Salons and Divorce Doulas: How Queers Are Fighting the Trauma and Stigma of Divorce

“Queerness offers the promise of failure as a way of life… but it is up to us whether we choose to make good on that promise in a way that makes a detour around the usual markers of accomplishment and satisfaction.”

J. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

Gay marriage has been legal in the US in Massachusettes since 2004, Maine, Maryland, and Washington since 2012, and in all (well, at the time of this writing) US states since 2015.

So, while queer people have always found ways to bind themselves legally (or semi-legally) and assemble some of the legal protections and benefits provided by state-sanctioned marriage piecemeal, we have had access to the ability to gay marry for just the blink of an eye. That said, queer and trans marriage is not only same-sex marriage. Queers who are bisexual have married members of different genders, trans people have been able to marry partners in various ways —through “passing,” not “passing,” legally transitioning and more. There have been lavender marriages, where queer men and women and trans people married each other in hopes of concealing the queerness of one or both partners as a means of societal protection. And that’s nothing to say of the various marriages to cis heterosexuals that perhaps don’t work out for the queer or trans person in said marriage. Which only means that queer people have certainly been getting divorced since…forever. The early mid-century lesbian and queer history of Reno, NV, a longtime destination for divorce-bound individuals, points to as much.

In the United States, across all genders and sexual orientations, about half of first marriages end in divorce — statistics that only escalate for second and third marriages. So, it stands to reason that as more LGBTQ people legally marry, there are going to be more LGBTQ divorces, something that judges, lawyers, systems, and most importantly — queer people — aren’t used to.

When we started the work of planning Divorce Week, we envisioned talking to queer divorce lawyers, to couples counselors who work with queer and trans people on their relationships. We put out a call for experts; but within the pile of super enthusiastic responses, a couple of curious replies stood out. One was from a queer and trans psychotherapist, Morty Diamond, who ran something we hadn’t heard of, something he came up with, in fact — an LGBTQI Divorce Salon. Another reply was from AJ, a queer and trans divorce doula. What’s a divorce doula? Well, we can tell you that every divorced person on the team said that the service sounded like something they wish they’d had when going through their own queer divorce, so while we define it properly later, there’s that.

We came together to discuss both new methods and the now percolating sense that there are queer people out there who are finding the gaps in community support for queers going through divorce — and making an effort to find new ways to fill them. We suspected that, as with many instances of queers doing anything — divorce included — that our experiences would vary from the cishet norm.

Isolation is central to the trauma of divorce, of queer divorce, especially. So then, how can we in each of our own lives and communities contribute to and build a space where it’s safe to break up, where there can be accountability for harm that looks like repair and not punishment? And how can we prepare ourselves to approach interpersonal relationships from a perspective that prioritizes care, especially in divorce —and all the family and straight expectations, the state and the law, the financial institutions and legacy of the queer communities being under-resourced that come with it? Can we unpack our own internalized desires for retribution, punishment, and a clearly defined “right and wrong” while we’re doing it?

How do we show up for each other in ways big and small, and how do we navigate systems that maybe afforded us some value, but are also systems of oppression?

It was personal experience with the weight he carried while getting divorced that inspired Morty to create his Divorce Salon. “I actually literally was just on a walk, thinking about my divorce, and just really coming to this organically in a way, like, ‘Wow. It would’ve been so cool to be able to just pop into a salon and be like, ‘Ah, these things are happening between me and my ex. And she’s doing this and this and I really need help with [blank]. And has anybody dealt with this?’’ And I just basically agreed right then and there to make that happen for other people.”

Morty’s a trained psychotherapist, but he makes it clear that the salon runs differently from traditional group therapy, “I like to say at the beginning of the salon, ‘We’re all just showing up as ourselves.’ Some of us here are just starting the divorce process, and some of us have been divorced for years but are still struggling with it. And we’re just showing up as ourselves.”

“I like to start the salon by saying, ‘Please come and go as you please. Go get your tea, get your kombucha. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself.’ And then I really just say, ‘Who would like to start chatting? Who’s got a hot button thing on their mind that they want to start talking about?’ And that usually just gets us going into a topic.”

When AJ went through their first divorce, they were “surprised at how bad the people who loved me most were at supporting me, speaking frankly.” In addition to their work as a divorce doula, they also serve as a death doula and an abortion doula. They see connective tissue in all three, “These are things that I think are pretty scary in society or seen as not very good…And I think that can cause us to feel shame or isolated from community. And I think these are all just fundamentally good things. I think dying is good. I think abortions are good. And I think inter-divorce is a societal good, personal good. And I hope I can continue to change the narrative on that.”

AJ describes being a divorce doula as being a “cheerleader.” Who among us, going through a divorce, wouldn’t want someone who was there, no matter what, to tell you that it’s hard but you’re doing a good job, getting through? While therapy is a part of coping with divorce, it’s not the same as a doula, who combines being a listener with a guide and a mentor. A divorce doula is someone you can turn to when the paperwork is too hard, or you don’t know how to talk to your family, someone who is in your corner to support you no matter how “big” or “small” your concerns, without bringing biases to the conversation.

When it comes to queering divorce, both the idea of a salon, an intentional space for coping and healing as well as a doula, a guide and a cheerleader, are steps toward healing wounds caused by the alienation of late stage Capitalism. There are the societal expectations surrounding any marriage, any divorce. For everything that’s changed about the role of marriage over the past several decades, there is still immense pressure to tie the knot. The pressure can come from family, media, a desire to belong. But there’s also health insurance, medical care, inheritance and property rights, tax breaks — an array of motivations dangled by a capitalist machine to relegate people into nuclear families, so they can consume adequately and raise more workers.

As AJ points out:

“Because of a highly medicalized and sterilized and racist and Capitalist society, at least in this colonized one, we have become alienated from the process of death. Most people who die have never seen a dead body. It feels very scary. I think more broadly, we have become alienated from a lot of collective experiences and we believe that we have to do it all on our own. And that is a terrible feeling. We just feel more and more alone and more and more ashamed.”

“I think that grief is supposed to be something we experience collectively, together.”

***

“It can be difficult for queer people to escape the pull of cishet expectations…or of the acceptance of cishet family that can come with engagement and then marriage,” AJ explains, “you’re finally doing the thing that they still wanted you to do and you’re finally having kids. That was definitely part of my experience. And I had a kid, did the thing. And then you get a divorce. And so there’s this…I almost achieved — for some people.”

Morty dug into the shame and stigma that queer people who’ve finally reached that point of acceptance feel, on a family level, but also on a society level. Plenty of queer and trans people have felt the first pangs of real, serious acceptance as an adult in the family upon getting engaged or married. While LGBTQ+ people can have a Peter Pan air about them, seemingly perpetually youthful while cishets hurtle toward their ideals of age and “steadiness,” marriage is a tradition understood by our parents, our grandparents, our aunts, uncles, cousins, workplaces and coworkers, strangers — everyone. “A lot of people come into the salon and say, ‘I feel such shame… because getting married allowed my mom and dad to accept me as a fully fledged adult who’s adulting and doing great things in the world. And now that I’m getting a divorce, they really do see me as failed.’”

“I think we often have a desire to prove that we’re normal,” said AJ. “I don’t want to digress too much, but I think one of the biggest problems with HRC and the gay marriage movement… is the movement tried to say we’re really like cishets, and so you should give us the right to get married as opposed to saying, ‘We’re fucking awesome as queer people and get used to it.'”

Morty agrees, “There’s something really interesting about the shame around divorce, because we are already seen as lesser than in the broader sociopolitical… I mean, you know what’s happening, especially for trans folks across our country. It’s just hideous what’s happening in terms of our rights being stripped of us. So a lot of people in the salon have said, ‘I have literally fought for queer marriage. I was out there on the streets, and now look at me. Look at me. I feel such immense shame that I couldn’t do the thing that I literally fought so, so, so hard to get as a community, as a broader community and as a personal thing that I really, really wanted.'”

For queer people who come out as part of their divorce, the tumult is only compounded. But for queer or trans people who’ve already come out, who’ve dealt with feeling like they’ve deviated from the norm already, some of the social ramifications of divorce may feel familiar.

It’s a perhaps unexpected advantage. Whereas for cis straight people, often, a divorce is the first time they’ve left their prescribed path, queer people have been here before. As AJ framed it, “if you’ve never really in your life deviated. If this is the first time that you’ve done that, that can be hard. So in that way, I think that queer and trans folks, we’re way more resourced, have some experience in that already.”

There’s a reason, after all, that Torrey Peters dedicates Detransition, Baby! to divorced cis women:

“How do I figure out how to care about people and not be bitter, not see myself as a victim, not go back to some illusory idea of a Prince Charming saving me? The people who know how to do that are divorced women. Once I understood that, TERF arguments online, or questions of like, ‘Am I a woman or not?’ fell away. The actual practice of living for me is the same as for them. I felt that not in an intellectual way, but in my body and my heart. In my soul is this way of being a woman that I see all around me. Look what these other women are giving me. When I dedicated it to them, it wasn’t an olive branch, it’s the most classic form of dedication. It’s an homage.”

Here, in divorce, a “failure” to live up to heteronormative expectations, we find something like the queer or trans experience — a before, an after, a need to find a way to keep on going and to decide what comes next for ourselves.

***

Both AJ and Morty felt a need for their services because they saw people left isolated and unsupported during the divorce process — and they experienced as much themselves. Divorce, like death, is something that few want to talk about in depth. Or, it’s something you can’t relate to unless you’ve gone through it or currently are.

Then there are the additional layers of isolation that can come uniquely from within queer communities. For one, in “more radical” circles, there can be a sense of “What did you expect?” as Morty puts it. Sympathy is not always afforded to folks who bought into heteropatriarchal Capitalist institutions and found that they didn’t work out.

“That was my personal experience as well,” Morty shared. “I knew one person, a trans guy who had gone through divorce. And all my other friends were like…not in a mean way, but they were like, ‘Why did you get married in the first place?’ And I was like, ‘I needed health benefits!’ It’s not like I wasn’t in love with my partner. I was. But I think that a lot of people are really judgy around marriage in certain communities.”

“And yesterday,” Morty told us, “I got an email from a lesbian-identified person of color who’s gone in and out of the salon a couple of times and sent me this really heartfelt email that said, ‘I wish that we had a salon this week because something is happening with my ex-wife where she’s denying my parenting rights around this, this and that. It’s really destroying me and I can’t talk to anybody in my community. They just don’t get it. They don’t understand. I really need the salon this week.’ And I just felt so bad! Because we didn’t have the salon [that] week.”

It’s difficult to engage your community if your community by and large has never experienced divorce. Queer friend groups present further complications. While a cishet couple going through divorce may tend to split along man / woman lines — going with “the girls” or “the boys” during a separation — queer friendships can be much more entangled with multiple lines criss-crossing and intersecting. This might make things tense, or even particularly devastating in some cases.

“People coming to the salon saying, ‘I’ve been ostracized, people don’t even know my side of the story. And they just stopped talking to me because they’ve talked to my ex.’ This is stuff we need to grapple with,” Morty explained., “We’re talking about something I’ve talked about for 25 years, which is how we support each other in our communities, basically by not making somebody a pariah.”

“Even if they have done something, like I’m also…for seven years I did substance use counseling, specifically substance use counseling at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. And you would imagine how many people said, ‘I was just ostracized, completely ostracized from my community because I had a really bad meth use problem.’ We tend to have an issue about who to keep in community.” For queer and trans people who’ve often already experienced disownment and isolation, to lose a found family, a friend group, a community is devastating.

In conversation with Morty and AJ, the same questions came up: how do queer and trans people navigate a divorce in their community? How do we decide where we offer our support, to whom, and how much? If someone cheats, should they be excommunicated in the same way a sexual predator might? If not, why does that still occur? Who is allowed to speak their truth? Who is not allowed the space to speak at all? Is the practice of taking sides beneficial to the way we relate to each other in the long run? How do we take a restorative justice approach to being in community with someone who may have caused harm to their partner? Where should we, if at all, draw lines?

In the anthology Beyond Survival, adrienne maree brown writes about the harm of community ostracization within a restorative justice framework, asking “What can this lead to in an imperfect world full of sloppy, complex humans? Is it possible we will call each other out until there’s no one left beside us?… In the back of our minds is the shared, unspoken question: when will y’all come for me?”

When reviewing Beyond Survival for Autostraddle, Abeni Jones takes brown’s questions further, noting, “Crucial to this approach: it acknowledges, too, that someday the person on the outside could be us!” For those living by the principles of restorative justice, ostracization is “just a punishment that has the effect of severing rather than building relationships, it can only exacerbate issues rather than resolve them.”

***

There’s also the fact that many queer people are polyamorous. When a poly person goes through a divorce, AJ describes what follows as a ripple effect. Not only does the divorce affect the couple divorcing, it also touches other partners, and then their partners (the divorcee’s metamours), too. “Let’s say you’re monogamous and you’re getting a divorce. Most people don’t date right away. They’re like, I’m going to just focus on myself. Which is also a really good strategy. It is really hard to be going through a divorce and have other romantic partnerships to be taken care of. You’re exhausted, you’re grieving. And so something that I recommend to poly people going through a divorce or the people supporting them, is that your partner is just going to be a little unhinged for a year.” At this point, communication can seem like a trite word when it comes to relationships, but nonetheless it’s paramount to maintaining polyamorous relationships while a partner (or two) goes through a divorce.

AJ provides a personal example, “​​I have this long-distance partner, Seattle to Portland, so not that far. We could drive to see each other. And then my marriage, that was local obviously. My long-distance partner and I would see each other once or twice a month, it was very regular… That partner, he’s pretty-much just a structured human being. And as I’m going through this divorce, I start rescheduling our dates a lot, and our trips, and I’m like, ‘Oh, can we move this or can we move that?’…I was such a chaotic mess in this divorce and eventually he was like, ‘I’m getting really exhausted switching up my schedule.’ And he has a husband too, and he’s like, ‘This is affecting me. It’s affecting my husband. It’s affecting…This is really hard for me.’”

“One of the things that I had said to this partner was, ‘I really need a lot of stability right now,’ but I was talking about my spouse that I was divorcing. But this partner was like, ‘I’m hearing you say you need stability and I’m trying to provide that for you, but you’re just always rescheduling.’ And after I thought about that, I [realized], ‘Well, what I need from you is actually a lot of flexibility. Can you provide that for me? Or again, without judgment, should we pause trips for a while because I’m not capable of being stable right now. I’m just not capable of keeping plans at all. I’m sorry. And I hate that that affects you, but I would be lying to you if I said I will be feeling the same way next week, or that something isn’t going to come up with my kid.’”

Once AJ and their partner were able to have honest communication, AJ noted “he was like, ‘Oh, shit. Yeah, let me work on being more flexible.’” Eventually, about six months after their discussion, AJ was able to return to “the homeostasis of having a pretty stable relationship. And I’m so grateful we’re still together that he was able to be flexible there. And so I think expecting your romantic relationships to just go through some tumult and trying to keep your eyes on the long-term goal of we love each other, let me support you.”

Polyamorous divorcees also come up against biases from their monogamous friends and family. “A lot of times, the unsolicited advice people give is you could probably avoid your divorce if you weren’t polyamorous or have you considered breaking up with the other people?,” AJ warns.

Often relationships that begin as monogamous and then “open up” can end in divorce. But, as AJ notes, that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself —and it doesn’t necessarily mean that closing down the relationship is the solution, either. Sometimes, it’s just time. “Often divorces with poly people are because the transition didn’t work. And I find it really difficult to get that kind of well-intentioned, but not helpful advice.”

So, what if you wanted to do better by a friend going through a divorce, of any kind? On a 1:1 level, it’s really simple. Above all, both Morty and AJ stressed listening, without judgment, without suggestions unless you’re asked, and without bringing your own biases about marriage and divorce to the conversation.

“Don’t tell them…’Oh, you should have done this. You should have gone to this attorney. You should have’…No, no, no, no, no, no. That often feels, again, doubly shaming,” Morty warns. “It can be tempting to try to help a friend navigate all the complexities, but the thing they might need the most is to actually be heard because in conversations with family, with their ex, with people bringing judgment with them — being heard is probably the need being met the least.”

Also, be prepared that the divorced person in your life is often going through an uproar of conflicting emotions which can be difficult for family and friends to witness. AJ’s work with clients frequently touches on this topic, “these friends, these beloveds who care about my clients so much are really struggling with the back and forth. And they don’t want to be, they love this friend. But it’s exhausting to be like, yeah, fuck that person one week, and then we support you the other week. And [as a person going through divorce] it is a really important need to feel like you have the space to do that, to want to flip-flop.”

“Often I play that role. I’m like, come talk to me about how unsure you are or that you actually called your ex one over and slept at their house. People are invested in us and our well-being, and it can be really emotionally exhausting to be the friend that just watches you ping pong. So [as a divorced person], figuring out what your needs are and then who is resourced to meet those needs and making those adjustments I think is really important.”

When going through a divorce, it may seem basic but it’s a good idea to map out one’s support network and to really, intentionally, look at who can support, in what ways, and how much. Then make those needs clear — and to focus on bringing certain conversations or needs to the right people. Morty also warned, for example, that after multiple experiences of witnessing fellow queer and trans people face severe financial consequences in divorce, it might be worthwhile to avoid mediation unless the divorce is actually non-contentious. Mediation can seem like the “queerer” route, but when one half of the splitting couple drags their feet or creates a lot of back and forth, it can cost more than just hiring an attorney would have.

It’s also important to attempt radical honesty with oneself. The people around us can only support our changing needs if they know what those are. Maybe a friend you met for brunch a couple times a month when things were stable would be happy to support you by spending a Saturday afternoon helping you pack boxes with pizza and beer. It doesn’t mean that you will never go back to carefree meetups, but for now, you have different needs. Maybe your need for alone time will increase and you’ll want to see people in-person less frequently, but text more. Maybe it’s the opposite. You might need to see your therapist more often, if affordable, or tell your mother that, no, you can’t talk about the divorce with her even though you normally talk about “everything.”

When we think about queering what it looks like to get support during your divorce, or to support someone else going through one, one thing becomes clear — we have to look at the thing that freaks us out, right in the eye. Embracing sticky truths, complexities, and the moral gray areas of life that make us uncomfortable allows us to show up for each other in new ways. We can hold space for queer and trans people to be supported, less alone, and to be better able make decisions with an eye toward the future, as opposed to with a grip on fear.

Queering divorce means divesting the idea of divorce from the notion of failure — or embracing The Queer Art of Failure. We use the systems we must to survive, marriage included. But what if we did our best to disallow those same systems from punishing us when we, as queer people, don’t fit a mold that was never made for us in the first place?

“I think the most successful marriages are the ones that end when they’re supposed to.” — AJ, a divorce doula


Divorce Week is a celebration of taking a life-changing step, of coming out the other side of devastating trauma and being all the better for it. It’s co-edited and curated by Nico Hall and Carmen Phillips. Remember, you may be divorced, but you’re not alone.

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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 700 articles for us.

Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director, and has been fundraising and working in the arts and nonprofit sector for over a decade. They write nonfiction and personal essays and are currently at work on a queer fiction novel and podcasts. They live in Pittsburgh. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram as @nknhall.

Nico has written 222 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. I loved this article— I never heard of a divorce doula before but now I want to get one for everyone I love. This was thoughtful and gave me so much to think on about how to show up. One of my favorite pieces from AS, thanks for all of the deep diving

    • L.M. – this means so much, thank you! This week was, for all it being about the dissolution of relationships, a real labor of love and I am so glad that you found this article helpful and thought-provoking. Here’s to showing up for each other!!

  2. I appreciate this so much. When I got divorced, I didn’t know anyone in my relative age range (early 30s) who had done it. I felt so isolated and literally said “I need a divorce doula!” so I am so glad that’s a thing! So many things about my divorce were not what I expected. It felt like a loving right-fitting of my relationship with my ex from a marriage to a friendship. We delayed finalizing our divorce so I could keep health insurance when I god laid off, and began calling each other “comrade” because it felt more like a labor union than a marital union. Thank you for writing about this.

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