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.


Same Sex Marriage Has Opened Doors for All of Us

The introductory essay below provides a lead-in for the virtual reading from my book “Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional Twenty-First-Century Weddings” (link is external) (Skyhorse, 2014) that follows.

Marriage equality is already a reality across most of the United States, and I’m not just talking about the law. Now that 37 states (including Alabama! (link is external)) have legalized same-sex marriage—and one regressive appellate opinion (link is external) has upheld bans against it in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee—the U.S. Supreme Court has finally agreed to decide once and for all whether or not the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American the right to marry whomever he or she loves. But no matter what SCOTUS comes up with this June, the social practice of marriage has already evolved before our eyes in irreversible ways—for all couples, gay and straight alike.

I wrote “Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional Twenty-First-Century Weddings” (link is external) with this cultural landscape in mind. I wanted a book to exist about the new paradigm of marriage, a book that acknowledges we have hit the reset button on marriage and that explores how we are all more alike than different in the ways we form bonds.

As a culture, we are all demanding from our marriages more freedom, creativity, room to try again, fail again and fail better (to parrot Samuel Beckett) than ever before. I wanted this book to provide context for our modern marital practices and to serve as a resource guide, a relationship navigator and a collection of brazenly truthful first-person accounts (from my own life and the lives of many other people, of both sexes and of all shapes, colors, sizes and orientations). It’s a book for absolutely all who want recognition for who they are and whom they love, and who want to stay connected to their relatives and friends at the same time.

Last year, shortly after SCOTUS struck down the key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, I was offered the chance to write a “same-sex wedding guide.” Grateful as I was for the opportunity, and despite my awareness that niche marketing is generally a clever way to do business, I had to say no. For me to write such a book would feel like a lie. It would suggest that the progress of the marriage equality movement, both legally and socially, could be summed up tidily with two distinct categories of marriage—“the gay” and “the straight”—and that each category would have its own set of rigid, normative expectations. That just isn’t true.

On the contrary, the transformative outcome of the marriage equality movement—of same-sex couples fighting to be recognized—is that marital practices are now getting freshened up for everyone, with a queer perspective. This paradigm explodes categories that restrict us and in their place offers a great deal of freedom, recognition and equality to every committed couple (gay or straight). (I’ve written articles on this topic for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post (link is external).)

For one thing, couples of all stripes now choose to be married, with eyes wide open, rather than sleep-walking through the steps dictated by tradition. Every modern couple’s choice to wed has the same awakened passion and verve as those of the same-sex couples who fought for decades to have their love recognized in the face of major adversity.

Marriage equality has also demolished gender-role stereotypes in all of our relationships, allowing equality and harmony between partners as they collaborate on where to live, negotiate career ambitions and do family planning (however “family” is defined). And then there’s sex: We are able to be more open, transparent and accepting of our sexual needs than we have ever been, and married couples are now provided more space to communicate and negotiate sexual practices and to seek advice and support to facilitate these processes when necessary.

The idea of transparency is perhaps the greatest bit of wisdom we all have gleaned from the experiences of same-sex couples. We all have learned to come out of the closet, if you will, about who we are and how we love, to close the door on shame and to ask for help when we need it. When we remove the pressure to be perfect or to meet society’s expectations for what our marriages and families should look and act like, we make room for the possibility of making them work better.

*This essay first appeared on

Into the White White Woods

This piece first appeared on Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s column Quite Queerly, and then again on The Huffington Post.

I can’t wait to see Into the Woods with my family on Christmas Day. I’ve loved this Stephen Sondheim musical since I was twelve. And yet something about the lavish-looking film adaptation gives me pause: the all-star cast is all white. All. White.

Half of my family members with whom I’ll be watching the movie have brown skin, and though they are all eager to see fairy tale characters who are familiar to them, played by sparkly actors who are also familiar to them, no one on the big screen will look like them. This is something they are used to and have always been. And that is too bad.

Also too bad is the feeling that I’m not sure I’ll be brave enough to bring this up during our holiday movie night. I mean, who wants to risk being “Debbie Downer” on Christmas?

I’m sure I’m not alone here — in my ambivalence about the film, or in my hesitation to bring it up.

But what better time to address racism, and the ill-effects of unchecked systems of power and privilege, than when we are seated comfortably in our bubbles of power and privilege? A time during which we celebrate fantastic images of who we are — or at least who we dream ourselves to be — projected onto an enormous screen? Yes, we risk sobering up the party for a sec, but we just might also inspire each other to think. To discuss. And to become aware of how even the most subtle forms of bias get absorbed into all of our heads and impact all of our behaviors — behaviors that range from telling jokes based on prejudice, to more explicit forms of discrimination, to horrific acts of violence.

Following the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we as a country have expressed more reactions, opinions, theories and curiosities about race, injustice and our systemic failures to protect all of our people, than perhaps ever before. Dialogue of this kind is crucial to foster necessary changes to our systems, but by the time our people are murdered unjustly it is too late to make effective changes. There is little we can do at that point but grieve, mourn, be outraged and cast blame. Our observations about racial inequality might be more effective when we are not in states of trauma and grief, and instead when we are celebrating our powers and privileges with our families — especially those members of our families who are white, or have an abundance of social advantages, or for whom social injustice may not blip on the radar until someone is brutally, unjustifiably murdered.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that problems of systemic racism can be solved in a movie theater. But I do think that sharing observations about the casting of our movies is a great place to start. Especially for those of us who want to stop contributing to the problem and instead take a meaningful step toward healing and change.

After all, movies are our dreams, and the images we see on screen impact how we think and how we behave. According to SAG AFTRA, the union representing all on-screen performers in America, “There is no other medium as capable of affecting human behavior and thought as films.” We as audiences can be more aware of the faces we see on screen and demand to see more faces that reflect us, our families and friends, and the American scene as it truly is, and as we dream it to be.

This is especially true of our fantasy films, like Into the Woods, which represent the farthest reaches of our dreamiest dreams and have more room than most for diverse casting possibilities. Let’s ask ourselves: would it really damage the story if the Witch or Cinderella was a person of color? The talent certainly exists. We could all benefit from seeing the magnificent performances of six-time Tony award-winner Audra MacDonald or Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson on our big screens. (Of course, some people would inevitably disagree with this observation. I wrote about this topic two years ago when the first Hobbit film came out, featuring an entirely white cast, and I received angry emails from Tolkien “experts” for weeks. These self-styled fantasy wonks ranged from those of the white supremacist variety to liberal-minded friends of mine — all of whom were white, and male — who shared elaborate explanations for why all of the cast members “needed” to be white, and why such a need was absolutely not racist logic. I wonder now if the Cinderella “experts” will react to this post with thorough explanations of the casting choices made for Into the Woods.)

But I digress. The point is that, in most cases, casting with diversity in mind does not compromise storytelling. In many cases it enhances it. It also provides audiences opportunities for identifying and empathizing with a greater variety of people, with a greater variety of faces and histories, than we are currently allowed. We can demand more of this in our entertainment. Fairy tales are not the only opportunities to cast actors of color, as Sony Studios is currently proving with their remake of Annie. Apparently producers can cast a black actor in the role of an iconic white comic book character — when they are not sitting around sending reductive emails about whether Obama likes “black” movies — and it can work. (I have not yet heard the Annie “experts” threaten to picket screenings of the film.) Think of the great effect such a casting choice will have on all the girls and boys across America who will see a character on screen who looks like them.

And while we’re on the subject of movie producers, they could all benefit by taking a page from the great American theater director Liesl Tommy, who constantly finds innovative ways to put actors of all shapes, colors and sizes on stage to great effect. Her inspired casting choices serve the stories she tells, emphasizing their relevance to modern audiences and expanding everyone’s palette of people with whom to identify. Her contemporized production of Les Miserables at the Dallas Theater Center, for example, featured a diverse cast and garnered rave reviews from critics and audiences alike.

But let’s get back to the children. The musical Into the Woods leaves its audience with a song called “Children Will Listen.” Here are some of the lyrics:

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn

The children I will watch the movie with this week will see a fairy tale about white people. What will they learn? I suppose that depends on whether or not people like me choose to say something about it.

How My World Became The Real World

164915-169668This piece first appeared on The Huffington Post, November 13, 2014.

Before my husband was on The Real World, we met in a realer world: the closet.

As bullied — and consequently failed — high-school students, we found each other as “refugees” on “The Island of Misfit Teens”: an early-admissions college known as Simon’s Rock. Project Runway‘s Nina Garcia would have kicked us out for our “styling”: torn jeans, half-shaved/half-long hair, flannel, Birkenstocks, acne. We were 16, and it was 1993. Same-sex marriage wasn’t legal; there was no Internet to learn how much “better” it would get; Ellen had not yet declared, “Yep, I’m gay”; homosexuality meant “AIDS.” There were no appealing realities for a gay teen to dream himself into.

But Justin was braver than I was and trusted that his own private world could be just as real as the one surrounding us.

After two weeks of watching me, stalking me, and making me laugh, he made a bid for his dreams: “I guess I’m attracted to you,” he said.

“I’m straight,” I lied back, “but we can be friends.”

And just like that, dreams were deferred.

Six years later Justin would put forth a dreamier image of himself, care of MTV: platinum-blond pixie do, fashion jeans, and crystal-clear skin. I would watch him — the way he had once watched me — and dream of a happier outcome for us. If only I had trusted my dreams, or his, when I had had the chance.

Before all of that, my mom had taught me to dream, singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” like Mama Cass, and “Sweet Dreams” like Patsy Cline, while changing diapers or folding laundry. But I never trusted the euphoria that flooded her when she wanted something, because she became equally flooded with fury and or despair when she didn’t get it. “That’s not how it was supposed to be!” she’d cry. She refused to negotiate with reality when it took her dreams hostage, and this not-so-sweet sight made me afraid to want things.

But her commitment to a world more livable than the one thrust upon her — not unlike 16-year-old Justin — was indeed a great gift, one she literally gave me in the form of a puzzle depicting a Pegasus flying by moonlight with the caption “Follow Your Dream!” I would eventually learn to receive this gift — though not before interrupting Justin’s bid for love, in the name of “reality.”

I received further instruction on following my dreams from the cartoon Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings, about a boy who made his own world with a piece of chalk. I loved it. I would sing along with Simon, “The things I draw come true….”

And then I drew my own world into reality with a piece of chalk — yellow chalk, turning the street where I lived into the Yellow Brick Road, you know, so I could be Dorothy and skip off to see the Wizard. I only got through about 12 bricks, but the world then had more room for my dreams to live than before.

In time I would be brave enough to draw a road to a livable life, one that would reunite me with Justin.

When I rejected him — with the nasality of a petulant teen — my dream to be normal had one up on my dream to love what I loved. But the road to normal only led me to… nothing. In black and white.

Fortunately my desires eventually jolted me out of the closet and into my body. I began to commit to my technicolor dreams, like my mom did. I took flight, made bids for love… and fell flat on my face. Again, and again.

But unlike my mom, I discovered how to fall better. Rather than revert back to the closet or fixate on how things were “supposed to be, I learned to have my dreams and reality too, to be a dream hostage negotiator.

Yes, reality would always be there to give me the hand and say, “You shall not pass!” — as I had done to Justin. But the trick, I found, was not to retreat or have a tantrum but to feel the blow of disappointment and then adapt, to keep drawing my yellow bricks — perhaps in a new direction — until the world, transformed by my impact, had enough room for me to be in it. My road may not lead all the way to Oz, but it could take me someplace better, where my passions, desires, realities, and dreams could live together. Free.

For example, flash-forward to the present and consider the legal status Justin and I now enjoy as a married couple. Back in 2006, as New York residents getting same-sex married in Massachusetts, our marriage was not legally recognized — anywhere — due to the state laws at the time. But we were not deterred. We. Were. Having. A. Wedding. So much conviction had we that when The New York Times rebuffed our bid for a wedding announcement, with the harsh hand of “reality,” offering the option to announce a “commitment ceremony” instead — as if to say, “But we can still be friends” — we declined. Now, just a few years later, our marriage is recognized to the fullest extent of the law. So you see, with time, facts may prove to be less real than dreams.

My dream to be with Justin took hold of me six years after I’d given him the hand. I was watching Tom Stoppard’s award-winning play The Invention of Love with my scholarly friend Dinah. Well, not really: Dinah never lets me forget I was asleep for most it. But I awoke for the most important scene: The protagonist, a college student, expresses romantic love for his male best friend and gets rejected. The words fertilized my dreams. One year later I would perform the very scene on stage, with Justin — then my boyfriend — in the audience, hearing me say the line “You’re half my life.”

So how did I negotiate with reality to rescue my dream? Well, I began by committing to it.

When my brother Mike said one day, “There’s this guy from Simon’s Rock on The Real World — he’s really smart, and gay,” I knew it was Justin. You see, he had colonized my inner world ever since the Stoppard play, so I had already drawn a few yellow bricks in his direction. It had to be him. Viewing parties with my girlfriends commenced.

We watched faithfully, every week, with starry eyes. I know, it sounds like we were all in our pajamas, facial masks and curlers, on a big bed, painting each other’s nails, right? Well, so what if we were? I needed support; the space between reality and dreams is too stimulating to occupy alone.

Justin was much cooler and self-assured and more glowing than I remembered. But I recalled his vital humor, and even more so his melancholic, no-one-understands-me sort of vibe, which made me gravitate to him. I mean, to the TV.

We were the two characters from the Stoppard play, he and I. But we were also both the protagonist — both having tolerated silent abjection, both pressured to contain our flames. My desire to find him, hold him, have him — the way things “were supposed to be” — was now ablaze.

Then came the pivotal episode. His TV roommate asks, “Justin, why don’t you talk to us?”

He replies, “Remember that school I went to? When I was 16? Well, there was this guy….”

Cue sounds of screaming girls, in pajamas and curlers.

Me [shrieking]: “What do I do?”

Real World roommate to Justin: “What happened?”

Justin: “His parents took him out of school and put him in a monastery.”

Me [shrieking louder]: “What do I do?”

My friend Joy: “Your parents put you in a monastery?”

Me: “Well, no, but he must have exaggerated that part.”

Joy: “You should write him a letter.”

And so I did.

He called me late one night. (My number happened to be on the letterhead.) I was watching him and his TV roommates travel through India, so his voice was in two places at once. We were in two places at once: the world of 22 and of sixteen, the world of reality and that of dreams. We talked all night. And every night after.

And then one day I told him what had inspired me to write the letter.

It was a sunny afternoon in Boston Common, six months into our coupledom. We were on a bench. He pointed and said, “Doesn’t that look like Ellen DeGeneres?”

“No,” I replied, giving him the harsh hand of “reality.”

You see, Justin was going through this phase where he’d “spot” iconic lesbians with regularity. (I mean, he had seen “Martina Navratalova” only the week before, in a deli in Providence, and “Melissa Etheridge” the week before that, on a Bonanza bus.)

But this time he was right! It was Ellen! She was playing frisbee with Anne Heche, and a film crew, on the lawn behind us. They were as validating a queer couple as we had in 1999, or more crucially, that’s what I dreamed them to be. (That was before we learned Anne was part alien.) What a perfect moment to discuss the trigger for our own romance.

I said, “Remember when you were, like, talking about me on TV?” Pause. “You know, about how you came on to me and how I left school? And then you said that thing about the monastery?” Double pause.

“That wasn’t you,” he said.

Oof. Narcissism interrupted.

My friend Joy, the one who’d told me to write the letter, puts it best. Joy officiated our wedding, and during the ceremony she told our “creation” story. She explained that Justin was not talking about me on the show.

And also that he was.

This post has been adapted from Mark O’Connell’s book Modern Brides and Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other Nontraditional Twenty-First-Century Weddings (Skyhorse, November 2014).

Hand-in-Hand: Marriage Equality and Gender Equality

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

“Definitions of marriage are evolving,” says Liza Monroy, author of the memoir The Marriage Act (Skullcross, 2014).  Jenny, a newly-married friend of mine, recently observed that, “We’re all rethinking how to celebrate marriage on our own terms.”  Two other female friends have told me, “I wasn’t sure I wanted a wedding, until I saw yours,” referring to my same-sex wedding—an event obviously free of historical references to brides as property.  These different, straight ladies all make the same point: marriage equality is good for everyone, especially women.

As we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) to decide whether or not to address state bans on same-sex marriage, we can reflect on how quickly marriage equality has ricocheted across the country since SCOTUS struck down a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.  We also do well to ask ourselves what these rapid changes imply about our culture.

Richard Posner, the known-to-be-conservative federal appellate judge who earlier this month concluded that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional — and whose eloquent, cogent, and entertaining opinion went viral — has been reflecting on this topic for years.  And his thoughts are not unlike what my female friends are saying above.

In a 2013 article for The New Republic, Judge Posner linked the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage to the “wide acceptance of sex outside marriage.”  The acceptance of “[o]ral and anal sex marital or otherwise,” he continued, “contributed to a growing acceptance of homosexual sex, which was traditionally non-marital as well as non-vaginal. With the decline of prudery, sexual practices formerly deemed ‘deviant’ created less revulsion in the straight population.”  Judge Posner argued in the article that, as in all cases involving discrimination, “[d]evelopments in society and culture mattered a great deal more than developments in jurisprudence”—and, specifically, that evolving attitudes on same-sex marriage have more to do with the effects of the sexual revolution of the 1960’s than the effects or actions of the courts.

In other words, according to Posner, our laws are simply going with the flow of societal practices, and we are all practicing more equality and more sexual and creative freedom in our marriages – whether we’re male or female, gay or straight — than we ever have before.

This is a coup, for women in particular, for a number of reasons. To start with, the idea of equality between spouses — which many same-sex couples model for our straight friends — encourages women to be as proactive in asserting sexual preferences as their male counterparts.  For example, some straight couples today find it socially acceptable to negotiate open marriages, a concept that was considered to be fairly taboo only a few years ago.  (Check out this recent article in Marie Claire, and this one by renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel.) It is now socially acceptable for married women both to attend 50 Shades of Grey parties — at which they playfully flirt with their sexually deviant side — and to tell their colleagues at work all about it.  In addition to these distinctive examples, women are generally more encouraged now to make their sexual desires known to their spouses, these days, than they were in the past.

In addition to loosening us all up sexually, marriage equality explodes gender stereotypes in a broader sense.  “Traditional” couples, for example, can easily fall into heteronormative patterns concerning employment and parenting – e.g., husbands should be bread-winners, wives should be child rearers — but such couples can glean a more gender-neutral perspective on these relationship roles from their LGBT friends.  A new study reveals that, in many cases, homes headed by two same-sex parents are often more “harmonious,” due to the emphasis on gender equality, than those headed by opposite-sex parents.  And, in another positive contemporary development, women who have chosen not to have children, as well as those who are infertile, are less stigmatized, and receive more positive recognition, for their non-procreative reasons to marry.

As my friend Jenny pointed out, these societal changes have impacted the way we all celebrate getting married.  Much as same-sex couples have been doing for years, straight spouses-to-be are now creating weddings that reveal their unique selves – e.g., through very personally chosen venues, text, music, and outfits –facing their nuptials with eyes wide open, as opposed to sleep-walking through tradition.

We do have a long way to go, even if SCOTUS takes up the issue this fall.  But our society is clearly moving in the direction of marriage equality for all.  Take Judge Posner himself, who was opposed to same-sex marriage for many years, but has since changed his mind.  Or has he?  In his 1992 book Sex and Reason, the very same book in which he stated his then-opposition to same-sex marriage, he wrote, “Doctrine frequently lags behind changes in social practice, but when it does we predict — and observe — a growing refusal to abide by it.”  Interestingly, Posner seems to articulate this same principle to opposite effect two decades later in his New Republic piece and recent judicial opinion on Indiana and Wisconsin’s.  Both of these were penned, of course, at a time when same-sex marriage had become common social practice.

More than ever before, couples  of all stripes are demanding equality, freedom, and recognition in their marriages, and are refusing to abide by laws that lag behind.

As memoirist Liza Monroy says, “Until gender-neutral marriage is federally recognized, there is still a ways to go.”  She continues, “[I]t’s not a ‘gay’ issue.  It’s a human rights issue, an ‘everyone’ issue.”

You Can Be Womanly, Manly, or Both, at Work

This post first appeared on Psychology Today on Mark O’Connell’s column Quite Queerly.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) announcement last month–about forthcoming guidelines to clarify and enforce full protection of federal non-discrimination laws for transgender individuals–is great news for everyone.  Such great news that it should have been blasted all over every major news source–not just those associated with L’s, G’s, B’s, and T’s.

You see, DOL has declared an alignment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which in 2012 concluded that “discrimination based on a person being transgender is sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” (Macy vs. Holder).  But there’s more.  In aligning with EEOC’s interpretation of sex discrimination in Title VII, DOL is ultimately endorsing the protection of any employee from discrimination based on “sex stereotyping”: expectations for how a man or woman should act. (See the 2013 case of EEOC vs. Boh Bros. Construction Co.)

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That Includes you.  Even if you present like this:

This image is from an inspiring presentation I recently attended at a major corporation.  It was given by Denise Norris, who presents worldwide on the topic of gender authenticity and expression.  The talk was incredibly effective.  So often discussions about gender can seem abstract and esoteric.  But Norris connected with the entire crowd of professionals, awakening them to an immediate and intuitive understanding of how issues of gender expression and perception in the workplace apply to absolutely every one of us.

Norris’ work can help us flesh out what Title VII really means by discrimination based on “sex stereotyping,” in clear, accessible, human terms. To begin with, consider all of your reactions to the image.

In the diagram below, Norris puts language to the gender cues you are responding to:

She then introduces a model to articulate how we all send and receive gender cues all the time; consciously or not.


The slide below depicts the various factors that influence the gender cues we send to other people.

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. Denise used 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.

Some of these influences are outside of us: e.g., gender stereotypes.  And in the flicker of each moment, each situation–e.g., social, professional–we consider the potential rewards or penalties for our gender expressions.  In some cases we voluntarily send these gender cues hoping for a specific result, but as Denise articulates in her analogy, there are many ways in which we just can’t control what we send.

Then there’s the person on the receiving end:

When you are in this position you are decoding the gender cues you receive from another person.  You use influences outside of your self–e.g., stereotypes, social circumstances–as well as those that are internal: e.g., your own sexual and gender orientations.  You engaged in this very process in this very way just now, while observing the image of the person above.

Trouble occurs when the observer of another person believes their perceived gender violates gender rules: i.e., the person they see presents with a non-conforming gender expression.  This is when people get fired without justification; are mistreated when applying for a driver’s license; are not allowed to go to the prom with a date of their choice etc.  This form of discrimination forces us to contort ourselves, to hold our breath and hide our gender expressions for fear of being treated unlawfully and unfairly; what I call don’t act, don’t tell. (I’ve written about this here, here, and here).

The Department of Labor’s announcement revokes don’t act, don’t tell.  It is now up to us to follow Denise Norris’ lead and put words to our own experiences of gender.  This is how we might hold DOL to their proposed standard: to protect us all from sex stereotyping.

Copyright Mark O’Connell, L.C.S.W.

Slides, Copyright Denise Norris

Playing in the Spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shakespearean Art of Throwing Back Thursday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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