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.”

 

“Fun Home” and the Gift of Being Out

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

The Tony Award-winning musical, Fun Home, begins and ends with a child, Alison, demanding that her father play “airplane” with her. In between those bookending moments we see Alison grow up, come out as a lesbian, and take flight as a lover, while her father sinks into the closet as a gay man. As Alison blossoms into her life, her father hides, wilts, and loses his to suicide. The poignant, quiet, tragedy of this true story–based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel–is a powerful contrast with its salvational message: that sharing our truth is crucial to living a livable life.

Having won the Tony for Best Musical, Fun Home itself now has the chance to come out, to blossom, and to soar around the country, sharing Alison’s deeply affecting story with all of America. Hopefully it will encourage audiences to make leaps of empathy toward characters we rarely (if ever) see in mainstream theater or film (e.g., women protagonists, gay dads, lesbians), inspire them to talk more about such stories and to tell truthful stories of their own. And if we’re lucky, perhaps Broadway will continue to nurture and launch brazenly truthful shows like this one.

The central tug-of-war at the heart of the story between Alison and her dad– to be truthful or not to be truthful–is one we are all caught in at some point with our families, with our communities, and with society overall. Especially when something about us deviates from the norm. And as the script–adapted by Tony award winner Lisa Kron–makes clear, the oppressive aribiters of conformity, like Alison’s dad, frequently have something queer of their own to hide (Dennis Hastert or Josh Duggar, anyone?).

For example, in an evocative scene we see Alison’s dad angrily insist that she wear a dress to an event though she has told him she’d be more comfortable in pants. Does her father lack an understanding of her internal dilemma? Hardly; he knows it all too well. In fact he feels he’s being a good, protective, parent, by teaching her to survive the way he always has–to hide, to fit in, to camouflage himself among his “normal” peers. As Alison discovers that her father is wrong–and that openly living her truth is the key to survival, as opposed to hiding in silent shame–she finds herself haunted and heart broken by being unable to take him with her.

Like Alison, many of us who are queer, or non conforming in some way, eventually come to understand why our parents attempt to regulate us. (That is if we have sufficient self reflection, good friends, and a good therapist). In time we discover that the reflexive need our caregivers have to keep us in line has less to do with them being the epitome of normal but more to do with what I call their own spotlight ambivalence: a fear of exposing one’s truth when it challenges the norm, often causing people to object when others seek recognition for who they are. We learn that even though many of our parents are unable to encourage our queerness on a conscious level, they might instead connect with us quietly– and even provide a launching pad from which we can try our wings. Although sometimes this comes at the cost of having to in some way leave them behind.

Take my client for example, whom I’ll call David. A gay man, David was a gender nonconforming child who liked to play with dolls. Sometimes he would also enjoy impersonating his favorite characters from film or television, who were often female. David’s mother would give him dolls as presents and applaud his impersonations when they were alone. However, when he tried to express himself this way in mixed company she would discourage him–abruptly, icily, and shamingly. She would suggest he “play ball” with the other boys at these times, whereas in private she would read him Ferdinand the Bull–a story about a bull who prefers to play alone with flowers instead of getting rowdy with the his brothers. It would take years for David to understand that during these disorienting moments of reprimand he was not only feeling his own shame but his mother’s as well. Her spotlight ambivalence.

However, his mother’s truth was abruptly thrust into the spotlight when David was in his twenties and his father died of an accident. His mom, who had always appeared to be stable and reliable as a mother, wife, and school teacher on the surface, quickly began to regress. She became reckless both financially and sexually–allowing herself to be taken advantage of. She would offer various men loans that they never paid back and she engaged in unsafe sex with some of them.

David’s mother had surrendered her agency and autonomy to the point where even David’s brother coerced her into some very compromising financial decisions. This was a blatant case of elder abuse that David was helpless to prevent as Adult Protective Services kept telling him, “We can’t tell your mother who to be friends with or how to spend her money.”

Nightmarish as it was for David to watch his mother surrender all of her power, at the same time he was charging into his own life. As an adult he was finally able to really live–finding love, marriage, and a career that allowed him to be an outspoken gay advocate. His mother on the other hand, continued to suffer without a voice.

By voice I mean point of view, because she surely used her voice. Since his father’s death David’s mother would talk openly, repeatedly, and completely uncensored about an episode of incestuous sexual abuse that she had experienced as a child. She had been too afraid to tell this to anyone when it happened, for fear of drawing unwanted attention to herself or being the cause of a family disruption–a tragic and all too common reality for many victims of child abuse. David’s mother had kept this trauma hidden underneath her manicured exterior for her entire life–which ended up manifesting into severe migraine headaches. But after losing David’s father she could no longer keep it down.

However, rather than seek help–which she was never able to do as a child–she instead reenacted the abuse she had experienced as a child with men in her adult life. David’s efforts to encourage his mother to talk this through with a psychotherapist were futile, as she always insisted she was “fine” and that he simply had a problem with her “lifestyle.” In other words, she was unable to free herself from her trauma and her shame. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s quote comes to mind here, “‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Much of my work with David was to help him identify his mother’s inconsistencies in raising him–buying him dolls, but discouraging him from playing with them in public–to understand her limitations and to accept them. From there he could mourn her inability to continuously hold and encourage his authentic expression of self. He also learned to accept that her choices to be taken advantage of by the men in her life at this point were her own, and he eventually began to release his need to save her, devastating as that was for him.

Though connecting to his mother in a mutually recognized way was not possible at this point–like Alison and her dad in Fun Home–we found ways for him to connect to her emotionally without her even knowing it. David learned to hold onto the dreams his mother had for him in those private moments when she would let him play with dolls. We decided that these moments revealed her dream for him, and for herself for the two of them to have voices. Voices that would allow them to be known, and to live openly, honestly and free of shame. David learned to be nurtured by this part of his mother– a part that she had disavowed, or perhaps dissociated from herself–but had somehow fostered in him.

Fun Home is a very queer child to have been parented by Broadway, an industry that typically seeks to produce normative shows with an eye toward mainstream success. But clearly The Great White Way had a closeted wish to feature a rare show with an authentic and vital voice. (And five Tony awards later it clearly paid off). Let’s hope that more plays like Fun Home will be discovered, attuned to, nurtured, recognized, and launched.

Same Sex Wedding Tips for All Couples

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

Marriage equality is flourishing across the United States, yielding more same-sex weddings than ever before. But unlike “traditional” straight couples, same-sex couples have no templates or roadmaps to fall back on when planning their nuptials. Here I share a few ideas – some from my own experience – for navigating the unknown terrain of same-sex weddings, all of which will help any couple (gay or straight) who want to celebrate individuality over tradition.

Your Wedding Challenges are Opportunities
With no GPS to lead the way, you and your fiancé are forced to ask yourselves three important questions:
1. What are we doing?
2. Why are we doing it?
3. How do we make it happen?

Same-sex couples have always been forced to be awake at the wheel of their relationships and marriages. I feel it’s because they have had to fight for recognition in the face of adversity. So – along with straight couples who deviate from the norm – think of your wedding-planning challenges as opportunities to create meaningful celebrations on your own terms.

Incorporate Guests Into Your Story, Not the Other Way Around
Assemble a menagerie of faces that make you feel like you. And choose not to invite anyone who might compromise your event with what I call ‘Overtly Toxic Prejudice’: a reflexive, pernicious need to induce shame in those they do not understand. Anyone down with OTP does not have a place at your wedding.

By taking charge of your guest list, you also empower yourself to bring people into your world, on your terms. For instance, when family members slip up and call your event a “party,” just remind them how important the day is for you, how important the word “wedding” is, and how meaningful it will be for you to share it with them.

Remember, you are inviting them into your story as a couple, not contorting yourself to fit into theirs.

Personalize, Rewrite, or Create New Rituals
You get to think about which wedding rituals you like, which you do not, and which are rooted in the tradition of brides as property (which are many of them). You then get to decide which of those rituals, if any, tell your story. If none do, you can always create your own, and then celebrate them in your own way.

Here are some examples:

The Proposal. You can reenact a “traditional” proposal where one proposes to the other on bended knee. But you can also invent a refreshing proposal of your own. And you can cast yourself in the role of proposer, proposed to, or both.

For example, my husband and I invented Proposal Week: a mini-vacation during which we agreed to psyche each other out with almost-proposals at various dinners and excursions until it spontaneously happened for real. Instead of exchanging rings, we created a symbolic video featuring the people in our tribes and emailed it to them. It served as both our engagement announcement and our save the date.

Parties. Have a shower, a bachelor(ette) party, or any other pre-wedding bash if you want. Whatever you end up doing (i.e., cake decorating classes, wine tasting, bar hopping, or bungy jumping) just make sure you actually have fun and that the party symbolizes who you are, independent of your spouse-to-be.

The Wedding Party. And speaking of parties, you get to decide who you want to represent you on the big day, without the gender binary getting in the way. That means that unlike many brides and grooms in the past, you get to choose bridesmen, groomsgals, or any other attendant in your wedding ensemble without the oppressive rule of “boys on this side of the aisle, girls on that side.”

What is also trending is not settling on any specific color theme for attire; don’t feel the pressure to have everyone in the wedding party match ensembles. For example, for our New England fall wedding, my husband and I chose to wear non-matching brown suits and asked our parties to wear any fall leaf color of their choosing. It was wonderful to watch the autumnal ensemble flurry their way down the aisle.

The Ceremony. Don’t feel as though you have to abandon tradition altogether. There may be aspects of sectarian customs that inspire you. For example, my husband and I both grew up going to Christian churches, and though we are not religious now, we liked some of the aesthetics of the services. We chose classic texts that reflected stories like ours – drawn from Gilgamesh and Plato – as well as church-like music selections that felt personal, from Philip Glass and Sinead O’Connor. Our spiritual guests not only got to reflect on our love, but also had no idea the service wasn’t taken from the Bible.

The Reception. Do you need to smash cake in each other’s faces? No. So if you don’t want to, don’t. If you want a first dance, do it: fast or slow, just the two of you, or with everyone as a big group. And if you want to dance with parents, why not go ahead and dance with your same-sex counterpart?

Your Wedding is a Performance
Don’t be afraid to embrace the limelight. It’s your day, so you should enjoy it.

That being said, you’ll want to prepare for show time the way actors do for a play. Allow yourself to daydream about each stage of the wedding ahead of time. Fantasize about the attention you will receive each step of the way, and how nice it will be to take that in. The more you are prepared to enjoy the attention, the better time you’ll have and the better time your guests will have. Trust me.

Also, don’t be thrown by relatives who may cringe at the sight of you kissing your beloved at the altar, your PDA in photographs or on the dance floor, your choice of outfit, or any other way in which you choose to enjoy the spotlight. These “traditional” or conservative relatives might induce inhibiting shame in you. Don’t let them. They are not the arbiters of appropriate. They simply suffer from what I call ‘Spotlight Ambivalence’: mixed feelings about exposing truth when it challenges the norm, causing folks to object when you take center stage. It’s about them, not about you.

But you might be able to actually glean tips from these same relatives. Ask them about their weddings and conflicts they had with their relatives when planning them. You might disarm them and find connections in unexpected places.

What You Take In Is More Important Than What You Put Out
Whether we’re straight or gay, we all face the exact same wedding dilemma: How to celebrate who we are and who we love, and how to take our crucial people along with us for the ride. The ensemble you assemble will nourish you – if you mentally prepare to take them in.

Don’t Just Ask Bruce Jenner for Answers, Ask Yourself

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

Last week Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman on the ABC news program 20/20, satisfying many inquiring minds. But more enlightening to me than the answers in that interview were the questions — questions we should be directing more at ourselves than at Jenner.

Interviewer Diane Sawyer accommodated our curiosity about Jenner with her reputed preparedness and warmth. She informed us about the differences between gender and sexuality; drew our attention to the many marginalized transgender and gender non-conforming people among us; and advised us not to assume the pronouns by which any one of us prefers to be identified. (She pointed out that, for the moment, Jenner prefers he/him/his.)

But it was Sawyer’s moments of palpable perplexity that most awakened us to some truly central questions: How do gender identity, orientation and expression effect each of our own lives?

“Help everyone struggling with what this is…” says Sawyer, her eyes squinting searchingly through discomfort. Later in the interview she struggles some more, saying, “Again, it’s the confusion inside this because if you’re assigned male…” Jenner’s eyes flicker with hard-earned wisdom and good humor as he follows her question. “…and you become female…” Sawyer continues to wrestle with the conundrum, her hands rocking from side to side as Jenner nods playfully in unison. Sawyer struggles on, “But you like women…are you a het…erosexual who…” Jenner rescues Sawyer from her confusion with a clear educational answer about the difference between sexuality (“who you are attracted to”) and gender identity (“who you are”).

But the real answer is in his eyes. It is simply, “Yes.” Not “Yes, Diane. You nailed it,” but rather, Yes, this is a truth that cannot be nailed. A truth without definitive answers. A truth that forces us to rock from side to side. Not just Jenner’s truth, but our own.

Do you ever ask yourself what masculine or feminine expressions or mannerisms make you feel most safe, comfortable, authentic, free or good? Do you check in with yourself about what turns you on sexually? Do the answers to any of these questions evoke fear in you? If so, have you asked yourself why?

Bruce Jenner has wrestled with these questions for his entire life, mostly while in the public eye, and this makes him a valuable resource for those who want to better understand how gender and sexuality impact our lives. But we can’t rely on Jenner alone to enlighten us. Sure, we benefit from his story. As Sawyer says, “We think it is a story that can only be told by someone who lived it.” But we also have stories of our own. We must struggle with our own questions — the way Sawyer’s confused hands do at moments in the interview — with our own fears and discomforts, in order to better tell our own stories.

By questioning and shattering the stories that have been imposed on each of us, we allow ourselves the opportunity to reassemble the fragments — as Jenner has done — into a mosaic of our own creation. We give ourselves room to live with freedom, with authenticity and with a sense of integration.

And, at the same time, we also develop greater empathy for those, like Jenner, whose crucial need to live outside the norm is more obvious than most.

The more we understand our own relationships to gender, the less we scapegoat our marginalized sisters and brothers who are targeted, discriminated against and attacked. By better understanding the fears we harbor about gender nonconformity in our own bodies and souls, the better we can answer the question, What is more frightening, the sight of a gender nonconforming person, or getting beaten to death? 

Too many transgender people are regularly stigmatized, discriminated against, assaulted and murdered. They need our advocacy, support and protection. But fear of the unknown too often sways our thoughts toward the known instead, toward the majority of cisgender people — those who feel a match between their assigned sex and the gender they feel they are. Too many of us empathize more with the “normals” who get startled, flummoxed or bothered upon spotting transgender folks in restrooms, rather than the transgender persons themselves. (BTW, when trans people enter bathrooms, like you they most likely just want to pee).

The fear of gender nonconformity and the fear of physical attack are not the same thing. You or your child could very well be targeted in a public restroom. But should that occur–and I hope it does not–gender nonconforming clothing and/or behaviors are not likely to be the clues that tip you off to the perpetrator. In fact the opposite is far more likely to be true. (Statistics show that trans people are more likely to be victims of murder and assault than any other minority group.) Knowing the difference between your own fear of gender nonconformity and your own fear of attack will make you better able to protect yourself, your children and also your gender-variant friends and family when any of you are in danger.

An excellent new collaborative performance art project, called Gender/Power, addresses these very issues and assists in exploring them. Led by Maya Ciarrocchi and Kris Grey, the project’s goal is to not only elevate the “experience of being transgender away from medicalization and pathology,” but also to reveal “gender injustice as an insidious cultural condition in need of reformation.”

I attended a performance in March in New York City, and I found it to be revelatory, especially by the way it implicated my fellow audience members and me. As the piece opened, we were escorted into a room with several screens showing images of gender nonconforming bodies standing still. As there was no seating we all stood, squinting through discomfort like Diane Sawyer during the Bruce Jenner interview. But what was making us uncomfortable? The bodies we were watching? Not knowing which of them was female and which male? The stillness? The not knowing what would happen next? As we rocked from side to side in uncertainty, I witnessed men standing defensively with tense (strong?) arms crossed in front of their chest. I saw women fidgeting and rolling their eyes in awkwardness (girliness?). Every one of us clung for dear life to the gender expressions with which we were most familiar — a desperate grasp for control, for security, for an escape from the confusion.

The performers then entered the space and each shared narratives about their own struggles to reconcile gender with their own bodies and souls. Across the performance they seemed to swap narratives, effectively disorienting us but also disarming us, awakening us to the liberating possibilities available to each of us when the rigid walls of “normal,” of binary, of “man” and “woman,” are torn down.

As the piece came to a close, the performers stood in silence once again — this time live, as opposed to on a screen — staring at each of us, forcing us to confront our own genders, bodies and souls, emboldening us with our own questions.

We will all be more enlightened, more aware, less afraid, less on the attack and more prepared for attack, if we direct our questions about gender expression not just to the people who stand out, but also to the bodies we stand in. To ourselves.

 

Celebration Planning Can Be Effective Therapy

This post first appeared on Psychology Today.

Can planning a wedding be an effective and long-lasting couples therapy intervention?

Yes it can. But so, too, can planning milestone birthday parties be an effective bit of therapy for those who are single. I explained how while doing a guest radio spot on The Imago Relationships International (link is external) Think Tank.  Dr. Tammy Nelson (link is external) interviewed me about my book Modern Brides & Modern Grooms (Skyhorse, 2014) and my work as a therapist.

Here is a short video preview of the interview. (A video of the full interview is at the end of this post.)

During the interview we discussed how the paradigm of marriage is shifting for all of us—whether we’re gay, straight, or something in between (which I’ve written about here ), here, here, and here , and the New York Times has also joined the party, here. Dr. Nelson asked me how therapists can educate ourselves to better serve the growing number of same-sex couples who are seeking therapy as marriage equality becomes a reality across the United States (29:45 in the video  below). My answer was that we (as in all of us, not just therapists) benefit from being curious, empathic, and prepared to be unprepared as we learn about every individual or couple we meet. As far as educating ourselves, we all gain from increasing our awareness and understanding of how misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism affect every one of us (some of us obviously more than others). Yes, even straight, white, gender-conforming folks are compromised by these forms of bias, ignorance, discrimination and hate, because they inhibit (link is external) the ways each one of us expresses who we are and who we love. So rather than asking “How do I help gay couples?” perhaps we  do more good by considering how each one of us demands recognition of who we are and who we love; how each one of us wants to stay connected to our people at the same time; and how each one of us can use help to navigate this dilemma—no matter who we are.

Wedding planning provides a rich opportunity to face the inevitable relationship conflicts that come with doing things our own way while also trying to take our people with us.

As in couples’ therapy, wedding planning puts us in two places at once: we have to advocate for our own emotional needs, while considering the needs of the other person at the same time. By the “other person” I mean not only one’s partner, but also one’s family, friends, and communities. As we decide how to celebrate our identities and loves, we must find ways to engage the people with whom we wish to connect without shutting them down. This includes the bride from a conservative Jewish family who wants to marry the non-practicing Catholic, the bride who wants to give herself away, the straight groom who wants to wear a crown and be given away, the bride who has decided he’d rather be a groom on the nuptial day, and the gay groom who wants to dance with his father at his reception. Those of us  who resolve these conflicts successfully are better equipped to survive future relationship ruptures as they occur throughout our marriages and our lives. Just as in a successful round of couples’ therapy, a successful wedding is one in which an effective process has been established—a process of reflection, curiosity, negotiation, and creative collaboration—as opposed to a specific product.

As therapists we can also help ourselves by being creative in the approaches that inform our thinking and our interventions. In the interview (34:20 ), I explained to Dr. Nelson that as our social practices evolve we must have an open mind in our therapeutic techniques. We can get stuck being categorical about our approaches (e.g., this is appropriate for couples’ therapy, this is not); moreover, just as we can’t know our clients until we know them, we can’t know what will work until it does. For example, I explained how even psychoanalytic approaches help me work with couples (not the first school of thought many of us would think of for couples work), particularly in the opportunity those approaches provide for giving each client space to free associate in a holding environment while reflecting on what each needs. Through processes of self-reflection, individuals are not only able to uncover their underlying emotional needs, but are even more equipped to empathize with their partner’s underlying emotional needs (as well as those of the other people in their lives).

Whoever we are, we do well to consider that we all want the same thing: to be recognized, to be loved, and to be attached to our people. If we are mindful and reflective as we plan weddings and other milestone celebrations, we can develop skills for forging and maintaining relationships that will last a lifetime.