Liesl Tommy is the first woman of color ever! to be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Director of a Play. But this great artist has done much more than make history on Broadway. She has continuously given voice to the voiceless with her revelatorywork.
I have known Liesl since the 90’s when we were both training to be actors at Trinity Rep Conservatory (now the Brown Trinity Consortium). My first chance to work with her was a small directing class project for which she had an hour to stage Maya Angelou’s poem, “The Traveller.”:
Byways and bygone
And lone nights long
Sun rays and sea waves
And star and stone
Manless and friendless
No cave my home
This is my torture
My long nights, lone
First she let me and the other actors read those words silently. Then she listened to what we had to say. Intently. Searching for the human truth deep inside each one of us. This was my first encounter with Liesl’s unwavering desire to absorb the specific experience of every person she meets.
She told us how the text affected her. It reminded her of late nights at clubs; strangers bumping up against one another; so close together yet so far apart.
And then she took charge—the way she does, with authentic warmth and gravitas—and asked us to get up and dance. As she watched us move—in all those awkward ways one does in mixed company—she suggested internal monologues for each of our “characters,” based on our individual reactions to the poem.
The finished piece—performed in a stairwell—featured an entanglement of friendless strangers dancing the night away, troubled by their own private thoughts. Whenever the music stopped, all but one would freeze, giving each lone dancer the chance to put words to her internal yearnings. Then came that hideous finale to a night of clubbing—with which we’re all familiar—when the rude bright lights obliterate the sexy illusion of closeness to reveal the raw chill of isolation.
Then and there I became a lifelong fan of Liesl Tommy, and her passionate drive to spotlight the interior lives of those who have remained in the dark.
I gleaned from her not only a way to make art, but a way to build a meaningful life. I think of her when I tell my psychotherapy clients how rewarding it is to stay on your own side while being endlessly curious about the inner lives of other people; to make yourself heard and to absorb various points of view at the same time. With those goals in mind we can find riveting moments of recognition between us and the world.
Liesl has created numerous moments of this kind with theater, from directing small conservatory performances in stairwells, to her current crowning achievement on Broadway, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed. And through her decades of work she has given artists and audiences myriad opportunities to identify with people that both the entertainment industry and the society that produces it, too often keep silent and invisible.
As a storyteller she not only searches tirelessly for the truth of every character, but also of every actor. As a result, her audiences become intimate with people they would never even think about in their day-to-day lives, or get a fresh perspectiveon characters they may have seen before, but not necessarily with the urgent specificity, or contemporary social relevance, with which Liesl imbues them.
As a talented actor herself, she became disenchanted with auditioning in New York, since the industry did not produce stories about anyone remotely like her, or like the spectrum of lives across the globe in which she had a personal interest. So she began to tell those stories herself, and shifted the paradigm.
As a director she searched for new scripts about all kinds of people we rarely see in the straight, white, athletic-bodied, gender conforming, western, male, “naturalistic,” world of New York theater. She cast plays from the canon with diversity in mind, not as an exercise in political correctness, but as an investment in unique, passionate human beings who have a lot to say, but rarely get the opportunity to speak.
For example, I was lucky enough to be in a contemporized production of Love’s Labor’s Lost that she directed, in a parking lot no less. This Shakespearean romance involves four royal women who are pursued by four royal men, and who are all typically played by gender conforming, white actors. Never one to sleepwalk through the steps of conformity, for the ladies, Liesl found three African American women, each with highly distinct personalities and points of view, and for the fourth she cast me and adapted the role to be a gay man—which is what I am, though I almost never had the chance to play that at the time, and certainly not in Shakespeare. This way the audience got to experience specific journeys of love and loss from the perspectives of people who are marginalized and stereotyped in the mainstream.
Years later, she would cast her version of the universally popular musical, Les Miserables, at The Dallas Theater Center with a similarly open mind, and garner international attention and critical acclaim; the production was called“revolutionary,” “fresh,” and “thrilling.” And cut to Liesl’s stage adaptation of the blockbuster movie Frozen, now playing at Disneyland’s 2,000-seat Hyperion Theater, where racially diverse audiences get to see racially diverse actors inhabiticonic roles.
My point here is that when we share our authentic stories and listen carefully to those around us, we all win. We can willfully break from the march of conformity—which always eclipses our potential—and create opportunities to know one another and to be known. We can do this through our art; our activism; and in our everyday lives, with our voices, minds, and hearts, whether we reach two people or two billion. And we can thank people like Liesl Tommy for showing us how.
I’ll never forget one brutal morning when Liesl and I were struggling New York actors, waiting on an impossibly long line for an Equity open call. She glanced at the throng of dedicated artists, all looking as degraded and forlorn as we did. Then she looked to me with can’t-be-bothered eyes, and said with captivating conviction, “When I’m a big star, I’m gonna make some changes.”
Well, Liesl Tommy, you’re a big star now, and the changes you’ve already made have inspired lonely travellers all over the world to speak for themselves.
LGBT Pride Month 2016 will always be remembered for the worst mass shooting in American history to date, one which took 49 lives at an Orlando, Florida, gay club June 12. Yet in the past week, I have spoken with too many queer people whose families did not reach out to them at all, not even to simply ask,”How are you?” or say, “I love you and I’m thinking of you.” Too many. (And of note, some of them hadn’t heard from family during last year’s historic pride month either, when marriage equality became a national reality and there was cause for celebration rather than mourning).
As a psychotherapist and a queer person, I must say that such silences are killing us.
Silence has been the greatest threat to queer lives throughout history. Homosexuality was pathologized and criminalized in the early 20th century, and it would take decades of suffering in the closet and enduring “witch hunts” before the Stonewall riots of 1969 busted open the doors of LGBT identities, leading to the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness and the pursuit of civil rights across the country. But in the 1980s, the lethal plague of silence struck again, when the Reagan administration’s disavowal of the AIDS crisis led to the deaths of tens of thousands of gay men. In response, founders of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP introduced the image: SILENCE = DEATH.
And it’s true that the disease of silence surrounding homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia in general may have been in remission long enough for us to be able to choose the spouses we love and the bathrooms in which we feel safe, and for straight allies to put rainbow filters on their social media profiles whenever it fancies them. But as the Orlando massacre and the responses to it have shown—by politicians, journalists and even our own family and friends—silence continues to infect us.
The lack of meaningful acknowledgement that the worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 was directed at queer people has reminded so many of us not only of the numerous times in our lives we’ve been personally threatened with violence, but also of the far more numerous, subtle, yet considerably damaging moments, during which even our most well-meaning relatives whitewash our very real experiences of abjection. Such as when our straight brothers say things like, “We all get called ‘faggot,’ get a grip.”
To call what happened in Orlando an “attack on America,” or the act of a “radicalized Islamist,” or not to call your LGBT family members at this time, sends the message: “Things are just as bad for you as they are for me.” And that is simply not true.
As The New York Timesreports, “LGBT people are more likely to be targets of hate crimes than any other minority group”—and that cannot be pinned on radical terrorists from the Middle East. More than anything else, these specific attacks are due to the socially conditioned fear and hatred of women and of gender nonconformity, and of effeminate men, and of men kissing, and of same sex love. And all of this untalked about—and therefore unprocessed—hatred is cultivated and maintained through complacent silence by neighborly, law-abiding citizens like you and me, right here on our homeland. Every time we fail to use words to make explicit links between queerphobia and attacks on queer people, the hatred, fear and danger grow stronger. (For example, a disturbingly ironic post by a straight woman announcing her engagement popped up on my Facebookfeed this week, including a photo of her diamond ring and a shot of the Orlando skyline from the boat on which she and her fiance were celebrating, along with happy, hopeful thoughts about their heteronormative future, yet she wrote nothing about the 49 murder victims whose futures were taken from them by an act of homophobia only days before in that very city, or about the queer individuals still alive whose futures will continue to be plagued by hate, fear and danger).
So, here’s a tip for all those straight, cisgender relatives of queer people: We do not have “victim complexes” and we are not asking to be coddled. We are first and foremost asking for recognition of the very real and obvious fact that, no matter what we do or don’t do, we are specific targets of violence in ways that those who are not L,G,B,T or any other deviation from a heteronormative orientation, are not. To avoid or deny this is to be part of the problem and to allow this murderous hatred to grow, unidentified and therefore unstoppable.
I have to emphasize the “no matter what we do or don’t do” part of that tip. A good number of queer people, including my clients, my friends and myself, often hear from our families that they don’t associate us with the LGBT folks they see on the news who are in danger, either because of our ability to “pass,” or our marital status, our race or any number of privileges they assume protect us from being targets. To these people I say, “Think again.”
The one thing the wide variety of queer people I spoke to this week had in common was the horrifying awareness that no matter our skin color, income level, professional success, education, body type, religion, age or social status, the Orlando tragedy has reminded us that we are all equally in the crosshairs of homegrown hatred. We need our straight, cisgender families to recognize this openly and explicitly.
And perhaps we have been too silent with our straight communities about what our daily lives are actually like, even at the best of times. As one gay man—who sometimes passes as “straight” and makes a very good living—told me:
“We have worked hard for acceptance by the straight world. So hard that we have convinced our allies that we are ‘just like them,’ save for one little difference, like the color of our eyes or hair. But, the differences between us are not at all little. Unlike most of our family members, we live in constant fear that people want to destroy us. And they actually do. I don’t think our straight family members get that.”
To this man’s point, when I post smiley photos of myself and my husband enjoying our “normal” looking lives, say on a beach vacation, I don’t tend to mention the threats that were directed at us off camera, sometimes by “decent,” hard-working, Christian Americans, with picture-perfect families. Like many queer people, I omit in my social self-narratives the daily dark sides of being gay, out of want of acceptance and of respect, and to avoid being dismissed as a “Debbie Downer” or a “perpetual victim.” But perhaps we curate our lives too much. Maybe more of our families and friends need to know that to walk in our shoes means to look over our shoulders at every turn, and to be prepared to defend ourselves against people just like them.
But the insidious disease of silence finds nuanced ways to harm us even when our relatives do recognize that we are targets, and even when they reach out to us out of love and concern. More than a few queer people whose families actually contacted them this week were advised to “not go out”; or to “avoid drawing attention” to themselves; or to keep their “pride inside.” In other words they were told to go back in the closet, which is precisely where and how the very self-hatred that led to the Orlando shooting metastasized in the first place.
The answer is not for queer people to retreat inward, but for our straight allies to join us in coming out. They must claim us openly; they must identify, unpack and challenge the socially conditioned queerphobia that lives within them and in their communities; and they must never stop talking about the danger in which they leave us when they stop talking—to us or on our behalf.
For inspiration, they can look to the band Florence + the Machine, whose lead singer, Florence Welch, took an extraordinary stand in solidarity with the Orlando victims and their families, and the LGBT communities at large, as she waved a rainbow flag while running fearlessly across the Barclay Center stage in Brooklyn, during a live performance of her song, “Say My Name”:
Say my name,
And every color illuminates,
We are shining,
And we will never be afraid again
The words of this chorus remind us that we are all united in our capacity to recognize difference. As humans we have the capacity to empathize with the distinct and various ways each of us must walk through our lives. When we acknowledge how our differences make some of us more vulnerable than others, we can eliminate some of the danger and the fear that destroys us.
So if our families truly want to help keep us safe, they must say the names of the Orlando victims; and the names of the trans people of color who are murdered on a regular basis; and the names of all of the various forms of hatred that contributes to the everyday terrorizing of LGBT people.
They must also say our names, loud and proud. Preferably while we’re still alive.
“Despite feeling totally normal about being gay, I feel weird about dancing with my mom.” –Woman engaged to another woman, wondering which parent she should dance with at her wedding.
Standard wedding traditions have advantages to be sure. They give your guests something familiar to hold onto and orient them to the big event. Where are we? Oh, we’re at a wedding. But the more mindful you are about the traditions you deploy, the less likely you’ll be to find yourself staring at the crowd, gobsmacked, wondering what’s going on. So as you plan your wedding–or any other celebration–break down the meaning of each tradition you choose to include, and reflect on why you’re using it. This will connect you to its purpose. One of the most significant of which is to celebrate where you’ve come from and to pay homage to those who have contributed to the life and love that you enjoy. In many cases, that means honoring your parents.
The most popular Western tradition of this kind is the father-daughter dance. Why? Most likely due to that good ol’ history of weddings as property transaction, a bride getting passed from a father to a husband. Although, the mother-son dance has almost caught up in popularity over the years. But you see, I would have liked to dance with my father at my wedding, had he been alive at the time.
Feelings? Thoughts? Reactions?
The topic of same-sex parent-child dancing at weddings is never discussed–especially with two men. And on the very rare occasion that it is, our internal normative police are instantly summoned, handcuffing us in discomfort, confusion, and fear at the thought of this unprecedented proposition–I’ve never heard of that.
I once asked my friends X and her wife M, if either would have considered doing a mother-daughter dance at their reception. (They chose to dance with a father and a brother respectively.) They both winced, as if smelling something foul or getting squirted in the eye with a lemon.
X instantly said,”No. That would be sad. It would suggest that we were two old ladies who had been passed over that nobody wanted.” I’d like to take a moment to reflect on her reaction. X is a fiercely intelligent, superhero advocate of LGBT rights, and has fought passionately, like a titan, for her own freedom and happiness. In other words, she is known to be incredibly self-reflective. So her statement here is notably out of character. I mean, why would the absence of a man in a parent-child dance indicate either bride was “passed over” and not “wanted”? The whole premise of their wedding was that she and M wanted and had chosen each other. But this shows just how strong a headlock the genderbinary/heteronormativity holds on us all, especially regarding parent-child narratives. Even the smartest, most passionate, and insightful among us are easily possessed by such narratives, like a deep sleep from which we are cursed to never wake up.
M’s response was also delivered from the clutches of fear, though less reactive, and more reflective. She said:
“My mother had already come a long way as far as accepting me as a lesbian, accepting our relationship, and accepting our wedding–announcing it to all her family and friends. I wanted to respect her efforts, and wouldn’t have wanted to rock the boat by pulling her out into the spotlight like that. But, truthfully . . . I wouldn’t have been comfortable with it either . . .”
M thought of several strong reasons to spare her mother the discomfort of a mother-daughter dance. Yet when it came to her own discomfort, she was blocked.
I’m not saying that she should have wanted to dance with her mom. But, as with every ritual we consider, it behooves us to understand all the options and our own feelings about them. This way we avoid saying yay or nay to anything based on a knee-jerk reaction alone.
To be fair to X and M, their choices in this case reflect great efforts to include their families in their celebration (which I found to be absolutely wonderful) without alienating them. And I’m not even sure I would have been comfortable asking my dad to dance in reality, though I would have wanted to. I can talk a big game now, given I didn’t have the option, but I likely would have felt a discomfort similar to theirs.
So what is this plaguing discomfort, and how can we get past it?
Celebrating Erotic Development
My friend Lyn–having danced with her mother (who raised her) at her bat mitzvah, but danced with her father (who did not raise her) at her wedding–says,”I think brides in particular want that father-daughter dance so we can feel, I hesitate to say . . .’normal.’” She then added,”In a . . . heterosexual way . . .”
Emphasis on “sexual. And therein lies our answer. The sexual implications of Daddy’s Little Girl are considered to be so “normal” that we never even notice them. For instance, my mother’s favorite memory of her father–which she frequently, indiscriminately, and proudly shares with any kind stranger who will listen–is of her having breakfast with him as a child, during which he would allow her to call him by his first name,”But only until your mother wakes up,” he’d say. (Oedipal theory anyone?) By contrast, with Daddy’s Little Boy, the sexual element is all we think about, immediately concerning ourselves with words like incest and pedophilia.
In other words, due to social conditioning, we consider a child’s erotic/sexual fantasiesabout a parent to be perfectly normal if they are co-ed, but we consider them to be sick, disturbed, and problematic if the sexes are the same. (This might help us understand X’s knee-jerk reaction to Mommy’s Little Girl and how “sad”–sexless?–she found that idea.)
So, yes, I’m saying it:
The traditional parent-child wedding dance is a tribute to the erotic fantasies the newlyweds once had for (at least) one of their folks.
Though you won’t hear too many people describe it like that. Yet. (Try Googling father-son dance. You’ll get a lot of,”huh?”) If this had all been broken down for me when I got married, and my dad were alive, I would have definitely elected to dance with him. I would then be confident that the implications are really no different from traditional father-daughter or mother-son dances.
Now, when I say erotic fantasies I don’t necessarily mean conscious ones. I’m referring to the process, of child development during which we all, universally, dream ourselves into adulthood. Erotic and sexual feelings are of course a big part of this process and fantasies of this kind show up in our play and in a variety of our behaviors. When our parents are appropriately validating of our erotic dream life, while also maintaining safe and clear boundaries, we gain an internal sense of self-worth, and the confidence to one day pursue romantic love as adults.
Case in point:
A photograph of me lying on my dad’s chest. I’m about six. I’m nestling my small head in the crevice between his collarbone and his neck. My eyes are wistful. And he’s kissing the top of my head. Sixteen years later, I would nap on my now husband’s chest, soon after we fell in love. I would nestle my rather large head in the crevice between his collarbone and his neck. My eyes would close. I would feel safe and loved. And that’s why I wish I could have slow danced with my dad at my wedding.
There are, of course, various ways to dance with your parents, or to honor your roots at your wedding, if you so choose. But however you perform a ritual of this kind, and whoever you choose as a partner, know that it will be more significant if you are aware of its meaning and intentional in your presentation.
For example, my husband and I had very specific intent when we each danced with our moms at our wedding reception. As we swayed to Mama Cass’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” I recalled how my mother sang that song to me as a kid when she’d tuck me in at night, preparing me to dream. Her constant encouragement of my dream life was perhaps her greatest gift to me. It inspired me to try and change the world, so that I could live and love in it more openly, fully, and more freely. And I got to honor that with this dance.
I wrote a list of tips, (below) for how one might disinherit their daughter without feeling guilt. I did this as a way to expose the age-old misogyny that continues to show up, every day, in every area of our lives.
Like racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, transphobia, and every other insidious form of hatred and fear, misogyny does not only reveal itself in overt acts of discrimination and violence but more often it lingers subtly in our justice system, politics, religions, entertainment, media, workplaces, and day-to-day social exchanges. My intention here is to not only spotlight how we continue to harm women—and anyone considered to be “less than”—but also to deconstruct the various ways we seek to justify the actions we take against them.
As psychological studies have proven, many of our pervasive biases are socially conditioned. But, as this study shows, if our subliminal prejudices are made conscious, we often attempt to correct them. And that is my hope for you as you glance over the list below.
Notice which of the “tips” that you consider to be ludicrous; which of them resemble thoughts you’ve had yourself; and which you recognize in the thoughts of your friends, colleagues, and communities.
Hopefully by exposing our own subliminal forms of hatred and disdain for other people —especially those who lack social power and privilege—we can work to reclaim our daughters, sisters, mothers, sons, and everyone else we disinherit when our biases go
So, how does one go about disinheriting their daughter without guilt, you ask?
Name her Eve.
Whenever Eve speaks, get the whole family to roll their eyes at her, especially when she carries on about being left out: There she goes again, All about Eve.
Name her Megyn Kelly. Name your son Donald Trump. Then follow his lead.
Adopt her from non-white birth parents and pretend she’s absolutely no different than your white kids. Even when they tease her or when she always happens to be the one to “go to jail” or to “get shot” when they “play.” And when she finally gets angry at your white kids, point your finger at her and say, “You see? That’s why you’re out of the will!”
Remind her, every day, how hard it is, for you, that she was not born a boy. And if she was born a boy but is no longer a boy, say, “Why’d you have to go and ruin a good thing?” But if she was born a girl and is now a boy, say, “What happened to my sweet little girl?” Then wait for her outside the gender neutral bathrooms at Target, in protest, along with a posse of your new friends–the ones who really care about you–and shout, “Why are you doing this to me?!”
Blurt out things like, “Emails!,” or “Speeches!” or “How dare you want to be president?!” And then just stare at her. Because she knows what she did.
Invite her and her wife to a barbecue in Texas or Alabama or Mississippi or North Carolina, and when she declines, due to concerns for their safety, say, “You obviously don’t want to be part of this family.” And if she doesn’t have a wife–or a girlfriend, for that matter–accuse her of being a closet lesbian and of always shutting
Keep track of every cruel thing you ever did to her, and then write her a nasty letter–with bullet points–explaining how she did those things to you. Because someone did those things to you. Right? Someone who looms large in your life, and is hard for you to challenge?
Encourage her to take ballet and tap and to be a contestant on The Bachelor, and then feign ignorance about the subtle viciousness of girl-on-girl bullying, and look at her with befuddled Scooby Doo-eyebrows when she enlightens you about said bullying, and when she leans on you for comfort, say, “C’mon now, don’t be paranoid,” and be surprised when she (suddenly, out of nowhere) becomes emotionally unstable, “Way too unstable to manage money,” your sons will say, while their obedient wives nod in agreement–thinking only of what’s best for you, of course–and then take the advice of your loving sons, and their good wives, and reason with her: “Honey, if I left anything for you I’d be contributing to your problem.”
Wait til she’s over the hill before you die. By the time she’s in her thirties she’ll have long forgotten her silly, childhooddreams of being treated fairly.
Remind yourself that not every daughter deserves to be cut off, just the ones likeher: the independent-minded, loudmouthed, sl&tty, c#nty, b$tch, wh@re(link sends e-mail), f%ggots. (That’s right, you said it, “f%ggots,” because she might not actually be a daughter at all, she may be a gay son–or some other black sheep among your otherwise normal flock–but, either way, you are certain you would have loved her all the same if only she did not insist on drawing attention to herself–and casting shame on your house–in all those classic ways that vain daughters and flamboyant gay sons do: with their revealing outfits; and sibilant S’s; and brazen bids for recognition, the indecency; and their shrill, redundant, migraine-inducing, Roars for equality …I mean, c’mon, she was asking for it all along. Wasn’t she?…)
Ask yourself: Does she bring me anything but down? (I mean, she can’t tell a joke without referencing the sober truth, killing the family buzz, or being the Debbie Downer.)
Remind yourself what King Lear said: “Nothing comes from nothing.” (See? You know Shakespeare… You’d think she was the only one who ever read a book the way she goes on about herself. Well, Lah -tee-dah. If she’s so much better than the rest of you, she obviously doesn’t need your help.)
Badger people to nod in sympathy about your choice to dispossess her. More than half of them will oblige. If not, go to your local pub, college, or bigoted elected official, and try again. Repeat as needed.
Try disinheriting your son: the straight, white one, who never had an abortion. Super hard to do, right? Now cut off the daughter. By comparison it should be a cakewalk.
Don’t overthink this. Few will challenge your decision to disinherit your daughter. And if they do, their whiny little voices will remind you of her, and why you had to do it in the first place.
*Originally posted on Mark O’Connell, LCSW-R’s Psychology Today column, “Quite Queerly.”
Inspired by an article in The Guardian, from January 7, 2016, titled, “Therapy Wars: the revenge of Freud,” as well as the never-ending debates about psychoanalysis and CBT.
Cast of Characters:
Psychoanalysis — the original form of psychotherapy that involves the unconscious and talking about the past, and does not promise instant results.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — a form of psychotherapy that involves improving thought and behavioral patterns in the present, and does promise instant results.
Couples Therapy — a form of therapy used to resolve relationship conflict.
Couples Therapy: So how long have you been together?
CBT: [Exasperated] Since the ‘60s… Wait, did that sound negative? [Takes deep breath. Tries again.] Since the ‘60s. [Nods approvingly]
Psychoanalysis: [Rolling eyes] I’d been around for decades when this young thing barged into my life.
CBT: Don’t patronize me.
Psychoanalysis: Here we go with the defenses! Honestly, we’ve been at each other from the start. In fact, the day we met…
CBT: Wait, really? You’re gonna waste our time with the past? How about the here and now? Namely you! All talk, no plans, no action. I mean, we still haven’t taken our honeymoon. We’ve just talked about taking it for fifty years.
Psychoanalysis: Ah, this again. You know perfectly well that if we took our honeymoon now, we might feel good for a few days, but it won’t last. Anything meaningful in life requires time and reflection and TALK and you’re resistant to all of that. But hey, you want to take our honeymoon? Oh-kaaay. How would that make you feel?
CBT: [to Couples Therapy] You see? You see how he bamboozles me into doing NOTHING with his condescending nonsense?! [To Psychoanalysis] Nothing you say can be trusted — or scientifically proven. You’re not a spouse, you’re a scam artist.
Psychoanalysis: Wow. I’m not even gonna touch that “scam artist” business — I expect you to project all over me. But He? How dare you?! You know I’ve (mostly) been a She since the ‘90s! You’re seriously gonna shove the same dull, superficial, ideas in my face without listening to me in return, without noticing the changes I’ve made? How can you sit here like a victim and pretend that I’ve been on high, preaching classic structural/drive theory to you all these years when I’ve totally adapted to a relational/intersubjective/ interpersonal approach over the past two decades? Do you even know me anymore? [Collapses into tears].
CBT: There there, stop that. Don’t give in to your negative self-talk. Try tapping your shoulder five times.
[Psychoanalysis continues to cry]
Couples Therapist: OK, it sounds like you’ve been in conflict for a long time. Psychoanalysis, I hear how invalidated you feel and how hurt you are.
Psychoanalysis: [Still crying] Don’t tell me how I feel, let me tell you.
Couples Therapist: Alright. CBT, how are you feeling?
CBT: Um, who cares how I feel? It’s what I think that matters. And I think he — or she, or ze, or whatever they want to be called —
Couples Therapist: [To CBT] You don’t believe Psychoanalysis is really upset?
CBT: I believe my brain hurts because whenever she cries there’s nothing I can do to make it stop!
Couples Therapy: So when Psychoanalysis cries you feel ineffectual. Did I get that right?
CBT: No, I think she’s ineffectual when she cries. I think she wastes my time and my money, with a lot of blank staring and crying and sitting on the couch — sometimes several days a week — while life passes us by. And I want a divorce. That’s what I think!
Psychoanalysis: [Stops crying. Suddenly poised]. Listen here, my cocky little friend. You may think you’ve got it all figured out now, with your self-talk and your flow charts and your three steps to happiness and your obsessive need to reduce human life to uncomplicated robotic parts! But you’ll see, somehow, someway — yes, I just referenced a mediocre Madonna song from the nineties, and no I’m not allowing the momentary shame I’m feeling as a result to consume me, and not because I’m “changing my core beliefs” about Madonna, but because I’m talking, yes TALKING!, through my anxiety about quoting her drivelly song, damnit — anyway, as I was saying, one day, while you’re all alone jerking off with one hand and typing up your schematic manifestos with the other – again, alone, did I say alone? – you’re gonna wish there was a warm, complex, human being – who CRIES – in the room with you, who you can see, and who listens and holds you, all of you, in her warm, irrational, impractical, imperfect, human mind.
Couples Therapy: [Inhales deeply and instructively.] So, let’s take a moment. Can you both acknowledge how you affect each other? How you invalidate the other person and refuse to listen to their point of view? I think you both really want the same thing — to help make life more tolerable and meaningful for people, right? But you’re both too afraid to admit that. Too afraid to truly listen to the other person or let them know that you actually understand where they’re coming from. Why is that so hard?
CBT: [Bursting into tears] I’m sorry. I know I’ve been an A-hole. I wouldn’t exist without you, Psychoanalysis. You are the shoulders I stand on, the wind beneath my wings — ugh, I just quoted a mediocre Bette Midler song from the eighties, and I’m blushing with mortification, but you know?, you’re right. It feels much better to talk about it than to hold it inside or to force myself to get over it with random dumb exercises. The truth is I feel safe and free when I’m with you and I actually come up with some of my best creative ideas when we’re just free-associating. But I get afraid sometimes that l love that too much and that m
y life will end before I get the chance to do something that makes sense — to the insurance companies.
Psychoanalysis: Thank you, CBT. I needed to hear that. I have to admit, you influence me too. Sometimes I find myself getting didactic and coachy, like you — especially when I need sleep or if I’m hungry or about to jump off a bridge, or if I need to be reimbursed by an insurance company — and I do feel more stable after I talk to myself with clear repetitive directions. I have you to thank for that.
[Psychoanalysis affectionately wraps CBT in her holding environment. They kiss. Cue mediocre music.]
Couples Therapy: Great work. That’s all we have time for today. So, who’s paying?
[Music stops suddenly. Psychoanalysis panics. CBT puffs up his chest, grins smugly, and convinces an insurance company to cover the session by describing it in terms of “measurable goals.” Psychoanalysis rolls her eyes. They argue. The progress they made is undone.]
Now is the winter of our political discontent. Republicans, Democrats and Facebook trolls are all hurling barbs like there’s no tomorrow — as if the day after we elect a president we won’t have to face one another.
I know political rhetoric always gets nasty before elections, but this time it’s especially contentious, if not threatening, and social media have helped make it worse. Posting allows us to reactively demonize one another instantly and without a second thought.
We need help.
The moment we open our laptops we’re smacked with ultimatums involving “us” versus “them!” And yes, we can singularly blame Donald Trump for rousing this primitive strategy of dehumanizing anyone who challenges us, but we can blame only ourselves for allowing it to flourish. When we succumb to finger-pointing (and penis contests), we establish what psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin calls “doer/done-to relations.” Which basically means that rather than creating neutral space among us to discuss our individual and collective concerns thoughtfully and reflectively, we split our thinking into binaries of good/bad, victim/attacker, boy/girl, white/black, straight/gay, big dick/little dick, populist/elitist, Christian/Muslim, truther/liar, worker/moocher, citizen/immigrant, capitalist/communist, gun-owner/communist, pro-lifer/communist, American/communist, and on and on. This approach precludes any possibility of moving toward empathy and understanding, or what Benjamin calls mutual recognition, either in life or on social media, where it’s obviously much easier to dehumanize people than it is in person.
America needs therapy. And as I say to couples and families who enter my office with angry, red faces, begging me to take one side over the other: If winning is the only way out, we’re all locked in.
The only way to move forward is to find mutual recognition. And to achieve that we need to learn to talk–or at least to post–better.
Here’s how I suggest we do that:
Safety first. There’s nowhere to go in a relationship unless everyone feels safe–physically, emotionally and mentally. Yes, it’s usually ideal to have a dialogue before cutting people out of our lives (or blocking them, as it were), but if you are threatened or harmed by hateful language, extricate yourself from the situation right away, whatever the perceived ramifications–loss of friendship, loss of love, loss of financial opportunity, etc. It’s just not worth getting hurt. You might even report those who write hateful things in your feed to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or whatever the site may be. But if you do feel safe enough and inspired to share a piece of your mind, and do not intend to harm someone else in doing so, then try the following.
Step away, breathe and think. Do not pass “Go,” do not post, do not do anything before you look away from your screen, take a breath–a real one that you actually enjoy–and think. Wait, I see you typing–stop that! I mean it. Step away from the device. Breathe. And think.
Now listen. No, really, listen. Carefully, but carefully, read over the information to which you want to respond and make sure you understand it. So much wasted time and needless vitriol can be avoided if you review a news story, post or provocative statement several times until you are certain of its meaning. For example: A simple post about how Bernie Sanders gets a free pass on his appearance at campaign events while Hillary Clinton must always be aware of her hair does not necessarily imply that the poster has an agenda to give Clinton a free pass on everything she’s ever done. Right? So after rereading the post and thinking it through, you would be wise to refrain from typing superfluous references to Benghazi or Clinton’s email server or America going to hell in a hand basket because of elitist, corporate greed and instead stick to the poster’s point–which in that case would be hair.
Now, repeat this as a mantra: “Politics are personal.” There is a point of view hidden within every volatile and/or categorical political post. Stop and reflect on what that point of view might be before choosing to respond. Take for example statements like: “Lock her up!” “Keep them out!” “The socialists are coming!” These battle cries are never without at least a tinge of misogyny, racism, ethnocentrism and/or xenophobia, none of which is a good look for anyone. But that does not mean that somewhere underneath those nasty layers there isn’t a naked emotional perspective that you can understand, if not empathize with. Consider that the users of such statements are actually speaking from a place of extreme disempowerment, isolation, fear and paranoia, rather than a position of power. Think of them as betas instead of alphas, as toddlers having tantrums as opposed to adults having thoughts. That isn’t by any means to say you should condone their incendiary remarks, but that by addressing only their apparent prejudices you will effectively get locked in a standoff, an endless debate, a cycle of doer/done-to relations. And you will overlook the point of entry from which the conversation can move forward: their personal feelings of being disempowered.
One for them, one for you. Prepare to share one of the points you believe the person who got your attention was trying to make and reflect it back to her or him with a tone of understanding. For example: “It sounds as if you’re saying that you are overtaxed and feeling left behind financially while it seems other people are getting economic breaks. Is that right?” or “I hear you saying that college was prohibitively expensive for you and you’ve been working hard for little reward and that feels unfair. I can see why you’d feel that way.” Now, once you’ve established a moment of reflection and recognition, you can move on to prepare one clear point of your own. For example: “By blaming minorities for your own financial struggles, you are encouraging people to harm one another based on a prejudice. Can you appreciate that?” or “Have you considered how exactly taking rights away from women and queer people and immigrants would help you to make more money?”
Rehearse. Type out the two thoughts on a screen where oopsy-posting isn’t possible–for example, a blank Word document, a memo app or an email draft with no addresses entered. Read over your statements. Again and again. Consider if they accurately reflect what you want to say. Edit accordingly. And if you have the opportunity to first speak these thoughts aloud to another person to get some feedback, do it.
Post. Now, finally, you can post your two statements: one that attempts to “hear” the original poster and another that makes a clear point of your own. This way you have offered a mode of discussion that can be a neutral exchange of thoughts and reflections instead of just endlessly combative reactions. Your potential interlocutor now has the opportunity to respond in kind, and, if he or she does, feel free to see where that can take you, following and repeating the steps above.
Disengage and/or block. If, however, the other person does not respond in kind and instead continues to blow hot offensive air at you, stinking up your wall with arbitrary hate speech as if from the mouth of a spambot with logorrhea, then disengage, and block if you feel it necessary.
At the end of the day–as in any time of relational turmoil–you may have to accept the sad truth that you can’t reach someone who refuses to be reached. But at least you will know that you tried.
*This article first appeared in The Huffington Post
“I have a dream”
–Martin Luther King Jr.
“I should have been a great many things”
–Louisa May Alcott
“I want to play a superhero. I want to be a Bond girl. I want to play a man. I want to play a white woman.” –Taraji P. Henson
Mya Taylor. Photo courtesy of Mya Taylor.
I love the Oscars. Yes, the telecast is long and superficial, but the speeches (occasionally) remind us that movies are our dreams.
Actors talk about being transformed–both onscreen and in life–by the characters they play. (Hilary Swank’s acceptance speech for playing Brandon Teena–a transgender man who was brutally murdered–comes to mind, after which Swank became a spokesperson for the queer youth organization, The Hetrick-Martin Institute). And sometimes, actors whose bodies, or skin colors, or identities, we don’t often see in the limelight, take the stage. (Watch Hattie McDaniels accept the first Oscar ever won by a person of color–in 1939!–presented by actress Fay Bainter, who described the award as,”more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America – an America that we love, an America that almost alone in the world today, recognizes and pays tribute to those who give her their best, regardless of creed, race, or color,” followed by McDaniels herself calling it “a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future.”)
If movies are our collective dreams, they should inspire us to have the greatest American dream of all: the opportunity to be a great many things.
This is why so many of us are disheartened that, once again, the faces celebrated at the Oscars are all white; the nominated directors are all men (and Todd Haynes, the gay director of one of the year’s best films, Carol, which makes a great case for movies about women, is not one of them); and the passionate cries for diversity on screen over the years (e.g., here, here, here, and here) have not shaken Hollywood up enough to create or to cast more roles for actors who are not straight white men.
So I’ve chosen to celebrate what shouldbe rather than complain about what is–77 years after Hattie McDaniels’ historic win. And to that end I commissioned a speech from the performer who moved me the most in 2015: Mya Taylor, from the critically acclaimed indie film, Tangerine.
Tangerine is an off-beat comedy that follows two transgender sex workers as they work a downtrodden Los Angeles intersection on Christmas Eve. It is a collaboration of director Sean Baker, and the two leading trans actresses, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Ms. Taylor, whom Mr. Baker met at an LGBT center near the film’s location. Mr. Baker was inspired to make a movie about this part of L.A., which is very different from the one we often see in movies. He says,”I thought there must be some incredible stories that take place on that corner.” And he was right.
The palpable chemistry between the leads at once references and transcends classic buddy films, transporting us beyond the limitations of gender or race. As Alexandra, Taylor effectively conveys a fierce survivor who is driven by her dreams. We get a glimpse of the life she could be living as she sings “Toyland” at a local club, bathed in a soft, glamorous, light that contrasts the gritty, sweaty, tangerine, hue of the streets she calls home. Scenes like this are what I love most about movies: the chance to be embodied by people whose stories are unsung.
Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Tangerine. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
At the same time I love seeing the same actors get to play a variety of stories and dreams. Hollywood at its best–beyond the crappy movies, discrimination, and damaging stereotypes–provides both a spotlight on marginalized people and the chance to see those same people inhabit a spectrum of roles. It’s fantastic to think that Viola Davis has not only played women severely restricted by their race–as in the two parts for which she was nominated for Oscars, Doubt and The Help–but that she has also portrayed lives that those characters could only dream of living. (Such as, Annalise Keating on the show, How to Get Away With Murder, for which Davis won an Emmy–a role of gravitas, charisma, and complexity that we typically associate with straight white men, e.g., James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, etc.)
That’s why I’m celebrating Mya Taylor during this year’s Oscars. Performances like hers open doors and move back walls and enable us all to embrace the whole of an America that we love. I hope to see her be a great many things in the future. And with that, I give you, Mya Taylor:
[The following "speech" is based on my interview with Ms. Taylor. If she delivered this on a stage, she'd be wearing, "something amazing, with my tits pushed up to the ceiling." So please imagine this as you read.]
When I was a kid I loved watching the Grammys (I was always a singer), and when someone I admired won, it was amazing. Because I thought, if that was me up there, I’d know that I worked hard for it and that it came from the heart.
“Tangerine” has changed my life.
I was nervous to play this part because I had just started my transition. I felt so unpretty. I didn’t look the way I wanted to. But I had to come out of those shades and present myself to the world. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few things to get something better. I found it within myself to do it. I thought: “Ok, this is an opportunity to do something with your life for once. Make the best out of the experience. Make the most of it.”
I didn’t know how many people would see the film. It’s touching to attend screenings, to go on stage and catch all the energy of the fans. I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how touching it is, the friendship. They like when I give my wig to Kiki. (And that part was acting, let me tell you, I’m not about to take off my 22-inch hair to put on another bitches head…) But I love to meet people who are moved by it. They like when I sing. My character wanted to sing so badly that she paid to sing. And who knows why the club manager made her pay. Does he make everybody pay? Maybe he felt she wouldn’t be good enough, or he didn’t like that she was trans. But whatever the case was, she paid, because she loved singing so much.
(And that part was acting too, because, they paid me to sing in this movie…) I’ve been training as a singer since I was a kid. I guess I was preparing for this my whole life, though I didn’t know it.
I don’t know if young people should see Tangerine, there’s a lot of sex in it, but if girls on the streets see it, I hope they know they’re not alone. I hope they see that I got out of sex work and it’s possible for them too.
I want to play lots of different roles now. I’d love to be in a scary movie. Or a drama, so I could be mean–like Monique in Precious–cuz I’m really nice in real life. Or maybe a lawyer, with a client who has a difficult case, and maybe someone’s trying to kill me because they know I’m gonna win.
In addition to acting, Tangerine has also given me the opportunity to produce my own T.V. show! It’s about how trans people go through life, and what I have gone through. There will be a variety of characters. And I won’t be the lead, we’ll hire a person who is transitioning to be the star. I’ve already had that opportunity, why not let someone else come in. That’s what it’s all about, right?
I feel very humble right now, and blessed. The people I work with really listen to me. And I’m so thankful for all of their support in helping me get here. Especially Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch for inviting me to be a collaborator and not just a performer. Mark and Jay Duplass, Magnolia Pictures. My manager, Allan Mandell. My agent, Joanne Wiles. My hair and makeup artist, Christina Cullinski. My very first singing instructor, Nick, who taught me to sing opera!, and to train my voice, which I do every day. God. And my man.
At the end of the day, I’m so lucky to come home to a quiet, normal, life.
This blog post first appeared on Mark O’Connell, LCSW’s Psychology Today column, Quite Queerly.
Thank you, J.J. Abrams, for granting my holiday wish for a fantastic movie that (1) has a female protagonist, (2) passes the Bechdel test (i.e., at least two women characters talk to each other about something other than a man), and (3) has a diverse cast of superb actors in complex roles.
Over the past few holiday seasons I’ve expressed my disappointment and frustration with Hollywood casting in essays like “Into the White White Woods,” (2014), and “Calling All Hobbits of Color,” (2012). And after years of wishing, watching the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a Christmas miracle for me.
But this wish granted was not just for me–and that’s the point. As I’ve written again and again, casting with diversity in mind is a gift for everyone.
Audiences of all ages, races, and gender expressions who go to the current Star Wars will find a fluid spectrum of characters with whom to identify, all of whom have agency and moments of ambivalence, a need to be rescued at times and do the rescuing at others, all of whom do bad things and good things, wear armor or tight leathery space fashions, fight and cry and love and use the force–no matter what their bodies look like, or what types of genitals, sizes of breasts, hairstyles, or skin colors they have.
Gone are the days when a young Star Wars fan was limited to the binary choice of good guy versus bad guy action figure. Now storm troopers can be on the dark side and the light, and also be women of high rank. And in other news, white guys like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are nolonger the only heroic subjects with whom kids can identify! In addition to the film’s main character, Rey, played by white actress Daisy Ridley, the cast is led by British-Nigerian actor John Boyega and Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac. All three characters take turns flying space crafts, wielding light sabers, hugging each other (in earnest, without bro-anxiety), being sexy (but not necessarily in gender conforming ways), giving orders, taking orders, and kicking butt.
Having a woman at the center of the whole thing is arguably the most revelatory choice of all, exploding our ingrained ideas about who is allowed to be a subject in a mainstream film, and who is subjugated to the role of object. As Meryl Streep has said:
“The absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight male viewing audience toidentify with a woman protagonist. To feel themselves embodied by her . . . There has always been a resistance to assume a persona if that persona is a she.”
By making the new Star Wars protagonist a woman and a tough yet emotionally accessible hero with whom all audiences (including men and boys) can identify, the filmmakers have blasted through the resistance Streep describes. They have also opened up the opportunity to cast a variety of minorities as characters who are active subjects, as opposed to objectified “others.”And it’s about time!
Yes, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original trilogy paved the way for characters like Rey. But even though Leia had agency – which was inspiring for many girls and nonconforming boys (like this one) – her fiercest moments always felt like false starts (Taking a stand against Darth Vader, but then needing to be rescued from him; or rescuing Han Solo from Jabba the Hut, only to be enslaved in a metal bikini; or hopping on a speed bike to catch an enemy in the woods – awesome! – but then getting pushed off and leaving Luke to finish the chase.) Now Leia is in command as a general, a role in the world of Star Wars that had only everbeen occupied by distinguished looking men–or amphibious male aliens.
Again, I’m not the only one excited by these character developments. The box office, the critical praise, and the unprecedented reports of audience satisfaction, prove that everyone is winning with this new Star Wars.
So how do we make sure Hollywood keeps up the good work?
Some might lazily think there’s nothing to be done, other than to cast “existing” roles with “appropriate” actors. But if creators want to turn the tide they have to make creative, active, subversive choices. And that’s exactly what director J.J. Abrams did with The
Force Awakens. In addition to believing that it’s important for everyone to “see themselves represented in film,” Abrams has also said, “I wanted a movie mothers could take their daughters to.” More specifically, and inspiringly, he explained how having a daughter himself motivated him to make sure the world of the film felt equal between women and men.
So, Hollywood filmmakers – who are often straight white men, like Abrams – may need to hold their daughters in mind if we want to see more movies like The Force Awakens. Men will need to be consciously invested in women, and in other minorities, as subjects with whom they can identify as opposed to marginal objects. And if filmmakers want a guidepost to such a transformation, they can look to renowned psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin’s analysis of a scene in the Oscar-winning film American Beauty. In the pivotal scene, Kevin Spacey’s character Lester (a privileged white guy) is about to have sex with his daughter’s nubile teen friend (Mena Suvari), about whom he has fantasized compulsively for the whole movie. Benjamin writes:
“[T]his irresistible stimulation shifts dramatically in the moment when [the girl] reveals that she is actually a virgin and a neglected child whose parents pay no attention to her. Suddenly, as if waking from the dream, Lester recognizes that this girl is a subject with her own center of feeling…The bright lights of overstimulation are shut off and feelings of abandonment and grief bring about an identificatory connection to the girl as person.”
Filmmakers of all backgrounds and perspectives would benefit from engaging in a similar process of reflection – concerning women as well as other minorities – in order to create and cast a wider range of characters who are relatable subjects.
The point is not to simply be politically correct, as folks sometimes say in defensive reaction to articles like this one. The point is to give everyone the opportunity to identify with various facets of human experience.
Giving Carrie Fisher the opportunity to play a general allows us to see more of the gravitas the actress possesses in her real life than we would ever see from her playing an objectified princess.In a recent interview with Good Morning America, for instance, you can see Fisher deploying a commanding wit that we typically associate with men – like Harrison Ford (at least playing Han Solo) – but is by no means limited to male experience.
And expanding our ideas about movie characters does not only advantage women and other minorities. The straight white men in Star Wars get to embody a greater range of emotional life than Hollywood usually affords leading men. As the new leader of the dark side, Adam Driver gets to have doubts and heartbreak while also simultaneously being powerful and sadistic. Similarly, Harrison Ford gives depth to Han Solo with moments of paternal tenderness that showcase some of the best acting I’ve ever seen from him.
Star Wars also features Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as a wise Yoda-like creature–a rare opportunity to see a young beautiful actress do wildly inventive character work in a mainstream movie. This also parallels another groundbreaking achievement for Nyong’o who will soon star in the play Eclipsed, the first Broadway production ever to have a writer, director, and cast entirely comprised of
women–and women of color at that. With Eclipsed, Broadway audiences will experience the riveting stories of resilient African women based on true events during the Second Liberian Civil War. The play is a window into lives that are very real and rich but which have rarely been subjects of mainstream entertainment until now. It is no surprise that the director is Liesl Tommy, whom I have praised for putting into practice her keen understanding ofhow telling stories with diversity in mind always expands the audience’s experience.
Maybe next Christmas there will be even more movies and plays directed by the Liesl Tommys and Ava Duvernays and Jill Soloways and Diane Pauluses of the world. And maybe more directors who are straight white men will take a page from these women, and from J.J. Abrams, as they create more characters and stories with women and other minorities in mind–as subjectsas opposed to marginalized objects.
In reaction to Donald Trump’s regressive hate speech, activist/filmmaker Michael Moore recently said, “We are all Muslim.” So too are we all women, and girls, and boys, and gay and trans, and black and Latino and Asian, and Jewish and Christian, and princesses and generals–insofar as we are all humans with imaginations in a vastly diverse and interconnected world.
The more we see ourselves represented on screen in all of our multifaceted-ness, the more we are reminded that we are all human and more alike than we are different.
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.
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.
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?