Sunday, February 23, 2014

'Born that way' myth of gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities?

Adam and Steve in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between Men

Adam and Steve Hook Up in the Garden of Eden
I'm terribly amused by this vintage image of two men. The internet reveals no interesting information or even tantalizing clues. We're left to our own imagination as to why these nude men in hats are holding hands in the middle of a woodland scene while covering their junk with fig leaves.

My own projections? Clearly this is an early depiction of Adam and Steve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden for eating from the forbidden fruit (wink wink, nudge nudge). Right? What else would possibly be going on here?

I've inundated people who follow me on Tumblr with over a thousand images depicting vintage men in relationships. The internet is littered with blogs curating many of these same images. Many look at them and use our contemporary understandings of the world to understand historical issues.

The bloggers at Homo History, who do excellent work preserving and sharing many vintage photos depicting intimacy between men, write:

These photos represent just a small fragment of our gay history; unfortunately so much of it has purposely been destroyed. Since most of the men in these photos are unknown, it's pretty much impossible to tell it they were a gay couple or just "good friends." Most photographs of gay couples were eventually destroyed by horrified family members. For every photo that I may have mistakenly identified as gay, thousands more were burned or torn into pieces to keep a family secret.
I've Got A Secret
I have another secret here. The vast majority of these men weren't getting it on with each other. It's not even likely that many of these men would think they were gay if we transported them into our contemporary times. Some certainly had close intimate friendships that involved sex. There are myriad examples of vintage same-sex erotica on the web. Some day I'll have to write about this history of stag and physique magazines. Until then, feel free to visit these NSFW Tumblrs (here and here).

While Homo History nods to the fact that the men pictured in their blog might be good friends, the bloggers also end up winking at the notion that they could possibly be anything other than gay. I think we do ourselves a disservice--and these men from history a disservice--when we don't pay close attention to how men thought of themselves, their relationships, and the nature of physical touch between men as they viewed it.

In his book Picturing Men: A Century of Male Relationships John Ibson writes extensively on the topic of the changing nature and qualities of friendships and intimacy between men.

Prior to the American witch hunts of suspected homosexual men in the 1950s, the possibilities for how and where men were able to demonstrate closeness through physical touch was much greater. No one would have taken special notice of any of the men presenting themselves to a photographer to have their image taken. Even the most intimate images of men in a passionate embrace were acceptable. This is what friends did.

Mind you, there was no doubt a lot of hanky panky going on between men in the pre-1950s era. Men have been getting off with each other for as long as men have been around to get off. However, same-sex sexual activities weren't labeled as an identity until the end of the 19th century. When the term homosexuality was coined behavior became an identity. Men who engaged in sexual activity were quickly pathologized and transformed into a problem for medicine to solve.

The attachment of same-sex intimacy to an identity subject to treatment by the medical establishment helped push intimacy between men outside of the realm of day-to-day experience and into the closet. Intimacy between men disappeared as society turned gay men into the category of the tortured, feared, and despised other. Heterosexual men, fearing being labeled as the despised other, increasingly learned to avoid physical touch as well as any outward display of intimacy. Men who touched other men risked being identified as a homosexual. Straight men learned to avoid any intimate behavior with other men at all costs in order to avoid stigmatization.  Gay men learned to avoid physical intimacy to avoid harassment and physical violence.

In stated and unstated ways our amateur public historians on the internet catalogue images of seemingly gay men while projecting our contemporary tortured understandings of masculinity onto men from the past.

real men--heterosexual, courageous and physically strong--[are] defined against effeminate forms of masculinity. Where real men [are] emotionally wooden, gay men [are] like burst water valves: expressive, flamboyant and potentially contaminating. (click here for the full article by Alecia Simmonds)

Jason Reed/Reuters
Of course if we looked outside of the oppressiveness of the Unitied States we'd see some different images of intimacy between men. Take for example this moment where President Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah held hands. Watch this CBS video and see Americans (and American broadcast journalists) enact American style homonegativity and heteronormativity.

  • What do you think it would take to restore a culture in which intimacy (physical and emotional) between men could occur without threat or fear?
  • Do you even think it's important that men (gay, straight, bi, or heteroflexible) are allowed to have intimacy?

Far more than we realize, young males wait to be released from their heterosexual straightjackets. --Ritch Savin Williams & Kenneth Cohen

For more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Adam and Steven in the Garden of Eden: On Intimacy Between MenVintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William Gedney; It's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford Barton; These Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | Disfarmer; Desire and Difference: Hidden in Plain Sight, Come Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser Bush, Hugh Mangum: Itinerant Photographer, Two men, Two Poses; Photos are Not Always What They Seem, Vintage Sailors: An Awkward Realization, Three Men on a Horse, Welkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex Marriage, Pretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese Men, Memorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor Love, Memorial Day: Vintage Dancing Sailors, The Curious Case of Two Men Embracing, They'll Never Know How Close We Were, Vintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert Gant, Homo Bride and Groom Restored to Dignity, The Men in the Trees, The Girl in the Outhouse, Tommy and Buzz: All My Love,Men in Photo Booths, and Invisible: Philadelphia Gay Wedding c. 1957. You can also follow me on Tumblr.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dear Young Therapist: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Freedom/Medfield Asylum
"Why is this child? Why did God create it? That's all I've ever wondered."

Thirty years from now, I often wonder what documentarians would say about how I and treat people who experience phenomena deemed to constitute mental illness. What will people say about my work? What will my patients think looking back at the experience of our mutual encounter within the confines of the therapeutic enterprise?

Watching this Oscar nominated documentary Children of Darkness by Richard Kotuk, I'm reflecting on my first experiences working within the mental health system. More than twenty years ago, living in Ithaca New York, I was a resident counselor for a supervised apartment program for people who had both developmental disabilities and mental illness. The residents had all grown up in large institutions. Caught up in waves of deinstitutionalization, they found themselves transferred to less restrictive environments.

I worked for a progressive organization that believed that any person, regardless of their disability, should be afforded the right to make an informed choice and the right to have dignity of risk. My employer created a network of group homes and supervised apartment programs that created simulated families for people who had no families. We created simulated communities for people who had been hidden from the community since birth. We worked hard to find ways to build bridges into the community, to help those who had been discarded find entrance and connection with the rest of us. A real life, rather than a simulated one.

Some residents were born with Down syndrome, others had Autism, and others had what was referred to at the time as mild to moderate mental retardation. The residents also experienced schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. One man struggled with pedophilia. Another young man was gay: I remember occasionally driving him to a store so he could buy gay oriented pornography.

For $6.33 an hour I worked Sunday through Thursday, 3-11pm. My responsibilities? I was the recreational coordinator: that means it was my job to come up with activities for the residents to do. We'd see movies, go bowling, take line dancing lessons, swim, and even take the occasional trip to New York City. I can't believe, barely even 21 years old, I was allowed to drive a van to NYC and take a small group of residents to the top of the Statue of Liberty.

When I left that job the residents organized a surprise party for me. I walked into an apartment and they all started singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow." I'm still a little overwhelmed each time I think of that day.

My Funny Valentine Propaganda from #CheersToSochi

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dear Young Therapist: That Time my House Burned Down

It all started with my StarTAC flip phone ringing. Don't judge. It was 2002.

Without saying hello my friend Tina said "I'm so glad you finally have cell phone service. I got to your apartment a little early. Are you here yet?"

"No," I said. "I'm about 20 minutes away in Concord."

"Okay," she said softly into the phone. I'm having trouble getting to your apartment. There are fire trucks blocking the main entrance to your complex. I'll call you back when I figure out what's going on."

I continued on my way back home not really thinking much of the phone call. I lived in a large complex of apartment buildings and fire alarms went off all the time. Opening the oven door would often trigger the alarm in my apartment. Especially when I attempted to make naan on a pizza stone. 

My phone rang again. 

"Are you still driving?"

"Um, yes," I said.

"Can you pull over?"

My heart sank. "Yes?"

"The fire trucks are in front of your building. There are flames shooting out of the roof."

I accelerated toward home.

La Oroya: Full Metal Air

After a recent chat on Twitter with a grad student doing research in a particular Peruvian town, I learned about the town of La Oroya that has a smelling plant, recently liquidated by the United States company Doe Run. It provides us with a variety of heavy metals that assist our lives. It also poisons the children of the area.

Watch this documentary. These sorts of things happen to people in our name, for our products, and our convenience.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

George and Martha: Reflections on my Mother's Storytelling

Martha loved to look into the mirror
Today the blogger and extraordinarly talented therapist Martha Crawford wrote about the perils and gifts of mirrors. You should spend some time reading and sitting with her writing. Each post slowly reveals itself to you over time and becomes a little jewel of thought.

When I was young, my mother would endlessly read (complete with theatrical voices) to satisfy my voracious appetite for stories. It's hard to tell who had more fun.

Among my favorites were James Marshall's books about George and Martha, two hippopotami with a complicated relationship. Each story came complete with a lesson of how to deal with the vicissitudes of friendships. Hippopotami, you see, often come into conflict when they don't meet each others needs or have trouble seeing the same situation eye-to-eye.

In one particular story, The Mirror, Martha was shown to be a hippo who was entranced with her own image in her mirror. In fact, she would wake up in the middle of the night and gaze at her beautiful reflection. She'd giggle about how fun it was to see and appreciate herself.

I can totally understand why Martha liked looking at her reflection. Look at that soft gray skin, those pearly white button teeth, and how that tasteful matching bow and tulip brings out the shape of her nostrils. She's down right adorable. Why shouldn't she appreciate her own reflection?

Perhaps Martha was having a vanity crisis and needed a little extra validation? I'm not sure. If she was my friend I would have been sure to tell her how much I appreciated her.

Anyway, George got a little annoyed with all this mirror gazing (perhaps he wanted to be seen too, we'll never know as that action took place off the page). He devised himself a clever little plan to teach Martha a lesson.

George snuck into Martha's room during a rare moment she wasn't gazing at herself and tapped a grotesque picture over her mirror. Martha gasped when she saw the reflection.

How could Martha not have been horrified at such an image? She cried out over her grotesque image wanting to know what has happened to her. George, being the rascal that he was, said this is what happens to us when we spend too much time looking at our reflection in the mirror. Having learned her lesson, Martha made the vow never to look at herself in the mirror again.

As an adult I've learned that mirrors are much more complicated technology. Sometimes I look into them and see imperfections, other times I see distortions, and still other times I see a self-aggrandized view of my own handsome good looks.

Crawford writes in her blog that "the first literal and metaphorical mirror we encounter is the gleam in the mother's eye." My mother likes to tell the story that when I was young I was always sit backward in my stroller to look at her. I couldn't begin to imagine what my experience was. Perhaps I saw her, or found comfort in seeing a familiar and reassuring face, or maybe it was that I saw myself reflected back and was comforted by my own image?

I suspect Martha the hippopotamus was lost in her own funhouse mirror of reflections. I'd like to think that through George's practical joke, Martha was able to shake herself loose from those distortions and help her see something more important: how she could see herself through her impact on those around her.

Mirrors aren't so bad. It's just they are complicated and we are never really sure what is looking back at us. The mirror is a great place to start looking if you are looking for change.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Dear Young Therapist: Don't Call People Names

The liberatory potential of psychotherapy is immense. Conversely, without careful thought or reflection, our tools can rapidly become an oppressive force that perpetrates violence rather than forwarding the potential of humanity. We can do so much damage to fellow human beings through carelessly (or willingly) referring to patients as categories of diagnostic representation. Individual and institutional violence can be perpetrated against our patients when we collapse our understandings of the complexities of our human experience into a label. It is so easy to lose sight of the dangers of misusing our power and position.

It is important to deeply consider the way in which we speak and think about the fellow human beings who we are privileged to share a portion of life with us.

In 1974 David Hawkins wrote an essay about the dialogue of I, Thou, and It. Extending his writing from education to psychotherapy, we might think of our work as a dialogue and interplay with these three points of an interconnected triangle. The I is therapist, Thou is patient, and It is the complex tableau of sexuality, race, culture, ethnicity, gender, family, theories of change and psychopathology, and scores of other factors.

I think a good psychotherapist is a reflective psychotherapist: one who constantly reflects and learns from what has happened and what is happening; who is continuously open to incorporating the experience and ways of knowing of their patients; who reflects on the interplay of I, Thou, and it; who constantly cultivates space for a voice that has not been heard to be heard. As an invitation to this reflective dialogue, I ask myself a lot of questions. Here are a few that are often in my mind:

  • What are the effects of labeling people transgenders, schizophrenics, borderlines, and narcissists? 
  • How are our diagnostic categories reflections of societal values that are rooted in male, European, middle/upper middle class, heterosexual centric values? Does it matter? Why or why not?
  • In what ways do we knowingly and unknowing remain ignorant of our implicit biases? How is are practice and impacted by knowing or not knowing (and believing or not believing) in implicit biases?
  • Do our interventions and theoretical orientations reflect our personal needs or the needs of our
    patients? How? Does it matter? Why or why not?
  • How do we help others make sense of a punishing world where the experience of the other is often demeaned, denied, or dismissed? How does our practice change if we do not acknowledge or agree with notions of microaggressions and institutional racism?
  • Are we willing to examine how we demean, deny, or dismiss the experiences of others?
  • Are we awarded special power by society as licensed therapists to categorize, describe, and label people? 
  • Do our patients have the power to name, describe, and understand their own experience? 
  • Do we share the power to name and understand experience? Do we keep the power for ourselves?
  • How does our theoretical understandings dictate our use and understanding of power?
  • Are we aware of how our position in society influence our ability to perceive our uses of power?
  • In what ways are our interventions designed to force people to conform to our expectations?
  • How do our answers and understandings of these questions (and the ones not asked) influence, limit, and expand our abilities to be helpful for any given patient?

What questions have I forgotten to ask? What questions don't I know to ask?

The other day I came across a disturbing trio of blog posts (here, here, and here). This blogger's posts are problematic on a variety of levels. Most notable is an apparent lack of awareness of how easily a therapist can abuse their position of power by enforcing their own personal heuristic of understanding a particular phenomena as the only heuristic of understanding a phenomena. The blogger appears to have no interest or ability to engage in any form of reflection that allows the experience of the other to be heard.

The final line of my of my previous letter to a young therapist is a good place to end once again.

Can you let a person sing their song and make meaning of it without encumbering them with your notions of what music should be?

Be reflective in your practice, young therapist. Keep asking questions. Keep listening to the other. Keep learning how to get out of the way to let the voice not yet heard be heard. Dare to let the tools of psychotherapy to bring liberation. Do not become a tool of control and colonization.