Equality Crept Into The Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Gets Better, For Whom?

This post first appeared on the author’s column, Quite Queerly, on PsychologyToday.com

Several videos from the ubiquitous “It Gets Better” project feature famous, “top” gays guaranteeing that a better life awaits all L’s, G’s, B’s and T’s if we hold our heads high. Pop star Adam Lambert advises not to give bullies “the power to affect you, [because] you’re letting them win.” Actor Neil Patrick Harris says, “you can act with strength, you can act with courage… stand tall…be proud.” And fashion designer Michael Kors assures us that if he wasn’t “different,” he couldn’t be, um, Michael Kors. While these statements are all extremely well-intentioned, they beg the question, “for whom does it get better”? (For pop stars with a security team to ward off haters? For exceedingly famous actors who are lauded for “acting straight” and conforming to gender stereotypes? For Michael Kors?)

If it is hazy for whom the victory bell of “It Gets Better” actually tolls, the NFL has made crystal clear for whom it does not: unestablished, openly LGBT folks for one, especially those hoping to play for the NFL. After last week’s report about an NFL prospect being asked if he “liked girls” during a scouting interview, the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens player and equality advocate Brendan Ayanbadejo (whom I’vecommended elsewhere) stated, “I think players need to say that they’re straight right now…keep everything, so-called normal. And maybe later, once you’ve established yourself…maybe then players will be more comfortable to really be who they are.” The recommendation to refrain from disclosing one’s “gayness,” either by what one says or how one says it–what I call “Don’t Act, Don’t Tell”—is most disappointing coming from an athlete and public figure who has used his platform tirelessly to promote equality. But Mr. Ayanbadejo is only the messenger here, reminding us of the reality that, in many cases, before things can truly get better, queer people are expected to cover ourselves in the jersey of a “normal” and score a touchdown of obvious success. Things may get better, but first, we must “win.”

Now, this may seem to work for pop stars who don’t let the bullies “win,” actors who can “act straight,” football players who are good at lying(Manti T’eo?), and any other fortunate others whose “normal” qualities have buoyed them to great success. But what of the others, those who can’t “win”? Queer theorist Heather Love writes, “[O]ne may enter the mainstream on the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it.” What, then, is in store for those of us pegged as “losers” even by the marginalized communities to which we belong?

In a chapter of his bookBoyhoods: Rethininking Masculinities, entitled, “Faggot=Loser,” psychoanalyst Ken Corbett illuminates how we expel our anxieties of loss by projecting them into others, maintaining binaries of bigness and smallness, strength and weakness, winning and losing. (We might add to this list: bully and victim, straight and gay, normal and queer, established celebrity and unestablished nobody, he for whom things get better and she for whom things do not.) Using a case example, Corbett emphasizes the value of allowing loss to take effect, the power of being recognized in our loss, and of recognizing it in ourselves. Corbett finds that through a mutual recognition of loss we may begin to believe in our own recovery from it, and in our capacity to engage in a life that gets better.

The “It Gets Better” project is a grand achievement, and the abundant and various non-famous voices on the website offer much neededempathy and recognition. But we might consider how unhelpfully easy the lucky, privileged, “normal” few can make hope sound. We might consider how easily all of us can get ahead of ourselves, and who we leave behind as a result. Must we become winners to avoid being losers, and if so, who becomes the losers? Can we instead make room for our own losses, to allow our lives, as philosopher Judith Butler proposes, to be “grievable” and, in the words of psychoanalyst Adrienne Harris, to find a way for our experience to be “narratizable, coherent, recognized, not disavowed”?

Fortunately several famous “winners” have called attention to the palpable loss in queer communities. In a speech accepting an award from the Human Rights Campaign last year, Oscar-winning actress Sally Field spoke about her gay son’s wish to be “normal” like his brothers, and how she supported him through his painful struggle to accept his differences. Similarly, in his “It Gets Better” video, out actor Zachary Quinto conveys a genuine recognition of the tragedy, despair, and hopelessness that pervades many LGBT lives, suggesting that in order to move forward we must first, as Heather Love says,”feel backward.”

There is much to be gained by sharing loss, and much that is lost by shielding ourselves with gains. When our losses are recognized we can face our own wounds in the looking glass, and become empowered to move through to the other side. We must believe that we exist as we are, before we can believe in getting better.

Jodie Foster: It’s Complicated

Jodie Foster’s reality show “would be so boring,” she told the world at Sunday night’s Golden Globes, where she was awarded for a lifetime in front of the camera. Foster’s speech was hotter and colder than a Katy Perry song. Wearing a “coming-out gown,” she seemed to reluctantly come out, and come out, while demanding privacy at one of the most public events on, well, the globe. These contradictions have ignited polarizing “blogofires” across the blogosphere, largely inflamed by Foster’s latent declaration of her sexual orientation.

I am of two minds on the speech. As a gay person I’m frustrated, disappointed and nonplussed by a public figure drawing attention to her sexuality while simultaneously defending herself against identification with our community, but as a psychotherapist I’m openly and empathically curious about her, a compartmentalized person struggling for a cohesive sense of self, hoping to be recognized by us in all her authentic contradictions — not unlike how I, and many in our community, hope to be recognized by her.

Such dilemmas of perspective often present themselves in my work with clients. At these times I find that the questions are far more valuable than answers.

Some questions to consider: Why did Foster use this platform, this symbolically terminal moment in her career, to address her sexuality? Why expose herself (and make her publicist “nervous”) if only to be defensive? Why give us what she suspects we wanted and then criticize us for wanting it? Was her tone defensive because she felt a general invasion of “privacy” (after all, she had no problem sharing images of her children, her “unfamous” friends or referring to her mother and even her ex-lover), or was the subject of her sexual identity the grain of sand that clogged the whole machine?

As much searching, ranting, probing or blogging we do, we won’t find objective answers to these questions, and perhaps they don’t exist. The only answers I’ll ever have are my own imperfect, subjective responses to the speech she gave, and her own imperfect, subjective justification for giving it.

That isn’t to say that my reactions aren’t valid, reasonable or real; for me they very much are. I still feel teased and slapped by her “anti-coming-out.” I still feel that the pros of queer public figures explicitly owning their identities (e.g., giving LGBT people who live in fear, shame and doubt a point of identification and hope) far outweigh the cons (e.g., the possibility of being blocked from “straight” roles, one Brett Easton Ellis raised in a tweet about the openly gay Matt Bomer). I can’t help but believe that the applause her audience was itching to give her if she had just spoken the words “I’m a lesbian” would not have been for her alone; it would not have been in the spirit of a private support group. I imagine it representing so much more, honoring the progress we have witnessed in the LGBT community thanks to the bravery of entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres (and the celebrities who followed in her footsteps), the advocacy and support of leaders like Barack Obama and, most of all, the brazen willingness of millions of non-famous people who have lived their lives truthfully, against all odds. This, I believe, is the applause she denied by declaring her lack of declaration. (I also can’t hide my involuntary grimace and confusion over the fact that she chose Mel Gibson — infamous for homophobic, racist and anti-semitic rants – as her date on the night that she chose to address, or at least insinuate, her sexuality).

Though my imagination can never approximate the traumatic rupture to her privacy that she experienced when John Hinckley cited his love for her (a college student at the time) in explaining his attempted assassination of President Reagan, I can’t help but also see that as an adult she chose to remain in an industry (you can be forced into acting at 3, but not at 33) that sells entertainment based on an audience’s virtual “love” of the entertainers. She is a bona fide public figure, and that comes with opportunities, choices and challenges but not a contract with the public that states, “You can identify with this piece of me but not this one. You can ask about this but not that.

But if I were her therapist, I would use these reactions to feed my curiosity instead of my frustration. I would consider the unique circumstances under which she grew up: in front of a camera and, to use her words, always “fight[ing] for a life that felt real and honest and normal.” I would wonder about her decision to stay in the limelight even as it threatened her sense of “real” and “normal.” I would consider that perhaps “real” and “normal” are words that she feels ambivalent about, words that she associates with reality TV stars, such as Honey Boo Boo Child (whom she derisively singled out in her speech). Perhaps she learned to find authenticity through compartmentalization (e.g., leading lady, lesbian, lover, mother, etc.). Perhaps this sense of authenticity was more achievable for her when entertainment was less “reality”-focused than it is now: “[H]ow beautiful it once was,” she says. Perhaps the shift in how entertainment is sold (i.e., actors now face more pressure to promote their personal lives instead of just their films) has created a rupture in the “self” she had spent years organizing, causing her to confront the unfortunate contradictions between her identity as “leading lady” (which implies heterosexuality) and “lesbian,” for example. Perhaps we can understand her defensiveness as an attempt to keep the identity she had pieced together so effectively from unraveling, and maybe this defensiveness suggests that she doesn’t like the reductiveness of Hollywood (a system we all contribute to) any more than we do.

If I were her therapist, I would invite a space between our realities, a third space, in the hope of breaking through her defensiveness and breaking down my frustration. Psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg describes such a space as “[a] space uniquely relational and still uniquely individual; a space belonging to neither person alone, and yet, belonging to both and to each; a twilight space in which ‘the impossible’ becomes possible; a space in which incompatible selves, each awake to its own ‘truth,’ can ‘dream’ the reality of the other without risk to its own integrity.”

I am not her therapist, of course, and we are not afforded such exchanges of perception with our entertainers, so my intervention will remain a fantasy; as Bromberg says, “this process requires an enacted collision of realities between [two people].” Instead, I will have to remain disappointed and frustrated, and perhaps she will remain defensive, but in the meantime we can all continue to be curious about Jodie Foster and hope that she continues to be so about us.

Bully Gets “Girl”

Originally Posted on April, 6, 2012 on
The Huffington Post
 
Over the past two years, a national conversation has developed around bullying.  A critical aspect of this conversation is the growing perception of bullying as a real and dangerous threat, as opposed to a normal phase of youth development.  At the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention last March, President Obama expressly rejected the idea of bullying as “just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up.”  While the president should be saluted for his general leadership and this specific observation, another aspect of the conference gave me pause, namely the president’s attempt to universalize bully-victimhood, as if each young person is equally vulnerable in this regard.  Using his famed charisma, Obama reassured the audience that even he had been teased as a child for his big ears.  This moment encapsulates a danger that the conference and the broader conversation on bullying both face: losing sight of the rash of teen suicides, mostly by males who identified as or were perceived to be gay, that originally catapulted the issue of bullying into the national spotlight.

A similar universalization took place last October, at a CNN-sponsored special at Rutgers University entitled “Bullying: It Stops Here.” In his opening remarks, Anderson Cooper acknowledged the recent suicide of gay 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, almost a year to the day after the death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who was also gay. Following these remarks, gay teen suicide was never addressed as a distinct or revealing symptom of the problem of bullying, and the program instead focused on bullying as a broad concept, including a Dr. Phil segment on how bullies are victims, too. One illuminating exchange between Cooper and a black high school student offered a chance to reinscribe the particular within the universal: the student explained that his teachers would be more likely to protect him if someone called him “the n-word” than if the same person called him “faggot” or any other anti-gay term. This was not expanded upon.
People can easily agree that bullying for any reason (e.g., race or ethnicity, physical or mental disability, real or perceived sexual orientation) is harmful and wrong. But in the well-intentioned effort to address bullying as a broad concept, specific insights may be lost that can help us understand commonalities behind many forms of bullying and the connection between bullying behavior and our broader culture. The double-digit string of gay teen suicides that launched this national conversation indicate that certain youths are more vulnerable than others to bullying — or, in other words, there is a real hierarchy to bullying that remains a large, tense, pink elephant in the room. Refocusing for a moment upon these suicides helps to reveal the deeply ingrained ways in which our cultural expectations of what boys and girls are — and how they should act — informs every aspect of the bullying problem.
Our culture is ruled by the gender binary, a system to which we all contribute in order to delineate between female and male. While open to contestation, this system frequently preserves a sense of masculinity/power for men, and prescribes one of femininity/submission for women, ultimately securing male dominance. The effects of such a system can be felt beyond the literal image of what a man or woman is; more generally, in a misogynistic culture, every identifiable difference between people is filtered through a misogynistic lens. Indeed, every characteristic for which youth tend to be bullied has been studied in terms of its being “feminized.” A quick Google search reveals studies on the “Feminizing of African Americans,” the “Feminizing of Asians,” of Southeast Asians, of Native Americans, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, the overweight, and so on. Given these realities, it also holds that a particular group — or perceived member of a group — will be more vulnerable to bullying and abuse to the degree that such a group is not supposed to be feminine. This may help to explain why effeminate or gender-nonconforming male youth (i.e., those who are perceived to be gay) are in such regular and tremendous jeopardy, symbolizing as they do a loss of male power and privilege. We may also expect that other targets of bullying singled out for entirely different characteristics may be referred to by terms reserved for effeminate or perceived gay males, because such males are at the very bottom of the cultural barrel.
Lee Hirsch’s just-released documentary Bully is an evocative depiction of how the gender binary impacts acts of aggression. The subjects — several kids facing repeated bullying in school, as well as the families of two boys who committed suicide — are all seen through a misogynistic lens. The boys are constantly called “bitch” and “pussy,” while school administrators try to explain away the harassment, noting that “boys will be boys” and encouraging the youths (at least the boys) to resolve their “differences” with a “manly” handshake. Similarly, though none of the subjects are out, self-identified gay males, the word “faggot” is uttered throughout the film more than any other derogatory term, and in one scene a 12-year-old boy named Alex is threatened on the bus by a peer who says, “I’ll shove a broomstick up your ass.” According toThe Los Angeles Times, this explicitly homophobic scene was the lynchpin in the ratings controversy surrounding the film and was almost cut in order to change the MPAA rating from R to PG-13 — still another example of the “gay” aspect of this epidemic at risk of being minimized or erased. The two female subjects are featured less in the documentary, and though we do not learn much about them, it is made clear that one of them has deviated from gender and sexual norms, having come out at her school as a lesbian.
The insidiousness of the misogynistic lens even affects how the parents of the children in the film view them. When Alex tells his father how his peers have been treating him, his father’s knee-jerk reaction is to suggest that Alex has failed to protect himself and thereby failed to protect his sister, who will be attending middle school the following year. The reaction is clearly borne of love, fear, confusion, and desperation, but it shows just how deeply embedded the gender binary is in our minds, and how we perpetuate it (and its damaging effects) even with the best of intentions. Alex’s father unwittingly establishes role expectations for Alex and his sister — male vs. female, hero vs. victim — thereby failing to empathize with or validate Alex’s experience of victimhood, and instead exacerbating his feeling that he is less than normal.
We may be blind to the misogynistic gender binary in our own country by proximity. Perhaps it is easier to recognize it, and the brutality it inspires, by looking across the globe to the gruesome murders of “emo” youth in Iraq. “Emo,” short for “emotional,” is an identity adopted from the West, in which tight clothes, piercings, and spiked hair are flaunted as chosen emblems of vulnerability. Since last year over a hundred emo youth, mostly females and gay males, have been stoned to death in Iraq, and the killing hasn’t stopped. Scott Long of The Guardian reports, “It’s all about boys showing vulnerability in unmanly ways, girls flashing an unfeminine and edgy attitude,” and it’s causing a “moral panic” in Iraq. The idea of teenagers being massacred for presenting vulnerability and conveying gender-nonconforming expression sounds horrific, but how truly different is it from the bullying currently taking place in our own American communities?
The gender binary and its relationship to bullying may be an elusive and challenging concept for many, because it requires us to self-reflect, examine our own expectations, and perhaps even change some of them. No one wants to feel he or she is part of the problem. But we are, all of us. An awareness of the systems through which we live and perceive the world, and which we maintain everyday, is essential for healing and change to take place.  

Part of the solution lies in changing our expectations for how males and females “should” behave, particularly males.  We can take a page from the fathers in Bully, all of whom have been forced to walk in the shoes of their victimized, “feminized” children, all of whom now allow themselves to be emotional, to cry, and to take action against this problem.  We cannot wait for more young people (and their families) to be destroyed before we too make the necessary adjustments in our expectations of what is “male” and what is “female”.
 

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
Published in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health Vol. 16 Issue (3)
ABSTRACT
The author describes anti-homosexual attitudes in the entertainment industry. Effeminate male actors generally have a hard time being cast, whether for gay or straight roles. Attitudes in the performing arts mirror those in society as a whole. Case reports are interspersed in the discussion to illustrate the points.
 
INTRODUCTION
There is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice in the hiring of actors for film, theater, and television—but it is certainly as ubiquitous in casting for the world’s stage as well. Here is how it works: actors can avoid discrimination so long as they do not disclose being homosexual. What is considered to be a disclosure in this case can be verbal, but is more often non-verbal, and merely a casting director’s perception or interpretation of the actor’s sexuality based on their gender presentation. This practice limits work for out and “seemingly gay” actors, and also severely limits audience perceptions of both homosexuality and gender. A simple example of this can be found in the film Brokeback Mountain, for which straight, masculine movie stars were hired to play gay men. By restricting the presence of gender-nonconforming people in film, television, and theater, the message, “you are permitted to be gay, just don’t flaunt your identity” (Yoshino, 2006), reverberates like an earthquake and without anyone having to claim responsibility or fix the problem. Until this phenomenon is brought to the surface – by naming and aggressively discussing it – homophobic discrimination will continue on and below the surface. Specifically we can expect to see more job discrimination, bullying, suicides, and hate crimes against gender-nonconforming people (both gay and straight)……



ACTING OUT
 
by Mark O’Connell
 
The following short film is a collection of interviews with lesbian and gay self identified actors. The actors discuss the pressure they often feel, to modify their instinctive gender presentations in order to appeal to casting directors, producers and directors. Casting director Brette Goldstein very honestly and eloquently shares her experiences working with gender nonconforming actors, and the way the business responds to them.