Being gay affects our mental health in a variety of ways. Even if you had a Hallmark worthy coming out experience, were never bullied for your sexuality and have a supportive family, being gay is still hard.
Queer teens are four times as likely to commit suicide as their non-queer counterparts. The rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health diagnosis are significantly higher among LGBTQ youth, as this study found. In our community we have high levels of social anxiety, substance misuse and out-of-control sexual behavior. These are ways, however ineffective, that we’re trying to cope with complicated feelings.
It all starts with coming out.
Coming out is a right of passage we have to go through as LGBTQ people. As of now, it is assumed that we are straight unless we let people know otherwise. Keeping secrets and the fear of how other people will react can take a toll on our mental health. It also teaches us at a young age that it’s not ok to be ourselves. Hopefully there will come a time when it is not assumed that everyone is straight, but we’re not there yet.
Everyone has a different coming out story. Some situations are easier than others, though coming out teaches us how to hide regardless of how easy or difficult the experience is. Here are a few different coming out scenarios.
An easy coming out story
You don’t have to come out. Your family and community don’t assume that you’re straight. You’re allowed to explore your identity at your own pace without any pressure to present in a certain way. There is no shame about who you love and your family provides resources for you to learn about safe same-sex sex and sexuality. You have queer role models and you feel supported and empowered.
Not so easy coming out story
You grow up in a conservative and religious family. Your parents make negative comments about gay people your whole life. There are no “out” and respected members of your community. In fact, your told that gay people go to hell and sexuality is a choice. As you’re developing your sexuality, you feel shame and disgust about who you are. Over time you internalize that homophobia and it makes it difficult to love and accept yourself exactly as you are.
If we think of the example above as two poles on a spectrum, chances are your own story falls somewhere in the middle. What was it like to come out? Did you have any feelings about the examples listed above? It can be important to understand your own coming out story to assess your own levels of internalized homophobia.
Life after coming out
Even with the best family and friend circle in the world, we’re all fed heteronormative messages through movies, books and other media outlets. I’ve yet to see an LGBTQ hero or heroine in a Disney movie, but maybe someday. These subliminal messages tell us from an early age that we’re different, other and “not normal.” Taking in messages like that can have all sorts of consequences on self-esteem, self-worth and confidence.
Why do I feel this way?
Maybe you’re thinking, coming out was fine but I’m still not as happy as I’d like to be today. I’m still feeling anxious, detached, self-critical or depressed. I’m still having trouble meeting guys or forming more intimate and vulnerable connections.
While being gay may not be the root cause of all your problems, it could be a piece of the puzzle. As gay men, we’re still a minority and a marginalized segment of the population. There are still hate crimes happening across the world. It’s no wonder that our mental health is suffering as a result.
It’s still hard to be gay
In his article, Together Alone- the Epidemic of Gay Loneliness, Michael Hobbes explores the challenges many gay men are faced with today. Hobbes quotes “John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, (who) says the real damage gets done in the five or so years between realizing your sexuality and starting to tell other people.” Adolescence is a difficult time for all people. You’re discovering your body and sexuality in a new way. If you layer on shame, guilt and homophobia the process becomes even more complicated.
According to Hobbes, “growing up gay, it seems, is bad for you in many of the same ways as growing up in extreme poverty.” This is because the stress and trauma of being gay doesn’t end after a single incident. It’s an episodic battle that can leave many feeling lonely and isolated.
Our queer bars and meeting places are disappearing from cities and we’re moving online as a way of meeting people and interacting. This creates isolation, loneliness and makes it easier to be mean to one another. We’re depersonalizing our queer interactions.
There is hope. As a gay psychotherapist who works with our community on a daily basis I have seen many men come to love themselves more fully. I have seen men conquer their reliance on drugs and sex as coping skills. I have seen people form more authentic and honest relationships that are not limited by heteronormative ideals.
It’s an inside job, for sure. But you don’t have to do it alone. Find a therapist, friend or group that can fill you up. It’s still hard to be gay, and don’t let anyone make you believe otherwise. Homophobia is a systemic problem, you didn’t cause it and you don’t have to solve it alone.