The Performing Art of Being A Couple

I recently had the privilege to be interviewed by Psych2Go–a website that aims to raise awareness about mental health in an accessible and relatable form.  Below is my conversation with Gabi Morales of Psych2Go, about the performing art of relationships.  (Here is the link to the original article).

Source: Pixabay

P2G: You work as a psychotherapist but you’re also an actor. Do you think one field helps you develop the other?

MOC: Absolutely. Psychotherapy and acting are similar art forms. They both seek to recognize a life in all of its complexity, and to make meaning of that life. Both art forms require rigorous self reflection, emotional accessibility, and most of all the capacity to walk in another person’s shoes.

My experience as an actor prepares me to engage in a collaborative, creative process: to not know who a person is upon the first reading of a script; to not “play the end of the scene,” as we say as actors, but to be present in each moment of the journey; to be constantly curious; to make efforts to empathize with people who are not me, to find those people in me, and to find me in them, but also to be challenged and changed by aspects of them that are not at all like me. Acting also prepares me to be in “scenes” with other people, to be vulnerable and intimate with them, but within clear boundaries.

And without a doubt, I’m a better actor now having been a therapist for so many years. My experience diving into the deep end of myriad, unique lives, has expanded my capacity to identify with a variety of people, and essentially to “be” so many more different versions of myself than I could have possibly been years ago.

P2G: In your book, Modern Brides & Modern Grooms, for example, you give answers on how to plan and get through the wedding as both. Would you explain?

MOC: In writing Modern Brides & Modern Grooms, I was interested in the timely question of How do you express yourself authentically—in a wedding, a marriage, a family, and even a country…—and stay connected to other people at the same time?  And that is a central question for an actor too.  How do I find myself in this character, whose story is not mine?  How do I play this scene in a way that expresses myself truthfully, but also makes room for the other actor?  How do I say what I want to say in this performance, but make sure the audience is following me as well?

A lot of the dilemmas couples face in wedding planning can be navigated by asking themselves those questions.  And so, I show readers how to collaborate, negotiate and survive relational conflicts effectively the way a performing artist does.  Not only to decide what color napkins to use for table settings, or the DJ or ice sculpture they want for that one big event, but more significantly how to recognize each other’s emotional needs in every moment of every day. How to make complex decisions involving family, friends, and community. How to include them in your event and in your lives, in a meaningful way that works for everyone. This process of communication and reflection is great preparation for every other major crossroads couples face throughout their lives—from family planning, to the question of where to live, how to host holidays together, how to negotiate sexual needs, and how to support each other in professional and creative endeavors.

Like theater–and a therapy treatment and a life–a wedding is a performing artform, and the questions we ask are always more crucial than the answers.

P2G: Your book has been praised for its inclusivity. It’s clear that you don’t believe in one canon of the “normal” and “perfect” couple. However, do you think there are certain aspects of the married life that repeat themselves in every couple?

MOC: I do. And not only in romantic couples, but in any two people in relationship: e.g., friends, siblings, parents and children, roommates, colleagues. I actually hope that couples therapy eventually becomes popular for lots of people in conflict, not just lovers. The root of so many conflicts between two people is the unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to simply let the other person know that you understand how they feel and why they feel that way, whether or not you agree with them. It makes such a difference just to know that your experience is held in another person’s mind, even if they have different opinions than you about certain things. If they are curious about your experience and have made the effort to imagine seeing the world through your eyes, and have taken it upon themselves to let you know this!, you are more likely to listen to each other. To take in a different perspective and to mull it over, and perhaps even be influenced and changed by that other perspective.

But there are certainly patterns that are specific to romantic pairs. I typically see what I call one “engulfed” person and one “abandoned” in every partnership. Which sounds categorical and reductive, but it’s really not. It has much much less  to do with external qualities such as gender, physicality, or personality, and more to do with the very particular ways each of us has learned to attach emotionally to partners. We choose complimentary people as lovers, who remind us of our primary caretakers, which is exciting at first, but quickly becomes frustrating. So a lot of the work in couples therapy is to bring this all to the surface so that each partner can understand better their own specific expectations of the other person, to verbalize where they’re coming from, and also to listen listen listen to the other person’s specific experience at the same time. I always remind couples that one of them sees the sky as yellow and the other sees it as pink. Neither sees a blue sky. Neither is right or wrong, but they both have to recognize that the sky is different for each of them in order to move through any of their conflicts.

P2G: You mention in your article for Psychology Today–titled, “Straight Life Cycle/Queer Life”— the normal stages of development by Erik Erikson.  Do you think these stages are still (or have ever been) “normal” in the modern world?

MOC: I think Erikson’s stages are incredibly useful as a reference when we think about the various ways each of us functions in relationships, particularly when we consider how that is informed by our experiences in childhood and adolescence. So much of my work as a therapist is to help people repair the relational ruptures that occurred during those formative years, when they may not have learned to truly trust another person and never felt secure enough to take risks and discover their full potential as social beings. However, as I alluded to in the article (which I originally wrote for, those stages can get in our heads, like any other socially expected milestone, and make us feel like we’ve failed at life–if we don’t marry by a certain age, for example; or if our career has not become OBVIOUSLY successful–to our parents, our friends, and social mediafollowers–by a certain age; or if we don’t have kids, etc. etc. I think that as a culture we are finding more breathing room, for all of us really, to live meaningful and fulfilling lives that don’t necessarily follow a strict, traditional, expected path or normative stages.

P2G: Do you think these milestones have a way of making us feel better because they are what society expects from us?

MOC: Yes, they can. Until they don’t. Until we realize that our lives don’t fit neatly into boxes of someone else’s making. We recognize this more and more as we grow.

P2G: How has your personal life experience and your professional career as a psychotherapist changed your vision about these “normal stages of life”?

MOC: Well I was never on a normative path. I was a gender nonconformingproto-gay boy from the start, and my earliest memories include adults being uncomfortable with me. Fortunately my parents did their best to help me be myself, and bought me the unicorns and Missy Piggy dolls I asked for, but even so, the message that I was “different” reached me again and again from family, from school, and the community in which I lived. I learned early on that the glass slipper was never going to fit, and that my options were to torture myself by cutting off my heels and toes, or to accept that the Prince of “normal” was never gonna choose me. That I would never be able to successfully hide inside the “normal” closet, and I’d have to find my own ways to be happy. Now, that wisdom came from a lot of trial and error, and painfully mortifying attempts to “fit in” and actively hating myself, especially during my early adolescence.  But, painful as it was, that experience forced me to take my own side, and to be awake at the wheel of my life. If I was going to truly exist in the world, I would have to be attentive to my needs, to advocate for myself, to ruffle some feathers by default, and to carve out space to live and love, like anyone else.

That experience taught me that each individual person’s timeline is different, and we often do ourselves a disservice by thinking about where we “should” be in terms of “normal life stages.” I was WAY behind my peers in school in terms of being able to openly express and share sexual and romantic desires and interests, for example, and that’s a huge part of one’s development. But being necessarily internal and in my head, and being bullied at school, led me to go to college early, to escape, and so I achieved higher education goals well before most people my age typically do. So I was behind in some ways, ahead in others, and ultimately I found my own way to live an integrated life.

And the privilege of being a therapist, and getting to know the interior of so many unique people, continues to teach me how each of us truly must find our own way, in our own time, at our own pace.

P2G: What motivated you to become a psychotherapist?

MOC: The same thing that motivated me to be an actor: an endless interest in people.  Everything about people interests me. Every little detail. Their voices, mannerisms, preferences, favorite movies or bits of poetry, their daydreams, heartbreak, worries, hangups, the random sound bites that stick in their heads. Clients occasionally tell me they fear they’re not interesting enough for me, or that I might get bored if they talk freely about what’s actually on their mind. And I always respond with the truth, which is that as long as it’s true, I’ll never get bored. The only thing I ever find boring -in art or in life- is when someone is lying or covering something, up. Boredom is usually my first clue that something’s not being fully expressed. And even then, I’m interested in the fact that something’s boring me and I want to know why that is, what’s happening within the person to make that happen. I’m endlessly interested in how each person uniquely expresses her or himself. So even when I was in grad school for acting, I knew I would one day be a therapist, because I knew I loved to listen. Simply listening to another person, really listening to them, is an exquisitely beautiful, powerful and transformative thing.

I’ll never forget one night in college, I was at a frat party, and a sweet, bookish girl came over to talk to me–recognizing a kindred misfit in me, I suppose. She knew I did theater at the school and asked me how she could get involved, and told me why she wanted to give it a try even though she’d never been on stage before, and I really enjoyed listening to her story. I don’t remember saying much, but as we parted she said, “Thank you for talking to me. You made me feel so much better about life.” And I thought, wow, if I could help someone feel better about being alive, just by listening to them–with hooting and hollering and keg stands in the background–I should probably take that as a sign. So, I guess my therapy calling happened in the most ironic place possible for a boy who collected unicorns as a kid: a rough-and-tumble, Road-House-style, frat party.

P2G: What advice would you give to all the young millennial couples out there?

MOC: Put the phone down. Look your partner in the eye, and listen to her or him. Really listen. And share something true about yourself, in a complete thought, in a complete sentence, without looking at your phone. And then listen some more. (Also, watch “Black Mirror,” and learn from it…) Be mindful of screens and how they function in your life; how they steal you away from your loved ones. Notice your tendencies to avoid and escape human-to-human contact or conflict, by losing yourselves in your screens. It’s becoming easier and easier to escape from each other with each new day, each new device, and each new app.

Life is short and messy, and it never gets better than the relationships we are able to have, to hold, and to grow. By which I mean real relationships: the ones, that remain durable when we are face-to-face. One more thing: Psychotherapy can be a great dress rehearsal to improve your relationships in real life.


Beyond #MeToo and #IBelieveYou

59f35a4b1500000506747c2aIt’s great that men are using the hashtag #IBelieveYou, in support of the women who post #MeToo on social media—a trend triggered by reports of harassment, assault, and rape by producer Harvey Weinstein, which in turn came a year after presidential candidate Donald Trump, in a leaked tape, boasted that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. . . . Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”  Yet many of the women who now feel compelled publicly to relive some of the most horrific and debasing moments of their lives, wonder where we go from here, beyond the hashtags.

It’s easy to stuff all the blame for the ubiquity of sexual violations into the grotesque bastions of power symbolized by Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.  But if we really want to make our society safer for all, we must do more than vilify these particular men, and do more than believe the women who speak up.  We must also acknowledge even the subtle ways we maintain a culture that disempowers women.

Many men are hesitant to recognize our own complicity in this, as we are afraid to be defined as creeps like Weinstein, Trump, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, or Bill Cosby.  We’d prefer to be the opposite of them—righteous and upstanding, and liked.  But this binary thinking of good guy vs. bad guy will only keep us stuck.  We men needto own our contributions to a misogynistic culture if we want to move forward.  As psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin says, true repair in a relationship can only take place “if one can admit having denied the other’s humanity without the complementary reversal in which now one’s self must take up the position of being unworthy to live.”  In other words, our options are not only to be good or bad, destroyer or destroyed.  We can feel the shame of our mistakes, admit our failures, and acknowledge the injuries we have caused our sisters and brothers, with the intention of moving forward together on equal footing, and treating each other better.

In this spirit, I share a few examples of my own complicity in our sexist culture.

I was a student, presenting a review I had written of a play.  Several women classmates asked why my descriptions of the actresses in the play were exclusively about their appearance.  (In some cases I compared them to flowers or food.)  Upon receiving this feedback I was ashamed, and therefore defensive.  “I’m gay,” I shot back, as if that somehow proved I couldn’t objectify women.  How could they not see I was a “good” guy, and not a Weinstein or a Trump?  Reflecting on this now, I realize my conviction that I was innocent had less to do with me being gay, and more to do with the movie reviews I had read in high school, which objectified women as a norm.  I feel embarrassed looking back on this.  To wonder, especially as a minority myself, how on earth I missed the fact that I had so obviously degraded the women in the play, and my class, by objectifying them.  And then, to add insult to injury, I denied the objectification ever took place—a reactive bit of gaslighting.  I am sorry for that.  But as a therapist I often find that looking back can help to move forward.  I now make conscious efforts to avoid repeating that mistake with any human being.  I aim to be empathically curious about everyone I meet, and to advocate for people who are different than me.  Most importantly, though, I try to listen with humility whenever I inadvertently offend someone out of my own shortsightedness or ignorance.

I was in my early twenties and sharing an apartment with a female friend.  We were both regularly stressed out about starting our careers and paying our bills.  One day we were arguing about shared expenses.  Things got heated.  I felt I was not being heard and I screamed, “Just pay what you owe, you bitch!”  Her face dropped in a way I had never seen.  I’d like to blame my reaction on the fact that I was stressed and had observed many men speak to women like that, in life and in art.  But it was I who delivered the line at that time and in that way.  Only me.  The nature of our argument was complicated, but the way I exploded was not.  As the years go by and I gain perspective on what happened, I am more and more disturbed by my reaction—the way I so thoughtlessly dipped into a readily available well of misogynistic power at a moment of anger.  I think of how many times a day all kinds of men react in just that way, and often far worse, to all kinds of women and then disavow their behavior, e.g.:  “She made me do it”; “What’s the big deal, guys do that all the time?”; “I get treated that way too, have compassion for me”; “I have anger issues”; “I’m a sex addict”; “It’s not my fault.”  It is my fault whenever I use my power and privilege to harm someone else, even reactively.  And I encourage you, dear reader, to acknowledge this as well

I was at a house party.  Suddenly a guy who was very charismatic and popular at our school approached me and a male classmate.  He announced that he had just peed on the bed of a young woman, another student, who lived in the house but was not present.  I believe it had something to do with her refusing his sexual advances.  The other guy and I reacted by laughing.  That was our first, primal instinct.  And that continues to haunt me.  Why did we laugh?  Because we were shocked and disoriented?  Terrible people?  Drunk?  Because the guy who committed this hateful act of violation was more powerful than us and we didn’t know what else to do?  I have wrestled with these questions ever since with no definite answers.  What I do know is that I am deeply sorry, both for what happened and for the way I first responded.

It wasn’t until the perpetrator’s wife – a fellow student – discovered what had happened and became outraged, minutes later at the party, that I was suddenly flooded with shame.  The reality of what had happened began to sink in, including the fact that I had initially laughed.  

When this all came to light, months later, I did reach out to the woman who was targeted and apologized for being at the party.  But I wish I had apologized for laughing, for not being immediately outraged, and for not telling her what had happened right away.

Everyone at our school eventually found out, and our administrators did not help us to heal.  A counselor stopped by our class for an hour, and we had exactly one all-school meeting that was intended to put the incident behind us.  I remember the man who ran the whole institution – who is today very powerful, beloved, and greatly enriches the world in his current position – encouraged everyone at the meeting to simply “move past” the event because he himself had done things “far worse” when he was in school.  (The event being, as I think of it now, a form of hate crime.)

With each new day and story of sexual violation entering my news feeds, I realize that I still have not “moved past” what happened.  And as I began writing this article I wondered how the woman who was victimized feels about it.  So I decided to reach out to her.  My intention then, and now as I write, is to emphasize not only that we all contribute to abuses of power, but also that we have the capacity to own our shame, apologize, heal, and grow as we move forward.

I sent her an initial message, sharing my idea for this article, and how I wanted to encourage men to be open about our complicity in cultural misogyny, and assuring her that I would not proceed without her permission.  She responded warmly and openly.  She shared that she and her husband had been talking a lot about the #MeToo trend, and she had told him she would never post a #MeToo status because, “anytime I have spoken up about an injustice in my life related to gender and gender politics, I have been shut down and dismissed.”  She explained that she has deeply mixed feelings about our school because of that incident.  She wrote:

I felt like there was an overwhelming pressure for me to make it right for everyone, by “getting over it,” and in the end I surrendered to that pressure not for me but for everyone else because I felt like that is what I had to do to be included in the community.  Eventually I convinced myself that my perception of the incident was wrong, that I hadn’t been targeted because of rejecting his advances, that it was just a random act that could have happened to anyone.

She said that though the incident had been “locked away,” #MeToo had brought it up, and now she is struggling with her place in all of it.  She wrote:

I feel deep guilt that I didn’t do more to stand up against this . . . I felt suffocated and I felt like my survival depended on moving on.  Having the opportunity for any part of the story to be seen in the light of day will be so cathartic and beneficial to me.

I then shared what I had written so far, along with a detailed account of what I remembered about the event, and my participation in it.  I shared how ashamed and haunted I remain for laughing when I first heard what happened and for not telling her right away.  I told her how much I hope other men (and women) will read this, identify with it, and be encouraged to own their participation in abuses like this.  She then shared an account of her experience at school, which she gave me permission to publish, and I include in detail below:

I remember very specifically the time [he] cornered me and told me he was a CIA agent, and he only felt comfortable telling me his secret , and he used to tie people up and torture them, and would I like to be tied up to see how good he was at his job.   I told him I thought that was the worst pickup line ever and he was a dirt bag for even trying to pick me up considering he had [his wife].  He told me that [his wife] was a prude and he could tell I was not.  I told him to leave me alone and he did.    [The following year] I remember [your classmates] being particularly susceptible to [him]. They would all worship him.  I thought it was stupid considering what I knew about him from the year prior, and they all told me I was full of it.  The weekend that the incident happened I was at [my boyfriend’s]. When I came back to my apartment and my room, I knew something had been wrong.  I asked [my roommate], for weeks and weeks what had happened but all he said was he never wanted to talk about it.  I found out [your male classmate] was there and I asked him what had happened, I knew something was up and neither of them ever said anything. There was a particularly violent night where I was accusing [my roommate] of always lying to me, and I brought up the night where I knew something happened and no one would be straight with me.  He said if I wanted to know so bad that I should call [your classmate] and get the truth. [Your classmate] came over, I think he was drunk.  I continued to accuse him and [my roommate] of hiding something from me.  I told them I had a sick feeling that something happened, and [your classmate] got right in my face screaming and pointing at me, then pushed me against a wall yelling at me that I was a bitch for accusing him and why the fuck wouldn’t I leave it alone.  It was so scary, and I moved in with [my boyfriend] that night.    Fast forward about six months, maybe even a year, I don’t remember the time frame. [Another person who was at the party] and I get into an argument and she said, you should be nicer to me since I tried to clean up the pee on your bed.  I said, what are you talking about.  She then went on to tell me that she knew I always wondered about that night and that [he] peed on my bed, while [your classmate] poured beer all over my room.  I was so shocked, I flew out of the room and immediately confronted [my roommate] who denied it. This caused a big dramatic scene with me learning that several people knew about this but never told me, even though I had been begging for the truth.

[When I reported to our school administrators] what had happened, they were horrified.  They told me that they would be consulting with others and would get back to me about what we were all going to do.  Their solution . . . we had one visit from a counselor to our class.  I can remember [two of my classmates] being so hurt and upset, when the counselor said his job was not to stay with us beyond the hour.  I remember both of them demanding to get [the administrators]. They came in and both [of my classmates] blasted them saying that a horrible thing happened, and how disappointed they were that the school’s response was to have someone come in to open up all the wounds, and then leave while we all bled to death.  The next morning I was in front of [the administrators] who told me that it is was obvious this was getting out of hand, and was there a way I could articulate a reasonable solution so that everyone could move on.  I told them I wanted [the perpetrator fired from his job, at the school]  They said no. I asked him to be kicked out of school they said no.  I said, ‘What am I supposed to ask for then?’  They said how about he pays for your bedding that he peed on.  I said that is not enough, they said that is the best they were ever going to help me with.    The next day I sat in front of [him, the administrators, and the head of the institution]. [He] got to read me his apology statement.  The statement was all about how this incident was ruining his life and how he knew I couldn’t be compassionate at this time, but he wished I could see that he suffered too, in that [his wife] was angry with him.  He then handed me a check for $300.  It sat in front of me I didn’t even want it.

 [The head of the institution] said with this payment this closes this issue and that he hoped that he didn’t hear about it again, he then said if I find I can’t move past this, that I should remember that “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

[The administrators] also reminded me that I needed to move past this quickly for all our sakes and that if I was having feelings I should save them for [my school work]. From that point on, I was a pariah to a lot of people. Very few people stood by me, and the faculty treated me poorly. I remember [his wife] passing me in the hall and asking me if I was happy that I “ruined everything for the whole school.” For years and years I fantasized that this would come to light and that somehow I would have a real moment of vindication.  I imagined that [his wife] would finally realize what had happened and would call me and apologize. I imagined that [the administrators] would write to me and tell me how sorry they were for mishandling everything, and would refund my tuition since they basically stopped teaching me after this happened, and I imagined that [the head of the institution] would publicly apologize for his cruelty.  As you know none of those things happened.

I too feel haunted by this.  But I know that I am not going to shy away from doing the hard work of examining this event.  I hope that I can continue to grow and learn about myself and about people, and be the best human I can be.

I hope for that for myself.  I hope for that for men, and for women.  I think it begins by looking inward, believing the solutions are sometimes found in the problems, and initiating dialogue.

*This article first appeared on

The Best Wedding Trend Is The Freedom to Not Follow Trends



 We are in a sweet spot for nuptials.  Every one of us has the opportunity to not know what we are supposed to do when we get hitched.  Just as same sex couples have done for decades, we can all–yes, straight people too–create our own events, rituals, and celebrations, completely on our own terms.  Exciting, right? I have even written a book on this phenomenon, “Modern Brides & Modern Grooms: A Guide to Planning Straight, Gay, and Other NonTraditional, Twenty-First Century Weddings,” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014 Hardcover; 2017 Paperback) which is now out in audiobookform, narrated by me.

 And yet, many of the questions I am asked–by the media, but also in life (mostly by straight people)–are about same sex wedding “etiquette.”  As if the great opportunity of Marriage Equality is to lead gay people to the strict, mind-numbing trappings of conformity, rather than to wake us all up to creative freedom.

 Before we continue, I’d like to share my feelings about wedding “etiquette.”  And the best way to do that is through the following lyrics from the song“They,” by Jem.  (I encourage you to listen to the entire song, here).

Who made up all the rules?
We follow them like fools,
Believe them to be true,
Don’t care to think them through
And it’s ironic too ‘
Cause what we tend to do Is act on what they say
And then it is that way

 Again, we all have an opportunity right now to free our minds, and to be creative in how we celebrate our unique loves.  So why would any of us, regardless of our gender or the gender of our partner, do a search-and-destroy for arbitrary rules to cramp our style?   

 Here are some of the questions I have received from people who want same sex wedding “etiquette” to be a thing:

  • “Do gay guys kiss when they get married?”  Asked someone close to me, as I planned my own wedding.  My response, “Um, we plan to do that…because we want to…  I’m not sure what other ‘gay guys’ do.”  Mind you this was in 2006, before same sex marriage was legal in my home state, so there were no established “gay guy” wedding customs that I could share with this person, even if I wanted to.
  • “At what point do you stand at a ceremony with two grooms?  I mean…cuz there’s no bride…?”  This one came from an acquaintance.  Who is intelligent.  And who was about to attend a same sex wedding.  I just stared at him for a while, as I struggled to understand why his mind had suddenly shut down.  I said something like, “Well, I don’t know this couple and how they plan to orchestrate their wedding.  Maybe that sort of thing will be clear when you’re there?… And if not, maybe ask yourself what standing during a wedding signifies to you?…And decide for yourself if and when to stand?”
  • ​“Can a woman wear white to a wedding between two men?”  This was from a journalist whom I respect a great deal, named Alexandra E. Petri, who writes on a broad range of subjects.  She was working on a storyfor Elle on this topic, and wanted my two cents, as someone who had written about weddings–albeit from an anti-etiquette/queer/non-conformist perspective.  My initial response was:
“First I would say that the beauty of marriage equality is that we no longer have to categorize same sex vs. opposite sex weddings. Weddings are weddings.  And we have the fantastic opportunity to rethink all of the marital traditions we’ve mindlessly accepted over the years.  All weddings at the core, celebrate the choice two people make to live their lives together, in a way that is loving and public and protected by the law, regardless of their gender.  The Supreme Court’s ruling on Marriage Equality in 2015, was symbolic of our views on marriage evolving as a people, in general.  Weddings began with women being given away as property from one man to another.  But now at weddings, we celebrate equal partnerships between two people who love each other, whether they are female, male, gay or straight.   And so, I can’t really answer your question without that context.  Because bridal whites are of course associated with that age-old tradition of women as the virginal property of men.  (Queen Victoria popularizedthe white dress as a symbol of purity in 1840, and Western culture has not questioned this tradition since.  And yet, ironically of note, the tradition of women proposing to men did not catch on at this point, even though it was Victoria who proposedto her husband, Prince Albert.).  Now that women are (fortunately!) no longer considered property, and even have the freedom to do the proposing themselves (to a man or a woman), the significance of some of these traditions–like veils and white dresses–can be rethought. So, do I think there is anything inappropriate about a guest wearing white to a wedding, regardless of the genders of the spouses to be?  Not at all.  As long as you first check in with the couple to make sure your outfit won’t steal attention away from their moment.  And that’s a decision for each nuptial-bound pair to make themselves. (Unless you believe Queen Victoria should make that choice for them…) So, no matter what kind of wedding you’re attending, check in with the bride(s) and/or groom(s) about your outfit.  If they’re both wearing matching lime green rompers (or romphims), for example, you’ll want to save yours for another occasion.”

 But after hitting *send,* I decided to do something truly subversive: interview the interviewer.  I sent Alexandra a few questions of my own, so I could better understand her interest and process in writing the article.  This way we could keep an openness between us, and not just end our dialogue with my glib opinions.  She responded:

“[Writing this article] I learned a lot about gay weddings and the details that in a hetero wedding are laid out for you: whose name goes first on the invitation, if they take each other’s last names, where to sit during the ceremony,walking down the aisle. I thought a lot, too, about how much focus is placed on the bride leading up to the wedding and how little focus is played on the groom. That changes when you have two grooms.”

 Alexandra’s discoveries here are significant, even if they are all things of which a queer person is already innately aware.  Nevertheless, I slowed myself down as I read her response, and respected where she was in her process.  And in so doing, I find that I very much appreciate her active curiosity about same sex weddings. After all, curiosity is what leads to greater empathy for each other.  Which can eventually lead to rethinking traditions that stifle everyone’s creative freedom.  We need more curious, empathic people like Alexandra with whom to engage in conversations about tradition and equality as we make room for more of us to have full lives.

 Alexandra said her guiding question for the article was, “How do you navigate the wedding landscape as a gay couple?,” which I respect, even if I disagree with her premise: that a woman wearing white is necessarily a problem for any wedding bound couple.  This is all to say that I hope to stay in dialogue with Alexandra as she continues her inquiry: “I am never done exploring a topic,” she says. Not necessarily on the topic of wearing white, but “there were other trends I came across during my research that I have tucked away for other stories.”   I look forward to discussing whatever she discovers with her.

The more I think about it, in some ways I do understand why people are interested in wedding etiquette.  As a people, we want customary guide posts to ensure we are polite to one another.  But at the same time, our sense of “polite,” “proper” and “normal,” can go too far, and imprison us.  Which is why we must also take it upon ourselves to stay awake and curious about life that is off-trend.  We must rethink traditions; make personal choices on a case by case basis, without feeling trapped by what our mother or father did, or Queen Victoria; and we can stay in dialogue with each other as we do this.  Even as we approach new territory–like marriage equality–from different angles.  

So though I wrote a whole book on creating your own marriage celebration your way, the only wedding *etiquette* advice you will ever hear from me is this: Check in with each specific spouse-to-be before their specific event.  Ask them questions, and receive their answers.  Respect individuality, independent thinking, and creative freedom.  Theirs, and also your own.  

I will now leave you with one more Q&A between a journalist and me:

Q: “What are some same-sex wedding trends you’re seeing?”  

A: “The freedom to not follow trends.”

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

 More Wedding Wisdom from Mark O’Connell, LCSW



Pride in Mental Health Series: Visibility

Dior Vargas
 *This post first appeared on Psychology Today.  

I had the privilege of speaking with experts, activists, and advocates about the various mental health needs we have in the LGBTQ communities, at an event hosted by 
Crisis Text Line.  We all agreed that a supportive and continuous, therapeutic relationship is key, for everyone really.  But for those of us who face constant discrimination it can be a matter of life and death.  The trouble is that psychotherapy is stigmatized; not enough clinicians are competent, curious, or empathetic enough to make a connection with LGBTQ clients; and too many people simply can’t afford therapy, or their insurance won’t cover it (if they even have insurance).  The experts I spoke to all fight tirelessly against these obstacles, in order to connect people to the safe, loving, and supportive relationships they need and deserve.  


For this segment of my Pride in Mental Health Series, I talk with Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist, Dior Vargas, who is also the Outreach Coordinator for Child Mind Institute(which is dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders) and Social Media Influencer and Award Winning Activist, Cole Ledford, about the role of visibility in LGBTQ mental health.

Tell me about your work.

Dior Vargas: I’ve been a crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line for about two years.  And I was volunteering with different mental health organizations and I thought I wanted to do more than just bring awareness, I wanted to perform direct service, to really help people.  So that’s why I started doing that.  But I’ve also been doing a lot of activist work and advocacy.  Telling my story.  I live with anxiety, depression, and I’m also a suicide attempt survivor.  And so I’ve been able to do a lot of speaking engagements.  Not only because of that, but because I started a photo project. [called “People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project,” which intends to destigmatize mental health care for people of color].  I’ve been able to do a lot of different things with that.  I’m actually going back to NYU in the fall to get a masters in public health.  Because I love doing awareness but I also want to make sure that I’m involved in those policies so people can get the best care that they need.

Cole Ledford:  So last summer I drove through every state in the United States, filming a series called “50 States of Gay,” and we interviewed one LGBTQ+ person in every state.

How did you find them?

Cole Ledford: I’m very lucky to have a social following, so I was able to tweet out kind of an application to join it.  And then pairing with organizations, including The Trevor Projectand Crisis Text Line, promoted it out to get followers to join in.

Who participated?  Was it a diverse sampling?

Cole Ledford: The whole point was for it to be very diverse.  We picked them in advance.  I will say that eighty five percent of the applicants were white cis gendered males.  But I did make a concerted effort to get people who represented different identities across America.  Because that was the point of this.  To show young kids that there was someone out there who was just like them.

Were you surprised by the kinds of people you found in certain states?  We all have preconceived expectations of what state populations look like.

Cole Ledford: We were surprised by the trans person of color we met in Mississippi.  She actually stood on the steps of the Mississippi courthouse and called out the governor on his anti transgender bathroom bill.  So she sat down with us for about an hour.  And her story is amazing.  She now lives out in L.A., working for the L.A. LGBT Center, but goes back to help with all the things happening in Mississippi.

What are some of the specific mental health needs both of you observed through working on these wonderful projects?

Dior Vargas:  It seems really general, but the need to be acknowledged to be seen to be heard.  That’s the really important step in order for them to be open about what they’re going through.  I think that’s the catalyst of that.  To be able to get that support.  To be able to be part of groups who are understanding of their experiences.  So they know they’re not alone.  I think that’s really important.  Even in terms of just knowing how to get mental health services.  Because I feel like a lot of times they don’t know where to go.  They don’t even know how to look.  They just don’t know how best to do that.  Also thinking about in terms of if they do get a mental health professional, is it a person who has a sliding scale?  Are they culturally competent?  Because I feel like a lot of times, whether you’re queer or you’re a person of color you have to educate the therapist.  And the main point [of therapy] is to get things out, to learn about yourself.  If you spend the whole time educating someone.  That’s not helpful to you, and that’s also a waste of the time that you need to take care of yourself.

And it’s re-traumatizing in a way.  To be made to feel *other.*  Like you’re an alien who has to describe exactly what it’s like on your alien planet.  As opposed to being met with warmth and empathy, and openness. By someone who makes the effort to imagine what it’s like in your shoes.  

Dior Vargas: Right.  And that first experience is so crucial.  Because I know so many people who went to a therapist and say, “I went to a therapist.  It did not go well.  I’m not going back. It’s a waste of time.  They just don’t understand me.”  And I can understand that one experience… you don’t want to have to go through that re-traumatizing.  But I think in a lot of other situations, you have to try again.  It’s like dating.  You’re not going to date someone and fall in love that second.  You have to shop around, you have to it’s a process.

How do you give people the will to try again?

Dior Vargas:  I guess help them to identify what they didn’t like.  Help them figure out what places they can look for a therapist.  How they can filter.  Because I feel like a lot of people don’t know, if you do have health insurance, going on that website, and already knowing that the therapist accepts your insurance, so you don’t have to worry about that.  That’s a parameter in itself.  It’s important to be able to know how to filter.  And know that it’s something you can tailor to yourself.  You have the upper hand and if it didn’t work one time, this is a transaction.  Rationalize it in that way.  Your care and your well being is the most important thing, so if something was wrong with them, and not anything wrong with you.  There are a lot of other people.

Cole Ledford:  One of the amazing things, or maybe not amazing but surprising, is that there are so many people who face the same struggles.  Like, [what I discovered, working on the documentary,] that black transgender woman in Mississippi was having the exact same feelings that the white lesbian woman in Virginia was, and the kid in Arkansas who was twelve years old as well.  Every person felt like they didn’t belong, or at some point felt like they didn’t need to carry on, they weren’t needed.  So I think it’s important to show each other, “Look, we’re all in this together, we all feel this way, let’s work together.”

Dior Vargas:  Also sharing, you know, I didn’t have the best experience with therapists but I kept on searching because it was about my well being. It was about my quality of life.  So making it something overarching.  It’s going to affect your whole life in a positive way.  So trying to find different ways to talk about it.  Also to help them look for a therapist.

What are some reliable mental health resources for LGBTQ+ people?

Dior Vargas: Callen Lorde Center is amazing.  Hetrick-Martin is amazing.  Even going to the LGBT Center.  Going to the places you feel most comfortable, and seeing what kind of resources they have available.  Because then you won’t feel like you’re not being heard and that people understand you.  I think going to those communities is important.

Cole Ledford:  I think it’s so difficult because everyone thinks that they can’t get help.  I think every person just knowing that there are resources out there is such a big thing for them. So knowing the Crisis Text Line and Trevor Project, are out there as resources.  But also knowing people that use it.  When I openly talk about how I used Trevor Project when I was a kid, that makes people think, “Wow, I actually can trust this.  They are there for me.  They’re not just some random robot out there.  They are real people you can talk to.”

So the fact that you used those services is helpful to other people.  Modeling for them that it’s ok to reach out for help.  

Cole Ledford:  Yeah, modeling and just showing people that there are people who have had this experience who made it out on the other side.  So many times people are like, “My mom’s going to find out if I call this number,” or “Someone’s gonna be mad that I did it,” or “It’s not gonna help.”  But it helped.  It worked.

That’s interesting because, as a therapist I find  that people are sometimes ambivalent if not afraid to be dependent on others, and to ask for help.  But to see people like you two―who have made it out of periods of despair by asking for help, and who continue to ask for help when you need it―is encouraging.  

Cole Ledford:  Yeah.  One of the things I always talk about is what I was feeling back then, or I still struggle with anxiety and depression now.  Recently I had a full on panic attack and anxiety attack, and I decided to turn on the camera and record it happening.  And so that was just so people could see that I go through this too, it’s ok.  Here’s what it’s like, and here’s my thought process while it’s happening.  And I talk through how Candy Crush set off my anxiety attack.  And I think that just allows people to see a real human experiencing that, and surviving that.

How do we make it more of a good idea for people to find a therapist?  To de-stigmatize therapy?  It’s not about being sick.  It’s about having a continuous relationship so you can be seen and heard, like you said.  

Dior Vargas:  Yeah.  I think redefining what it is to have a therapist.  And kind of defining it in your own terms.  There may be this overarching idea of what a doctor is or what a therapist is, or a psychologist.  And kind of bringing it down into, this is someone you meet with once a week, and it’s about maintaining your mental health.  Maintaining your self care.  Emphasize wellness rather than “mental illness.”  Make it more palatable.  Redefine it for yourself.  Because there are so many things that are fed into people from society.  But thinking about what wellness means in your community.  It’s about your quality of life.  No matter who you are or what communities you’re a part of.  And finding pride…for lack of a better word…and prioritizing your well being.  Thinking of it through a social justice lens, I can’t be there for other people unless I’m there for myself.  I can’t really work to push our movement without really investing in myself.  By investing in yourself you’re also investing in your community.

You can be more of an advocate, more of an activist, if you take care of yourself.

Dior Vargas:  Exactly.  So it’s also important to think about it what I’m going through individually, matters.  But it’s also not just you, it’s a slew of other people.  So thinking about it in terms of, when I take care of myself I take care of my community.

Cole Ledford:  Also, on a macro-level I think we need to reduce the need for services by passing a non-discrimination law.  If we had a federal protection against discrimination, people would know they were welcome.  They would feel that they were accepted in society.  And that’s the number one cause for it [major mental health challenges in the LGBTQ communities] because we don’t feel accepted in today’s world.  So if we could pass sweeping federal legislation to protect LGBT people legally from discrimination, that would be a big solution to the big problem we’re facing.  But then on top of that I think having more of a focus on mental health on the national level would be a great way to start inspiring kids.

After I finish editing all these videos, I really want to run for office.  I think the only way we can make actual tangible change―and we need to―is on the national, political level.  And so I want to start organizing and run for office as soon as I can.

When young people see someone like me, or like others who have or have had mental health issues, running for these offices, it says you can live through this, openly.

Without having to disguise something about yourself.

Cole Ledford:  Exactly.  There are so many elected officials who have depression, have anxiety, have some mental anguish, but we don’t talk about it because it’s stigmatized.  They don’t want people to know about it.  They just want votes.  But I think we can show people you can still be an amazing leader and ask for [mental and emotional] support at the same time.

How do we reach people who do not advocate for themselves. Who suffer in silence and are too afraid to seek help?

Cole Ledford: I think there’s a lot of passive activism.  Even just by being themselves, that is activism.  If you are willing to come out of the closet [and if it’s safe to do so] that is political, that is activist, that is showing that you aren’t afraid to be yourself.  And it’s good to remember that it is activism in itself. That you don’t necessarily have to be speaking out, all the way.  You can just be proud of who you are and that’s ok.  That’s phenomenal.  To connect to people who are less visible, I think… God bless him, Donald Trump in this one regard has made everyone political.  He’s made everyone none passive now.  Even if you don’t want to speak out.  Because we’re seeing what happens when you don’t.  A lot of people didn’t speak out in the last election… And this is what we got.  So I’m hoping that in the future, more people will be speaking out.

What motivated you to become activists?

Dior Vargas:  Growing up I guess there were so many parts of my identity that weren’t heard.  I felt like I couldn’t speak for myself.  I was shut down.

By family and community?

Dior Vargas: Yeah, yeah.  And coming out to my mom, telling her I’m queer, telling her that I tried to end my life. That I live with these mental illnesses.  There are so many parts of my identity that I felt weren’t accepted.  And I had to fight for that.  And so there’s a feeling of always having to fight for something.  And it’s funny, I was just thinking, does anyone truly want to be an activist?… Because the truth is that you’re fighting for something because it’s coming from feeling left out, from feeling excluded, from feeling pain.  It comes from pain.  So you don’t want to have to be fighting every single day, but it’s like I just, seeing how other people are experiencing the same thing, and just wanting to help others, and seeing myself in other people.  I don’t want what I’ve been through to just be siloed.  I want other people to see themselves in me.  To feel like, and I’m in no way perfect at all. I still have my struggles, I still have times when it’s hard to get out of bed. But I don’t want people to feel like they’re alone.  And if I can do that for one person, that’s… I don’t know if it’s just me, or if it’s an activist personality, but I don’t want to live a life that doesn’t do for other people.  It’s not a life worth living if I’m not helping people.  If I’m not helping them move forward.

You are both such great examples of living out loud.  It shows people that one can live a full and open life.  Complete with challenges and struggles, but also creativity, joy, ambition, and generosity.

Cole, what motivated you to become an activist?  

Cole Ledford: November 6, 2014, I was punched in the face for kissing my boyfriend at the time, goodnight.  And what happened, I sent out a picture of my black eye, along with a message saying, “I’m sorry that you punched me, but I’m not sorry that I’m gay.”  And it was retweeted forty seven thousand times and I went from fifteen hundred followers to forty thousand overnight.

What was that process like?  In a short amount of time to go from the horrible shock of being punched, to going viral?

Cole Ledford: Yeah.  Only about an hour passed before I went from punch to viral.  Because I was kissing my boyfriend goodnight.  Went back to my fraternity house after I had gotten punched.  And walked in my fraternity front door.  My brothers all freaked out trying to take care of me, check in on me.  And I was like, I didn’t really want to talk about it, I was kind of embarrassed, I was still kind of new to being out.  It had only been about a year.  So I went into my room, and to not have to explain it to anyone ever again what had happened, I took the picture so my friends would see it, and I wouldn’t have to explain it.  And little did I know, once I tweeted it, I threw my phone on my bed and didn’t look at it for three hours, and when I came back upstairs to unlock it, I was the number one topic in the United States.  And Ellen had retweeted it, Tyler Oakley had retweeted it.  The rest is history.

I’ve never been that private of a person.  So, it definitely helped to share it.  I’m only private with the things I don’t want you to know.  But the things I do I’ll share willingly.  I think that’s almost a defense mechanism.  You can tell me, you’re the psychotherapist.

I would call that survival.

Cole Ledford: Yes, survival, absolutely.  The year before that I had opened up in a Ted Talk about my suicide attempt at sixteen.  So a lot of my life has been kind of met with moments of bravery by sharing what had affected me at some point.  And I think this was just another one for me where I realized, “Alright, this is a time when I become an activist once again, and people are wanting to hear from me once again.”  My story.  And I did my best to embrace it.  We did a lot of T.V. interviews, like local news. And then we kind of shut it down, we pulled it back.  I was getting a little anxious.  My mom was like, “Are you sure you want to do this?”  And we pulled it back for about a year.  And then I put myself back out there.

So, you don’t suffer in silence.

Cole Ledford:  Well, I think I did until I was sixteen.  I attempted suicide and I survived that.  I kind of found my voice after that.  And so after suffering in silence for so long, you just don’t want to do that anymore.  I’m me, I have my flaws but I’m going to own them.

It’s a real opportunity to discover your resiliency at a time like that.  Because people can go either way when faced with that intensity; sink or swim.

Cole Ledford:  Absolutely.  I lost friends.  But I made so many new ones.

Where did your bravery come from?  To be on your own side after the suicide attempt?

Cole Ledford:  You know, I don’t know where it came from.  I found my voice when I got to college.  And before I came out of the closet I was talking about my suicide attempt.  And my mom is the bravest woman I know, and somehow that just got passed down through genetics.

She doesn’t suffer in silence either?

Cole Ledford: She goes kicking and screaming.

Final words?

Dior Vargas:  There  are not enough people in this space [Activism/ Advocacy.  Openly sharing personal struggles and ways to survive and move through them].  The more that there can be, the better.  Not everyone will relate. But at least there will be a point of relation.  There needs to be as many examples as possible.


LGBTQ+ Mental Health Resources:

LGBTQIA+ Digital Divide:

Crisis Text Line (Text 741741 for free, 24/7)

The Trevor Project

Psychology Today Therapist Finder Refine your search based on therapists’ experience with people who are LGBTQ+

New York City-Based Resources:

The Ackerman Institute for the Family: Gender & Family Project

The LGBT Center

Lighthouse LGBT (LGBTQ Affirmative Therapist Network)

Institute for Human Identity Therapy Center

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from theCrisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

*This post first appeared on Mark O’Connell LCSW-R’s Psychology Today column, “Quite Queerly.”


Big Little Truth: When Women Get Along on Screen we all Win

“You’re a very big person,” says Reese Witherspoon to Laura Dern, on “Big Little Lies” (the HBO hit miniseries that helped a great many of us escape the onslaught of panic-inducing news for a month.)

Witherspoon’s character, Madeline is right: Dern’s Renata is indeed “big”/ emotionally mature. After publicly ridiculing and shaming Shailene Woodley’s Jane for most of the series, without due cause—and with odious, Type-A, uber-privileged-histrionics to boot—Renata goes where (almost) no woman has gone before her in mainstream, crowd-pleasing, entertainment: She apologizes. Genuinely. To another woman.

And then we behold the radical and surprising final event of the series: Five very different women openly support one another.

If you haven’t seen “Big Little Lies,” see it. I won’t spoil the satisfyingly, twisty, murder mystery plot for you, but the plot isn’t really the point. Yes, the whodunnit framing device kept us watching each week with urgency. But the multitextured relationships between the women kept us captivated, and continues to do so.

That a series with terrific writing is led by five women is alone a rare triumph. That those female characters are each distinct, interesting, layered, and played by top-notch actresses capable of expressing heightened eccentricities, along with grounded, emotional nuances and fierce sharp intelligence, with a sense of grace humor and truth, is miraculous. But the creators of this remarkable television event went even further. They consciously chose to show us multiple examples of women being compassionate to one another, even as their world conspires to make them primal enemies. The result: women and men alike tuned in every week, and were left wanting more.

Think how different the country would be if producers, politicians, and the rest of us, deliberately prioritized and celebrated empathy, curiosity, and connection between women, on screen and in everyday life. Instead of lazily maintaining the status quo of women tearing each other apart to gain the approval of men. (Insert your “Fatal Attraction,” and “Dynasty,” and “Real Housewives,” and “Lifetime Movie Network” examples here.)  Really, think about it.

Think how viciously divided America is at the moment, and the role that gender plays in that divide  Think how the divisions in “Big Little Lies,” directly parallel the current divisions between American women with regard to the presidential election: Namely, in both cases a male sexual abuser is at the center. On the show, it is only when each of the women finds a way to push back against their own internalized sexism that they can truly see and support one another, and stop the cycle of abuse that had kept them disempowered and at each other’s throats.

Think how much better women and people of color and those of us who are LGB or T would get along with one another, if we refused to tolerate the abuses of power that keep us down. If rather than remaining “small,” by internalizing our own oppression, we named what oppresses us, pushed back against it, and chose to be “big,” by building each other up, we could together consider better alternatives. This would ultimately be better for straight white men as well—and not only the legions of them that were hooked on “Big Little Lies.” The more all men can feel comfortable in our own skins without the pressure to keep women—or anyone else—subordinate to us, in order to validate our own “masculinity,” the less likely we are to “treat others badly.” (O’Connell, 2012; Flood, 1997).

It should be noted that straight white men are often implicated in discussions about oppression, and that is not at all to say that all men are born to be active threats. (In fact, many if not most of the straight men in my life consistently speak out against prejudice, discrimination, or violence, directed at any particular person or group.) But the fact is, straight men, especially those who are white, are born into an abundance of social power and privilege. And those who inherit power easily abuse it. So, it is our systems of power and privilege we must fight against much more than just individual men who abuse women and other minorities. But we can’t deconstruct our systems of power and privilege if we can’t acknowledge our own places in it.

So, check yourself, own how systems of power impact you, and then get out there and produce more stories about various women, and people of color, and those of us who are lesbian or gay or transgender, or who are overweight, or living with disabilities, or any other group of people who are divided by those who abuse their power. And make sure those characters have the internal resources to be “big,” and to openly connect with each other. Sure, it may not always be “realistic” for characters to have the capacity to conquer internalized oppression.  But let us see what that looks like anyway—preferably with actors as capable of transmitting truth as Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley. And remember the truth is not necessarily “realistic.”

For instance, as the 2016 election made clear, it is not realistic to expect women who have learned to tolerate abusive men to support one another (let alone put one of their own in The White House…). But as “Big Little Lies” show us, it is definitely possible. Many marketing executives will tell you it’s not realistic to expect shows about women to succeed, but the truth is that “Big Little Lies” is a great success.

*This post first appeared on Psychology Today.


Flood, M. (1997, April). Homophobia and masculinities among young men (lessons in becoming a straight man). Presented at the Teachers, Professional Development Training, O’Connell Education Centre, Canberra, Australia. Retrieved from http// Homophobia-and-masculinitiesamong-young-men.pdf

O’Connell, M. (2012). Don’t Act, Don’t Tell: Discrimination Based on Gender Nonconformity in the Entertainment Industry and the Clinical Setting. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 16:241-255.

Three Relationship Tips, Courtesy of the Obamas

*This article first appeared on Psychology Today

We do not require our presidents to model exemplary marriages for us.  But for the past eight years, Barack and Michelle Obama did exactly that.  The generosity with which they shared their relationship with America and the whole world, is a rare and valuable form of leadership that we benefitted from on a daily basis, and will be sorely missed. However, even now, we can look back on what they showed us, and apply some of their practices to our own lives.

No matter what you think of the former president’s politics, I can’t imagine any parent who wouldn’t want their daughter or son to find a life partnership with the palpable love, chemistry, respect, affection, mutuality, playfulness, and stability, of the Obamas.

Whether posing for the camera or caught candidly; dancing, kissing, teasing, or bumping hands; addressing the nation formally or informally; hosting events or being part of the crowd; Barack and Michelle consistently transmitted evocative signals to their public about the value of good and effective relationships.

Below are three of the major tenets I observed in the Obama’s partnership over the years. I suggest you consider them this Valentine’s Day, as you reflect on all the significant relationships in your own life, not only the romantic ones.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

1) Identification: We’ve all seen that look of obvious attraction in the eyes of a romantic pair, but the Obamas reveal something deeper: identification with each other. They don’t just seem to see an amorous object in the other, but a subject, a whole person with whom they can empathize, and in whom they can see themselves. This manifests not only in the ways they look at and treat each other, but also in the ways they consistently talk about each other.

Take for example this deeply moving moment during President Obama’s farewell speech when he addressed the First Lady.

“For the past 25 years you have not only been my wife, and the mother of my children, you have been my best friend. You took on a  role you didn’t ask for, and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style and with humor.“

These are the words of a person recognizing and appreciating another person, in whose shoes he can imagine walking himself. As opposed to a “man” simply giving a nod to his “wife.”

Likewise, in her 2012 DNC speech, FLOTUS said of her husband that even though on the surface he always seemed very different from her in that he was a guy who picked her up for dates “in a car that was so rusted out,” and who had political ambitions that were somewhat incongruent with her own life goals, it was her identification with his experience of family that connected her to him inextricably.

“[W]hen Barack started telling me about his family—that’s when I knew I had found a kindred spirit, someone whose values and upbringing were so much like mine.”

If you similarly challenge yourself to seek identification with your partner, your friends, family, and acquaintances, no matter how different from you they may seem on the surface, the rewards will inevitably be great.

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

2) Equality: It’s only fitting that Marriage Equality became a reality during Obama’s administration, as he himself is in a marriage of equals.  Barack and Michelle coexist as two highly independent people, (who also clearly love and like each other, a lot).  The palpable equity in their union is something to aspire to for any two individuals, no matter their genders or sexual orientations. From their distinct senses of style and humor, to their points of view, and public platforms.  Each of them is uniquely self possessed and empowered, and extremely respectful and enamored of the other for standing in their own light.

As Michelle has said on this point, “You don’t want to be with a boy who’s too stupid to appreciate a smart young lady.”

And in Barack’s words: “It’s not as if Michelle is thinking in terms of, ‘How do I cater to my husband?’ I think it’s much more, ‘We’re a team, and how do I make sure that this guy is together enough that he’s paying attention to his girls…’”

A crucial function of equality in a relationship is that it allows for a necessary separateness between even the most intimate and loving of people. As Michelle has put it: “I also had to admit that I needed space and I needed time. And the more time that I could get to myself, the less stress I felt. So it was a growth process for me individually and for us as a couple, too.”

One of the great ironies of any effective relationship is that the capacity to be separate allows for a greater, deeper, and more meaningful connection than can be achieved by trying to subsume oneself into your partner’s life. And holding the concept of equality in mind allows such separateness to exist.

In fact, if we commit to approaching all of our relationships on equal terms, and with the willingness to survive and respect each other’s differences (when they are not blatantly harmful to us), we could resolve a great deal of our country’s current divisiveness.  On the personal, local, national, and also international levels.

Source: Wikipedia

3) Generosity:  The generous attention the Obamas offer each other–in affectionate looks and gestures, kisses and embraces, as well in their sweeping speeches—extends beyond the two of them. The love, empathy, and supportiveness they practice together is clearly shared with their children, with their peers and staff, and with the whole country.

In his final speech as president, Barack said to Michelle, “You made the White House a place that belongs to everybody. When the new generation sets its sights higher it’s because it has you as a role model.”

And as Michelle has said of him, “I love that for Barack, there is no such thing as “us” and “them”—he doesn’t care whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or none of the above…he knows that we all love our country…and he’s always ready to listen to good ideas…he’s always looking for the very best in everyone he meets.”

When you practice openness—of spirit, warmth, and ideas—at home, you’ll prepare yourself to extend that generosity to every contact you have in the world.  Approaching other people in this way can only lead to a life with more connection, generativity, and creative possibility than will be available to you by hoarding your loving feelings in private. The more love we offer to other people, the more we have for ourselves, and vice versa.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thank you Obamas for these great gifts. We were lucky to have world leaders like you to model inspiring and effective relationship behaviors for us on a daily basis. Who knows if or when we’ll be granted this favor again.


Boys Will Be…. What We Let Them Be: Ken Corbett’s “A Murder Over a Girl,” and the 2016 Election

*This article first appeared on Psychology Today

A passage from psychologist Ken Corbett’s recently published bookA Murder Over A Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, could describe the mindset of Donald Trump and many of his supporters in the run-up to the presidential election —

“Paranoia, the best of guard dogs, exquisitely splits good and bad. Guards look out in order to find the bad, they do not look in. The world shrinks as the bad is pinpointed on the horizon. Unwanted badness, vulnerability, guilt, and injury are pushed out and into others.”

Corbett is actually writing about Brandon McInerney, who in 2008, at the age of 14, shot and killed his classmate, 15 year-old Larry King, at school in Oxnard, California. But the excerpt above also describes the kind of victim-blaming groupthink that took place at McInerney’s 2011 trial for first-degree murder, as well as the ways any of us might think in our most destabilized states — when we feel threatened by the unfamiliar or the unknown.

It is this broad insight that raises Corbett’s book beyond thoughtful reportage on a devastating crime and trial, and into a must-read psychological diagnosis of our current political and cultural climate.

As Corbett observes in his book, Larry was biracial and had begun to identify as transgender, while Brandon is white, masculine, and identifies as heterosexual. Larry flirted with Brandon at school. These facts were enough for the (what appeared to be) mostly white jury – as well as the all-white, tightly-knit community of witnesses who spoke on Brandon’s behalf – to cast Larry (or “Leticia,” as she named herself) as the perpetrator and, accordingly, to blame for her own gruesome murder. In contrast, although he was sentenced to 21 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, Brandon was largely thought to be just a boy being a boy.

(The parallels between this story and the current presidential campaign are legion – Trump reframing his boasts about sexual assault as mere “locker room talk,” or a Congressman condoning one of Trump’s many outbursts at Hillary Clinton by saying, “I think sometimes a lady needs to be told when she’s being nasty”— but perhaps most disturbing of all is Trump’s own statement, “I could…shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”)

Like the media’s election coverage, reading A Murder Over A Girl is by turns similarly mind-boggling and infuriating. Hateful biases reveal themselves in plain sight, and are relentlessly justified. But Corbett not only rouses his readers to take action against injustice; his poetic writing also moves us to look inward, and to mourn the life that was stolen from Larry/Leticia — both in the classroom where s/he was killed, and in the courtroom where her true identity and sense of self were never fully understood, contemplated, or even really named.

Corbett effectively uses “Larry” and “Leticia” interchangeably throughout the book, as a way to illustrate multiple realities coexisting at the same time — e.g., a court record, the community’s perception of the victim, and Leticia’s own underappreciated and subjective sense of self. Corbett also poignantly evokes Leticia’s palpable absence from the storytelling that followed her murder, by describing all the ways in which the major players in the tragedy veil themselves both from full recognition of her, as well as from the horrific, dumbfounding, way s/he was torn from existence.

Corbett describes how each of the witnesses at trial sought to reconstruct “logical” narratives of the inexplicable event, sometimes with embellishments as if to justify, or at least explain, what took place in a more normative, palatable way than the complex truth. A dress that Leticia wore to school – and which she was reportedly wearing while flirting with Brandon – is far more shimmering, bustling, and provocative in the witness accounts, than the “sad” “little girl’s party dress” that is exhibited in court. Corbett also keenly observes the substances some of the witnesses he interviewed consume as they talk with him, perhaps to numb themselves from the complexities and trauma of the events. (Larry’s parents chain-smoke in anger; the white-supremacy expert witness sucks down coffee after coffee as he attempts to explain the unexplainable.)

In all of the varying accounts of what happened between these two adolescents, the reader notices a conspicuous absence: the full recognition of a human life that was not allowed authentic expression. Corbett explains that one of the particular reasons that Larry/Leticia failed to be recognized — in both the classroom and the courtroom — was due to a lack of education and experience about how to think through the concept of gender variance.

“Living gender, especially as it blooms in adolescence, brings forth a host of emotions and counteremotions or defenses. When a group of people, such as schoolteachers, cannot consider those emotions, cannot discuss what is being felt and thought about gender, cannot learn together, then gender variance can be felt as too much, and reactive discipline short-circuits any building of community.”

With Corbett’s careful guidance, the reader appreciates that without such recognition of a life, we cannot grieve the loss of it. And without such grief, we cannot move through tragedies like the murder of Larry/Leticia King and evolve as a people. We are instead left to hold tight to paranoid and divisive ideas about who belongs and who does not — an all too familiar approach in an election season that has seen the vilification of Mexican, Muslim, and persons with disabilities, to name only a few.

Corbett offers possible ways to move through such fear, trauma, and divisiveness by showing us with imagery, rather than simply telling us with psychological theory. He shares his own vivid nightmares, daydreams, and self-reflections throughout the course of the trial, and in so doing he models how each of us might become acquainted with our own minds — especially in moments of crisis, ignorance, and/or isolation.

He suggests that we face our fears of the unknown, as well as the whole gamut of feelings like guilt, grief, or loss that make us vulnerable. Corbett’s writing asks that we share these feelings and fears with other people, and allow their life experiences to enter our consciousness in turn, so that we may navigate our way through tragedies and struggles together, despite our differences.

He illustrates this concept movingly in his final interview with Brandon’s mother, a year after the trial. By this point she is in remission from a major drug addiction, as if waking from a dream. She says to him, “My life is a blur, until recently.” With a clear head she is able to experience the raw grief of the tremendous, unthinkable losses that have taken place — Leticia’s lost life, the King family’s lost child, Brandon’s lost freedom, and the years of her own life that she can never get back. She is also able to put that grief into words and to share it. She can now imagine herself living a life connected to other people — however different from her they may be — without substances, without denial, and without the need to push her unwanted feelings into those around her.

Indeed, this resonating final message of Corbett’s book can be summed up in the two current presidential campaign taglines. “I Alone Can Make America Great Again,” implies that some of us must be destroyed to save the “greater good”; while “Stronger Together,” grants each of us a shot at a meaningful life.

Tips to Survive Thanksgiving in Post-Election Turmoil


*This post first appeared on Psychology Today

The election will come up at our Thanksgiving dinners.

We will have things to say and questions to ask.

And we will need to feel safe for those necessary exchanges to take place. (None of us can think or speak clearly when in physical or emotional danger.)

But how can we create safety between us when we’re all severely split between them and usright and wrongblack and white? This election has been more vicious, personally divisive, and chaotic than any we have known, and none of the self-helpy platitudes we are told—e.g., “put your differences aside,” “it’s time to move on”—are enough to make us feel safe together. We can’t even agree on what the word “safe” means…



We All Feel Unsafe

This past weekend, President-elect Donald Trump, tweeted, “The theater must always be a safe… place,” and accused the cast of the Broadway show, Hamilton of having “harassed” Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience the night before. The incident to which Trump referred was a post-show curtain speech, in which actor, Brandon Victor Dixon, addressed Pence directly and open-heartedly asked him to consider the rights and freedoms not only of the diverse people on stage but also of those all across the country who feel incredibly unsafedue to Trump and Pence’s proposals—which discriminate against womenMexicansMuslims, and the LGBT communities—not to mention the disturbing news of Trump appointing men who espouse white nationalist/ supremacist ideologies to his cabinet, and refusing to disavow the neo-nazi groups who have embraced him.

So, in reality, who is actually unsafe: Pence? The actor who shared his concerns? Both? Neither?

That depends on who you ask. And you will get lots of different answers from different people all over the country, each of whom is fired up with certainty that they are right. The objective answer may seem (painfully) obvious to you, but logic and fact mean nothing to those whose minds have split into us vs. them—which is all of us when we feel desperately unsafe. And we all feel that way right now. The legions of minorities who have been targeted by Trump and physically attacked by his supporters, as well as the straight white people who continue to scapegoat them. (Consider that those who live in homogenous, isolated, communities tend to feel threatened by people who are very different from them, and no amount of explaining the value of diversity to them will transcend their fears enough to engage their minds.) Our various perspectives could be understandable to one another if we had the opportunity to do intensive family therapy as a nation. But we don’t, and we are all stuck in this hot perpetrator/victim dilemma together for the foreseeable future.

So we’ll have to do our best to simply get through this Thanksgiving holiday without harming anyone or being harmed. And that means keeping our expectations low, and our goals super specific.




Make your primary goal to connect over being right.

That means don’t look for stats and videos and memes and other bits of evidence on your phone to prove your point on this particular occasion. But instead make efforts to look family members in the eyes and tell them how you feel. And let yourself be curious and empathic about how they feel in turn. You don’t have to understand their feelings completely. Just be sure to let them know, in a neutral manner, that you have taken in exactly what they said. And assure them that you will keep them in your mind as you continue to process what is happening in our country. And ask them to do the same for you.



Use “I” Statements

Again, in order to share your feelings effectively, you’ll need to make sure that everyone feels safe. A simple practical way to do that is to begin each statement with “I”—as opposed to “You,” which will automatically make your listener defensive and defeat your purpose.

Here are some examples of appropriate “I” statements: “I’m thrilled about the possibility of getting a job, after five years of unemployment! Once Trump comes through for me, I’ll be able to take better care of my family,” or “I’m scared to death that I will lose my right to choose what I do with my own body,” or “I’m scared to death that I will be deported” or “I’m scared to death that my family or my friends could be taken to internment camps,” or “I’m scared to death that my children will be attacked or murdered (either because they have brown skin, or they are Muslim, or Jewish, or gender nonconforming) and that they will not be protected under the law,” or “I’m scared to death that my marriage rights could be taken away and I won’t be able to visit my wife in the hospital,” or “I’m scared to death that electroshock therapy for people who are gay, like my son, will become mandatory.”

In the same spirit, make sure that your questions on this topic are of the, “How has this election affected you, personally?,” variety. And encourage them to use “I” statements in their answers as well, to help you take a walk in their shoes.



The Debates are Over

If you exchange personal perspectives using “I” statements, there is nothing to debate. Once the conversation strays into battling opinions about scandals, emails, the electoral college, or policy proposals, it’s over. You’ll be caught in an escalating power struggle between us and them, and the divide between you will widen. Like I said, we are split into emotional extremes at the moment. No amount of “objective fact” is going to change anyone’s mind about what happened. We will do better to let each other know how what happened impacts each of our lives.




Drunkenness only aggravates passionate disagreements. Save getting your buzz on for later, when you can decompress with a close friend or significant other in peace.



Prepare a Line

Open and close the discussion with a prepared line that everyone can agree on. This will give you all something to hold onto. Try something like: “We need more jobs in America AND we need to stop the hate. We ALL need to advocate for both.”

If you can all agree on that, then there’s really no more to be said on the topic at this time.

If you can’t, then the split in your family is clearly too great to make a connection, and you’ll have to footnote common ground for later.



Draw a Line

I always encourage people to build bridges instead of walls, unless their safety will be compromised by doing so. So if you feel unsafe, threatened, or attacked, in any way, then extricate yourself from the situation. You don’t owe anyone anything more than an attempt to connect in a safe environment. That also means there’s no need for you to attend a family event if you have nothing to look forward to but a lack of recognition and lots of hostility. (e.g., If you know in advance that when you say, “As a minority I fear for my safety,” the only response you’ll get is “You liberals are hypocrites,” then spend the day somewhere safer and better).



Not the End

Think of this holiday as the beginning of a long process of mutual recognition between you and your family members. Don’t expect to feel fully seen by the end of the evening, or to see them clearly either. Think of the long game. Again, the ultimate goal is to be connected, not to be right. So do what you need to do to feel safe and connected at the same time during this one day, if that is possible. The things you say may not make sense to all of them in the moment, but some of them very well remember what you said, and reflect on your words over time. Especially if you stay in contact, including in easy, non-committal ways, such as over social media, or email, or text. Eventually you may be able to see each other’s points of view more clearly, and if not, at least you will be more likely to have each other’s backs when the government turns on one of you or the other.



Seek Information From Multiple Sources and Consider Them All

Don’t just follow my advice, I would never presume to have all the answers for you. I only offer suggestions based on my own clinical and personal experience. Use what helps you. And be open to contrasting ideas. For example, The New York Times has published a list of post-election holiday tips as well, and some of them conflict with mine. But consider them all anyway. Check out a variety of approaches, and choose which ones might work for you in various situations, with various people, at various times. There is never just one way.

Remember, our lack of capacity to hold multiple perspectives in mind at the same time is partly responsible for the toxic divide in our country right now. Practice thinking in terms of multiplicity and possibility instead of one way or the other/ my way or the highway.



Self Care

For most of us, Thanksgiving won’t be emotionally nourishing this year. But it can be a small part of a long, productive and meaningful, conversation with our families. That is, if we are clear on what he have to say, what we need to hear, and what we do NOT need to hear under any circumstances (e.g., hateful language directed at any particular person or group.)

And we can find opportunities to nourish ourselves independently. That means indulge in that yoga class you attend the day before; or the run in the park with your dog the morning of; or the on-demand movie you’ll enjoy when you return home that night, snuggled up in a warm bathrobe on your couch, along with homemade waffles and fresh whipped cream.

And make sure to exchange loving words with people who make you feel seen and heard, and whom you see and hear in return. The more you care for yourself, and the more contact you have with those who care for you, the less thrown you’ll be by relatives who could not care less how this election has affected you.


Who Looks After You?

WLAY*This post first appeared on Psychology Today.

“So, I’m your Mary Poppins?” I asked twelve-year old Viola.

“I wish,” she replied.

Viola was auditioning therapists for the role of “emotional caretaker/ family mediator” (her WANTED ad was highly specific), and she cast me. “I like you,” she said, “but I also think you’re tough enough to keep them in line.”

By them of course she meant her parents, who had divorced a few years earlier and were at each other’s throats ever since. (Of note, they did not accompany her to the initial consultation at my office, but sent an assistant instead). Viola made them sound like children. And in a way, they were.

They had more than enough resources to raise a child, but privilege seemed to stunt them from becoming grownups themselves. When I finally met them in person, they seemed like characters from the movies Big or Freaky Friday; children trapped in adult bodies.

Viola harbored a dream that her parents would one day grow up and reunite.  But repeated disappointments made her too pragmatic to believe this would ever come true. Reality reduced her hope to having dinner with both of them, on her birthday, “just once.” But, bickering, nasty name-calling, and tantrums—usually over text, as the kids do—made it impossible to accommodate even this simple request.

The shipwreck of her parents divorce took place half her life ago, but when Viola washed up on the shore of my office, it was as though it had just happened. There she was on my couch, orphaned and alone, wishing me to reassemble her family.

How can this be?, I thought. This kid can have anything she wants. Why can’t her parents make her feel whole?

Ironically, the relational chaos in this extremely wealthy family reminded me of the families in abject poverty that I had worked with at community mental health clinics. Lack of resources made it extremely difficult for many of those parents to be emotionally attuned to their children. It was hard enough for them to keep their families safe, with a roof over their heads and food on the table, let alone to make their children feel fully seen and heard. And at the time I thought that more money would make all the difference in the world for them. But now, having seen how regressed and self-involved money had made Viola’s parents, I wasn’t so sure that was enough

Certainly money did give Viola obvious advantages, not least of which was the luxury of having a therapist. (This is not exclusively an essay about the necessity of mental health coverage for all Americans, but please do keep that crucial topic in mind). However, financial resources did not make her feel any more seen by her parents than children with far less.

Is this just how it is for all of us?, I thought. Rich, poor, and everything in between, are we all orphans seeking magical nannies to put our families back together again? (If they were ever “together” to begin with.)

Then I saw the
The Humans, on Broadway, which supports this hypothesis. The brutally realistic characters in the play have everything and nothing at the same time. They are all very much part of a family and also completely on their own; literally lost in the dark. I wondered if every one of us feels we are wandering alone in darkness and if we all harbor a wish similar to Viola’s, that someone will eventually turn on the lights and let us know they are looking after us.

These reflections helped me to empathize with Viola’s parents, whose own parents were either dead or checked out. I encouraged them each to meet with a therapist of their own for emotional support. I recommended two therapists with whom I had worked personally, and who had both helped me through very difficult times in my life.  These are the best possible people for them to lean on, I thought, motivated by something deeper and more ineffable than “clinical judgment” alone.

As I reflected on this—by myself, as well as with a mentor and with peers—I realized that the referrals I had made represented my own yearning for support. Professionally speaking, Viola’s case was certainly challenging, but beyond that, I was going through a personal transition at the time that made me feel emotionally shipwrecked as well: lost, alone, and without a family. My mother was moving into a senior facility halfway across the country, only a decade after my father’s death. By matching Viola’s parents with therapists to whom I felt emotionally attached, I wondered if I was enacting my own “Mary Poppins” fantasy, and hoping in some way to put my family back together again.

It became poignantly clear that this was exactly what I was trying to do, when one of my former therapists contacted me to coordinate care for Viola’s mother. As soon as her face popped up on my computer screen, I smiled. I had missed her.  I missed the care she had provided, as well as the confidence she instilled in me to carry on with my life. This one brief encounter revived me, making me feel looked after but also capable of moving forward—independently, personally and professionally.

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I thought, maybe that’s the next best thing to having the ideal parents we all long for. After all, that’s exactly what therapists provide for people: The opportunity to be seen by a caretaker when we need that—which we all do, from time to time.

Like Viola, we can all actively seek this kind of support. In lieu of perfect parents (or Mary Poppins), we can depend on psychotherapists to guide us through our disappointments, losses, traumas, and broken hearts.  They can make us feel less alone as we navigate our ships in the dark

(And hopefully our insurance will help us pay for the mental health care we all need, which unfortunately, too many Americans simply cannot afford without it.)

As we continue to de-stigmatize talk therapy as a culture, we must remember that making the choice to seek relational support is crucial to our emotional wellbeing, no matter who or how old we are.

As I deliberated what to call Viola in this piece, to protect her privacy, at first I considered adopting and adapting the names of Dickensian orphans like Oliver (Olive?), or David (Davida?), or Pip (Pippa?). But then I recalled that Dickens tended to romanticize the concept of adults looking after us, ubiquitously, whether we know it or not—a lovely idea that we unfortunately cannot count on in reality.

But by contrast, the protagonist from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Viola, takes no one for granted as she comes to realize her relational needs. Upon finding herself abandoned in a strange land she relies on herself to secure relational attachments to fill the gap left by a separation from her twin brother.

We can all take a page from both Violas—the Shakespearean character and my client—and seek relational supports when we need them.  Even if they aren’t exactly the same as the families we once knew, or thought we knew. article continues after advertisement

At the end of the day we are all Viola, and we are all Viola’s parents: small children crawling further and further up the stairs, but looking back once in a while, to make sure that someone is watching.


Leslie Jones is a Movie Star Who Makes Me Laugh and Cry

*This post originally appeared on Huffpost.

Last week, a viral internet post about Leslie Jones made me cry. It was a clip from her guest appearance on The View, where she discussed her leading role in the reboot of Ghostbusters. Jones herself was misty eyed as she told Whoopi Goldberg what it was like to see her on screen when she was a little girl, saying:

“I kept looking at my daddy going, ‘Oh my God! There’s somebody on TV who looks like me! She looks like me! Daddy! I can be on TV.’”

She continued:

“I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart because now I know what I’m doing when I put on that Ghostbusters suit and little girls see me on TV now. They’re gonna go, ‘I can do it,’ and you gave that to me.”

It was hard not to share in her tears during this uplifting moment, which showed just how important and impactful on-screen diversity can be.

This week, yet another viral story about Leslie Jones made me cry. Only this time out of despair and not joy. After a successful opening weekend for Ghostbusters, a swarm of racist misogynists took to Twitter to spew vile hatred at the film’s only black star. The comments and images that were sent to Leslie Jones publicly — which are all too base and disgusting to be repeated or described — left me wondering how anyone could possibly be so miserable as to feel the compulsion to attack another person this way. Even if Jones had given the worst screen performance in the history of cinema she would not have deserved such reprehensible treatment, nor would anyone under any circumstances.

But the loathsome attacks are especially perplexing and ironic given how truly wonderful Jones is to watch on the big screen. She has proven herself to be a real movie star.

Leslie Jones is always vibrant and laugh-out-loud funny in her stand-up routines, and in her work on Saturday Night Live. But she transcends her comedic persona in Ghostbusters, by tempering it, and revealing a soft charisma, nimble wit, and subtle intelligence, that we don’t necessarily see when she’s performing in sketches and bits. We also get to witness her radiant, if unconventional, beauty in the movie, which is a refreshing deviation from the dainty, ultra skinny, white women, with teeny-tiny features, that Hollywood has traditionally set as our standard for leading ladies. All of the same is true for her Ghostbusters and SNL, co-star, Kate McKinnon, who smooths over the spastic, comedic edge for which she has become famous, to allow a character to shine through, at whom we may laugh, but with whom we can relate — even if she’s somewhat strange. It is a complete pleasure to watch both actresses work with their more seasoned big screen co-stars, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, and to experience the rare thrill of seeing complex, funny, women, as protagonists in a big-budget action movie, who are all showcased respectfully by the film’s creators, and who seem to actually like each other.

We rarely see women at the helm of movies like Ghostbusters, so before I return to the unwarranted, heinous vitriol that was vomited at Leslie Jones, let’s take a moment to consider how we got so lucky as to see her and the other women in these comic/action hero roles.

In a recent article in New York Magazine, the director of Ghostbusters, Paul Feig — who also directed the hugely successful women driven comedies, Bridesmaidsand The Heat — discussed the drought of leading roles for funny women, and his drive to create more of them, crediting in large part his close friendship with his mother for this. Similarly, director JJ Abrams has described his own wish to see more women protagonists on screen — such as the character of Rey in the Star Wars sequel that he directed — saying that he wanted his daughter to see herself embodied by an action hero on screen.

So, it would seem that until we have more directors who are women and/ or people of color, and/or queer, we will have to rely on straight white, male directors who love, and respect, and admire, and value, the women, and people of color, and queer people in their lives enough to put characters like them in their movies.

And as I’ve said manymanytimes, in manymany, different ways, casting matters. The more diversity of characters and actors we see on our stages and screens, the more opportunities we can create for identification and empathy between one another.

Furthermore, the greater varieties of skin colors, and body types, and forms of beauty, and intelligence, and charm, we are able to see on screen, the less people will be targeted for not fitting into the Hollywood mold.

We hate and fear change more than anything else. Just look to our current political crisis for clear examples of this. But we cannot give in to that fear and hate. Like Paul Feig and JJ Abrams, we have to make choices — in our movies and our lives — that make more of us visible to one another. This way we can share both laughter and tears, with more of our mothers, and daughters, and sisters, and friends.

One way we can do this right away, is to buy a ticket to Ghostbusters, and to use the hashtag, #LoveForLeslieJ, and buy the Leslie Jones action figure, and celebrate her brave, bold, radiant, and true talent. She is a movie star worthy of your love, your respect, your laughter, and your tears. Despite the undeserving obstacles in her way, she continues to cultivate and to share her great gifts. And that is her gift to all of us.