Despite how mainstream homosexuality has become, when it comes to personal experiences there is still a stigma around being gay. This is true in varying degrees across North America, due to differing levels of acceptance (Canada with gay marriage vs. the US who is still trying to pull their head out of their ass– I can say that, I’m American), but regardless of where you live, coming out isn’t easy.
I think there are a lot of reasons why this is the case. Traditional religions continue to preach that homosexuality is abnormal, immoral and wrong. Society perpetuates various gay stereotypes which can be hard for some gay men to identify with when they are first coming out. Coming out places you immediately into a minority group, which may not be something someone has experienced before. There is angst about disappointing your family & friends, about the ramifications that could come from accepting that part of yourself and just overall fear of the unknown.
It’s my opinion that this stigma has a serious affect on the gay community. It frequently causes people who have recently come out to lash out, go to extremes, and struggle with finding who they are in the context of adding “homosexual” to their list of attributes. We’ve all seen it– the kid from a small town who’s just come out and quickly becomes the local chew toy, etc…
How different would the experience be if we lived in a society that taught their children acceptance? A society that didn’t incite fear into the minds of their youth by teaching them that being gay means you’re a freak, that you’ll never be happy. A society that advocates love without conditions rather than love with restrictions…
At the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I’ll use my own experience as an example. However, bear in mind that while it deals a lot with religion, this should in no way be construed as me being anti-religion, because I’m not. Religion has its benefits just like anything else– and an article about acceptance that then rips into the religious sector would be hypocritical to its core meaning.
I grew up in the suburbs, south of Salt Lake City, Utah in what is referred to as “Happy Valley” due to the extremely concentrated LDS population. As most people know, Utah is home base to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints– otherwise known as the “Mormons” or “LDS”, and I was born into it and raised as a member. Now, before I get into the rest of this, there are a couple of things you need to know about the LDS church. Mormons are not permitted to have pre-marital sex and masturbation is also forbidden. I also need to mention that Mormon’s don’t do “confession” in the Catholic sense, but there is a “repentance” process to be followed if you sin. Part of that process includes going to your bishop (the equivalent to a pastor/local church leader) and confessing to him. It’s also not uncommon for young adults to also inform their parents, and may or may not be required to by the bishop.
My family- while not perfect (whose is?)- is amazing and I love them with all my heart. Overall, I had a great childhood. Even as an openly gay man, I attribute much of who I am today to growing up as a Mormon and to the strength of my family. Having said that, like most people, there were periods of my childhood when I was the brunt of jokes, picked on and bullied. I spent most of grades 5 through 8 being called names like “fag” and “pretty boy”, which is difficult for any kid (whether he realizes he’s gay or not).
I was about 13 when I had my first sexual experience with another boy, who was about my same age. We went to school and church together and though I was sexually active with guys from then until my senior year of high school, I had no idea that I was actually gay until my Dad told me so.
At various points, I would meet with my parents & bishop (separately) and start the repentance process for what I was doing with these other guys. Each time, I explained what I’d been up to filled with guilt, shame and remorse, but at no time did I actually think I was gay. I just thought I was doing bad things and that eventually, I’d stop; meet a great girl; get married and that would be that. During my last conversation of this type with my parents- the summer just before 12th grade- my Dad finally just said: “Kevin, you’re gay.”
I lost it. I mean seriously, lost it. I was shocked that my own father, of all people, would join the ranks of bullies that kept telling me I was gay. I was a Mormon, I couldn’t possibly be gay! After my initial shock and burst of outrage, my Dad stopped me by saying “Kevin, I’m not trying to be mean. Tell me what gay men do.” I told him and he answered by saying “Okay, now tell me what you’ve been doing?” and as soon as the words left my mouth… I knew.
Blah blah blah– fast forward three years to the time when I finally gave up trying to “fix it” and just accepted that I was gay, deciding that there is nothing wrong with it. I told my parents (it didn’t go well), moved up to Salt Lake City and then started a 2-year string of making bad decisions. After spending years in an environment that forced me to block out even the possibility of who I was, and then subsequently to spend years trying to “fix it”… I just dove right off the deep end.
I went from one extreme to the other almost overnight. One day I was “Mormon Kevin”, who didn’t swear, didn’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol, or even watch R-rated movies. The next day, I was (what I thought was) Gay Kevin… who swore as much as he possibly could, who started doing drugs and partying almost every night and basically did anything and everything he “wasn’t supposed to do”.
I couldn’t keep a job; I was constantly moving from place to place, and eventually was technically homeless and living off of my friends. My car was repossessed, I defaulted on my credit card bills… in short, I was a train wreck. I was looking for love pretty much anywhere I could find it because I was so desperate to show everyone they were wrong– that I could find love and that I wasn’t a freak. At the same time, the drive to fulfill those desperate needs continued to add fuel to the fire of my acting out, so I continued to make one bad choice after another for a good couple of years.
Now, imagine we lived in the society I mentioned previously. In the context of my own story, it would have saved me years of fooling myself about my own emotions; years of confusion about what I was doing vs. who I was. It would’ve saved my body from some pretty serious self-inflicted abuse, from ruining some friendships that should have lasted forever… and countless other things.
(I should interject here quickly that I’m not in any way unhappy with my life. Sure, there’ve been rough times, but who hasn’t had those– and everything in the past has led me to where I am now… and I’ve truly never been happier with who I am and where I’m at: life is great!)
The driver of the gay stigma in my story mostly stems from being raised in a community largely based on one specific religion, but it’s important to realize that it’s not the only cause and that religion isn’t always a cause in general. Even people who don’t grow up with any kind of religion in their life still face major hardships with coming out. Homosexuality is spreading to the mainstream– but once it becomes personal, it’s a different story altogether.
Even for people who grow up in more liberal and accepting environments have to deal with the stigma of being gay. They worry if their parents will still love them if they’re gay. They worry about what their friends will think, if they’ll still be friends, if they’ll still be accepted. Even in “gay-friendly” cities like Vancouver and San Francisco you have kids feeling repressed and scared because of the general idea that gay people are “different” or that it’s somehow abnormal or wrong. We need to get to the place where kids are growing up with the knowledge that it is okay for them to be just that: THEM. And… we need them to understand that being gay doesn’t define you as a person. It is part of you, but only a part. You can still be whatever you want to be and life’s opportunities are yours for the taking… going about getting them just might be a little different.
Someday, being gay will be as inconsequential as whether you’re right or left-handed, but it’s not going to happen until the world realizes that gay people are literally just like everyone else (barring our innate fabulousness, of course). Remember Harvey Milk when battling Proposition 6… people need to know who we are. They need to know that their attitudes, their actions, their words and their deeds each day affect the people they love– whether they know it or not.