What's the solution to gay shame? I've only found one way, writes Lee Suckling.
It's easy to think that life is peachy these days if you're white and gay.
Equal rights via marriage equality have been around for over five years now. Gay people can be out at work without fear. They can hold hands in public without attracting attention. The AIDS epidemic has largely been forgotten, and we now even have a daily pill we can take to prevent HIV transmission.
It's such a cliché that all gay people's adulthood issues stem from their childhood relationships with their families. I've spent almost 34 years passively denying this in my own life. The white gay guy who blames his parents is a boring trope, and I had a wonderfully supportive upbringing – so thought it completely irrelevant.
Yet I still live with gay shame.
Born in the mid-1980s, I grew up in a "Gay = AIDS" world. I knew from four or five years old that society hated gays. Nobody ever told us it was okay to be gay. We were demonised by politicians on the news. In 1986 the Salvation Army led the movement that provided the NZ Parliament with the largest petition ever: 820,000 people saying homosexuality should not be legalised. We knew we were different, years before sexual desire for the same sex even emerged. We felt the need to hide, to be quiet and invisible, to never ruffle the feathers of the straights for fear of being thought of as feminine, disease-carrying, mentally-ill deviants.
When this is your life during your childhood and adolescent years, you feel shameful. You feel like you're not supposed to be who you are. You live with unplaceable guilt. You feel flawed, inadequate, and undeserving.
Even with supportive parents – who never once uttered homophobic sentences in our house – during the years I was coming to terms with being different, I felt like I was bad. I felt wrong, off, queer. Every time I was outside of home, I felt like a walking target for people – other kids, their parents, the woman working at the supermarket – to pick on me. To call me names and infer I was less than them. I truly believed I was in a world that hated me (long before I had any idea why), so I learned to check myself and selectively conceal who I was inside.
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Fast forward to the 2010s and it doesn't make sense that this (seemingly dissipated) world is relevant anymore. If you live in the middle-class Anglo West without strong religious ties, being gay seems widely okay. Especially since the dawn of equal marriage, many think it's a complete non-issue. We have effectively assimilated and been accepted, right? So why would negative experiences decades ago still affect us now?
That's the way gay shame works. It's instilled in you from your formative years when you're learning about your place in the world. You cannot unlearn the suffering from keeping a secret; one that makes you feel worthless.
Even today, in 2019 where I am a proud gay man, that shame still sits within. I worry about acting "too gay" in public and being noticed. I sit on the train or at one of my husband's work functions and subconsciously wonder, "do any of you have a problem with me?" when I look around.
It's instilled in you from your formative years when you're learning about your place in the world.
The fact that I – as a reasonably-masculine, confident man with a white appearance – can hide my sexuality if I need to only further contributes to the shame. Unlike being another minority (e.g. a person of colour), I have the privilege of choosing who knows about my minority status, and who doesn't. This can protect me, but means I don't have to accept being different all the time. I can pick-and-choose to appear part of the majority.
Having this option only hurts gay people in the long run. Trans people cannot generally pass as cisgender. Black and brown people cannot pass as being caucasian. These groups must accept who they are because they have no other options. But if you're white, hetero-presenting, and L, G, or B, you know you have the choice to make your experience in the world less marginalised. You have more freedoms than other minorities, but because they are optional liberties, using them cements that internal, to-the-core feeling of difference. It makes us less comfortable – not more – in our own skin.
What's the solution to all this gay shame? I've only found one way. Accepting it. Every day, I acknowledge that any feelings of insecurity and unease are learned. Society taught me how to feel like this, and denying it is most of the strain. It makes perfect sense that I'm a perfectionist, or that I get socially nervous. I see these same attributes in other gay men who are often perceivably over-achieving, socially anxious, or desperate for validation.
I could pretend it's for other reasons, or I can accept that it's just the way I feel sometimes because of my younger, unshakeable experience. Gay shame is a part of who I am, and I can choose to be OK with that.