As the song goes, “It’s a bitter situation and it’s taken more lives than one” and, evidently, a covert life produces perils aplenty like shame, regret, uncertainty, and perhaps death; yet for some, it seems, it’s better than coming clean and coming out as gay. Heartbreaking!
Now, whether or not you accept the insightful indecisions of Tom Robinson, he does pose a difficult dilemma for men who want a conventional life yet yearn for an unconventional life: live a life of truth or live a life of deceit.
Throughout society (e.g., family, peer-groups, media, institutions) the clear message is this: “Homosexuality is wrong”. Whether in classrooms, boardrooms, or sitting rooms, and even bedrooms, research shows that (subtle and not so subtle) anti-gay language and behaviour is rife. Indeed, regardless of your own sexuality, how many times have you heard, seen, or partook in rude, prejudicial, or abusive anti-gay language or behaviour?
And what about unspoken messages? Consider typical advertisements that use happy loving couples to sell you, for example, coffee, cars, or (God forbid) beds; would those couples be straight or gay? Most often the underlying message for men is you will be more of a man if you buy the product and in addition you will get the woman—not get the man!
Similarly, stories on the telly usually explore the exploits of straights, right? Pretty much everything is geared towards the “normality” of heterosexuality. Of course, the common denominator in viewers of adverts and programmes will be straight, so, fair enough, heterosexual plots and themes ought to be more frequently represented—just not as frequently though, as it’s not representative of the population. And besides, homosexual plots can illuminate, educate, and demystify a sensitive and relevant aspect of society, an aspect that was once, and still is for many, a “dirty”, painful, and misunderstood secret.
When storylines are done right, fair, balanced, unbiased, smart, and/or witty, and even when done brilliantly, boringly banal, homosexuality can be shown for what it is: normal. It can provide templates—as distinct from stereotypes—of gay-ness: it can raise awareness and concerns about homosexuality; it can highlight responsibilities, rights, and ways of being gay; it can debunk myths and challenge the various forms of nonsense that surrounds homosexuality; it can highlight the importance of challenging homophobia whether perpetrated by oneself or others. Ultimately, it can enable more “Copping-On” and “Copping-Off” and less “Copping-Out”.
Cop-On, Cop-Off, don't Cop-Out
Of course, nowadays, gay issues and characters are often portrayed favourably on telly. Rather than mockingly depicting gay men as flamboyantly foolish bumbling buffoons extravagantly ticking every camp box (remember the “quintessential queen” Mr Humphries—“I’m Free”), we now see wise-cracking well respected openly gay men like Graham Norton and Paul O’Grady—whose performances aren’t about sexuality, despite media attention often reverting back to it.
Indeed, a cursory glance at pretty much all popular culture would highlight the changing attitudes towards homosexuality; seemingly, it has become more acceptable, common, and/or discussed—even Irish politicians and GAA stars are coming out as gay. Whudathunkit! Mind you, not many soccer stars have come out of the closet since the stark and sad end to Justin Fashanu.
Yet even inside the incredibly homophobic (and some would say homoerotic) world of soccer, long gone are the days of outrageous to-dos and unfortunate hoo-has when two men kiss (EastEnders 1987) or nearly kiss (Fair City, 1996). No longer would it be ok to refer to these landmark telly events as “EastBenders” or “Sin City” as they were in print media at the time.
Legally, too, things have improved for the homosexual community in Ireland: from decriminalisation and de-medicalisation in the 90s to the landslide referendum result in 2015, there are more rights for LGBT people. Yet, still there is a lot of pain and confusion.
Some Scary Stats
Although, in some ways, this may be the best and safest time to be gay in Ireland, that doesn’t mean it’s easy or without it’s perils—especially in more rural parts of the country with minimal access to Gay Scenes and people. Despite progressive changes, prejudices, stigmas and undercurrents of homophobia in society remain and further changes are required.
When compared with heterosexuals, gay men are more likely to be depressed and anxious, abuse substances, self-harm, take harmful risks, or attempt suicide. Such gloom is mostly due to society’s negativity towards homosexuality and the rejection felt rather than actually being gay. Essentially, gay men internalise the frequent negativity they see and hear which in turn makes social compliance essential and acceptance of own sexuality (near) impossible. Ultimately, such experiences decrease one’s self-worth, self-esteem, self-respect, and understanding of own identity, and increases one’s need to avoid, escape, and numb true fantasies, desires, and feelings, and remain “in the closet”.
Indeed, even if a man is “out” and open about his sexuality he may still be damaged by the (perceived) threats of rejection and/or physical harm from family, peers, and society. This can manifest in various ways, for example, shame and compensation, before he becomes real in who he is.
Overwhelmed by Shame
Society’s constant heterosexism and homophobia creates an immense sense of internalised shame in the typical homosexual man. This stage of life mostly includes the “in the closet” period whereby one hides, denies, avoids, or rejects his sexuality.
Numerous homosexual men recognise their own difference (same-sex attraction) when they are young (majority pre-puberty) and experience society’s homophobia around the same time…and many quickly realise that it’s safer to keep schtum. Research of gay secondary school students show that whilst virtually all report regularly hearing homophobic remarks from peers which are generally ignored by teachers, most experience verbal, sexual, and physical harassment too.
Regarding the family, children form their identity through perceiving and rejecting or accepting parental values. For many who “come out”, mismatches in parent/child values leads to various negative reactions—e.g., (i) estrangement and rejection, (ii) physical/verbal abuse, and (iii) increased suicide ideation—which affects their own understanding and acceptance of self. In such cases boys/men may become ashamed of their own sexuality and may even pretend to be straight.
Such anti-gay bias and threat is rarely corrected and is caused by peers and authority figures. Consequently, many boys/men (i) hide their sexuality to avoid similar negative reactions and (ii) internalise societal and familial values and deny their own needs. In essence, they feel ashamed and have internalised the homophobia.
Indeed, throughout life, gay men often feel they need to hide their sexuality and adopt heterosexual mannerisms and behaviours. Of course, there are times when to keep safe, men need to conceal their homosexuality as there often can be a danger to do otherwise. Sadly, many men never reveal or act on their sexuality and disregard its importance; this internalised heterosexism is horrendously damaging to their true identity; but some men do “come out”.
Compensating for Shame
For the men who’ve accepted and disclosed their homosexuality, they may still need to overcome the obstinate sense of shame due to years of frequent, prevalent societal invalidation. For some, despite coming out and (partly) accepting their gayness, they fail to silence the shame and futilely compensate in many forms—from excelling in vocation, material wealth, sexual prowess, aesthetics, etc., to being the most out and proud, most flamboyant, exuberant, zealous gay man possible.
Such shame-compensation is extremely evident in the gay community with body image and contributes to increased incidences of body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviours, and gruelling exercise and diet regimes. Essentially, perceived invalidation begets attempts to attain tangible, aesthetic, or persona “perfection” to overcome psychological “imperfection” and hinders true personal growth as authentic validation is denied.
However, at some point, many will have a crisis of meaning—remain as before (behaviour is repeated/enhanced) or, ideally, achieve authenticity.
True identity and sexual expression grows through resolving feelings of uncertainty, turmoil, hesitancy, fear of rejection, punishment, and/or shame. When aiming to becoming more real with oneself, behavioural repertoires built on avoiding and compensating for shame are redundant. Instead, ambiguity grows as shame-fuelled behaviours are slowly replaced with new behavioural repertoires whereby more trusting, authentic relationships are formed.
There are various factors involved in achieving authenticity. These include healing past relationships traumas (abandonment, abuse, ambivalence, betrayal, etc.) and exploring acceptance, respect, and passions. The main factor, however, is integrity; specifically, being true to oneself and others, blending private and public selves, and resolving past hurt and trauma.
However, families (and social networks) can hurt and heal; therefore, controlling information (and potential repercussions of coming out) and synthesising public and private selves is essential. Whether coming out or controlling the information one reveals, integration of one’s sexuality is crucial to becoming the true you.
Come Out and Belong
Coming out is not a single event but a process of tentatively and continually assessing the environment and its people’s reactions. Although varied, theories suggest that gay men typically experience uncertainty and turmoil, denial, avoidance, and comparison with other homosexuals, tolerance, acceptance, anger with society’s prejudice, and self-integration/identity formation.
A sense of belonging is key to becoming authentic; belonging to a minority culture can even further harness validation, well-being, and self-acceptance and ease familial and societal alienation. Specifically, within a supportive group of gay people, nurturing and respectful friendships can be formed which promote the belief that one’s homosexuality is normal, can be fulfilling, honourable, and self-affirming, and can counteract society’s homophobia.
I’ve spoken with lots of men who’ve felt invalidated by years of homophobia and tried to overcompensate with futile goals of “Success” or “Perfection”. However, they realised that it gets better. By finding a safe place to truly explore their own real self, to be accepted for who and what they are, and to feel normal was fundamental to their well-being. (As it is for everyone.) Things to consider which can be helpful include:
Ultimately, healing the hurt and coming out safely are challenging but worthy processes; becoming open and real is enriching and precious; and shedding the shame is liberating, as it allows one to earnestly say “I’m Free”.