How My World Became The Real World

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

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

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

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

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

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

And just like that, dreams were deferred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cue sounds of screaming girls, in pajamas and curlers.

Me [shrieking]: “What do I do?”

Real World roommate to Justin: “What happened?”

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

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

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

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

Joy: “You should write him a letter.”

And so I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That wasn’t you,” he said.

Oof. Narcissism interrupted.

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

And also that he was.

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

Michael Douglas Liberates as Liberace

Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderberg’s highly buzzed-about final bow, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his lover, Scott Thorson, has arrived on HBO, and it has made Douglas’ father uncomfortable. In an interview with ABC, Douglas said, “My father was uncomfortable with–,” before pausing. With what? With the furs and makeout scenes, to which the press constantly, anxiously directs our attention? Not exactly. The actor continued: “With my death scene.” Douglas had been diagnosed with stage-4 throat cancer prior to filming Candelabra, so his mortality was understandably on his father’s mind. But with all the talk of these “brave” straight actors stepping into “flamboyant” roles, Douglas’ poignant admission may clarify the discomfort this film more generally evokes, revealing what lies beneath (or behind) male anxieties about homosexuality, feminine behaviors or anything we associate with vulnerability: the fear of death.

Fear of death “will culminate in a disparagement of the feminine,” writes professor Jerry S. Piven, explaining that internal conflicts that men have about women (e.g., lust vs. rejection, love vs. loss, power vs. vulnerability, etc.) are often “displaced onto those feared and detested women, and they become sirens, murderous temptresses … while the men gain moral victory.” Ironically, two of Michael Douglas’ iconic characters are seduced by “murderous temptresses,” in Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. So when the press marvels at his “risky”/”risqué” turn in Candelabra, it may have less to do with him kissing a man than with his willful and thorough embodiment of a “temptress” (a seductively feminine rather than victoriously masculine character) and the great vulnerability he reveals, which we’ve never before seen from him. Perhaps it’s no accident that he embraces this effeminate role at a time when he has no choice but to confront his own mortality.

Douglas gives an emboldened performance, and though he consistently moves and speaks with a mellifluous, feminine sensuality throughout the film, what’s most uncanny is that he seems to be playing Michael Douglas. Rather than impersonate his sparkly subject superficially, his flame is lit from within, and as if by anesthetizing his own famously gruff, straight-leading-man-persona, he exposes a playful, gentle, compassionate version of himself. (Watching him in the role, one imagines that he understands Liberace’s vanity and struggle between public and private life much more deeply than initially meets the eye). As the complicated, glitzy piano man, Douglas is confidently life-affirming and love-affirming and boldly death-aware, reminding us, by contrast, that when we limit our expressive possibilities, we deny ourselves access to such empathy and creativity, instead perpetuating fear and hate (of death, of women and of those more vulnerable than ourselves).

Do all men have to wait for death to flutter so close to be allowed such freedom? Douglas praises his co-star, Matt Damon, for risking “career death” and taking an effeminate, gay role while still in his prime, but Damon is an outlier among his peers, and films about gay, effeminate or just plain vulnerable men are nearly nonexistent, even to this day. (Behind the Candelabra was turned down by every major film studio.) Are men and boys expected to limit their expression to forms of dominance and aggression until death taps on their doors?

Here we might consider the great resources within women: the willingness to play a range of emotions and gendered behaviors onscreen among them. Studies show that women cope with stress, grief and loss more openly and seek support (including mental health treatment) more frequently than men do, suggesting that they generally have a stronger grasp on researcher Brene Brown’s conclusion that “[v]ulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is courage.” If we allowed more men to believe those words, we might see fewer of them anxiously grasping at illusions of virility and impenetrability, as if to cheat death. We might see less aggression and derision at the expense of women, gay men, effeminate men and emotionally sensitive men. For example, when Ben Affleck presented an award to his good friend Damon before filming for Candelabra began, he felt the compulsion to facetiously impersonate Damon’s father, saying, “Terrific, Matt. I can’t wait to see you up there blowing Michael Douglas under a piano.” In contrast, Candelabra producer Jerry Weintraub says that while on set during a sex scene between Damon and Douglas, he turned anxiously to Damon’s mother, who simply stated, “That was beautiful.”

Hopefully we won’t view this as a masculine/feminine divide for long. The new Star Trek film, for example, indicates that men embracing vulnerability could be the way of the future. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto (as Kirk and Spock, respectively) give wonderfully sensitive performances, and although we are reminded that their characters are both unquestionably straight (Kirk constantly flirts with every species of female, while Spock frequently kisses Zoe Saldana), the film is undeniably centered on the love story (or “bromance,” if you like) between the two men, both of them affected and changed by the possibility of the other’s death. This focus on a male/male emotional relationship only strengthens the story rather than weakening it, allowing both actors to play a variety of emotions, freely and without restraint. We can see more of this if we allow it. Men don’t have to be at death’s door, or play the most bedazzled guy who ever was, in order to express themselves with emotional freedom.

Michael Douglas’ performance as Liberace is vital, revealing what is possible beyond fear of loss, fear of emasculation or fear of death. Maybe soon we’ll see more leading men playing emotionally diverse roles and more films about women and gender-nonconforming people, and maybe more of these people will be able to play themselves. As for the rest of us, perhaps we’ll risk more discomfort as we perform our own lives, enriching them with vulnerability rather than enshrouding them in fear.

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.

Brendan Ayanbadejo and ‘The Other Team’

Brendan Ayanbadejo holds rank as LGBT hero-of the-moment. His post-Super Bowl, interview with CNN’s Don Lemon showcased his well informed, well-spoken, worldliness, as he declared equality for all, regardless of sexuality or gender expression. Ayanbadejo’s advocacy touches down with more impact than many advocates who are gay themselves (including Lemon, who came out in 2010 and has been a strong advocate for the community ever since), and not just because of his NFL platform, his obvious intelligence, looks, and charisma, but because he’s authentically not gay. His very straightness sends the message, “You’re allowed to be different. Different from me, and different from each other”.

We need even more passionate battle cries in this vein, on behalf of those who are different from ourselves — in general, not just in the LGBT communities — especially for those who have less power than we do.

Now, I’m ambivalent about power, and therefore about top-down advocacy. But as much as it makes me cringe, I also recognize that I benefit from power, and that it’s so tangled up into our systems that to completely extricate ourselves would be impossible. Top-down advocacy seems to imply paternalism, a patronizing of the “weaker”, and one could argue that paternalism is an inherent problem when we rely on straight public figures for effective LGBT advocacy. But we can also see this advocacy as maternalism, or using power to be nurturing, a necessary process in child development and identity formation; we gain confidence to express ourselves freely, and form a sense of self that is separate from our parents though this process. But as a man planning to raise children with another man, these gender labels don’t really work either. In fact, let’s remove the “parental” dynamic from this equation altogether and simply call what Ayanbabadejo is doing social caretaking — authentically claiming a position of social power, attuning to the differences of those who are less powerful, and encouraging them to claim their equally authentic but distinctly different identities, and forms of expression.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if powerful LGBTers could inhabit this role of social caretaker“?, you might ask. Indeed. For example, great as it is that straight movie stars like Sean Penn, James Franco, Michael Douglas, and Matt Damon show the world that kissing other men, and inhabiting feminine clothes and gestures, really doesn’t make the sky fall, we would certainly benefit from more of the Jane Lynch’s, Sean Hayes’s, Wanda Sykes’s, Heather Matarazzo’s, Dennis O’Hares, and Chris Colfers in that hot seat.

The problem here is that of the LGBT figures in the limelight, the ones identified as heroes (in the vein of Mr. Ayanbadejo) and the ones we tend to attach ourselves to as such, are the conformers, ie. those who are “straight acting,” suggesting that it’s OK to be gay, as long as you act “straight”. (We should take a moment to consider novelist Christopher Rice’s observation about the conundrum of the term “straight acting,” that it “implies an ignorance of the mechanics of gay sex”). Public figures like Dan Savage and Rosie O’Donnell are (tragically) often considered to be too non-conforming (too “gay acting”?) though they have both made phenomenal contributions in the way of LGBT youth and families in particular. By contrast, consider what actor Neil Patrick Harris once told Out magaizne:

“The first face that empowered me was Danny Roberts from The Real World: New Orleans. I think before him I’d never seen anyone wear [homosexuality] so comfortably… I could look to him as a role model… He represented a way that I could behave and stand tall comfortably without being an overt advocate and without being someone hiding in the shadows. I liked that.”

For those unfamiliar with the stone age of reality TV, Danny Roberts was considered to be the most “All American”/”straight acting” gay cast member on The Real World as of 1999. (The show had featured approximately one gay character per season since 1991).

It’s wonderful to know that not all queer people are created equal (that some are highly sexual, and some are not, some are outspoken, and some are not, some conform to traditional gender stereotypes and and some do not), but when those who conform are the only ones offering us hope, hope begins to look pretty limiting, and therefore pretty grim.

Perhaps the time will come when a variety of queer people will be as highly influential as Brendan Ayanbadejo, and I hope it’s soon. The more people leading authentic lives — authentically negotiating between conformity, and nonconformity, power, and vulnerability, freedom and limitations — the more we’ll all feel entitled to do so in our own way. However, while people continue to bravely live their truth, we also need those on top, those holding the trophy of social power, to authentically reflect on their own identities, their own status, and to pave the way for those who are different from them to do the same. Like an attuned caretaker to one less powerful, this process provides safety and permission to be authentically separate but equal.

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”.