Being vulnerable is hard. As gay men, it can be especially challenging. Think about it, to be vulnerable you have to put your authentic self out there. As gay men, we’ve typically become experts at hiding parts of ourselves.
Webster’s online dictionary states that when you’re vulnerable, you’re “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.” When you put yourself out there, there is the risk that you could be hurt. Many of us in the LGBTQ community have been hurt because of who we are. We’ve been bullied, or we’ve hidden our identity from those we love for self-protection. If you spend most of your time in self-protection mode, it’s hard to make connections. It’s hard to be vulnerable.
As members of the LGBTQ community we’re different. While it has gotten easier to be gay, there are still challenges and many of us still experience micro and macro aggressions directed at us on a daily basis. To cope, we use more drugs and alcohol, have higher levels of mental distress, and sadly, commit suicide more often than our heterosexual counterparts.
For a statistical point of reference, the Center for American Progress has compared LGBTQ and heterosexual drug and alcohol use. It is estimated that between 20-30% of LGBTQ people over use drugs and alcohol. The general population is closer to 9%. Bottom line, it’s still really hard being an LGBTQ person today.
As if being gay was not enough to hamper vulnerability, consider how American culture views masculinity. Men are conditioned to be strong and never show emotion. We teach little boys to be brave and not cry.
Brené Brown on vulnerability
In one of her TedTalks, Brené Brown speaks about how vulnerability shows up differently in men and women. If we go a step further, we can only imagine the effects of shame on gay men.
Brown shared a story about how she was challenged by a man at a book signing. The man said that his wife and daughter would rather see him die on his white horse than fall down in shame. He felt there was no room for him to be vulnerable. He had to be strong and stoic.
What keeps shame alive?
According to Brown and her research, silence, judgment and secrecy keep shame alive. As gay men, we’re all too familiar with silence, judgment and secrecy. For those of us that spent any time hiding in the closet, we know how soul crushing it can be to live in hiding.
Gay men and vulnerability
As a therapist who works with a lot of gay men and couples, I see how much we struggle as a community to connect and be vulnerable. Here are a few examples of some of the problems I see. Picture a type-A, high-achiever who must find success before he can connect more openly with another guy. Or the 20-something gay guy who had no trouble coming out to his family, but has trouble really expressing his emotions to the men he dates. Or the guy who spends lots of time on apps to find sex, but really wants a deeper relationship.
Do any of those people sound like you? What causes us to behave like this?
Often times it can be traced back to internalized homophobia.
What is internalized homophobia?
Internalized homophobia is act of turning the hatred, stigma and fear of a homophobic society back in on ourselves. I did just use both of the words I’m trying to define in the definition, which would make my third grade vocabulary teacher very angry. So let me elaborate.
Trying to fit in as a gay person in a straight world requires some internal gymnastics. We learn to hide ourselves expertly. This is often on a very deep and unconscious level. For example, as a gay man you may learn to throw your voice to sound more masculine or dress differently so as not to stand out. Just because we haven’t personally been the victim of a hate crime doesn’t mean that we aren’t altered by being born gay.
All this hiding can have lasting consequences. It can manifest into self-hatred and loathing on such an unconscious level that it’s hard to notice at times. As sexual minorities we have to notice the effects of the societal pressures and be aware of the pitfalls along the way.
There are all sorts of mental health implicating for being born lesbian, gay and bisexual. As a gay male you may be more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior or have trouble with substance abuse. There are studies that link being LGBTQ with higher rates of depression, anxiety and isolation.
At a certain point most LGBTQQI people come out of the closet. Meaning we tell the rest of the world that we identify as gay. This is a huge rite of passage and is different for everyone. Some people have very supportive families and come out in middle school. Others can live most of their lives as heterosexual and come out later in life.
While coming out is a big step, it’s typically just the beginning of dealing with the internal pain.
Our sexual identity is a big part of who we are as people, but it’s usually just one layer of the onion that is us. Once we peel that back, we can begin nurturing self-love and compassion for all of who we are.
Think about it, if you become good at hiding your sexuality, what prevents you from hiding other parts of yourself. Maybe you really like playing the ukulele, but you worry others will judge you on some level so you conceal that part of yourself. And it can go on from there.
If some of these concepts ring true for you, you may be wondering what to do about changing these patterns.
We have to stop hiding.
Let ourselves be seen
As Brené Brown points out, vulnerability is not a weakness. In fact, as gay men if we’re able to let ourselves be seen by one another fully, we can shed the blanket of shame that has been holding us back.
How to be seen?
You can start small. Have coffee with a friend and tell them something that you’re struggling with. Be honest about something that you may not be proud of. If they’re a good friend, and I recommend starting with a good friend, they will see your struggle, empathize with your experience and you’ll leave feeling lighter and more connected.
- Acknowledged the problem. Our society was founded and is steeped in heterosexism. The concept of heterosexuality is reinforced as the norm through advertisements, books, movies and TV. Marriage Equality is the law of the land and transgender rights are beginning to be addressed more openly, but events like the Pulse massacre in Orlando remind us that just being a member of the LGBTQQI community can be unsafe.
- Embrace community. Surround yourself with people who love you unconditionally. Continue fostering and embracing safe spaces. Make queer friends and build a chosen family, if necessary. Isolation can contribute to a number of other problems and will certainly not help with reducing shame.
- Find support. In addition to building a community, find support for yourself in other ways. Look for empowering representation of and by LGBTQQI people in the media. If you live in the Bay Area, check out Frameline, an important and powerful LGBTQQI movie festival. Or watch The Kids Are All Right or Milk. Check out the book The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs or Queer(For Younger LGBT people) by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke. Find a support group or look for an affirming LGBTQQI therapist. You are not alone. If you need immediate support, call the GLBT National Hotline at 1-888-THE-GLNH (1-888-843-4564).
It may seem like a daunting process. Society is stacked against us in a lot of ways. However, you deserve to feel proud of who you are, loved, respected, supported and safe. By cultivating compassion for yourself, you can take the first step toward banishing internalized homophobia and shame. Think about what a difference that could make in your own life and the lives of those you care about.