Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Trim Your Christmas Three

As much as we want (or feel obligated) to visit our "folks" at the holidays, many of us are weighed down with family drama. Shackled by the fear of unresolved conflicts getting triggered, old wounds being torn open, and multiple miscommunications devolving into emotional chaos, we often enter the season with more dread than hope.
Fortunately, I have a tool to guide you through your holiday inferno, inspired by the great family therapistMurray Bowen.
Just as you might trim your waistline before summer, so too should you trim your family drama before the holidays. For swimsuit dieters, there are quick, easy and even healthy ways to achieve this trimming. For those of us carrying around a few extra pounds of family drama, there's also a surefire way to trim down -- before getting caught in what I call the "Helliday" flames.
The technique I'm about to share with you is simple as one, two and... well, forget about three. That's it actually. That's the whole technique. Drop the number three from all your family interactions in the days leading up to your family gathering. In other words, "three's a crowd," so don't talk to anyone in your family about any other member of your family. At all. Under no circumstances. Keep all contact one on one.
Just like abstaining from carbs will trim your waist in two weeks, trimming three from your family relationships will decrease your load of "dirty laundry" in the same amount of time. Keep it up between now and New Year's Day, and you'll coast through the holidays like Santa on a sleigh -- minus the heavy load.
I realize that this is easier blogged than done, but I promise you will see results if you are disciplined.
If a relative calls to complain about a prehistoric argument with another relative, change the subject. Keep all dialogue positive, and only on the two of you; do not, under any circumstances, discuss anyone else in the family. This may result in your triangulating relative (TR) to feel rejected. Kindly remind TR that you are very interested in them and their life, but that you simply do not wish to discuss the relative they have beef with; instead, you'd rather hear what's up with them. Your conversations may become much shorter than ever before, and that's just fine. As long as the conversations are positive and dyadic (only focused on you and that other person) you're good.
After trying this (for at least a week), you can help yourself even more by proactively contacting relatives you'll see at an upcoming event, particularly the ones you're only used to connecting with through someone else. Again, these may be short exchanges, but at least you'll have made direct contact, and by abstaining from family gossip, you'll avoid any preemptive fanning of "Helliday" flames. By doing this, you may also even create an unexpected firewall for yourself, if and when family drama erupts.
By the time you arrive at your event, you will already have had brief, positive encounters with each person present. Everyone will know that you're not the person to confide in regarding their smoldering feelings about others present, and since you haven't talked about anyone behind their backs, you can enjoy the levity of having nothing to hide.
Leave the number three to 1) the three blessings while lighting your menorah (for Hanukkah), 2) lighting the three candles of hope and the three candles of struggle (for Kwanzaa), or 3) for setting up the three wise men in your nativity (for Christmas). But trim the number three from your family tree.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The American Family Is Queer

Originally posted on November 21, 2012 on

Obama's reelection symbolizes the end of "Traditional America", says Bill O'Reilly, begrudgingly; and he's right, but we shouldn't be crying about it.

The 1950s-style portrait of a white, able-bodied, lucrative, masculine, man, contentedly married to a white, able-bodied, happily-homemaking, model-like wife, raising their biological, able-bodied children (and maybe a dog), is no longer a reality, if it ever was one. As AMC's Mad Men effectively dramatizes (in its subversion of 1950s norms), the conservative ideal of "the American Family" is, and has been, an oppressive, non-functional fantasy.

Is this cause for alarm, as Republicans and the religious right suggest? Hardly. As conservative commentator David Brooks states, we shouldn't conclude that the existence of non-traditional families means "the world is going to hell"; we should instead "investigate these emerging commitment devices."

Before going any further though, we need to clarify: Upon winning the election, Obama didn't instantly eradicate picture-perfect, white, traditional families with some kind of black magic; or as Jon Stewart jokingly responded to O'Reilly, the president's victory did not mark "the moment... the family from the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver ceased to be real." American families have been "non-traditional" for some time.

What this election did show is a more diverse representation of American voters than ever before; not due to the "gifts" Mitt Romney has accused Obama of offering, but more likely due to the threat that a Romney presidency would have presented: that anyone unable to play a role on Leave It to Beaver would be kicked to the curb.

The fact is, many (if not most) families in America, are, and have been queer. (I use "queer" in the reclaimed sense, referring to those of us existing outside the rigidity of the gender binary, and traditional norms in general). This doesn't necessarily mean that most homes are run by same-sex or transgender parents (though many are), but that families are generally non-normative in make-up -- including various combinations of races, marital statuses, relationships, bloodlines, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, and limitations.

In 2008 the US Census reported that 61 percent of children in the United States lived with both their biological mother and father, but that only 42.7 percent of those parents were married. These findings alone reveal a majority of non-traditional American families, but hardly show just how much. For example, this particular report doesn't provide a percentage of the parents who have been previously divorced (or how many times), the percentage of homes that are made up of mixed races, include stepchildren, adopted or foster children, the percentage of parents in open relationships, or how many of the parents are openly lesbian or gay and have made arrangements to live together for the sake of the children.

What the Census does show however, is an increase in interracial and same-sex couples (both married and not), as well as an increase in adoption by same-sex couples over the past few years.

Also, recent studies indicate that unmarried parents are "increasingly the norm" in the United States. We have reports that 50 percent of mothers are or will be single at some point, and there has been an increase in surrogacy births, as well as an increase in single parents by choice.

For those married couples trying to raise kids in a "traditional" home, studies have shown that there is a 40 to 50 percent chance of divorce, and that in the last decade, incidents of adultery have risen to 50 to 70 percent, which suggests that (again, much like Mad Men) the imposed rules of "traditional America" do not work; we need to embrace family systems that are more realistic and functional.

Not all of these non-normative family structures are choices. Those who are privileged enough to choose the design of their families, such as Sandra Bullock, and Charlize Theron (who have both adopted children as single mothers) are less common than single mothers in poverty, for example, who have had significantly less options.

I'm also not making an argument about children being better off in one type of family versus another.

What I am saying is that for better or worse, the non-traditional pictures I've described are what our American families actually look like, what they have looked like, and how they'll continue to grow. Rather than crying over the fact that we don't resemble an antiquated fantasy, we could be curious about how these systems of attachment have managed to function, and learn how we can make them stronger -- considering them as they are, not as they "should be."

We also might look to the advantages non-traditional families offer. For example, in many cases, children of divorced parents get to experience each parent as an independent, and content individual, and often times child care responsibilities are less burdensome with two households instead of one (so long as the divorced couple has learned to communicate effectively).

Children raised by same-sex parents are found to be more conscious of and less victimized by patriarchy, as they tend to experience a more egalitarian distribution of labor in the home than their peers living with a mother and a father.
Also, an increase in mixed-race families (either through marriage, surrogacy, or adoption), could help reduce racism, as racial bias has been shown to decrease when people of different races identify in the same group.

We shouldn't be deceived into believing that this shattering of tradition means we are becoming a detached, radically self-serving society. We have familial attachments, just not the kind Bill O'Reilly fantasizes about.

During Obama's victory speech, my brother and I were on the phone, sharing how awesomely American it is that though we are white, we are both likely to have children of color (myself because my husband and I will likely adopt when the time comes, and my brother because his long-term girlfriend is of Mexican descent).

We should celebrate the end of "Traditional America", and revel in the diverse American families that we are part of, and that we continue to forge.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Kathleen Turner's Voice Could Save Your Life...

Originally posted on September 17, 2012 on

... and I don't mean the sultry, breathy, whiskey-and-cigs, sex-goddess reverberations that generated seismic body heat, romanced the stone and enamored Roger Rabbit (and the whole universe) in the '80s. (Though I'm sure that sound -- which is still intact, enhanced by a gravelly wisdom -- has vitalized many). Rather, I refer to her ferociously self-assured speech on reproductive rights at The National Press Club earlier this month. Turner urgently reminded women that the November election has much more than politics depending on it, emphasizing that their basic survival is also at stake. She ultimately encouraged each of us to take a nervy stand whenever our lives are so threatened

Her speech made clear the annihilating danger a Mitt Romney presidency would pose to women, referring to the Republican nominee's explicit promise to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, his support of the Blunt amendment, as well as his party's current opposition to the Violence Against Women Act.
Indeed the power of her "voice" was evident in the penetrating truth of her words. After hypothetically encouraging American women to take a collective day of rest, she stated, "We might show the country what an essential element we are, but perhaps more important, we might show ourselves".

The conviction of her delivery was possibly even more compelling than the text. This was one of Turner's finest performances, and by that I do not intend to discredit the authenticity of her message; it is my belief that great theater (all great art really) is a heightened expression of truth. As Aristotle said, "The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance."
This being the case, Turner's "voice" rivaled the highly effective political theater served up by the Democratic National Convention (DNC) the same week, which featured speakers who masterfully transmitted authenticity in a cogent, artfully heightened, and entertaining way. Though she had a smaller stage (fringe-theater compared to the Broadway-sized spectacle of the DNC), her speech was arguably more emboldening due to its rawness, demonstrating that to demand visibility often means to shed our palatable political cloaks and release a desperate, unwieldy, battle cry.

More potent yet was the body through which her content and grounded gravitas flowed. To witness a former iconic sex symbol inhabit a palpably weathered, burly frame and convey more self-possession and passion than ever before is an anomalous thrill.
Sure, Turner was known for "tough female roles" throughout her acting career, but when our world offers women power, it is too often dependent on "sex appeal," an ideal based on a very narrow idea of heterosexual male fantasy. No longer able to rely on this as a crutch she has transcended her former persona -- "type" if you will -- tapping into a power much deeper, more alluring and more authentically her own. Imagine the force behind your own voice if you could harness your own vulnerable truth, your own perceived deficits -- perhaps casting yourself against expected type -- with such self-acceptance, will to exist and demand to be recognized.

Our time calls for many of us to step outside of safety zones, to depart from limited notions of identity so as to better advocate for our rights, but even more so that we may live liveable lives.
Consider the inspiring boldness of hip-hop artists coming-out as gay, Catholic nuns holding their own against the Vatican, football players aggressively supporting marriage equality, Republican politicians supporting the Democratic presidential nominee, and let us not forget that the President of the United States is African-American, something believed to be impossible only a few years ago. Consider also the thousands of lives fueled by hope due to the nervy stands these people have taken.
Deviating from identities that are familiar, easily categorizable and "copacetic" certainly has a cost -- all of the aforementioned people have been hit with an insane amount of racism, sexism, homophobia and more -- but demanding visibility, respect and freedom requires us to expose ourselves, make ourselves targets and even risk losing friends in the process.
Consider those in the LGBT community who didn't feel included in Obama's nod to "the gays" at his DNC acceptance speech, or the transgender soldiers who must continue fighting for their rights post-Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In advocating for their lives, these people risk appearing to bite the hand that feeds in the eyes of the general public, but if they were to simply subsume themselves into the currently more palatable category of "the gays" in order to keep friends, they'd risk the annihilation of their true selves. As professor Judith Jack Halberstam says, "consensus destroys subtleties."

I believe we can create more space for human subtleties to live and breathe. We can garner encouragement and support in this task by looking to those around us who effectively turn their perceived "weaknesses" into strengths. Kathleen Turner's voice may save many lives, and so might you if you can find your own.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Women Are So Gay

                                           Originally Posted on August 7, 2012 on
                                             LOGO: Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines. A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer. Publisher, Zuade Kaufman.

Is 2012 the political year of "the woman" or "the gay"?  Let's cut to the chase: The answer is both.  As Gloria Steinem said not too long ago, LGBT rights and women's rights "are completely the same thing."The "wars" on each of these groups that we keep hearing about are in fact the same war, and really just an irritated symptom of a neglected illness--heterosexual men's unwillingness to share power.

Women and LGBT people, as a sole group, share precarious affirmation by the Declaration of Independence. The statement “All men are created equal,” which our leaders quote with eager regularity, arguably implies that men who sleep with women are equal to men who sleep with men, as are men who identify with women, men who want to be women and men who in fact become women. We can then interpret Thomas Jefferson’s language to mean “All men and women are created equal.” However, this last statement—which was documented in “The Declaration of Sentiments” in 1847 by a group of women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, N.Y.—is never used by our political leaders including President Obama, who referred to the Seneca Falls event during his Barnard commencement speech this year and has been an ardent supporter of women’s rights.

Why not? Because though our laws have evolved (at a snail’s pace) to provide more freedoms for women and LGBT people, social and political power still overwhelmingly belong to heterosexual men, and to quote Stanton instead of Jefferson would symbolize a desperately undesired relinquishment of that primal stronghold.

Acknowledging this simple truth evokes a gag reflex in many, much like talking in public about what happens on the toilet—it’s commonly understood, but groupthink renders it too foul to discuss. However, when we’re consistently bombarded with news about “special interest groups” competing for political fresh air—the war on women vs. the war on same-sex marriage—it seems farcical not to point out that they’re fighting against the same suffocating odor.

The Republicans have lately been marvelously thorough in surfacing this conflict between straight men and everyone else. Their current platform clearly emphasizes a desire to constrain the freedoms of all those who are not straight men, including their staunch position against same-sex marriage, voting to cut federal funding from Planned Parenthood health centers, introducing the “Let Women Die” bill, voting against equal pay, removing the protections of gay and lesbian people from the Violence Against Women Act and adopting the GOP’s position from 1956 supporting the right to legally discriminate against LGBT people, to name just a few.

For those who find the simple message underlying all of these positions to be obscure, conservative pundits and religious leaders graciously elucidate it. For example, Rush Limbaugh famously called a young women’s rights advocate a “slut” earlier this year, not to mention his recent statement that “when women got the right to vote is when it all went downhill.” Also consider the North Carolina pastor who requested electric fences to contain homosexuals and another who urged parents to “punch” their boys who act “girly.”

It’s far too tempting right now to view this problem in terms of a Republican and Democratic binary, but in doing so, one overlooks the primal conflict between Thomas Jefferson’s “men” and everyone the word arguably omits. Even if Obama wins the November election, the disparity will still exist and will continue to show itself, albeit in a less palpably hateful manner than the Republicans have allowed.

If conservative pundits have exposed the underlying misogyny and homophobia fueling their policies, Democrats and liberals need only look to their own pundits to witness their frequently negative attitudes toward women and LGBT people on the social, up-close-and-personal level, which contribute to this imparity—despite their significant support of equality-granting laws.

HBO’s “Real Time” host Bill Maher is perhaps the best example of this problematic duality between political positioning and personal bias. Despite his clear and open support of women’s rights, particularly regarding abortion, his schtick has been relentlessly sexist, spitting denigrating terms at female politicians he disagrees with, and consistently mocking women he believes to lack attractiveness and desirability. Particularly memorable was his pointlessly derisive jab at the two elderly women who had the distinction of being the first same-sex couple to be married in New York state—an opportune moment to use his heterosexual male power to build up the esteem of marginalized people, rather than keep them down.

It’s a good thing the overlap between women and LGBT issues are rising to the surface, clarifying that the threat to “the family” that women presented during the turn of the century was born of the same fear (of heterosexual men losing power) that currently drives positions against same-sex marriage; the question now is how to best make use of this awareness, and a stronger alliance between women and LGBT people seems to be the answer.

Unfortunately, many women choose to align themselves with the aforementioned conservative views that are clearly “anti-woman,” deceived into believing that being co-opted by male power is the same thing as equally sharing power. By the same token, there are many gay men who would prefer to align themselves with straight men rather than women, and why not? After all, men are able to enter “pink-collar” jobs, and climb the ladder much higher and much more quickly than women, and who wants to give up privileges such as these in order to find kinship with a second-class group?

But the fact is both groups are in the same second class and will remain there until there is a greater demand for visibility, identification, representation and advocacy on their part as a team. Laws protect us only so much, but without social recognition, acceptance and respect, true equality cannot be achieved. We’ll know we’ve made progress on this front when the president (whomever it turns out to be) has the balls to quote Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Stop Trying to Relax

Originally Posted on August 14, 2012 on
I'm on the beach, trying to relax... and brainstorm for this article. As a psychotherapist, my clients frequently ask me for tips on how to achieve a state of calm. Now's my chance to capture something crucial about this inexplicable process (and to reduce my own anxiety the next time one of them asks).

Sitting properly on my towel -- tall spine, floating head, evenly-distributed sits bones -- I take deliberate, forceful, "deep breaths." Looking up at the sky, I attempt to churn out interesting reflections on what I'm doing, with a force equal to my breathing. I try to squeeze helpful insights from my brain but come up with nothing -- it's like I'm attempting to juice a walnut. Here I sit, in the gentle ocean breeze with a pensive, furrowed brow, each breath feeling like a jab to the gut.

"What are you doing?" my husband asks.
"I'm trying to relax." Hearing myself, I feel a rush of humiliation. The concept of trying to relax is of course ridiculous.
I'm suddenly flooded with memories: all the times I've tried to be cool, calm and collected. I see my former Alexander Technique teacher -- a small, sublimely-chill woman -- laughing at my failed efforts. I see my psychotherapy supervisors modeling deep breathing for me, my drama school teachers modeling deep breathing for me, my mother modeling deep breathing for me, my supremely anxious, Type A uncle modeling deep breathing for me (really?). I'm taken back to childhood, hearing the shaming, penetrating voices of my older brother's friends, "Dude, just relax!"
Relaxation is the most difficult Olympic sport of all, and the sting of not getting a medal can run deep.
I choose not to give in to my feelings of embarrassment and defeat. Instead I look into my husband's eyes and laugh. All of a sudden, there I am: present, and arguably relaxed -- it's a start, anyway.
Finding our present is often the missing step as many of us begin a meditation, yoga or any other mind-cleansing practice. When a yoga teacher instructs me to take a deep, belly-expanding breath, I often tense up, strain my throat to suck in air with a punishing focus, and contort myself into "zen-mode" but end up feeling stressed instead of restored.
As an alternative, what if I just took a breath and allowed it to be shallow? What if I noticed my internal chatter (e.g. "You're not sitting tall enough," "Your throat isn't opening wide enough," "Your breath should be in your belly and your lower back, not your chest") but didn't submit to it? What if I recognized the irony of how hard I typically work to relax and laughed at myself more frequently, like I did at the beach?
Before we attempt to follow any more instructions on how to "chillax," we might find it helpful to get in better touch with our raw materials. For me, this means accepting that a series of disciplined breaths isn't going to turn me into the Dalai Lama, and that my impatience, neurosis, and tendency to breathe shallowly is part of the package. When I invite myself to accept these things, I feel a genuine mind-body connection.  

Allowing yourself to have your authentic contradictions, imperfections, and little messes--uncomfortable as that may be--is the beginning of true relaxation.  I think...but don't think about it too hard.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ken Corbett And Mark O'Connell Discuss Gender, Bullying And More

Originally Posted on June 29, 2012 on

The Huffington Post

Today we bring you a conversation between Ken Corbett, Ph.D. and Mark O'Connell, LCSW.
Ken Corbett, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He is the author of "Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities." Dr. Corbett maintains a private practice in New York City.
Mark O’Connell, LCSW, is a New-York-City-based psychotherapist in private practice. His paper "Don’t Act, Don’t Tell: Discrimination Based on Gender Nonconformity in the Entertainment Industry and Clinical Setting" will be published in The Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health in July, 2012. Mark has written for The Huffington Post and His blog is
Here Corbett and O'Connell discuss the role gender policing has in bullying, fathers and vulnerability and more.
Mark O’Connell: Hi Ken. I contacted you for mentoring after reading your book "Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities." I just loved it. You make it seem so freeing and empowering to utilize more gender behavior options than our society typically allows.
As you've said in your forthcoming paper for Psychoanalytic Inquiry though, the fantasy of what is normal (boys should be masculine/ girls feminine) lives in each of us and bullies "do our bidding"/"police" the way boys and girls behave in an attempt to keep us acting like we "should." Take for example "The Shorning," by which I mean the recently released horror story of a high school-aged Mitt Romney pinning down and forcefully cutting a classmate's bleached blond hairdo, saying it was "wrong" and not "masculine" -- the same Romney who today mocks guys who like pink ties. So, what's up with that? Why do you think gender nonconformity provokes so much discomfort and aggression?

Ken Corbett: I think gender nonconformity provokes so much fear and hate because that is a big part of how we are gendered. We need to hold in mind here that gender is a major part of what makes us us. Gender is part of what makes us into the kind of person we are. And gender norms make us even before we are us. Hence, norms are us. We are anxiously policed even before we are us. Hence, the police are us. Hence, anxiety is us. And gender is held tight with a lot of anxiety. Consider femininity and the battle of dieting. Consider masculinity and the battle of battle. Consider how most parents now know the sex of their child prior to birth and with that knowledge they presume that their child will follow in accord with the social norms of maleness of femaleness. If they know it is a boy, dad buys a football, mom paints the room blue.
When children and adolescents encounter gender variation either within themselves or with others, and if they have not had the opportunity to learn about variation, they react with anxiety which often takes the form of aggression. They throw a football at the sissy's head or they set about to forcefully cut his nonconforming hair. Boys and girls who step out of the normal circle are punished both in an effort to push them into the circle, but more to the point to make an example of them as "criminal" -- deplorable and shocking -- for they ways in which they live outside the normal circle. We might think of Mr. Romney and his adolescent peers as speaking through their aggression and hate: "There are rules by which we live. There is a strict social reality. These rules cannot bend. You, bleach blond boy, upset the rules/roles. You upset us. We don't trust you. You have to adapt not us. And since you don't seem to understand, we are going to force you to adapt."
Mark O’Connell: We have a disturbing need to punish those who are deviant -- it makes me think of the carnival games called “Shoot the Freak.” But we as a society have been able to acknowledge what appear to be natural rules (such as "we need to kill to eat") and adapt to become more civilized. Why can't "rules" related to gender norms bend or even be named? In your paper, you ask the question, "What inhibits the naming of normative hierarchies that feed and constitute bullying?" This resonates with me specifically because I wrote a piece about bullying for HuffPost last month, trying to name the misogyny, homophobia and effemephobia in bullying worldwide, looking to what I thought to be hard evidence and I was struck by how many people (some close to me) reacted as though I was projecting, whining, stretching “gender theory” too far and that I somehow failed to understand that bullying is simply about power vs. weakness in the general sense, not inextricably linked to gender norms. Fascinating, and discouraging, because when we deny the norms that inform and trigger bullying -- dismissing, for example, that in the schoolyard, in the millisecond between the impulse and the punch, the words feminine, weak, vulnerable, submissive all mean the same thing to the bully who attacks the “sissy” -- then the problem gets perpetuated. So I'm reiterating your question now but why can't the overwhelming misognyny and homophobia in bullying even be named? What does it cost people to simply name it?
Ken Corbett: I like how you ask your question as a matter of "cost." My first impulse is to respond that it will cost the cost of doing business. Socially and culturally we have so much invested in a rigid gender binary (there can be two and only two genders, masculinity and femininity, and they are defined in opposition to one another). This social investment powerfully and productively exaggerates the relatively small physical differences between the sexes while downplaying our human commonalities.
My second response is that it will cost the cost of education and the promotion of critical thinking. It will cost a reexamination of how we teach civil rights as part of grade school and middle school curriculums. I vividly recall how important a book like Richard Wright's "Native Son" was to me as a junior high school student as I learned about the African American civil rights movement. Challenging the gender binary and offering young children the opportunity to think critically about gender will not only cost the price it will take to introduce books like "Oliver Button Is a Sissy" or "My Princess Boy" or the Trevor Project video into school libraries, it will also rest on the cost of educating teachers to think along with their students about the social forces that are behind the playground fights.
This manner of critical thinking seems even more important at the junior high school level as adolescents can begin to engage abstract and critical thinking to read about the history of feminism and gay rights as part of their American history curriculum. It will cost the kind of discussions that could be had if students were assigned the introduction to Berry Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" or Ellen Wittlinger's novel "Parrotfish" about a transgendered adolescent. Mark O’Connell: You know, Ken, as you mention all these great books I'm thinking about that recent Ohio University study showing that by identifying with characters in books, people’s minds change significantly. As you said, the lacking investment in publishing and distributing of books with gender atypical characters presents a road block to this change. We are starting to see more characters like this on television though, and I think if more gender variant actors were cast and characters created for TV and film, the collective fantasy of what is normal would begin to transform -- I've written about this in a paper for Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health(which will be published in July). It’s a continuing challenge of course, to convince producers to adapt their own normative fantasies in order to invest in stories about gender variant lives.
It's just frustrating that folks can't simply take a leap of imagination into another person’s life, the way we do as therapists with our clients or actors do with their roles. My mother -- who righteously owns that she has successfully raised a gender nonconforming kid for whom things (luckily) got better -- wants to know why people can’t simply empathize with those who are different from them, or just mind their own business. I tell her that if we could get Meryl Streep to tour the country teaching people (men in particular) how to connect with the internal life (the agonies and ecstasies) of women and “girly boys” we’d instantly see less violence. If the characters don't show up onscreen, we can teach people how to act, how to dream themselves into another life, how to empathize. Can we get a grant for this Streep project?
Ken Corbett: I am laughing thinking about how many requests Meryl Streep must get everyday to save the world in every way. We should note here that she is doing some remarkable work raising funds and making plans for a women's history museum in Washington D.C., an institution that I imagine is being conceived as place for school trips and the kind of education about feminism of which I spoke. But you raise a very good point about what it means to put oneself in the mind of another and step imaginatively into their shoes. Whenever anyone lapses into that "women are from Venus, men are from Mars" mantra, I always like to remind them that Flaubert imagined Madame Bovary or that George Elliot imagined Mr. Casaubon and Mr. Latislaw. Perhaps middle school children should be given a writing assignment in which they must write from a gender with which they do not identify. But here we must remember that the appeal to imagination has always been the romantic impulse when reaching for change and that romance only takes us so far. Along with the romantic imagination, we would want to make sure that children are learning about the social and political forces that do more to make our world, even more than Meryl Streep, although that is hard to believe.
Mark O’Connell: Extremely hard to believe! I'm telling you, Meryl's already saving the world; she's starring in blockbusters about smart, lively women in their sixties, who have agency, and lots of sex -- for fun, and on their own terms. It may be romantic of me but I do believe that the world having protagonists like this for people to dream themselves into can make more kids and grownups interested in how politics and social rules impact lives. Unfortunately, without that identification with a person -- a character, a life impacted by our oppressive rules -- most people just can’t be bothered to learn about the mechanics of society.
Ken Corbett: You are certainly correct in reminding us, as have philosophers for centuries, that we need not and cannot separate reason and emotion. We need both and one does not follow without the other.
Mark O’Connell: So, since we're talking a little pop culture... You refer to one of Eminem's lyrics in your paper; something like "we all got reps to uphold," and you discuss how the defensive posture of upholding "reps" perpetuates aggression and defers vulnerability. So, I'm going to challenge your rep as a distinguished analyst and scholar for a moment, and hope that you don't get violent: Do you watch "Glee"?
Ken Corbett: Yes, I do on occasion watch "Glee" and I like to think that the ways in which I am engaged by the romantic imagination of the plot lines does not tarnish my scholarly street cred. I think there is room for a show like Glee to skirt reality and, in so doing, teach.
Mark O’Connell: Good, so you’re not going to punch me? "Glee" is good times, certainly of the cotton-candy variety but with one exception: the story between Kurt and his father. That somehow grounds the whole show in the burgeoning tensions that we’re discussing. I often feel a delicious discomfort myself when I see how accepting Kurt's father is of him. No matter how flamboyant, feminine, girly or "dramatic" Kurt is, I’m always astonished by how his father’s response to him completely lacks any kind of aggression. It’s like I expect it to be there and so I vacillate between squeamishness because it's unfamiliar and tears because it's a catharsis we've never experienced before on television -- or perhaps even in life.
Ken Corbett: As you suggest, Kurt's father is in my experience a rare man and a rare father. But let us hope that some little proto-queer boy and his father are watching and learning that things might be otherwise.
Mark O’Connell: Have you noticed any changes in the parents of gender nonconforming children you've worked with over the years, fathers in particular?
Ken Corbett: In my consultations with parents of gender variant kids I have begun to note a subtle shift in the attitudes of both mothers and fathers. In a word, they are less anxious and more eager to support as opposed to change their child's experience of difference. Still, one frequent problem that I have found that it is important to address with fathers of gender variant boys is the father's anxiety when and if he finds himself to be the object of his son's desire. If a father allows himself to become the object of his son's desire, does he remain a heterosexual man? If his imagination goes queer in following his son, where does that turn leave him in relation to his own straight imagination? Fathers and proto queer boys often get caught in this snag and fathers often resort to a kind of paternal behaviorism: "Let's go out to the yard and play catch." I have found that it is important to help fathers see that pushing against their son's imagination/wish is not simply a matter of sidestepping or challenging his son's play but also a matter of dropping his son's psychic reality and, in turn, his son's bid to alter social constraints.
Mark O’Connell: So interesting. We never talk about “Daddy’s Little Boy.” Maybe one day it’ll be easier for us to discuss that, and all that it implies, and perhaps we’ll start seeing more father/son dances at weddings. I’d like to think I’d have danced with my father at my wedding -- if he were alive at that time -- even though, had I even been brave enough to get out of my own way and ask him, I’m sure everyone else (aka "the normal police") would have punished us (as you were describing earlier). We need to make more room for fathers and sons to relate to each other.
One of the big obstacles here is that to accept his son's “bid to alter social constraints” requires a father to be vulnerable and many fathers resist that at all costs.
My father was a high-school principal in Westchester, a lot of pressure and responsibility, and his rep as a stern authority figure was often referred to as a notable strength. But as I was writing a eulogy for him, the stronger quality that I recalled -- and still hold onto -- was his ability to fail, to not be the smartest, to work hard yes, but to embrace the unpolished parts of himself with grace and humor, to let them breathe. That continues to be a great source of strength for me, reminding me to be on my own side even when I feel inadequate, which, I think, makes me more successful in many areas of my life, but in our culture that’s not considered to be a very “manly” or “powerful” exchange from father to son. This also comes up in the film “Bully” when one of the moms says to the dad, “Maybe I should punch you in front of our son, so he can see that you cry once in a while.” How can we convince fathers that they’re helping their boys by sharing vulnerability with them?Ken Corbett: Your question about fathers and vulnerability is an interesting one because I often experience fathers as exquisitely vulnerable. Indeed they frequently defended against that vulnerability and one has to work with them to see that their fears are an expression of their love and concern for their children. Here, I think we sometimes underestimate children and while we do not want to constantly flood them with our feeling states, it is often not only helpful to be more expressive but it offers them the opportunity to learn the hard work of empathy and repair. Also life is not only made in recognition. It is often those relationships that are threaded with conflict from which we learn the most. Perhaps threading back to your wish that we see more conflict between Kurt and his father.
Mark O’Connell: It's a tricky balance for parents and leaders to strike -- isn't it? -- to allow conflict to exist without giving up authority completely or completely shutting down those under their wing. Speaking of authority, in your paper you discuss how, when unaddressed, the unspoken hierarchies that inform bullying behaviors affect psychotherapists, like me, when we seek mentoring from seasoned analysts like you. You haven’t bullied me yet. Why?
Ken Corbett: I think your use of the word "balance" here is key. In my experience with children and students, authority is earned through processes of mutual recognition and respect. In that sense authority is shared, not earned by conquering. Key here as well are matters of shame. Behind every binary there is a hierarchy (teacher trumps student, masculinity trumps femininity, heterosexuality trumps homosexuality, whiteness trumps blackness, wealth trumps poverty, christianity trumps islamism). Behind every trump there is shame (the shamed lesser one). The bully relies on that shame. He/she works by silencing their victim, trusting that their victim will not speak because to speak is to place one in the position of shame.
Mark O’Connell: So, that's why you've tolerated me yapping away like a naive Gen Xer; If you shamed me, shut me down, you’d deny me the opportunity to take risks, to fail, and to grow. On this note, I find it particularly disturbing what you've written about "the bullied mind" and how our fears -- of transgressing the lines of gender, for example -- can keep us locked inside of ourselves, isolated and potentially cut-off from our own life force -- to the point of resembling the walking dead. For all of the "actors" involved in bullying -- those who attack and those who palpably attack themselves -- there are also the unsung casualties, the myriad people who experience severe, and perhaps debilitating disconnect, too afraid to be spontaneous or, as you say, live a "liveable life." This mostly troubles me because when a person experiences this nobody really notices what’s happening on the outside. I don’t have a question here... I'm just depressed by this...
Ken Corbett: Well, you should feel depressed. That means you are paying attention to the plight of others. Recognizing how we oppress others and how we lock them inside their own torment should make us depressed. But importantly, that depression is a place to move from, a place from which we might make a difference. It allows us to see that while we might not always have the opportunity to help those who don't know that they need help, or know how to seek help, we can work, nevertheless, to build a better social world in which the power and hierarchies that oppress people can be challenged and changed, thereby affording our fellow citizens greater mental freedom. This is why I think it is so important to not only address bullying as something that happens between two kids on a playground, but as something that happens in the social network that is the school -- a system that reflects the misogyny, homophobia, racism, and class prejudice that circulate in our society at large. Of course we must intervene between the bully and the bullied and we must include the witnesses to those acts of aggression but we must also educate children about the social forces that push all of us around.