by Christine LaCerva
On May 17 the Social Therapy Group hosted a community dialogue on sexuality, gender and development as part of our new “Conversations with Practitioners” series. My guest at the event was Mark Beauregard, a creative arts and drama therapist who has done groundbreaking work using play and performance with his clients. I found our conversation, held in front of an audience of forty, to be extraordinary, and it was very moving to both of us. As therapists, we don’t often have the opportunity to create an open and exploratory dialogue with a community that is committed to creating a new, developmental psychology.
As therapists Mark and I are both madly in love with what we do, and our conversation helped us discover more about our work. We are both passionate advocates in our work with LGBTQ youth, and deeply committed to our patients’ democratic rights to grow and develop — sexually and otherwise. Neither of us make any claims of being neutral, and we both agree that this advocacy is central to growth — the patient’s and the therapist’s. We believe that people have the right to be who they are, as well as to become who they want to be. Our conversation went beyond the usual boundaries of child therapy as we explored our mutual passion for creating a place, an environment, for play and performance. We had a lot of stories to tell.
Mark talked about sessions in which he invites children to play and perform with cards that show archetypes, superheroes with a variety of characteristics. He told the story of a young boy who was struggling with his gender — can a boy wear pink and play with Tinkerbell? What happens if he does? The boy was experiencing disdain and dismay from both children and adults. Mark asked him to choose one of the archetype cards, and he picked the card that said “an ordinary person.” It was striking to me —both saddening and understandable — that a child who is having conflicts around gender has to deal with the limited societal choices prescribed by the gender-specified world we live in. It’s easy to imagine the pull for this child to want to perform as an “ordinary person,” someone who can make his own decisions and not be made to feel as if they are doing something wrong. The question this raises for me is: What is wrong with a culture that negates our capacity to play and perform new ways of being boys and girls (or men and women) together?
This “tyranny of the normal” teaches children very early that boys are not supposed to be into — among many other things — the color pink (yes, that is still going on!) and that girls must behave themselves — not be too loud, too aggressive, and definitely not be in charge. These are the rules and roles that are presented to our children every day. But how can we help young people who can’t, or won’t, or are just not interested in adapting to the existing culture? As therapists, I believe our job is to offer them something different, a new set of possibilities. In social therapy, our offer is the performance of being a “culture maker.”
In my work with families in social therapy, creating environments for this new performance is key. I want to share with you a transcript of this work in helping families learn how to play and perform together as culture makers.
Years ago, I worked with a five-year-old boy I will call Eddie. His parents brought him to social therapy because he was acting out in school and at home; for example, dressing up in a ballerina outfit (a pink one, of course), and prancing around when his sister’s friends came over. The family was horrified, and punished him and sent him to his room. Eddie’s sister wanted him banned from the apartment when her friends came by, and his parents — successful young professionals — told me they were frightened by what their son was doing.
I met with Eddie and his family and I asked the family to share their concerns. They said they felt he was acting out to get attention. Eddie’s mother felt they had spoiled him; his father was worried that this was about Eddie’s sexuality. They said they came into therapy to get the opinion of an expert. I told them that my expertise was in helping families play together and break out of the ways they were performing their relationships that were preventing them from being close. Eddie seemed thrilled by what I was saying — he said he thought he was here because he was “doing bad things.” I asked him what the “bad things” were. He said it was when he wore the ballerina outfit. I smiled and said nothing. The conversation with the family continued for awhile, and Eddie started to seem bored.
Eddie: What are we going to be doing here? Christine: We’re going to get to know each other.
Eddie jumped on my lap and began singing: “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…” He knew all the lyrics. I invited his parents to sing with us, and we all sang the song together. We were doing a new performance of family, and it was very emotional for all of us. Eddie was delighted.
A few sessions later
Christine: (To Eddie’s dad) What kind of help do you want? Father: I want to know if Eddie is gay. Christine: How would that be helpful to you? Father: I want to know if there is any way we can have an impact on him. Christine: How do you want to impact? Father: Do you think he is gay? Christine: I have no idea. Father: What’s with the ballerina outfit? Christine: If what you’re asking is “what is the meaning of all of this?” I think we have no idea. And I think that is, in fact, a good thing. I’m not interested in imposing any meaning or interpretation on you or your son. We can create something together without knowing very much about what anything means. Mother: I think my husband is saying he wants you to make sure that Eddie isn’t gay.
There was a silence.
Christine: (To Eddie’s mother.) How do you feel about this? Mother: I want to be close to my son, whatever he decides to do with his sexuality. Father: Okay — now I’m being portrayed as the bad guy. I just don’t want Eddie going out to the ice cream store in his ballerina outfit. Christine: How come? What’s the problem? Father: He’s being ridiculed. People are snickering as we pass by, laughing at him. Christine: I hear you. That sounds hard. I do have a question for you, though. Do you want to be close to your son? Father: (Angry) Why are you asking that? Isn’t clear that I love him? Christine: I think it’s important to work on how you perform your love for him. Do you want to love him from a distance. or from up close. This is a complex issue for your whole family. If you want to be close to him, then — given who Eddie and you are right now — it’s possible that some new performances are needed. Father: (Exasperated.) Uh-huh. Okay, so what do you suggest? Christine: Let’s do some exploring right here. If you’re worried about people making fun of Eddie, maybe you could join him. Father: Join him? What do you mean? Christine: Well, maybe to be closer to Eddie, you could play with him, play with what he’s doing. This has nothing to do with Eddie being gay or not — I have no idea what will come from this. We’re playing around with what matters to Eddie right now. Father: How? Christine: Well, you could dress up in your wife’s clothes, Eddie could wear his sister’s ballerina outfit and you could go get ice cream together. That’s one way to play that might help you get closer. Your problem would vanish! You wouldn’t need to worry about Eddie in this scenario.
A long silence.
Father: (Quietly.) What would I wear?
We all started laughing.
Mother: You could wear my bathrobe and fuzzy slippers. Eddie: Yeah, you could wear her pink robe!
We all sat there and let ourselves experience the power of creating a new performance of love and intimacy in family life.
A few days after the session, Eddie and his father went for ice cream dressed in their respective outfits.
They told me about this in the next session, and I became emotional. Eddie asked me what was wrong. I told him nothing was wrong, that I was very proud of him and his dad because they were working hard to be close and show how much they loved each other. Eddie got out of his seat and gave his dad a hug.
My work with Eddie and his family was completed near Eddie’s fifteen birthday. He told me he was ready to leave therapy. He had done a great deal of work on what kind of young man he wanted to be. There had been — and would be — struggles, for sure. He was continuing to explore his sexuality. And he was just fine.
I would love to hear what you think about play and performance and their role in sexuality, gender and development. Please leave a comment!