Gender, sexuality, and other things that don’t belong in boxes

“I’ve always felt that sexuality is a really slippery thing. In this day and age, it tends to get categorized and labeled, and I think labels are for food. Canned food.”

Michael Stipe, musician, artist, and activist

We all do it. Some of us do it more than others. Some of us feel guilty about doing it and only do it when we think no one is watching. Others freely embrace doing it and don’t care who sees them. I’m talking of course about that most ubiquitous of procrastination activities…web surfing. You know how it goes. At first it’s just going to be one or two cute cat videos on YouTube and next thing you know you’ve fallen down that technology rabbit hole only to emerge an hour later knowing WAY too much about the latest South Korean dance phenomena.


Never fear, for I have something that can help assuage your web-surfing guilt. Someone recently told me about the website Upworthy, whose stated mission is “To make meaningful stories go viral.” It’s a collection of videos, stories, newsclips, and other gems from the internet that run the gamut from environmentalism to feminism to politics to just everyday awesome stuff. What makes this site so compelling is that it’s based on the brilliant idea that the “things that matter in the world don’t have to be boring and guilt-inducing.” I read one person describe the site in the following way: “Upworthy has a recipe for chocolate-covered news broccoli that actually tastes delicious.” And it’s true. In contrast to the fear mongering and sensationalism too often seen in the popular news media, when I peruse through my Upworthy feed I almost invariably find something that inspires me, that pushes me to take action on an issue that really does matter to me.

Sexual continuum versus boxes

One of my favorite videos on the site is one called “Everything You Wanted To Know About Human Sexuality But Were Afraid To Ask.” This clever and incredibly informative video succinctly sums up everything I try to teach my students about our outdated, bifurcated notions of sex and gender. It’s a commentary on sexuality, gender, attraction, and stigma all rolled up into one less-than-4-minute video. Hank Green, who created the video says, “My goal with this video is I want people to understand because I think understanding will lead to less hate and also less self-hate.”

In Green’s video, he talks about all the different factors that go into a person’s sexual identity, including their sex, gender identity, romantic orientation, sexual orientation, and sexual behavior.


Through this video, we can see that all of these factors are on a continuum, rather than binary boxes (e.g., male versus female). We can then appreciate how beautifully complex and infinitely varied we humans are when it comes to our sexuality. And when we aren’t set on trying to shove everyone into one or two discrete boxes, the possibility opens up that maybe there isn’t a “right” and “wrong” way of being; maybe there are an infinitely varied identities, sexualities, and genders and this can be alright. So, I say out with the old boxes and let’s make room for everyone on this beautifully rich continuum we call sexuality.

Gratitude – It does a relationship good!

“Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” ― Marcel Proust

“She never appreciates all the things I do”. “He just seems to take me for granted”. Sound familiar? You wouldn’t be alone if these sentiments ring true for you. One of the most common complaints I hear from clients about their relationships is that they don’t feel appreciated.

Relationship auto-pilot

It’s difficult right? We get into a routine and go into auto-pilot. And auto-pilot works very well to get all the competing demands of life met. Imagine if the Captain and Co-Pilot of an airplane had to discuss who is going to do every single task, every single time they flew? That probably wouldn’t work out so great.

But what can happen in our relationships when everything is running on auto-pilot is that we forget to stop and notice that there is a co-pilot on our journey with us. Often the only time we notice is when there is a glitch in the system and someone drops the ball. Many of us are much quicker to point out when our partner has failed in some expectation we have of them, than we are to stop and express appreciation for those ways that our partners contribute to our daily life.

Gratitude—good for them and good for you

And yet, according to a group of researchers from Florida State University, expressing appreciation, even for everyday things, can have a pretty big impact on your relationship. They conducted a series of studies investigating the link between expressions of gratitude and positive feelings (specifically “communal strength”) evidenced in couples. Not surprisingly, they found that individuals who felt more positively about their relationship expressed more gratitude towards their partners. That seems like a no-brainer—it’s pretty easy to tell our partners how much we appreciate them when we are feeling all lovey-dovey towards them. However, what was more interesting was that they also found that when partners expressed gratitude, that increased positive feelings about the relationship for the person who was expressing the gratitude. In other words, when we express gratitude it ends up making us feel more positively about our relationships. So it may be that when you’re feeling down on your relationship or frustrated with your partner, that may be the best time to express appreciation.

And all this might also be relevant if you’re spending the coming holiday season with family. The positive impacts of expressing gratitude seem to extend beyond just partners/spouses. When we express gratitude for friends and family, that also results in us feeling more positively about those relationships. So, if you’re planning on making the big trip out to visit a family that can be “challenging” at times (not that I’m saying that ever happens to you of course!), maybe consider intentionally expressing appreciation to irritating Aunt Edna or grumpy Brother Bill. You may end up feeling more positively about those relationships as a result.

And in the midst of it all, see if you can disengage the autopilot for a bit and take some time to appreciate that cherished co-pilot you have there by your side. They will likely appreciate it and, if the researchers at Florida State are right, it may also do your heart some good.

“You’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid”: Is it time to revise our gender boxes?

“Little boxes made of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same”

Little Boxes, by Malvina Reynolds

Humans and categories

Oh how we humans love our boxes! Black/white, good/bad, Democrat/Republican, female/male. These nice neat categories make us feel safe, like we understand the world around us!

It’s true that categories are incredibly useful. They us help quickly and efficiently (albeit not 100% accurately) deal with the massive amounts of information that bombard us every day.  However, it seems to me that categories are more like guidelines; they are the cheat sheets for how to function in the world. They are good as a starting point, but they aren’t going to give you the whole picture. Treating these categories like they are an accurate substitute for how the world really functions is sort of like relying on the Cliff Notes version of Moby Dick—you get the general picture that it’s about some guy and a whale, but you miss a lot of the important stuff that makes the book great.

When I look around the world, it seems to me that very few things in life, or at least very few of the interesting things, can be grouped into neat little checkboxes. Rather, most of the interesting things in life fall on a continuum, a diverse spectrum where the colors bleed together to create the whole. So the idea that something as rich, complex, and interesting as one’s gender identity (that is, a person’s subjective sense of being male, female, both, or neither) could be simplified down to a simple two-choice checkbox seems dubious to me. And yet, that is pretty much how the vast majority of us think about gender, male/female right?

Gender Spectrum

In recent years, more and more people have been calling for a more inclusive, more nuanced way to talk about the continuum of gender identity. And many of those calls have been coming from the parents of young children who some refer to as “gender nonconforming”, kids who identify as something other than the neat little  male or  female categories.

Several weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine ran a story called “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?”. In the article there were several stories of parents with young children who were grappling with how best to respond to their child’s nonconforming gender identity. They talked about the struggle to try to figure out what was best for their child amidst the frequently conflicting views various medical and mental health professionals, peers, educators, and family. They talked about the struggle to help their child navigate a society where, by and large, we maintain a fairly rigid concept of gender. Talking about that struggle, one mother wrote:

“It might make your world more tidy to have two neat and separate gender possibilities, but when you squish out the space between, you do not accurately represent lived reality. More than that, you’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid.”

Should we revise our boxes?

Gender identity is a complex issue. And parenting is an even more complex and sensitive issue. And I certainly don’t purport to have the answer for how all parents should handle such complex issues with their children. And really, that isn’t my point here. Rather, what I was most struck by as I read the article in the Times was how strongly attached we humans are to our categories, how certain we are that they are “right”. And most of all, how scary it can be when those categories start to get challenged. But in clinging to those categories, maybe it’s the case that there are a bunch of kids (and adults too!) who are getting “squished out”. I don’t know what the right answer is for every parent, but I do think it would be a good beginning for our society to revisit this whole concept of gender and how we categorize it. With an open dialogue from a position of curiosity rather fear masquerading as certainty, maybe we’ll discover that there is more to this whole gender thing than we first thought. And maybe Moby Dick is about more than just some guy chasing a whale.

Why antipsychotics should not be prescribed for anxiety

The Oregonian published an Op-Ed piece that my colleague Christeine Terry and I wrote. The article addresses the growing practice of off-label use of antipsychotic medications to treat anxiety-related problems. Our aim was to bring public consciousness to this troubling trend.

We write:

Despite this lack of evidence, a 2007 study found nearly 1 in 4 (21 percent) of individuals who sought treatment for anxiety were prescribed an antipsychotic. Moreover, as Friedman points out, studies are finding that the newer “atypical” drugs have harmful side effects, such as increased cholesterol, movement disorders (e.g., Parkinson’s-like symptoms) and weight gain. Given the increasing numbers of people taking these medications, the risks associated with their use and the lack of research support for many common off-label uses, this is a huge concern.

You can read the brief (500 words) article on Oregon Live here.

Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy