The Gay Stigma

stigma

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.

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  • Growing up in a liberal household myself, I represent the other side of the spectrum in which you speak, spoken very eloquently I should add. I, like the rest of us, have been dealing not only with the gay stigma my entire life, but many other stigmas as well. These are things that will always elude and confuse us. These are things that will frighten us to the core and teach us to be better people.

    I fight to understand myself amongst a city of confused individuals as well, all trying to do the same. When I came out, my mother told me that “she knew.” For many people whose families couldn’t even start to understand what homosexuality is, this would have been a welcome gift. For myself, toiling for months over the amazing experience that coming out would be–the weight it would life off my shoulders–her response was unwelcome, and disappointing. She took something away from me and took ownership over it.

    In the years since, she has become one of my best friends, but it was this experience that defines how I will always remember coming out.

    Now over 10 years later, I fight to figure out who I am. Hardly because of who I am, but more because of the fact that I’m just as fucked up as everyone around me.

    Thanks!

  • Artem

    This is a great post Kevin! Thanks.

    While I claim no special or even ordinary wisdom when it comes to the human condition, my own experience with coming out, and staying out shaped the following view.

    I understand the desire for universal acceptance of one’s “peer group” by the mainstream society – what you call a “liberal and accepting environment. ” But at its core, that’s just replacing one set of normative values with another. Normative structures are, by their very nature, exclusive of something. It is an illusory (however paradoxically achievable) goal.

    Rather than regret the circumstances of my own coming out experience, I think it’s more helpful to simply accept them as necessarily, formative experiences that lead me to where I am now. Acceptance, when it comes from outside, be it from parents, friends, co-workers, etc is temporary at best, and is the result of a compromise at wost. The only acceptance of value is self-acceptance.

  • I am a firm believer in everything happens for a reason. Everyone has a story, some are crazier than others. The levels of craziness often remind other people of important lessons. If everyone came from the same background, same story, we would be a miserable race. I myself, grew up with a lot of abuse, spending teenage years of my life in juvie, and coming out the other side a lot wiser and relatively normal. However, had I not gone through the life I did, I wouldn’t be who I am today or have affected others to think. Every difference in story should be treasured, regardless of how it hurt at the time or how it hurts now. 🙂

  • Colin

    Just read a great book that discusses this exact thing – the lingering gay stigma. “The Velvet Rage” by Alan Downs

  • myna

    kevin,

    …I love you… 🙂

  • Jannee

    Brilliant Kevin!

    We grew up in the same neighborhood and I experienced the need to rebel simply due to the suppression of our upbringing. The many restrictions that the LDS Mormon religion held, seemed foolish to me and inspired me to oppose all the rules.

    My experience differs from yours in that I did not experience the judgments that are often bestowed as a result of “coming out”. But I can see that it would be a living hell if you are taught to think that by being gay you are defected.

    Bravo for sharing your story!!

    Namaste’,
    Jannee

  • Andrew

    I think your post was very well-written and insightful, but your conclusion that

    “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.”

    is quite spurious. In fact, all anti-gay sentiment and stigma DOES result directly from religion. There are absolutely no secular organizations that are anti-gay. Even the vestigial anti-gay sentiment in our society (even in so called “gay-friendly” cities like vancouver) stems from the anti-gay “moral” teachings of religous groups. Many people who “don’t go to church” still practice at least some values that stem from religion, and these feelings that there is something wrong, filthy or immoral about being gay are an example of that. The same thing goes for feelings that “a woman should know her role” or that having sex before marriage is immoral. These “morals” are not based on rational thought or empirical reasoning, but arbitrary religious absolutes whose only support is “because we said so”. An extremely small fraction of Canadians (who eclipse the same fraction of Americans) actually identify as agnostic or atheistic. Almost everyone, even if they are not practicing, subscribe at least in part to Judeo-Christian or Islamic/Hindu etc values.

    People don’t have a natural or intrinsic aversion to homosexuality. We are socialized to feel this way as a result of the religious indoctrination that permeates almost all levels of our present society. While our American and Canadian textbooks conveniently edit this out, homosexuality has been very common and accepted throughout different societies throughout history, especially the Ancient Greeks. However we are led to believe that homosexuality is a “new, liberal” phenomenon which is simply not accurate.

    In short, there is only one reason why homosexuality is stigmatized to the degree it is today, and that is religion.

  • Amar k

    I like what you wrote Kevin, the content story is common for many and strangely the situation is not changed till the movement, secretly thousands of homosexual take birth and lead the life in secrete adventurously. Many gay people faces extreme pressure from every corner in there life regardless of its result some would find super hard some would take it gracefully and manage to make the atmosphere stable around them.
    I would add that Andrew have cleared the actual problem and the real scenario, where Religion is only reason for the homosexual stigma. We are socialized in such a way that it brings guilt feeling inside due to religious indoctrination, which permeates still in present society. Society will shape in the way it will be shown. It will digest all if you prove in state mannered.

  • i’m just writing to all of you younger people to say that i thank you so much for your courage and the way that you stand up for freedom and your rights!! i’m a gay male living in long beach ca ,and am writing in total frustration that i’m coming out so slowly. but this last week i went to the gay pride festival in long beach ca, had a blast to . it put me in a very good position to communicate better with the rest of the gay community in L.b. i felt so good the whole time i was there that i didn’t leave until almost closing. it helped me to get more intouch with myself, and my feelings as well. i’m to the poiint now that i’m a lot more confident in myself than i was before. hopefully that is good i would prefere to be all of the way out . but i have to beautifull children that i must to take into account.
    once i know where they are in there lifes than i can make a move .but this male(ME) has a lot of patience in life .now for the negative………. my mother is trying to force me out but it’s not going to happen !!!! she has been a bitch for some time now. don’t msiunderstand i do love her but a will not put up with her little games what evershe calls then. how i deal with it ? i take off the the center of long beach ca. i find solace there. away from there .i can’t wait for the day when i look her straight in the snake eyes of hers and i tell her that i’m gay . i will smile forever more. after that point. knowing that i now have the confidence to battle anything!!!!!!!! i’m looking forward to the day that i will be the stronger of the family to confront the assholes within it to let them know how i feel!!!!! that will be the day!!!!!!! oh yes! my daughters will probably be happy as hell to know that dad is stronger than everyome else. i just need to make that move .our community in long beach ca needs to come together on a long term basis instead of just once a while. than it would be a lot easier for every body in this world aswell!!!!!!!!!! i hope for the day to drop the news on my mother .they say to respect your elders .well mom will come 1ST ha ha!!!!!!!!! than its all down hill from there!!!!!!! maybe i could just have someone call the house to say something to get the ball rolling!!!!!!!!!! only time will tell . but anyways.i wish to thank all of you people out there who are out and to say thank you and i love you very much!!!!!!!!!!!!! that goes for all same sex genders or lesbians tgs whatever and who ever you are

  • i grew up in a house hold where the word was never mentioned WORD!!!!!!! but when i found that sex with the same gender was more comfortable to me than women than it was a new life for me. this is bad that is bad don’t do this, don’t do that !!!!!!!!!! so much for lds life!!!!!! sooner or later children are going to ” strike out on there own” so lds parents beware your children will pick there own destiny in life you can not controll them all the time. my life turned out to be having sex with my older sisters friends . got burned out on that went straight to men after that got married sometime down the road divorced and never to marry again!!!!!!!!!!! i’d rather be single and with a man for a permanant LTR. in my life a lot of things plated into the fact that i’m gay but i could go on forever !!!!!! being pushed over the edge by my mother my entire life surely helped in the feelongs toward same sex attraction!!!!!!!!!! thanks mom i love you for that . and thats to say that honestly. now i will never look back!!!!!!!!! its called free agency and we have that right to excercise that right. but the important thing is that we are happy in our lifes to live them the fullest to . my father caught me in the garage one day with a guy with dick lfsin hand. i was busted !!!!!!!!!! but he never said nothing to ny mother!!!!!!!!!!!!! i’m happy with my self right now.i’m not complaining to anyone why did it chose me i’m not like that. but im happy with where im at. slowly to progress to being out of the closet i think that one day that i will be the warrior and those homophobes will be all alone in there own world to fight amongst themselfs. got to go i need to go to get layed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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