The Necessity of Connection and Acceptance

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

--Maya Angelou

Skylar Lee. Source: Identities.Mic

As of late, suicide is on my mind. I nearly lost someone to a suicide attempt this fall, am approaching the anniversary of a client's suicide, and reeling from the suicide of yet another trans teenager, Skylar Lee, in Madison, Wisconsin. Given that I am about to bring a child into this world, these tragedies, all of which are in some way tied to LGBTQ+ identities, have spurred me to reflect on the human need for connection and acceptance. Skylar's mom's courageous and heartbreaking news interview highlights this point. As she said, “The night before [he died], he hugged me and kissed me,” Joanne said. “I could feel it. He forgave me that I didn't accept him, and that was his final goodbye to me. I owe him to continue his fight.”

Ironically enough, I have found some of the most poignant lessons about connection and acceptance in the book No Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson. Because the book's title conceals more than it reveals about the author's definition of discipline, I want to start by sharing that definition, as it's about connection rather than punishment, which feels particularly relevant on the heels of the school resource officer's violent actions at Spring Valley High. As the authors wrote,

whenever we discipline our kids, our overall goal is not to punish or to give a consequence but to teach. The root of 'discipline' is the word disciple, which means 'student,' 'pupil,' and 'learner.' A disciple, the one receiving discipline is not a prisoner or recipient of punishment, but one who is learning through instruction. Punishment might shut down a behavior in the short term, but teaching offers skills that last a lifetime...we want caregivers to think of discipline as one of the most loving and nurturing things we can do for our kids.

I love this focus on teaching, which actually requires adults to use something besides our fear and conditioning to relate to a child. Siegel and Bryson reiterate again and again that we must connect with our children before we try to redirect their behavior. How that connection looks and sounds is going to differ, based on factors like circumstance and personality, but the result is the same: the child feels understood, valued, and accepted for who they are, not who they should or could be according to somebody else's norms and expectations. The authors do a brilliant job responding to the counter-argument that to connect with children is to spoil them, specifically noting,

Spoiling is not about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can't spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself...Nurturing your relationship with your child and giving her the consistent experiences that form the basis of her accurate belief that she's entitled to your love and affection is exactly what we should be doing. In other words, we want to let our kids know that they can count on getting their needs met.

Not all suicides are linked to a lack of connection and acceptance, but many of them are. So much of my work with clients centers on important relationships--oftentimes with parents and partners--in which they do not think they can express who they are and still be loved. Given that acceptance is a core human emotional need, the inability to be our authentic selves and still feel a sense of belonging and connection is devastating. I cannot overstate this point.

But I want to end this post on a positive note. I just had the opportunity to attend a Boulder Valley Safe Schools Coalition meeting and learned of parents, educators, and administrators working together to make this district's schools safe and equitable learning environments for all students. To see the district's language about honoring student identities and affirming gender fluidity and diversity was heartening. Even more so was the presence of parents who shared testimonials about their love of and support for their gender variant children at a district board meeting. These parents strike me as some of the biggest changers of hearts and minds about connecting with our children's concerns, feelings, and experience and accepting them as they are. May we learn from the tragic losses we have already endured so that human flourishing, not just survival, becomes a realistic aspiration for our society.


Queering Couples Therapy

Mel Freitag and Amber Sowards getting Married! Credit to Amber Sowards of the Wisconsin State Journal. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's recent ruling of Wisconsin's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional has inspired me to write about the direction in which I would like to see my own field of "marriage and family therapy" go.

Too often I find myself saying to LGBTQ clients, "So if you can ignore the gender-normative and heteronormative aspects of this resource on strengthening relationships, it could be useful to you." For clients who are in polyamorous or open relationships, most of the couples therapy literature all but screams out, "You do not belong here!" or worse. But heterosexual, monogamous couples also lose out by the narrow depictions of sexuality and gender that are so common in this field and our society more generally. The case studies presented in couples therapy texts, for example, frequently refer to "husbands" and "wives," presuming that the individuals participating in marriages and other relationship formations define ourselves in these historically loaded terms. For many of us committed to gender equality, however, "wife" sounds more like a bad word than a role we freely choose to assume.

My point is that the sexual and gender binary frameworks that we use as shortcuts to describe human difference usually do more to limit than strengthen relational ties. For instance, statements about how (all) men prefer sex and activities to talking whereas (all) women feel that talking brings them closer to their partners do more to reinforce cultural stereotypes and dominant gender norms than to address what is actually going on between people in the present moment. As Kenji Yoshino beautifully articulated in Covering,

...the mainstream is a myth. With respect to any particular identity, the word 'mainstream' makes sense, as in the statement that straights are more mainstream than gays. Used generically, however, the word lacks meaning. Because human beings hold many identities, the mainstream is a shifting coalition, and none of us is entirely within it. As queer theorists have recognized, it is not normal to be completely normal. All of us struggle for self-expression; we all have covered selves.

Happily resources exist that ask us to inquire into the limiting beliefs and roles--including gendered and sexual ones--that get us into hot water in our relationships. One book that I've found to be particularly useful is David Richo's How to Be an Adult in Relationships. Although not explicitly queer, Richo's book draws on mindfulness principles and practices to challenge normative frameworks ("ego wishes and attachments," in his words) that thwart intimacy. As he writes,

Mindfulness is inherent in human nature. We were built to pay attention to reality. Indeed, paying attention is a survival technique. Over the years, though, we learn to escape and take refuge in illusory sanctuaries built by an ego frightened of reality. We notice that it is easier to believe what will make us feel better, and we feel entitled to expect that others will be what we need them to be. These are man-made chains that look like links to happiness. But...We do not have to put our dukes up. We do not have to become the pawns of our fixations or our fixed conceptions of reality. We do not have to find a pigeonhole...We can simply let things unfold, attending to reality as it is and staying through it as we are.

Richo's work provides avenues for waking up in our relationships, not digging our heels in to repeat patterns from our families and cultures, which often include rigid conceptions of gender, sexuality, and marriage. In its call for accepting our "here-and-now predicament," Richo's model also holds space for the address of oppression and domination. Thus we can still attend to the harms sustained by virtue of being a member of a marginalized social group within his mindfulness approach. But we do so with an intent of restoring dignity to each other and ourselves rather than retaliating and punishing others.

Mindfulness resources like Richo's offer a useful alternative to gender-normative, heteronormative, and monogamy-centric relational therapies that currently dominate the field of couples therapy. In fact, the focus on "paying attention and letting go" in his book serves as a reminder to be wary of "queer" or "LGBTQ" relational models that ultimately recreate the very exclusion they sought to contest via "fixed conceptions of reality." The challenge remains to use queer as a verb, not as a noun, so that we keep on uncovering the natural wholeness that is our birthright. To borrow from Rumi,“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” 


Exploring the relationship amongst weddings, (hetero)sexism, and the loss of our original shapes

We arrive in this world with birthright gifts--then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.

Amen, Parker Palmer! Soon I will marry the love of my life. My partner is an amazing human being, full of "birthright gifts." I feel blessed at the possibility of sharing the remainder of our lives together and publicly making a commitment to our relationship with friends and family encircling us. My love and gratitude for this person is what makes my growing dis-ease with our upcoming wedding so painful. I have needed to do a bit of digging to figure out what is going on. It turns out that looking backward has helped me to understand the present, particularly its trappings. To borrow from William Bridges, "Journeys, unlike point-to-point trips, have a way of doubling back on themselves so that you find yourself dealing again and at another level with issues you thought you had left behind."

Almost eight years ago, I began to identify as queer. At the time, this decision was professional, political, and personal. As an academic, I had long been drawn to the "queer theory" found in the pages of books like Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands. Although she and I had vastly different life experiences and ancestral histories, her words offered me a glove into which I could slide--without kicking and screaming--and still breathe. As a politically active feminist and educator, "queer" made sense to me. At that point, I had spent most of my life following heteronormative rules. Having recently entered into a significant relationship with a woman, I found that "straight" no longer applied but "lesbian" did not either. Queer seemed to be a "slot" with enough space for my lived experience. On a personal level, "queer" opened up all kinds of possibilities for ways of being in this world. Although I was using the term primarily to describe my sexual identity, I found it freed me up in other areas of my life, where "images of acceptability" had overshadowed other dreams and distorted my "original shape." I began to use queer as a verb. I queered my dissertation. I queered my understanding of family. But mostly, I queered my sense of what it means to be a woman.

Words cannot do justice to the experience of using "queer" as a tool to peel off the layers of expectations in pursuit of my birthright gifts. I invested so much time and energy in my childhood, adolescence, and young adult life trying to mold myself to surrounding expectations of beauty and dominant notions of "femininity." As a young kid, I was precocious. I had things to say--observations to share, feelings to express, perceptions of the world about which I wanted to dialogue with somebody. But I seemed to keep violating so many rules! In a heartbeat, my curiosity seemed to morph into accusations of being "impolite," "unladylike," "inappropriate." So the silence began to wash in, as a kind of protective cape at first. Unfortunately, its delicate threads became a woolen blanket, smothering a sense that my original shape included a strong voice with the power to cultivate and share insights. Like so many young women I encounter today, I frequently ended sentences with, "I'm sorry," or, "I don't know," as if taking up space in the world as a thinking, speaking human being was a violation.

As for my body, I starved it. Stuffed it. Poisoned it. Consistently glared at it with disgust in the mirror. What is still embarrassing to talk about now is how much I came to despise my skin and the lengths to which I went to transform it. It is pale and freckled and sensitive. As a child, I did not see models of beauty anywhere that included it. The beautiful ones in my whitewashed suburban community had olive complexions. I do not remember how many times I burned my fair skin, trying to approximate that distant beauty. So I could be seen--so I could see myself--as lovely. And loveable.

The philosophy of queerness allowed me to begin removing all these unwanted deposits of shame and judgment. For the first time in my adult life, I began to appreciate my body and all that it allowed me to do in the world. I gained confidence in my ability put words on a page that someone else might actually want to read. Ultimately, I finished a dissertation that felt like a genuine accomplishment because connecting with others in an inquiry process nourished me. I had an image of radical acceptance tattooed on my skin to remind myself I could choose not to abandon my birthright gifts. I stopped betraying myself for the approval of others at every turn and began to see my "true self" could offer me the comfort and solace I thought I could only receive from others.

Brene Brown wrote, "What we know matters, but who we are matters more." I absolutely believe that coming home to myself--my true self--allowed me to meet my life partner and our relationship to stick, as I arrived at a place where I allowed myself to be seen, vulnerabilities and all. So I was surprised when several old deformations of my original shape reappeared upon deciding to make a lifetime commitment to this person and our relationship. I felt ugly. Unacceptable. Inadequate.

To understand this reemerging self-betrayal, I began paying attention to the barrage of external messages I was receiving. The incessant pop-up ads on my computer that, alerted to my recent engagement, tried to sell me every kind of product imaginable in the service of making me a perfect "bride." More painfully, the primary question I received upon encountering people I know was, "How's the wedding planning going?" despite my recent completion of a master's degree and the exciting new beginning of a career pathway. All at once, "bride" seemed to eclipse every other slot, and I was having a hard time digging through the incessant chatter about white dresses, good hair, and svelte bodies to the selfhood I worked so hard to uncover.

I remain grateful for compassionate friends, mindfulness practices, and Chrys Ingraham's searing critique, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, which helped me to establish protective boundaries, thereby keeping insidious social pressures at a safer distance. These words by Ingraham particularly hit home:

White weddings, while important in themselves, are a concentrated site for the operation and reproduction of organized heterosexuality. More so than other prominent heterosexual practices and rituals, e.g. dating, proms, and engagements, weddings are culturally pervasive, symbolically prolific, and are rarely questioned or examined. Yet, they are so taken for granted they seem naturally occurring and function to naturalize a host of heterosexual behaviors that are, in fact, socially produced. In other words, one is not born a bride or with the desire to become a bride yet we have an abundance of evidence that shows that many people believe otherwise. But that's putting the bride before the fairy tale! From the moment we enter the world, culture works to install meaning systems about everything from sex to gender to social class to ethnicity to sexual identity. Heterosexuality, whether naturally occurring or chosen, is organized by those meanings.

As I continue to grow and work with others who are trying to recover their original shapes, I aspire to promote Palmer's message of courage and renewal. I do not think we can come back to our wholeness until we begin to see clearly the deforming social messages not of our own making, cultivate support networks committed to discerning our selfhood, and actively practice the feeding of our true selves. As for disrupting the sexism, racism, heterosexism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression that distort and destroy so many lives, I do not believe we have to fit into a narrowly conceived "activist" slot to effect change since we often unwittingly contribute to harmful expectations via our moment-to-moment actions, thoughts and emotions. As Julia Serano argued, "the one thing that all forms of sexism that they all begin with placing assumptions and value judgments onto other people's gendered bodies and behaviors." I for one can get behind new social beginnings that involve suspending assumptions and judgments so as to clearly discern others' and our own birthright gifts.

On my wedding day, I will be wearing a dress. It will be turquoise.