Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Need For a Different Dinner Table Conversation

After reading about Senator Rob Portman's recent decision to support same-sex marriage, I wrote the following op-ed piece which appears in the Cleveland Plain Dealer today.


Cambridge, Mass. -- I applaud Sen. Rob Portman's decision to support same-sex marriage. In this time of highly polarized party politics, it takes an enormous amount of courage for any politician to stand up and say he has changed his mind. With this act, the senator has taken an enormous step in support of compassion, dignity and respect for all Ohioans.
In the commentary that he published in The Columbus Dispatch, Portman details that his change of mind on same-sex marriage is driven by love for his gay son. That bond between father and son warms my heart. It also breaks my heart to think of all the other gay sons and lesbian daughters in the state of Ohio who have been afforded no sign of compassion, respect or dignity by Portman in the past, and many other elected GOP officials in the present.

It is true, as Portman points out, that Ronald Reagan said all great change in America begins at the dinner table. Why is it that at the Portmans' dinner table, compassion for all of the gay sons and lesbian daughters in Ohio could not be found until the Portmans' son found the courage and space to come out? It's time for a different dialogue over dinner. We are leaving too many people behind.

As a young gay man growing up in suburban Cleveland, I endured a great deal of hate and ignorance directed toward me by teachers, classmates and strangers over parts of my identity that I had yet to name or understand. I received countless messages that parts of me were hated, wrong, broken or otherwise undesirable. Along with every other gay son and lesbian daughter, I was systematically taught that the very essence of my self was unwanted. This assault on my developing identity was almost unbearable. Thankfully, I had a family that offered me unwavering compassion, dignity and respect. There were also a few stellar teachers who stood up and protected the parts of me that I had not yet learned to name.

That helped. It wasn't, however, enough.

I fled Ohio the first chance I got and moved East seeking a place where all parts of me would be valued, supported and cherished. It still saddens me that I needed to leave home to find the community and fellowship that allowed me to grow and flourish.

Sen. Portman has taken an important step. Now is the time for him to do more. It is just simply not enough to care for only those with whom we share our dinner table. Our human family is much larger than those who join with us at our tables. We need to leave a chair open for anyone to join -- a space left open for a viewpoint we've not yet heard. We are of many different sexualities, races, faiths and political parties. It is from within these many differences that we find our strength as a nation: out of many, one. E pluribus unum.

The senator should stand tall and offer love, respect and dignity to all of the gay sons and lesbian daughters of these United States of America. He should encourage his Republican and Democratic colleagues to do the same. So should you. We all need to find ways to leave a chair open at our dinner tables to take in a new view, hear a new voice and expand our circle of compassion until it encompasses all of our human family.

We all need to stand up and speak out for our beloved community -- a community in which we are all loved, cherished, supported and nurtured. Too often, in our individual struggles to decide what is right and moral, we act toward our children and neighbors in ways that demonstrate neither dignity nor respect. Too many lives have been destroyed as we turn our back on our own brothers and sisters.

I applaud you, Sen. Portman, for finding the beloved community within your family. Now extend that circle of compassion to include people who aren't like you and your own family.

Leave a chair open at your dinner tables tonight. Let's all extend our circle of compassion to embrace the myriad representations of difference and diversity that exist within our collective homes that make up this great country of ours, these United States of America. Just imagine how great we might become.

Mihalko is a psychologist with a private practice on Harvard Square. He was born and raised in Strongsville and lived in Ohio City until 1999, when he moved to New England to pursue his doctorate.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Men Rape, Women Heal

My introduction to working at the Lorain County Rape Crisis Center left an indelible impression. I was a senior in college and earning my final few credits through an internship. After completing some introductory training I was given an office of my own and some clients to support. Beyond my naiveté and an interest in listening and caring, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. 

I was, nonetheless, assigned clients to work with. My first was a gentleman who was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse perpetrated by his mother. Prior to retrieving the man from the waiting room I heard the social worker intern speaking rather loudly in the director's office:

"Men do the raping, women do the healing. He doesn't belong here as an intern."

I remember being annoyed and hurt, but didn't really have time to think about the complexities of what the social work student had said. I had a job to do--I had to figure out what the hell I was doing. 

In the intervening 21 years, I've thought a lot about what the social work student had said. I woke up this morning with her words on my mind. There is a national dialogue going on now about rape, rape culture, and specifically the events that occurred in Steubenville Ohio. Simultaneously, there is a good deal being discussed about sexual harassment related to an incident in which Adria Richards spoke out about an experience she had at a technology conference. These two events are definitely part of the reason why my early experiences at a rape crisis center have come to mind. There are no doubt myriad others. 

There is a growing consensus that seems to be developing: teach men and boys not to rape women and girls. Teach boys and men to be kind. This is great. It's also a totally unsophisticated intervention that, beyond making us feel better in the moment, will accomplish nothing. 

Platitudes are not nearly enough to stop rape and other forms of sexual violence. We live in a culture that places unbearable expectations on boys and men--and as a collective society we are totally unwilling to look at these expectations. 

Don't get me wrong. It's important that we teach that rape is wrong. I think it's great that many are calling for efforts to teach boys to be kind. Men and boys could be a great deal kinder. However before we ask men to be kind, we also need to think about how men who are kind are often treated in our society. We need to look deeply at how our expectations of men are deeply rooted and intertwined with homonegativity, heteronormativity, and misogyny. We need to look at how both men and women are active participants in teaching this to our children.

I was thinking aloud on Twitter this morning and came up with a few thoughts worth thinking about: 

  • If we want to stop rape we need to stop calling men and boys who act in kind ways faggots.
  • If we want to stop rape we need to examine how homonegativity and heteronormativity distort the possibilities of masculinity.
  • If we want to stop rape we need to look at how we put impossible pressures on men to act hyper masculine yet also not be sissies.
  • If we want to stop rape we have to stop teaching our boys to act like a man by not crying like a girl, and call them sissy boys and faggots if they cry.
There is no excuse for sexual violence. This much I know for sure. I also know that so long as we continue to raise our boys with toxic levels of unattainable heteronormative and homonegative expectations--and ask them to be kind--there will be problems. We cannot continue to cast aspersions on men who don't act like "real men" and simultaneously expect them to be something else.

Men also need to stop raping women. Women need to stop raping men. Men need to stop raping other men. Women need to stop raping other women. Men and women need to stop raping children. 

We also need to look at our own behavior. We need to be responsible for the world we are creating with our unexamined demands on what masculinity is supposed to be. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca

I have a white rose to tend

In July as in January;
I give it to the true friend
Who offers his frank hand to me.
And for the cruel one whose blows
Break the heart by which I live,
Thistle nor thorn do I give:
For him, too, I have a white rose.

Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca, Verseo XXXIX

By Jose Marti

(Special thanks to Ian Argent)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Homo Bride and Groom Restored to Dignity

So here we have another vintage image of two men that just begged for a little research. It's showed up in variety of websites aggregating images that are labeled as vintage gay couples. Each depiction lacks any information (here, here, here, and here). Who is this "homo bride and groom" marching down the aisle toward matrimonial bliss?

I want to know.

A quick search revealed that the images came from an article that appeared in Jet Magazine on September 21 1967. Whomever took the original screen caps kept the pictures but removed most of the identifying information (along with a lot of the obvious homonegative text).

Here are the facts that I know:

  • The two men are John Knockhart, a 24 year old from Belgium and Henyrk Rietra, a 26 year old who owned Rotterdam's "famous Welcome Bar." 
  • In attendance was best man, Pieter Maas and a small group of friends and family.
  • The Catholic priest Father Omtzigt officiated over the ceremony.
  • Bishop Martien Antoon Jansen defended the priest saying he was tricked into the ceremony.

That's not bad for a quick Google image search. It was enough to give me a trail to follow this story.

At first I thought the trail was going to run dry. Simple Google searches gave up nothing about who these two men were. My first tantalizing lead was this image of a sugar packet. This is, apparently, all that is left of the "famous Welcome Bar" that Rietra owned. The sugar packet, however, has an address. I followed that address and found an African art gallery. I've emailed the gallery owners, Kathy van der Pas and Steven van de Raadt, to see if they might know anything about our young couple or the business that apparently once stood where their gallery is currently located. I'll keep you posted.

The sugar packet, however, wasn't the end of the line. A search for Rietra took me to a webpage that was in Italian. Thanks to Google, reading Italian (which I don't) is unnecessary. A click of a button and the web page is (poorly) translated into English.

In 1967 Henryk Rietra and Jean Knockhaert, two men of 26 and 24 years respectively, are joined in marriage in Broederkappellet Rotterdam by Catholic priest JZ Omtzigt.

So we have at least another reference to these two men and their marriage. John Knockhart has now become Jean Knockhaert. The correct spelling of Knockhaert's name gives me some new leads. 

Jean and Henryk (sometimes listed as Harry) had a photographer, Robert Lantos,  on hand the day of their wedding. Some of those photographs have been archived in The Netherlands National News Agency (ANP) Photo Archives at the Memory of The Netherlands Project. I've emailed the reference librarian at the Koninklijke Bibiliotheek, the National Library of the Netherlands, to see if they might have some additional resources.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Unbearable: Asylums in Serbia and Kosovo circa 2002

I was looking for some vintage images of advertisements for psychiatric hospitals this evening. Instead, I broke my heart. These haunting images were taken within the walls of a modern psychiatric facility in Serbia and Kosovo between 1999 and 2002 by the photographer George Georgiou. He writes:

For me, after the initial shock at the conditions and total lack of care, it became clear that the patients from all ethic backgrounds were able to display more community affection and care with each other, than the sad situation their "sane" countrymen were displaying to each other on the outside.

I have nothing to say other than this: we must do better.

Back to the Future: Thorazine for Sanity

healing or control?
I sat around in a circle with my cohort of post-doctoral fellows appropriately snickering. Our training director, Joe Shay, had distributed a list of hundreds of different types of psychotherapy. Many of them were laughable, sad, or just outrageous. How could anyone have practiced these therapies with a straight face? Didn't they know they were quacks?

With our recently minted doctorates in hand, we all looked smug and self assured. We were training to practice dialectal behavioral therapy--the state of the art treatment for people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Our mentors were elite luminaries in the field.  Our offices were in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge Massachusetts. I felt I arrived in the liberal elite intellectual promised land.

With a deft few words, our training director swept away my smug look of superiority and taught me an enduring lesson. This post today is what I came to know in thinking about Joe's lecture that day.

People have come for treatment for hundreds--if not thousands--of years for phenomena that we currently call borderline personality disorder. People have turned to shamans, priests, friends, psychiatrists, psychologists, and others to receive treatment. Many have gotten better. Some have not.

I walked into that training room as a post-doc thinking I was learning a superior treatment. I couldn't imagine that the treatment I was providing--DBT--could ever be viewed as ridiculous, barbaric, old fashioned, or just plain weird. I could never be seen like those people we were learning about in Joe's lecture. We were better. I was better. These are modern treatments.

As many do, I failed to look forward. I failed to account for the fact that society is evolving. What one considers humane now, will be inhumane tomorrow. What are considered unquestionable facts today will be seen as antiquated examples of magical thinking tomorrow.

I will become a dinosaur one day. The way I practiced psychology will be looked at by some (if I am even remembered) as laughable--or worse.

I had this in mind yesterday morning while I was looking at vintage advertisements for Thorazine.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

What Does a Decent Society Do?

The question is what does a society do with decent people who hurt themselves because they are human? Who smoke to much, who eat too much, who drive carelessly, who don't have safe sex? I think the answer is a decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they did a human thing.

Bob Rafsky -- in How to Survive a Plague, 2012

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Me Bird

The Me Bird from 18bis on Vimeo.
The short film "The Me Bird" is a free interpretation of the homonym poem by Pablo Neruda. The inspiration in the strata stencil technique helps conceptualize the repetition of layers as the past of our movements and actions. The frames depicted as jail and the past as a burden serve as the background for the story of a ballerina on a journey towards freedom. A diversified artistic experimentation recreates the tempest that connects bird and dancer.


O curta The Me Bird é uma livre interpretação do poema homônimo de Pablo Neruda. A inspiração na técnica strata stencil ajuda a conceituar a repetição de camadas como o passado de nossos movimentos e ações. As molduras como jaula e o passado como fardo servem de pano de fundo para a história de uma bailarina em sua jornada rumo à liberdade. Através de variada experimentação artística, recria-se a tormenta que conecta pássaro e dançarina.

I am the Pablo Bird,
bird of a single feather,
a flier in the clear shadow
and obscure clarity,
my wings are unseen,
my ears resound
when I walk among the trees
or beneath the tombstones
like an unlucky umbrella
or a naked sword,
stretched like a bow
or round like a grape,
I fly on and on not knowing,
wounded in the dark night,
who is waiting for me,
who does not want my song,
who desires my death,
who will not know I'm arriving
and will not come to subdue me,
to bleed me, to twist me,
or to kiss my clothes,
torn by the shrieking wind.

That's why I come and go,
fly and don't fly but sing:
I am the furious bird
of the calm storm.

Pablo Neruda