When I work with straight men who are recovering from childhood sexual abuse sometimes I find myself thinking, “He sounds like a gay man.” Commonly, my straight client will be grappling with issues around sexual shame as a result of the abuse, whether his abuser was female or male.
Shame is a nearly universal experience for gay men. Even if a gay man has not been physically sexually abused, his experience growing up in a homophobic culture can be considered a form of sexual abuse.
The culture teaches every gay youth that something essential about their core sexual self is different, and more commonly, gross and weird. The typical result of this teaching is that gay men believe it, even when they grow up and start to question its validity.
I’m highlighting this regrettable comparison because gay men often minimize the psychological impact of their experiences growing up gay. There has been so much exciting recent progress in gay marriage equality that I believe it feeds a growing tendency to assume that our childhood exposure to humiliation is no longer an issue.
I often hear, “That happened long ago and I’m over it.”
Decades of psychological research has proven that our experiences growing up make a huge difference in our well being. The root cause of much of the anxiety and low self-esteem experienced by gay men can often be traced back to childhood experiences with homophobic parents, relatives and classmates.
Uncovering and releasing each piece of internalized homophobia requires an ongoing commitment to your own self-observation and re-education. Here are some suggestions that may help you stay on the path to recovery from your exposure to homophobia:
- Keep reading autobiographical books and essays by gay men so that you can see your life experiences validated by the experiences of others. My current favorite is the 2011 book of essays by Ryan Van Meter entitled, If You Knew Then What I Know Now.
- Start to notice when you disparage members of the gay community or yourself as being “too feminine.” It is very easy to blindly accept the cultural teaching that femininity in men is bad. But if you take the time to explore this you’ll realize that this is just an arbitrary, manufactured cultural idea that has no basis in truth.
- Join gay political groups like the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, or GLAAD and read their newsletters to raise your political consciousness and to help invoke your outrage at the injustice still levied at people simply for being gay.
- Continue searching for a group of gay friends who will validate and mirror your experiences. Avoid bringing homophobic people into your social circle. Their beliefs are toxic to your personal health.
It is abusive to tell young people that their same-sex gender attraction is bad. Like recovery from sexual abuse, the process of healing from these influences takes awareness, diligence, and support.
What subtle or not-so-subtle messages about homosexuality did you learn growing up in your community?