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.

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.

We Need to Talk About Butt-Sex


Anal is the most intimate sex we’ve got as gay men, yet most of us rarely ever talk about it. This I discovered on Fire Island last summer, while conferring with various guys. I became convinced that we just don’t talk enough about butt-sex, especially regarding the necessary prep. So, here’s my attempt to crack open a discussion.

Why go there? Without the flexibility to consult one another on the mechanics of anal sex, we lack the best tips for safety, cleanliness, and achieving maximum pleasure–a real problem for the young, and/or sexually inexperienced, who may have to endure unnecessary confusion, embarrassment, or pain during intercourse.

It’s no wonder we’re so retentive, given the relentless disparaging of butt penetration that surrounds us. I, for one, am tired of the sickening euphemisms (e.g. “Dumpster Diving”, “Fudge Packing”), and the constant suggestion that getting fucked-in-the-ass is the worst possible thing a man could.

Many gay men I consulted for this article said they never respond to derogatory anal sex references. “I just feel shame.”, said one, “Swallow my anger”.

This internalized shame corrodes our minds and contaminates our sex lives. It’s a particular challenge to field these messages when friends and family are the ones transmitting them. (Consider all the times you’ve been expected to laugh at a dumb prostate-exam-joke.)

Worse yet, without having each other as resources, we may rely too heavily upon entertainment and fantasy, like the scant media devoted to gay male sex which unrealistically insinuates that we’re all Spontaneous Bottoms–that is, we can easily drop trou, whenever, wherever, and open up for some good clean fun. This myth keeps the realities of butt-sex-prep tightly shrouded, turning fantasy into anxiety inducing expectation.

For example, you may feel intensely defective for not fucking in a hyper-efficient-MTV-style-montage sort of way–like the cast of Queer As Folk always did: the furtive-staring-cum-rough-kissing-cum-tearing-off-clothes-cum-tearing-open-condom-wrapper-(with teeth)-cum-rhythmic-penetration-cum-Cum, Cum, Cum! (What if, instead, you find yourself nervously rinsing your rectum behind a triple-bolted door, while your partner waits patiently–and then less so–for you to get your butt back to bed and finish what you started…an hour ago). With the exception of that rare unicorn who can seamlessly bend and deliver impromptu, everyone else gets to be filled with anxiety, inadequacy, and shame.

Renowned psychologist and co-author of The Joy of Gay Sex, Charles Silverstein says,”If you’re going out and you hope to get fucked, then the proper preparation is required, meaning cleaning the colon. That’s not only correct, it’s polite”. He’s right, but why then does the topic of bottom-prep rarely come up, even between gay men? (A Google search for “anal sex”, for example, produces a first page full of tips for women).

There are blogs, chatrooms and articles touching on bottom prep for guys, as well as a few books: Mike Alvear’s accessible and entertainingGay Anal Sex: How to Bottom Without Pain or Stains, and Silverstein’s aforementioned Joy, now in its third edition, effectively written to be the first comprehensive, community sexual resource for gay men. However, when I recently consulted Silverstein for this piece, he said, “I’ve read a lot of books about gay sex, written a few myself, and notice that there is very little instruction about preparation for a bottom. The best I know is a couple of pages by Goldstone’s The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex.”

Silverstein goes on to say, “It is clear to me that social inhibition is the reason cleanliness of the anus and rectum is so rarely openly discussed. We avoid looking at whatever makes us feel uncomfortable. Too bad. As a community we should discuss this more openly.” Silverstein emphasizes shame as the primary reason why we avoid talking about our butts.

“It’s not sexy,” says a friend, adding his two cents on why backyard-grooming rituals e.g. douching, enema rinsing, and sphincter stretching stay closeted. And he’s right, the messy, slow, internal nature of these activities would not a hot time at the movies make.(Imagine if Weekend was about three days on a bidet.)

In fact, the reasons why anal discussions often reach dead ends are manifold, and complex, and for those who are interested in the why, it is clearly articulated in the works of Freud, Michel Foucault, Silverstein, and Leo Bersani, to name just a few. But, for my purpose I’m even more interested in the how; how shame related to our butts interferes with our sexuality, and how we can reclaim it.

In the spirit of Bersani’s essayIs the Rectum a Grave?–which possibly contains the most alluring and empowering description of bottoming ever written–Martin Weber’s recent Huffington Post article, The Bronze Eye is Open: A Philosophy of Anal Sex, and also Oprah’s 2006 special, “Everybody Poops”–I’m interested in how we can bridge the gaps between us, create common spaces to talk about our butts, and maybe share tips for the best preparation for penetration–and freeing us up to have the best possible, realistically achievable, sex.

While on Fire Island last summer, my friend Ben and I were blithely chatting by the pool when conversation suddenly ran secret and deep; we broached the myth of The Spontaneous Bottom and proceeded to shatter it with our personal backstage confessions. We interrogated each other as if for a memoir entitled Everything I Know About Bottoming I Learned From…., discovering that “other gay friends” did not fill in that blank for either one of us.

This made us curious. We’ve had distinctly different histories. (I’ve been monogamous with my husband for over a decade, tending to prefer dinner parties to clubs, while Ben has had multiple partners in that time, and attends every White, Black, and Shades-of-Gray Party, yet neither of us ever received top-down prep tips from other gay men.

We expanded our inquiry to other men on the Island–men of various ages, cultural backgrounds, and sexual experience–and found the same was true for all of them.

The bolt wasn’t unlocked by any one key disclosure (much of the “secret information” shared included jocular tips, like offering prospective partners the disclaimer, “Enter at your own risk”), but by opening the communication lines, all typical guardedness was lifted, allowing for a sense of fellowship, and a palpable subsiding of group shame.

Over the following months, I proceeded invasively to investigate–in person, by email, and over Facebook, asking just about every gay man I know (or know of)about their ass habits.

Of those who responded, all but one said they “mostly topped”, and were therefore unfamiliar with tricks of the bottoming trade–maintaining the unicorn mystique of bottom behavior.

All of them claimed complete naivete about bottoming before their first anal sex–”Baptism by fire” says one–and very few of them admitted to consulting friends, or any reference guide, to this day. (Upon reflection, one said, “My friends say they don’t give a shit [about bottom prep], but I don’t believe they’re truly so blase. It’s like the ladies who say they never get their hair done…it just happens to be perfect.”)

When these “mostly top” guys did bottom, their preparation varied from simply showering and “basic cleanliness”, to an occasional warm water enema rinse, to douching several times in a row, but again, all participants stated they were self-taught.

On the occasion of accidental mess, most said their steamy sex scenes instantly became silent movies, avoiding any talk–even with long-term partners–and engaging in overmuch cleaning before moving on–which in many cases meant going separate ways. With the exception of one friend’s “friend”, who supposedly thinks of “magic messes” as “extra lube”, everyone unequivocally felt that shitting the bed could mean the end of the affair. One friend says, “I’ve stopped mid-way, pointed it out, and ended the sex. Once I stopped and told him to go to the bathroom – I was so grossed out, I went home while he was showering. That was a dark night”.

Only one person brought up prepping to avoid pain, saying that he has been known to sit on a dildo for up to two hours to warm up–most recently while studying for a big test. (Perhaps this aspect of prep was largely untouched because discussing the psychological fears of anal penetration– being “buggered”, “sodomized”, or “invaded”–is far more complicated and threatening than talking about your average, Oprah-endorsed poop anxiety).

Most folks I contacted online respectfully declined to answer(I’ll expect some awkward encounters when next we meet). I certainly understand their positions–I’m not so sure how I’d reply to such questions over email–but this withholding does give us a strong sense of the cagey retention surrounding the topic.

The sole, brave-proud-self-proclaimed-”power bottom” however, did in fact respond by email(apparently writing from his home on Planet Unicorn), saying he learned about bottoming, before losing his virginity, from studying gay porn. He also said that he did and does consult gay friends (“especially gay doctor friends”), for tips and support. His maxims are: “Anal Prep is EVERYTHING!!!!! It makes the experience, clean, fun and AMAZING!!! Anal prep gives the bottom confidence to do what he does best!!!”

Contrary to the other participants, Power Bottom apparently talks about prep “with all my gay friends, all the time”, but also with his partners, “Oh yes, they should know all the prep I went through. In return, they will work just as hard to please me…”

I wanted to learn Mr. Power Bottom’s adaptive secrets–even Lady Gaga knows he wasn’t born this way–but we were unable to rendezvous in person.

And then there were none. It was time to consult a pro.

Porn star Shane Frost was kind enough to indulge me. He validated my disbelief in the myth of The Spontaneous Bottom, saying,”[Bottom prep]is very important on a professional level. Whether you’re talking about cleanliness, or just the readiness of the bottom, if they are not prepared the scene can go down hill real fast”.

His professional work ethic is also apparent in his personal life with his boyfriend of four years. “I like to always present a clean cabin for the submarine to dock in, and I like to have a wide enough cabin for him to fit comfortably…All aboard!”

Frost says he learned about anal sex in his early adolescence, experimenting with a peer of the same age. They would play-wrestle in their skivvies, he says, mimicking the pros on TV, which educed into a main event far more interesting than their attempted emulation, “…buttfucking!” His description of this early experience, captures a buoyant sexual experience with a sense of innocent discovery and play–an image we rarely associate with anal sex, but one that could help us all to talk about, prepare for, and do it.

Now, as an adult who has worked in porn for five years, Frost says that the industry is his primary community, making it very easy to openly discuss prep. His own ritual involves douching once at home before his shower, and then again at the studio “once oral and photos have completed”. Each douche takes him about two to three minutes; he admits that his efficiency has come with time and practice.

As important as cleanliness is to him, he’s learned to be understanding, good humored, and communicative when accidents occur. “The last time it happened”, he says, “I looked at him and I said, ‘Really?’ [laughing]. I gave him a towel, he went to finish what he should of done before we started, and we then proceeded to fuck again. Sometimes you can’t avoid it. Sex isn’t planned, it just happens… So you roll with the punches”.

When I told him about the numerous guys struck dumb whenever poop enters the bed or the conversation, he said, “There are ten bazillion people in this world and guess what, we ALL shit. Cher shits, President Obama shits, Justin Beebz shits…and yes…wait for it…The all mighty Madonna shits as well.”

Now, certainly if you don’t have anal sex for a living, you’re more likely than Shane Frost to be penetrated by societal shame when it comes to your anus, but we can learn from him. When I asked Charles Silverstein how we’ll learn to be more open with each other about sex, he said,

“We learn through modeling. But we need models. That means more instructional information from gay books, gay instruction manuals, even some of these porn stars telling viewers about prepping. I don’t believe there will be any resistance by gay men because they want to learn. The resistance comes from their elders who are simply not doing their job of instruction. I expect that no mainstream publisher is going to publish that sort of book or video, but we now have so many alternatives to traditional books, that there isn’t an excuse for ignoring this important topic. Such a venue would also be useful in dissemination information about safe sex, STDs, and sexual variations”.

I’ll leave you now with some encouragement in the words of Shane Frost: “Everyone’s doing it…So why not talk about it?”.

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”.
 

LOVE BITES


For many, Valentine’s Day is the time to indulge in romantic delights, typically of the instantly gratifying but not so long lasting variety. This is all very well when your love’s fire is newly kindled, but several years in, the chocolates, bubbles and baubles may be inadequate fuel.This February 14th I recommend sharing something perhaps less arousing but far more sustaining than small bites, sweet bites, and all other bites you’re likely to share with your partner, sincere sound bites.

 

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “that doesn’t sound very hot”, but I assure you, even hotter – not to mention more durable – than expensive expressions of passion is the ability to authentically listen, talk to and be heard by your partner.

 

Where to begin? First, we must acknowledge what happens to relationships once the Hollywoodized, hue of the first year or so has begun to fade.You each become exposed, and the magnetic love fields at your inner cores – the very specific, subjective, and deeply-rooted reasons you have gravitated to each other – begin to reveal themselves, making you vulnerable. Many of your conflicts as a couple derive from a fear of this vulnerability, which leads you to rely on opportunities like Valentine’s Day to glaze over the rough spots with chocolate denial.But it is in precisely this vulnerable place that you need to be to keep the love flame alive.

 

Vulnerability is necessary in order to have a “strong sense of love and belonging” says research professor Brene Brown, who has studied vulnerability, authenticity, and shame for over a decade.Brown says that a crucial component of this is being able to say “I love you first” and having “the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees”. This aspect of love often bites.

 

Now, the tricky thing about being vulnerable in love is that it can easily lead to unfocused emotional chaos, which is why we so often avoid it.We need to harness our vulnerability by defining where each of us is coming from, and thus clarifying our specific emotional needs.To accomplish this, it is helpful to establish the boundaries around each of our “characters”.As actress Mary McDonnell says, “Great characters develop out of restricted situations.When people feel the limitations of life, something else takes over that’s specific and colorful.”Much like acting, defining our roles can be incredibly helpful in freeing our expressions of emotion.

 

I must say, I often try to resist oversimplifying, generalizing or categorizing relationship roles (i.e. books of the “Men are from Jupiter, Women are from Neptune” variety only apply to a limited number of romantic pairs), but I’ve learned that defining emotional roles that are somewhat flexible, and which reasonably account for nuances, can create focus and lead to clear and productive communication.

 

Having worked with a variety of couples for years, and reading about couples’ work from myriad schools of thought, the two roles that I’ve identified in every single romantic relationship are what I call The Engulfed and The Abandoned.

 

What does that mean?Well, couples, I’m telling you that without exception, that one of you is The Engulfed – meaning you learned from a very early age that emotionally intimate relationships require you to be engulfed, enveloped, or somehow encompassed, to varying degrees, by the other person. And the other one of you is The Abandoned – meaning you learned from a young age that emotionally intimate relationships cannot be taken for granted and constantly require you to do something to maintain them, or you risk abandonment.

 

A few clarifications need to be made. We’ve all been abandoned in one form or another, and we’ve all experienced some version of engulfment.It should also be noted that I am not making any assumptions about gender, personality, temperament, passivity, or dominance in utilizing these terms. What these labels refer to are the highly specific ways in which each of us has learned to attach emotionally, and from what I’ve seen in my practice, there is always one person in a couple who does this by becoming engulfed, and another driven by a fear of abandonment.

 

These two roles are complimentary, which is how you ended up together, but they are also threatening to each other. Like a wandering oyster and free floating sea particle, the two of you found each other, aggravate each other, and are in the process of forming a thing of beauty. Knowing and accepting which of you is which, will take you both to the place you need to be.You’ll be vulnerable, but with clarity and on equal footing, as neither of these roles is more powerful than the other.They both imply a need for the other, and if these needs are acknowledged and authentically expressed, neither one of you can rise above the exposure of your emotional nakedness.

 

There are various methods I use to help couples get to this place and to communicate with each other once they’ve arrived but for now, in order to apply this concept on V-day, think of it as an acting exercise. Like an actor preparing for a big scene, much of the “work” will take place within you, as you take some time to reflect upon all of the reasons you are drawn to your partner. You will want to make special note of the contradictions in your attraction, and to consider the psychological literature that contends we are attracted to aspects of our partner that seem familiar – whether that be comforting or frustrating, good or bad. Think about your own reasons for choosing someone “so controlling” or someone “so elusive”. Meditate on all of the caretakers you had as a child, what you got from them and what you didn’t, what overwhelmed you and what you didn’t get enough of.

 

Keep all of these reflections in mind as you approach the hot seat, and choose to share one current feeling, desire, concern or request with your partner, delivering the line from a place of vulnerability, clarity, and truth. This is a frightening task, so one of you will likely need to set up the scene, to “say “I love you” first, and once you take this leap of faith, you’ll need your partner there to catch you. You will need to prepare your partner to listen…carefully, lovingly, and without judgment. The listening is just as important – if not more. The unconditional listening of a romantic partner is incredibly healing, and can help one to integrate seemingly contradictory feelings.

 

Psychologist Harvel Hendricks suggests a listening tool that you can both use, not unlike mirroring exercises developed by the acting teacher Sanford Meisner.The idea is to listen to your partner describe a feeling, desire or concern and to say it back to them neutrally, without attitude or interpretation.The next step is to validate their statement and then to empathize with it.That’s it.As any good actor would do, simply play each of those actions in your own way.

So, in review, your effective Love Bites can be achieved through the following steps:

 

1) One of you will have to initiate a dialogue.

 

2) You’ll both have to agree to be vulnerable with each other.

 

3) Cast yourselves as yourselves: Acknowledge who is The Abandoned and who is The Engulfed, and then reflect upon your attractions to one another.

 

4)One at a time, state one feeling, desire, concern or request – possibly sharing a specific memory for context.

 

5)Wholeheartedly listen and mirror what your partner has said to you.

 

And you’re done!

 

If you both can allow yourselves to be fully present and follow these steps, expecting “no guarantees” – much, much easier said than done – you’ll feel closer to each other than any oysters, petit fours, or champagne would ever allow.You’ll also likely find yourselves open to exploring more potential possibilities in your relationship…perhaps even bites you haven’t yet imagined trying.