a great many things in the future. And with that, I give you, Mya Taylor:

[The following "speech" is based on my interview with Ms. Taylor. If she delivered this on a stage, she'd be wearing, "something amazing, with my tits pushed up to the ceiling." So please imagine this as you read.]
 

 When I was a kid I loved watching the Grammys (I was always a singer), and when someone I admired won, it was amazing. Because I thought, if that was me up there, I’d know that I worked hard for it and that it came from the heart.

“Tangerine” has changed my life.

I was nervous to play this part because I had just started my transition. I felt so unpretty. I didn’t look the way I wanted to. But I had to come out of those shades and present myself to the world. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few things to get something better. I found it within myself to do it. I thought: “Ok, this is an opportunity to do something with your life for once. Make the best out of the experience. Make the most of it.”

I didn’t know how many people would see the film. It’s touching to attend screenings, to go on stage and catch all the energy of the fans. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how touching it is, the friendship. They like when I give my wig to Kiki. (And that part was acting, let me tell you, I’m not about to take off my 22-inch hair to put on another bitches head…) But I love to meet people who are moved by it. They like when I sing. My character wanted to sing so badly that she paid to sing. And who knows why the club manager made her pay. Does he make everybody pay? Maybe he felt she wouldn’t be good enough, or he didn’t like that she was trans. But whatever the case was, she paid, because she loved singing so much.

(And that part was acting too, because, they paid me to sing in this movie…) I’ve been training as a singer since I was a kid. I guess I was preparing for this my whole life, though I didn’t know it.

I don’t know if young people should see Tangerine, there’s a lot of sex in it, but if girls on the streets see it, I hope they know they’re not alone. I hope they see that I got out of sex work and it’s possible for them too.

I want to play lots of different roles now. I’d love to be in a scary movie. Or a drama, so I could be mean–like Monique in Precious–cuz I’m really nice in real life. Or maybe a lawyer, with a client who has a difficult case, and maybe someone’s trying to kill me because they know I’m gonna win.

In addition to acting, Tangerine has also given me the opportunity to produce my own T.V. show! It’s about how trans people go through life, and what I have gone through. There will be a variety of characters. And I won’t be the lead, we’ll hire a person who is transitioning to be the star. I’ve already had that opportunity, why not let someone else come in. That’s what it’s all about, right?

I feel very humble right now, and blessed. The people I work with really listen to me. And I’m so thankful for all of their support in helping me get here. Especially Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch for inviting me to be a collaborator and not just a performer. Mark and Jay Duplass, Magnolia Pictures. My manager, Allan Mandell. My agent, Joanne Wiles. My hair and makeup artist, Christina Cullinski. My very first singing instructor, Nick, who taught me to sing opera!, and to train my voice, which I do every day. God. And my man.

At the end of the day, I’m so lucky to come home to a quiet, normal, life.

 

Hollywood Diversity Awakens

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

Thank you, J.J. Abrams, for granting my holiday wish for a fantastic movie that (1) has a female protagonist, (2) passes the Bechdel test (i.e., at least two women characters talk to each other about something other than a man), and (3) has a diverse cast of superb actors in complex roles.

Over the past few holiday seasons I’ve expressed my disappointment and frustration with Hollywood casting in essays like “Into the White White Woods,” (2014), and “Calling All Hobbits of Color,” (2012). And after years of wishing, watching the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a Christmas miracle for me.

But this wish granted was not just for me–and that’s the point. As I’ve written again and again, casting with diversity in mind is a gift for everyone.

Audiences of all ages, races, and gender expressions who go to the current Star Wars will find a fluid spectrum of characters with whom to identify, all of whom have agency and moments of ambivalence, a need to be rescued at times and do the rescuing at others, all of whom do bad things and good things, wear armor or tight leathery space fashions, fight and cry and love and use the force–no matter what their bodies look like, or what types of genitals, sizes of breasts, hairstyles, or skin colors they have.

Gone are the days when a young Star Wars fan was limited to the binary choice of good guy versus bad guy action figure. Now storm troopers can be on the dark side and the light, and also be women of high rank. And in other news, white guys like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are nolonger the only heroic subjects with whom kids can identify! In addition to the film’s main character, Rey, played by white actress Daisy Ridley, the cast is led by British-Nigerian actor John Boyega and Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac. All three characters take turns flying space crafts, wielding light sabers, hugging each other (in earnest, without bro-anxiety), being sexy (but not necessarily in gender conforming ways), giving orders, taking orders, and kicking butt.

Having a woman at the center of the whole thing is arguably the most revelatory choice of all, exploding our ingrained ideas about who is allowed to be a subject in a mainstream film, and who is subjugated to the role of object. As Meryl Streep has said:

“The absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight male viewing audience toidentify with a woman protagonist. To feel themselves embodied by her . . . There has always been a resistance to assume a persona if that persona is a she.”

By making the new Star Wars protagonist a woman and a tough yet emotionally accessible hero with whom all audiences (including men and boys) can identify, the filmmakers have blasted through the resistance Streep describes. They have also opened up the opportunity to cast a variety of minorities as characters who are active subjects, as opposed to objectified “others.”And it’s about time!

Yes, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original trilogy paved the way for characters like Rey. But even though Leia had agency – which was inspiring for many girls and nonconforming boys (like this one) – her fiercest moments always felt like false starts (Taking a stand against Darth Vader, but then needing to be rescued from him; or rescuing Han Solo from Jabba the Hut, only to be enslaved in a metal bikini; or hopping on a speed bike to catch an enemy in the woods – awesome! – but then getting pushed off and leaving Luke to finish the chase.) Now Leia is in command as a general, a role in the world of Star Wars that had only everbeen occupied by distinguished looking men–or amphibious male aliens.

Again, I’m not the only one excited by these character developments. The box office, the critical praise, and the unprecedented reports of audience satisfaction, prove that everyone is winning with this new Star Wars.

So how do we make sure Hollywood keeps up the good work?

Some might lazily think there’s nothing to be done, other than to cast “existing” roles with “appropriate” actors. But if creators want to turn the tide they have to make creative, active, subversive choices. And that’s exactly what director J.J. Abrams did with The

Force Awakens. In addition to believing that it’s important for everyone to “see themselves represented in film,” Abrams has also said, “I wanted a movie mothers could take their daughters to.” More specifically, and inspiringly, he explained how having a daughter himself motivated him to make sure the world of the film felt equal between women and men.

So, Hollywood filmmakers – who are often straight white men, like Abrams – may need to hold their daughters in mind if we want to see more movies like The Force Awakens. Men will need to be consciously invested in women, and in other minorities, as subjects with whom they can identify as opposed to marginal objects. And if filmmakers want a guidepost to such a transformation, they can look to renowned psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin’s analysis of a scene in the Oscar-winning film American Beauty. In the pivotal scene, Kevin Spacey’s character Lester (a privileged white guy) is about to have sex with his daughter’s nubile teen friend (Mena Suvari), about whom he has fantasized compulsively for the whole movie. Benjamin writes:

“[T]his irresistible stimulation shifts dramatically in the moment when [the girl] reveals that she is actually a virgin and a neglected child whose parents pay no attention to her. Suddenly, as if waking from the dream, Lester recognizes that this girl is a subject with her own center of feeling…The bright lights of overstimulation are shut off and feelings of abandonment and grief bring about an identificatory connection to the girl as person.”

Filmmakers of all backgrounds and perspectives would benefit from engaging in a similar process of reflection – concerning women as well as other minorities – in order to create and cast a wider range of characters who are relatable subjects.

The point is not to simply be politically correct, as folks sometimes say in defensive reaction to articles like this one. The point is to give everyone the opportunity to identify with various facets of human experience.

Giving Carrie Fisher the opportunity to play a general allows us to see more of the gravitas the actress possesses in her real life than we would ever see from her playing an objectified princess.In a recent interview with Good Morning America, for instance, you can see Fisher deploying a commanding wit that we typically associate with men – like Harrison Ford (at least playing Han Solo) – but is by no means limited to male experience.

And expanding our ideas about movie characters does not only advantage women and other minorities. The straight white men in Star Wars get to embody a greater range of emotional life than Hollywood usually affords leading men. As the new leader of the dark side, Adam Driver gets to have doubts and heartbreak while also simultaneously being powerful and sadistic. Similarly, Harrison Ford gives depth to Han Solo with moments of paternal tenderness that showcase some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from him.

Star Wars also features Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as a wise Yoda-like creature–a rare opportunity to see a young beautiful actress do wildly inventive character work in a mainstream movie. This also parallels another groundbreaking achievement for Nyong’o who will soon star in the play Eclipsed, the first Broadway production ever to have a writer, director, and cast entirely comprised of

women–and women of color at that. With Eclipsed, Broadway audiences will experience the riveting stories of resilient African women based on true events during the Second Liberian Civil War. The play is a window into lives that are very real and rich but which have rarely been subjects of mainstream entertainment until now. It is no surprise that the director is Liesl Tommy, whom I have praised for putting into practice her keen understanding ofhow telling stories with diversity in mind always expands the audience’s experience.

Maybe next Christmas there will be even more movies and plays directed by the Liesl Tommys and Ava Duvernays and Jill Soloways and Diane Pauluses of the world. And maybe more directors who are straight white men will take a page from these women, and from J.J. Abrams, as they create more characters and stories with women and other minorities in mind–as subjectsas opposed to marginalized objects.

In reaction to Donald Trump’s regressive hate speech, activist/filmmaker Michael Moore recently said, “We are all Muslim.” So too are we all women, and girls, and boys, and gay and trans, and black and Latino and Asian, and Jewish and Christian, and princesses and generals–insofar as we are all humans with imaginations in a vastly diverse and interconnected world.

The more we see ourselves represented on screen in all of our multifaceted-ness, the more we are reminded that we are all human and more alike than we are different.

 

My Gay Voice and Yours

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

 

I hated my voice when I was a kid.  I was taught to hate it by the people around me.  Neighbors called me, “fairy,” and though I loved fairies, I knew this was not a compliment.  Uncles tightened their fists to get me to sound “tough.” Cousins looked at me with disgust and said, “You talk like a girl…” Classmates called me “Faggot,” a name I would hear all through high school until I left. Early!  They all wanted me to know my voice was “girly,” and for a boy there was nothing worse.  (For more on this phenomenon see my HuffPost piece, Bully Gets “Girl.”)

No wonder I wanted to be an actor.  Most days at school I dreamed of being anyone but myself.  In the rural town I grew up I was surrounded by boys who played sports like their lives depended on it; talked a big game about premature sex with girls; and took every opportunity to make fun of boys like me.  One day I told a peer about my plan to escape via acting career, to which she replied, “You’ll have to change your voice.  No one cares if you ARE gay but you can’t ACT gay…”  Since then I have pondered what it even means to “act gay”– or to “act straight,” for that matter.   I have written a clinical paper on the topic (here) as well as op-ed pieces (hereand here).  But at the time I knew exactly what it meant: I had a “gay voice” and was therefore cursed to live a life of mute daydreaming.

Until I took an acting class called “Voice,” and discovered that I can sound as deep and commanding as Darth Vader.  The spell was broken (for the moment…)   I went from hiding behind the bleachers to showing off center stage.  I turned on the voice, forgot who I was, and the girly, fairy, faggot became Dracula or Hamlet.  I majored in theater.  I got professional acting jobs.  I got into grad school for acting. All thanks to my voice.  My voice! The bane of my childhood existence.

But the magic voice could only take me so far.  I was now training to make a living as an actor, not just to make believe. So I had to somehow integrate my voice with my authentic self.  It’s great for an actor to have a bass register (or even to sound, as some might unhelpfully say, “straight”) as long as he also sounds like a real person.  I didn’t.  At least not when I used the voice for extended periods of time.  I was told that having a big, unnatural voice was not going to help me book roles in contemporary theater and film.  My posh, British, voice teacher advised, “Dahling, with a face like Peet-ah Pan, and a voice like James Ehhl Jones, you’ll never wahhhk.”  But when I let go of the voice, teachers, directors, and fellow actors would (always) tell me to “butch it up!”  It was like struggling with a shower that was either too hot or too cold.  My acting became fake if I used the voice for too long.  But to lose it was to lose my cloak of invincibility and to be criticized for sounding effeminate (which was like being called “Faggot” as a kid all over again). Lose/ lose.

The voice did help me to land a few great jobs. (The Boston Globe wrotethat I was “a good macho lunkhead” in a play I did about teen angst.)  But 99% of the time the magic would fade once I was cast, revealing me to be a guy who could occasionally hide behind a deep voice, but who generally presented as “gay.”  This would elicit disappointment and discomfort without fail.  I booked a small role in a movie called Outside Providence in which I (ironically) played an (ostensibly straight), highschool bully.  But upon seeing me hanging out on set between takes, talking like myself, the casting folks seemed instantly mortified and concerned.  (Good thing I only had one scene…)  I was also cast as my dream role of Romeo at a regional theater.  But once rehearsals began, the producer warned me that the audience might not believe I was in love with Juliet and that I should “work hard to convince them…”  By which he meant, “Butch it up!”  (PS: I never had trouble being in love with that Juliet, only with sounding like the producer’s idea of a “tough, straight, dude.”)

I was proud of the mini-successes I managed to claim, with all strikes against me.  But the voice only helped in fits and starts. I couldn’t keep it up, and I didn’t want to.  As an effeminate gay male I had already spent my entire life covering.  I was exhausted.  To continue living this way would take a toll–physically, psychically, and vocally (for more information about the severely destructive impact that the pressure to cover social stigma has on physical, emotional, and mental health see this study, and this one).

Plus, the rewards were too brief and intermittent to make it worthwhile.  And I could no longer take the insult of watching colleagues with “tough guy” personas get cast in gay and/or effeminate male roles.  For instance, a classmate from conservatory–who used to tease me about my effeminate mannerisms, BTW–was eventually cast as a gay activist in a big award-winning movie, based on a big award-winning play, about gay lives.  Don’t get me wrong, he is wonderfully talented and deserves to be working among the other great actors in the film.  But he was able to talk like himself, even while playing a queeny, “fairy,” “faggot,” like me.  As casting director Brette Goldstein told me in 2008, the thing about the gay roles on television and film is that “You’ll often have straight men playing them.  And that’s what sucks for the gay guys.”  Little has changed today.  Though some gay actors are effectively creating their own opportunities to play a variety of roles (gay, straight, masculine, feminine, and everything in between), such as the makers of the entertaining series East Siders.  (No, Matt Damon, staying in the closet is not the answer).

But even though I chose not to continue swimming upstream toward a full time acting career, I also somehow knew not to dismiss myself for being “too gay” or too gendernonconforming.  I refused to simply accept the status quo. Instead I remained on my own side and sought to challenge our cultural ideas  about what an actor, or even a “real person,” should sound like.

I started a theater company(link is external) with the mission of casting actors against type and to share stories about marginalized lives.  This not only provided more creative possibilities for me but also for a variety of artists whose voices (literally and figuratively) had been muted.  As well as audiences who rarely, if ever, see themselves on stage or screen.  I put together a short documentary about how actors–especially men, whether they are gay or straight–are considered by casting directors to have failed the second they “sound gay” (meaning their voice does not conform to heteronormative stereotypes of masculinity).  I wrote articles about how this casting phenomenon–which I called, Don’t Act, Don’t Tell–takes place in life as well, with a severely damaging impact–especially on people who are  L, G, B, or T, but also on everyone.  I advocated for the actor’s unions–Actor’s Equity Association and Screen Actor’s Guild–to broaden their LGBT-related efforts to combat discrimination against Don’t Act, Don’t Tell in casting.  And I trained to become a therapist and to help a variety of people to find their own voices.

Along the way I developed my voice.  By which I mean my personal point of view–which I had cultivated throughout years of surviving uphill battles–but also the actual sounds that come out of my mouth when I speak.  My voice is arguably effeminate at times, masculine at others; deep and authoritative in certain moments and vulnerable or even fragile at others; sometimes stagey, sometimes mumbly.  But it’s mine.  What I say and how I say it comes from years of living; of failing and succeeding; of training and letting the training go; of advocating for myself and for others; and all the while dropping into a sense of myself.  When I hear my voice now I don’t hate it.  It sounds like me.

I tell you this because sharing our journeys with honesty is an effective way to shatter stigmas–like the one known as “gay voice.”

And this is exactly what filmmaker David Thorpe has done in his truly great documentary, Do I Sound Gay? 

Just as I do here, Thorpe begins his story by sharing how he learned to hate his voice.  As Dan Savage says in the film, “hating our voices is the last vestige of internalized homophobia.”  Thorpe asks everyone he knows–including queer celebrities, like Savage, as well as friends, family, and professional speech coaches–where they think “gay voice” comes from and how he can change his own.  And in so doing, he takes us on an enlightening expedition of cultural bias against feminine sounding men.  Thorpe provides myriad hypothesis for where this hatred derives from and asks us to question why any one of us (gay or straight) reflexively police gender nonconformity in one another’s voices.  We get a strong sense of how gay men–and all minorities really–at times emulate our oppressors by punishing each other for having qualities we despise in ourselves.  The film includes clips from the media that exacerbate stereotypes about feminine sounding men, many of which are disturbing, including Disney movies that feature lisping, effeminate, male villains, as well as clips of straight male comedians joking about how effeminate behavior in men is a justification for violence against them. But as we watch Thorpe practice his speech exercises–with nearly as much tortuous discipline as Natalie Portman rehearses ballet in Black Swan–we witness him eventually break down and break through to a place of self acceptance.  The celebrities he interviews each describe a similar outcome in their own self-struggles: e.g., Project Runway’s Tim Gunn says, with relaxed conviction, “I’m used to hearing my voice now.”  By the film’s end Thorpe seems to care less about where our voices come from and more about having a voice that feels authentic, however it sounds.

The film also clearly reveals the misogyny underlying our culturally conditioned hatred of effeminate male voices, and shows how by preserving rigid ideas of what is male or what is female everyone loses.  As a culture we are conditioned to instantly dismiss effeminate sounding male actors by saying they could never be a romantic lead or that they could never play a soldier (e.g. Take a look at this actor humorously and self-deprecatingly reinforcing this point.)  But if we allow this way of thinking to thrive unchallenged we continue to punish ALL actors, especially men (regardless of their sexual or gender orientation) the second they “slip up” in their auditions and sound anything other than our culturally conditioned standard of gender expression. And the casting office and the street, where people are regularly attacked and killed for not conforming to gender stereotypes, are linked in obvious and devastating ways. As long as there is an unchecked cultural phobia of “gay voices,” –by which we really just mean effeminate male voices–we are all condemned to a PTSD-like state of hypervigilance, too afraid to blur the lines of gender, in our voices or in any other area of our lives.

And the ineffable pressure to butch-up one’s voice is not limited to effeminate gay males. For example, while growing up, my brother–who is straight and relatively gender confirming–would frequently (and admittedly), try to sound like Kevin Costner, in earnest, in the hopes of being perceived as tough, manly, and (I guess) unequivocally straight. My erudite father, who was also relatively gender conforming and straight, was apparently not a good enough model of uber masculinity for him in the rural town in which we grew up.  My brother moved on from using Costner-isms to emulating our local refrigerator repairmen, who spoke with an exaggerated, cartoonish, machismo. And even now, as a grown up, I hear traces of this in my brother’s voice whenever he feels the need to command some kind of authority.

Which brings us to the point that our fear of sounding what we call “gay” or “effeminate” is not only about gender expression, but more significantly about our cultural ideas about weakness and power.  The better we try to understand this the more we can free ourselves up–vocally, emotionally, mentally, and creatively–and the more opportunities we can all have to develop versatility with our voices, without the inhibitions related to fear or hate.

In Do I Sound Gay? Thorpe illustrates this short-sighted tendency to make power synonymous with “masculinity”/ weakness synonymous with “femininity,” by filming sessions he has with Hollywood speech coaches.  The coaches, who both have a successful track record of helping actors sound like “leading men,” do not seem homophobic per se.  Their tips are less about gender and more about how people can create sounds in their bodies that connote authority, whether they are female, male, or trans, straight or gay.  Watching these scenes reminded me of drama school when our master acting teacher, Brian McEleney, would explain to the actresses in the room how unhelpful some of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy performances were for women.  Brian would then encourage them to get enough breath support to command the authority of a Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, Angela Bassett, or Cate Blanchett.

This is why we all stand to gain from the surge of complex roles for leading women we are seeing on screen.  I’ve been calling for this very thing for years as a way to combat the phenomenon of Don’t Act, Don’t Tell, as well as the underlying hatred of all things feminine.  By having women, as well as men, in leading roles that exhibit facets of power, weakness, toughness and vulnerability, we can understand the human condition beyond male or female, masculine or feminine, gay or straight.  We can empathize with more people and discover more possibility within ourselves–including the capacity to be tough, to be in command or to be vulnerable or in need, depending on the circumstances.

So, do I sound “gay?”  Does David Thorpe sound “gay?”  Nah.  To say so is to be homophobic, effemephobic, and misogynistic, whether you realize it or not.  Do David Thorpe and I sound effeminate?  Sure. Sometimes.  So do you sometimes.  I’m sure you can sound like a lot of things when you question, and thereby free yourself up from, your unchecked fears, hatreds, and inhibitions.

 

Copyright Mark O’Connell, LCSW-R

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.

Guns and Mental Health

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

Talk therapy has been scientifically proven(link is external) to increase mental health and to ease conditions such as schizophrenia.  This fact comes to us in a new study(link is external) by The American Journal of Psychiatry, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, as Congress debates(link is external) mental health reform and as we consider the role of mental illness as a factor in America’s mass shooting epidemic.

Great.

Can we now all agree that long-term talk therapy is important?  Can we as a culture value the powerful opportunity to explore the inevitable complexity of one’s mind and emotions in a safe relationship — especially with an appropriately trained therapist?  Can we appreciate that what we call mental illness does not only afflict a handful of people in distinct and obvious ways, but all of us at various points in our lives due to a variety of circumstances? And can we effectively convince insurance companies to cover such treatments as they would any other service that has been proven to lead to optimal health?

We can’t identify who is going to be the next shooter with tests and diagnosis.  But we can adjust our thinking regarding optimal mental and physical health and, rather than continuing to stigmatize those individuals engaged in long term talk therapy, accept the fact that it provides great benefits for all of us.

Here is an article(link is external) I wrote on the subject shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings of 2012.  I am reposting it here exactly as it was, since little to nothing has changed.  Let’s please make an adjustment in our thinking and where we put our money before this happens again.

The following article was originally posted on The Huffington Post on February 1, 2013, with the title, “Death Wish Recognized: The Case for Long-Term Treatment.” (link is external) 

Who creates a massacre? Can we identify that person? Can they be stopped? Congress hopes to answer these questions by the end of February, 2013. But where will these answers come from?

Enter The Bipartisan Task Force on Gun Prevention and Children’s Safety, the Connecticut legislators who will draft a bill, informed in part by public hearings related to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook. The “Mental Health Public Hearing”, which took place on Tuesday Jan. 29, 2013 in Hartford, garnered(link is external) a variety of suggestions to improve state mental health services, most of which included the words: “psychiatrist”, “mental illness”, and “medication.” Do these words get us any closer to answering the interminable questions above, or do they simply attempt to soothe our desperate and restless desire to control the uncontrollable?

Massacres create chaos and despondency, both of which Americans abhor. We like to make sense of such things by compartmentalizing (blaming “mental illness”), putting someone in charge (a psychiatrist), and endowing them with a weapon to cut off murderous plots at the knees (medication). This is all implied when solutions such as involuntarily psychiatric treatment (which was recommended at the Hartford hearing) are put on the table.

For such solutions to be effective assumes the following: Potential killers all exhibit distinct and palpable neon-signs of a mental disorder (the words “schizophrenia”, “autism“, and “psychotic” were repeatedly used in Tuesday’s hearing). They will be compliant with mental health treatment, can afford treatment, and/or have insurance that covers treatment. They will confess to a psychiatrist — on the first or second visit — that they have a clear and actionable plan to harm themselves or someone else; and if not, the psychiatrist (who after-all, tops the pecking order of mental health providers) can instantly identify the patient’s desire, intent, and potential to carry through with such a plan. After pinning the scarlet letter of a diagnosis on the patient, and prescribing corresponding medications, the psychiatrist will have successfully thwarted the patient’s plot to kill. And all of this somehow decreases the chances of future massacres.

To me this sounds terribly Sisyphean, i.e., like a ton of wasted effort. It reminds me of the late psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell, who compared the mental health practitioner’s hasty pursuit of solutions to what Taoists might say, “[It] is like pursuing a thief hiding in the forest by loudly banging a drum”.

Our mental health services currently have a lot of “drum banging”, and not a whole lot of listening, searching, or discovery. This short-term approach to treatment is largely imposed by insurance companies, which limit coverage for services — encouraging a “get’em in, get’em out”, revolving door culture at clinics, hospitals, and private practices — and also favoring medical treatment provided by a psychiatrist, as opposed to the more complex, relational work of a psychotherapist, social worker or counselor. It is also due to an ever increasing consumerist influence on mental health, whereby services are guaranteed to work fast, and are pitched in 140 characters or less — this has only been exacerbated by articles (several of which appeared in The New York Times in 2012) encouraging therapists to sell short-term treatment in order to remain relevant.

I agree with Dr. Harold Schwartz, the psychiatrist at the Hartford hearing who said, “The failure to recognize illness and the need for treatment… is a function of the disease’s impact on the brain“, but it is the word “recognize” I would emphasize, not the words “illness” or “disease.” We do not currently invest in the art of recognition in our mental health services, a process that requires time: Time to create a safe environment for anyone seeking help (not just those who blip on the radar as clearly”disordered”); time for the patient to establish trust with a practitioner (one who has cultivated the art of empathic relating, as opposed to quick labeling); time to allow nihilistic fantasies to enter the treatment; and time to help the patient separate these fantasies (which may be understandable, in context) from actions. None of this is possible using the quick-fire approaches to treatment we currently subscribe to, and continue to request.

The resistance to long-term treatment is partly due to the various misconceptions about it: that it is a “thing of the past”, that it exclusively implies Woody Allen characters sitting on a couch three times a week, jabbering on about bourgeoisie, “white-people-problems”, that it is a waste of time and money. These stereotypes are not only a problem for therapists who train and work tirelessly on the art of empathic, nuanced, relationship and analysis, but more importantly for the multitude of people who can greatly benefit from long-term treatment, but are never given the chance.

In my own work, I’ve been fortunate enough to “recognize” a long-term patient who had murderous fantasies. I met Harry while working at a community mental health clinic. He didn’t want therapy, and I didn’t want to give it to him. He was loud, anxious, and rambling. He wanted a psychiatric diagnosis for his application for Social Security disability insurance (which he should have received for an obviously distressing physical disability and lifelong learning disability, but had been denied several times because he seemed “mentally healthy” — an example of how unhelpfully categorical our systems can be). At our first session, I was disturbed by his relentless wish to “knock-off” a variety of people he believed were “conspiring” against him — though he wouldn’t specify the people or a plan, rendering these rantings unreportable. After two evaluations by our staff psychiatrist, it was determined that Harry did not exhibit symptoms requiring medication, and it was recommended that he engage in psychotherapy, with an emphasis on behavioral modification – fortunately he had good insurance.

Sitting through our early sessions was nearly intolerable for me, as I had to endure gruesomely detailed revenge fantasies, resembling one of the Saw films. I not only dreaded our sessions, but also what he might do afterward. I tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques, which are designed to alter patient thought processes, and corresponding behaviors, but he shut me down each time, convinced that no one could ever understand his feelings. It wasn’t until I learned to validate his fantasies, to encourage him to bring even more of them into the room (while also getting clinical supervision for myself), that he began to trust me. Why shouldn’t he feel that the Social Security office “had it in” for him, and why wouldn’t he, in kind, have violent fantasies toward it? (He had been denied benefits time and time again, though he was clearly ailing). Harry learned that someone could in fact recognize his pain, and that his understandable rage, and related revenge fantasies could have a life of their own, separate and distinct from taking action. Over the next couple of years Harry started group therapy as well, made friends, and gradually his mind became less troubled. With my help, he eventually got his disability benefits, but voluntarily continued treatment with me. The fantasies he reported shifted from the horror genre to films of the Rocky variety; he began to narrate his own story as a guy down on his luck who would become a champion with love and support.

Instead of forcing “mentally ill” people into short-term treatment and a “sentence” of medication, we should be forcing insurance companies to cover long-term relational treatment — in tandem with medication management in some cases. Anyone with coverage should be encouraged to enter therapy, without fear of stigma or of limited time. There are no easy solutions to the horrific shooting epidemic we face, but airing on the side of caution means giving people the chance to be seen, and heard, as opposed to controlled, and numbed into oblivion. After all, why are these killers piggy-backing off each other’s news stories if not to be recognized?

Copyright Mark O’Connell, LCSW-R

References

Carey, B. (2015) Talk Therapy Found to Ease Schizophrenia. Retrieved on October 20, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/20/health/talk-therapy-found-to-ease-schi…(link is external)

Mitchell, S. (1993) Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

O’Connell, M. (2013) Deathwish Recognized: A Case for Longterm Treatment. The Huffington Post. Retrieved on October 20, 2015, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-oconnell%20lcsw/death-wish-recognized(link is external)

Sun, L. (2015) Advocates, Lawmakers See Momentum for Mental-health Reform in Congress. Retrieved on October 20, 2015, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/advocates-lawmake…

Coming Out and Taking In

National Coming Out Day is here. It’s a time to celebrate who we are — no matter who we want to have sex with, or how we speak, move and act or how we identify. But as righteous, thrilling and important as coming out is — and it is! — it is equally important to take in. (I’ll get to what I mean by that in a bit).

As a culture we tend to burden LGBTQ people with the demand that they accept, own, contextualize, announce, navigate and explain who they are and what they need — often all on their own. Indeed, as soon as a queer person comes out and socially identifies as LGBTQ, the onus is usually on her to instantly become her own spokesperson to the world, to make sense of herself for others. It’s like a movie or TV show in which an alien lands on earth and confidently tells all the humans what it’s like to come from his planet. Except most queer people — particularly those who are still kids, tweens or teens — don’t always know what it’s like to live on Planet Queer.

And why would they? Young LGBTQ people have little or no experience being themselves in a social context. In most cases, parents raise their kids with the expectation that they will turn out straight and gender conforming, even if they get signals from their kids suggesting otherwise. In rare cases, of course, a child may take a risk and, in the face of these expectations, deliberately and assertively tell his parents exactly who he is. But even in such a case, the burden is still on the child to be an immediate expert on his own untapped gender identity or sexual orientation.

Ideally our primary caregivers pay such close attention to us as infants — when we cry, play and explore — that they can eventually anticipate what we need, what we want and how we like to be. Ideally our caregivers learn to accommodate us with a range of toys and narratives that help us express who we are. This does not mean that by permitting our choice of truck or doll, our caregivers are solidifying us as boy or girl, straight or gay. It simply reflects the fact that parental attunement of this kind encourages us to develop naturally, through a multiplicity of gender expressions, based on the interaction between our drives and our early environments.

There are numerous social pressures that can make this process of attunement challenging for parents of LGBTQ kids. And though some manage better than others, we can’t expect all parents to create the perfect world in which a non-straight, non-gender conforming child can grow up. But what we can do, at least, is take the pressure off of such children to be the experts of their own orientations — especially before they’ve even had the opportunity to discover multiple and various versions of themselves.

And similarly, for those who are discovering they exist somewhere between L, G, B or T, they can find ways to nurture their true selves, even in the absence of parental attunement. These children and adults can prepare to navigate the world around them before they are ready to come out, through a process of what I call taking in.

Taking in is when we recognize the potential others see in us and let ourselves make meaning out of it. From the very beginnings of our lives, taking in is what we do as babies when our parents feed, kiss, smile and otherwise attend to us. We absorb the message that we exist and that we are special. As we get older and develop personalities, we look to caretakers to continue this process with us; we seek reflections of our behaviors to validate who we are. The responses we get are sometimes encouraging (“You’re mama’s tough guy,” “Look at you flirt with the ladies”) and other times discouraging (“Boys don’t wear dresses”). And when we become too discouraged, or overwhelmed with images for which we have no use — macho superheroes, or super-skinny helpless princesses or the heterosexual kissing in everything from cartoons to commercials to movies to…well…everything — we stop taking in and shut down.

But giving up on our selves in this manner is not the only option. We can stay on our own sides and consciously seek information, images and stories that validate us. And most importantly, we can consciously take in people who inspire us to develop an authentic sense of self.

That was a challenge for me as a lonely effeminate boy growing up in a small rural town in the 1980′s and 90′s (without the internet!). There was no access to images of people like me having social lives or becoming happy adults or living out loud. There were no people talking about or encouraging such developments either. I was fortunate enough to have parents who bought me the Miss Piggy toys I wanted to play with at home. But playing outside — beyond the private confines of my family — was another story.

Good thing I was introverted. I would’ve gotten beaten up regularly if I had tried to express myself in the way Madonna told us — well, those of us who had crushes on men — to do at that time. So I silently dragged my awkward, effeminate, little body through life, while I daydreamed of actually living.

But along the way a few adults observed not only my struggle to fit into the world around me, but also my creative interests and potential. They didn’t necessarily know how to help me to navigate the thorny maze of social norms any better than my parents did. But from where they stood, they could do their best to nurture my sense of self, and give me the opportunity to take them in.

Ms. Cook, the band teacher and theater director, was one of those people. When I was ten, I had to cross the street from my school and wait at the high school for my father to take me home. He was the high school principal at the time (lucky me). It was nothing new to have to entertain myself for long stretches of time as I waited, but Ms. Cook had a better idea. She decided to let me assist her on the high school plays she directed, some of which — like Agnes of God – contained extremely dark, mature content. I loved it. I felt included in something interesting and important. I felt special. In addition to giving me a safe, secure place in which to exist, Ms. Cook had effectively anticipated my hunger to be an artist, something I had not yet fully realized myself. I took her in, and I developed this part of myself. This gave me a sense of self-security years before I was ready to come out as gay. And Ms. Cook never asked anything of me in return.

This is crucial to remember about taking in: if we are to grow through taking in a caregiver, we must not owe the caregiver anything. When parents feed their babies they certainly don’t expect the baby to feed them in return (at least not for many decades). Mentors like Ms. Cook, whose relationships to us have clear boundaries, are the best kind of adults to take in. If you ever feel taken advantage of by a mentor who seems to have good intentions, limit your contact with him or her, and look to someone with whom you feel safe and do not feel beholden.

As I inched my way out of the closet during my teenage years, my aunt Connie became another key person for me to take in. Like Ms. Cook before her, Connie observed my struggle to find myself, and untapped reserves of creative expression within me. An actress herself, she offered to take me on auditions for local plays and educated me about theater during our rides in the car. I felt special again, empowered as I began to develop an authentic part of myself under the supportive and watchful eye of an adult. Years later, I found that the identity I developed as an actor, along with the safe relationships I formed — with adults like Connie — gave me something secure to stand on when I eventually began to use the word “gay” to describe myself.

Another thing for young LGBTQ folks to remember is that there may be adults around you with whom your contact is limited, but whom you can take in nonetheless. You may get only a glimmer of positive recognition from them, but even that can be incredibly nurturing if you allow it to be.

I’m thinking now of Leslie Davidson, the Dean of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which I attended when I was sixteen (an attempt by this girly-boy to find a better fit than my small-town high school). Leslie was a resident director at the time, and she was one of the adults who intervened during a serious breakdown I had — no doubt related to my identity. She saw me at what I thought was my most vulnerable, ugly and messy. She offered warmth and support, and just enough practical advice to get me the concrete support I needed — including psychotherapy. I did not interact with Leslie again during my time at that school, and I was ashamed, fearing she must have thought of me as a loser. But if I knew then what I know now, I would have instead held onto the glimmer of recognition in her eyes when she offered me help. She very briefly conveyed an understanding of my struggle, but also a belief that I would eventually get to the other side of it, and find my way. This proved true decades later when Leslie asked me to speak on a panel during a fall Parents’ Weekend at the college. She had held me in mind all those years, and followed news of my life and career as it developed. And, as it turned out, she thought of me as an adult (and alum) worthy of presenting to a new crop of anxious parents who were about to release their kids into the wilds of college life.

So come out if you’re ready — if you have people whom you trust, and more importantly if you have a strong sense that you can trust yourself. Having a strong sense of who you are and the urge to make it known is a wonderful thing. A thing to be celebrated. But also keep in mind that coming out is a lifelong process. There will always be new aspects of our orientations, identities and modes of expression that we will discover and eventually want to share with the world. And in the meantime, we can nurture those developing aspects of self by taking the right people in.

Coming Out Resources:

http://www.glsen.org

http://www.itgetsbetter.org

http://www.ihitherapy.org

http://www.hrc.org

http://www.thetaskforce.org

http://www.thetrevorproject.org

Viola Davis Matters

“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” declared Viola Davis at the 67th Emmy Awards, where she became the first black woman to win Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series. A Juilliard-trained, accomplished veteran of stage and screen, Ms. Davis is one of our greatest great actors, along the lines of Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Glenn Close and Al Pacino. Yet we haven’t seen her in as many various leading roles as these other actors. It was refreshing to hear her say why.

In her speech she thanked Shonda Rhimes, who created the ABC series How to Get Away with Murder for which Davis won, as well as several of the male producers and champions of the show. Her point was crystal clear: writers and producers must challenge the status quo and be imaginative about the protagonists they put on screen if we want more top-notch yet underutilized performers like Ms. Davis to play them. And if ABC’s reported increase in viewers under 50 is any indication — after having pushed diversity in their programming, both in front of and behind the camera — we do want just that.

People like me have been calling for diversity on stage and screen for years. (In 2003 I co-founded a theater company whose mission is to cast against-type, and I have written several articles about the need for more roles for actors who deviate from the straight, white, gender conforming, athletic, and able-bodied norm.) But I have frequently been dismissed with an irritated and lazy response like, “Casting is based on being right for the role. End of story.” A famous playwright even said to me once, “Theater should always mirror reality,” which he used to justify his relentless insistence that all the roles in his plays be cast exactly as specified — and most of them were specified as white and male, like himself. (I continue to wonder how this playwright might explain the exclusively white casting of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films, or Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods, none of which take place in reality.) What the anti-diversity-in-casting people (often white, straight, and male) always seem to overlook is the question of whose reality we’re talking about.

Yet the success of shows like How to Get Away with Murder – which features a variety of characters and situations we rarely see on mainstream television, including hot gay sex – proves that having a wide variety of realities on screen enriches storytelling, increases audiences and expands everyone’s sense of what is real and possible. For example, in her acceptance speech Davis credited the producers of Murder with redefining “what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

As audiences we all want the same thing. To see ourselves onscreen doing extraordinary things, and to see extraordinary people resemble us in some way. So in order to achieve this — to benefit from more of the extraordinary talent that is available, and feed our imaginations, and increase our capacity for empathy, and expand our own sense of self — we must consciously demand and create more opportunities for outstanding performers and writers of all races, sexes, gender expressions, sexual orientations and physical types.

Lee Daniels’ delicious series, Empire, is a great example of how these considerations benefit everyone, including the sublime performance by Emmy-nominated black actress, Taraji P. Henson in the wonderfully complex role of Cookie Lyon. In feature film, George Clooney is also changing things up by casting Sandra Bullock in a leading role that was originally written for a man in the upcoming film Our Brand Is Crisis. Says Clooney, “There’s a lot more out there if people just started thinking.” And he’s not the only one thinking: Emily Blunt and Julia Roberts have both been cast in roles originally written for men in movies this year.

It’s easier to keep up the status quo, to keep things as they are and resist change. We do it in our families, our communities, our workplaces and in our country. We fear unfamiliar people. We fear having to share power. But we must remember that in life and in art, letting new people in, however scary it may be, often brings huge rewards. It inspires us to expand our own potential. And so I’ll say it again: onscreen storytelling is only enhanced by diversity, both in front of and (yes, Matt Damon) behind the camera.

In fact, the entire Emmy broadcast was considered by several sources to be the most entertaining in years, in no small part due to the diverse talent and stories that were represented. Awards were given to, among others: women directors Lisa Cholodenko (also openly gay) and Jill Soloway; self-identified dwarf actor Peter Dinklage; African-American actresses Regina King and Uzo Aduba (in addition to Ms. Davis); and to actor Jeffrey Tambor for his beautiful performance as a transgender woman in the Amazon show Transparent – one of the freshest, funniest, sexiest and most relevant (for anyone struggling with issues of identity and family) new shows. It was particularly thrilling to hear Tambor acknowledge the situations of transgender people, and for the show’s director, Soloway, to emphasize the trans civil rights problem in our country and call for action. Hopefully next year we’ll also see more trans actors, in addition to Laverne Cox, in prominent roles as well.

The host of this year’s Emmys, Andy Samberg, found that acknowledging the relevant issue of social disparities actually enhanced his humor rather than yielding buzz kill. Two of his funniest moments included: 1) “Racism is over! Don’t fact-check that,” adding that Jackie Robinson’s coach probably said the same thing on his first game; and 2) “The wage gap between men and women hired for major roles in Hollywood is still an issue — wait, I’m sorry, I misread that. The age gap between men and women hired for major roles in Hollywood is still an issue — wait, I’m sorry, I misread that again. It’s both! So, crappy on two fronts.” The subversive style of Samberg’s humor seemed more inspired by comedy writers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer than by the majority of current male comedians who often lean toward the reductive and offensive. Another example of how diversity on all fronts can expand everyone’s capacity for expression.

But everyone agreed that the evening belonged to Ms. Davis. In her passionate plea for more talented women of color on screen, she reminded us that activism and art go hand in hand. As Thomas Hardy once said, “Art is a disproportioning of realities, to show more clearly the features that matter in those realities, which if merely copied or reported inventorially, might possibly be observed, but would more probably be overlooked.” Challenging the status quo in film and television can show us all what matters: that we are all more alike than we are different, and we must take creative action to spread that message.

What is Transgender?: A Beautiful New Film Has an Answer

*This post firs appeared on Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly.

Mainstream America has been learning about the word transgender from celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, but, in addition to having these icons in our consciousness, we could all use some clarification on what this word actually means. (In addition to this article, I encourage you to view the thorough and highly accessible video below.)

Transgender is a broad term that includes people whose gender identity or self expression does not conform to, or is not associated with, the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Transgender is an authentic experience and expression of self.

Your gender expression is informed by a number of things, including your gender orientation and sexual orientation, gender stereotypes in your consciousness or subconsciousness, and social circumstances. Some of these influences on our gender expression are hard-wired–e.g., sexual orientation, gender identity–and so the cues we send are involuntary, regardless of our genitalia. Transgender advocate Denise Norris uses a great analogy to explain how these aspects of self, our orientation, cannot be changed, saying:

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

Like our race, our gender orientation is what it is. Unlike race, however, our gender orientations are not necessarily explained by the physical bodies in which we are born, nor do we necessarily share our individual experiences of gender with other people in our blood lines as we do with race.

Meanings of racial and gender identities were debated ad nauseum last month, to the point of unhelpful, tangential abstraction. But to get back to the basics of what the words gender and transgender are all about, I believe it is more effective to show than to tell.

The new short film, Dylan, by Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, does exactly that.

Based on an interview with a young trans man, Dylan has the exquisite feel of both a documentary and narrative film at the same time. As we walk with Dylan on an early morning to the Coney Island shore, we learn about his authentic and creative journey of self-discovery.

The charismatic and lucid performer, Becca Blackwell, imbues Dylan’s words with their own sense of truth and of self. Through Blackwell’s eyes, we see and connect with Dylan, a vital person, without any need to specify their gender. This act of empathic interpretation helps us to experience Dylan’s resilient, generous spirit, as well as Blackwell’s. We are reminded that much of who we are transcends the appearance of our exteriors, and that we often discover our senses of self by sharing our stories and hearing them lovingly and creatively told back to us.

Revered psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell described this process of discovering self through relationship writing:

“Artists, like psychoanalysts, have a great impact on what it is they are trying to understand, and there seems to be no way to factor out or analyze away that impact. There is no “me,” waiting to be captured, either by an artist or an analyst or even by myself.”

He continues, “What psychoanalysis does is construct truths in the service of self-coherence.”

A moving moment in the film illustrates Dylan’s process of finding self-coherence. He tells us about his mother comforting and validating him the night before a voluntary surgery intended to make him feel more like himself. He describes the two of them enjoying old movies together, laughing together, and preparing for the creative transformation that is to come. This shared moment with his mother symbolizes a rebirth for Dylan, in a sense. His mother has clearly held him in her mind as he continues his journey for authenticity.

There is so much more possibility and clarity for all of us when we are honest about who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we need to go.

Becca Blackwell’s magnetic performance does not leave us wondering about the gender of our protagonist. They are simply, Dylan.

Experience them for yourself.

“DYLAN” a short film directed by Elizabeth Rohrbaugh
Outer Borough Pictures

*Film notation. From the director.

The character in this film uses the word “tranny” when describing some people in his life. We had much debate over whether to include the word in the film, as it is not in any way meant to marginalize people who may be offended by the use of this word. Ultimately we decided to keep the original script intact for two reasons…

1. AUTHENTICITY – We very much wanted this film to be a true and honest representation of Dylan’s story and including this word in the film kept an authenticity to the experience, by recounting his every word. The script was developed from an interview with the real Dylan (not the actor portraying him). There is not a single word in the script that was not a part of the original interview. 

2. TIME PERIOD IN THE FILM – The interview took place 10 years ago, when the word had a different context in the circles in which Dylan frequented. It was simply used to describe his friends and other members of the transgender community. In the past ten years, this word has taken on a different meaning in the transgender community and in the world in general. It is now recognized as a derogatory term, and one that transgender people have heard in the context of discrimination and hate. Dylan’s use of the word was not intended in any way to be derogatory and was simply part of his natural language at the time. We do not in any way support or promote the use of that word in any context, nor do we encourage anyone to use it in any way.

Please know that we did debate this issue quite seriously as we truly do not want to offend any of our viewers. Our messaging with this film is one of self-acceptance and love, and we have nothing but love and support for the transgender community. While this is one man’s story, we hope that all people will be able to relate to the honest and frank nature of Dylan’s evolutionary process in finding himself. If you have additional concerns, please feel free to contact us at info@outerboroughpictures.com.

Mitchell, S. (1995) Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books

The SCOTUS Ruling on Marriage Equality is Good for Everyone

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

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s deciding opinion on marriage equality last Friday, June 26, 2015, went deeper than law. It reminded us that as human beings we all want the same thing: to be loved and protected, whether we tend to fall in love with women or with men.

Kennedy’s hermeneutic writing was criticized by the dissenters — Justice Antonin Scalia for one described it as “extravagances, of thought and expression.” But the case before the justices required a deviation from standard legalese in order to view the plaintiff, Jim Obergefell and his deceased husband, John Arthur — as well as all same sex couples — as people deserving of “liberty and justice.”

The language of American law — e.g., “Marriage is a commitment between one man and one woman” — is sometimes in need of a hermeneutic update in order to truly do its job: to protect us all. In much the same way it is often necessary to use anomalous language in a variety of disciplines — medicine, psychology, religion — as we live, learn and evolve.

Take it from the great American psychologist, Charles Silverstein. In 1973 he and other activists in his field worked for months demanding that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) delete homosexuality as a mental disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. The APA did. In Silverstein’s words “[One day] we were all perverts, but [the next day] we were healthy and normal.” LGBT people would still be considered disordered without brave professionals like Silverstein advocating for unsung human experience using language that deviated from tradition.

In his opinion, Justice Kennedy references the 1973 removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder as an example of necessary evolution. He writes, “[N]ew dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations, often through perspectives that begin in pleas or protests and then are considered in the political sphere and the judicial process.” In other words, as we continue to live we come to understand ourselves and each other better, we evolve, and we make sure that our institutions and laws evolve with us.

Kennedy acknowledges the evolution of romantic relationships and that the institution of marriage has followed suit. He writes, “The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution — even as confined to opposite-sex relations — has evolved over time.” He describes the increasing autonomy of women, in relationships and in society overall, and how, “These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage.”

I pointed out something similar while discussing my book Modern Brides & Modern Grooms on the radio show, Gay News, immediately following the Supreme Court Ruling. To truly practice traditional marriage, one would have to enact a man dragging a woman by the hair and throwing her at the feet of another man. We have come a long way from that version of marriage.

Just as the leaders of our institutions must be versatile with language in order to make room for all of us, we must learn to be versatile in our own lives and relationships. We do this by learning to survive inevitable conflicts with our partners through processes of negotiation, adaptation, and creative collaboration. We have learned over the centuries that committed, loving, relationships are fertile ground for growing our individuality, our creativity, and yes, even our sexuality. Much like the anomalous language in Kennedy’s opinion, it is the necessary, fantastic, discoveries that allow us to be authentic in our marriages, that allow us to expand as individuals, and allow us to maintain marital stability at the very same time.

On the flip side, one almost feels bad for Justice Scalia (or, at least for his wife, as my husband says), for holding onto a confining idea of marriage. In his dissenting opinion he writes:

Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie. Expression, sure enough, is a freedom, but anyone in a long-lasting marriage will attest that that happy state constricts, rather than expands, what one can prudently say.

The best outcome of the SCOTUS ruling on marriage is that the laws are now catching up with all of us — gay and straight. We all really want the same thing: to be recognized for who we are as individuals, and whom we love. Justice Kennedy acknowledged how we are all more alike than we are different along these lines, writing, “A first premise of the Court’s relevant precedents is that the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy.”