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Chapter 15

 

EFFECTS OF HOMOPHOBIA

 

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught from year to year,

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

 

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a different shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

You’ve got to be carefully taught![1]

 

(from the musical South Pacific by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II)

 

 

And so we were, carefully taught during childhood when the seeds of prejudice are sown, and then harvested, as we grow older. Like most people, I saw myself as open-minded and tolerant, and I was—to a point. But growing up I heard a lot of prejudiced messages, some inadvertently from family members, teachers, and other respected adults. The simple truth is nearly all of us have been brought up in a society that’s homophobic. And whether we see it or not, there are countless ways all of us have internalized the messages we received from the world around us—both consciously and unconsciously. Even the most open-minded of us, though we may not be aware of it, are likely to be holding onto some stereotypes.

It wasn’t until Syd and I went to The Experience that I realized the depth of my own prejudice, particularly when it came to homophobia. Oh, there had been glimpses of it, sure, but at The Experience was when I really saw it, up close and personal. I have to admit; it was hard for me to think of myself as homophobic, especially when I had come so far from where I started. But, like it or not, that weekend I realized I wasn’t done yet. So to broaden my perspective, I began asking gay people I knew about their coming-out experience. I asked questions like: when did you first know you were gay, how did you know, and what was that discovery like for you. What a learning that was!

Over the years I must have heard hundreds of coming-out stories—from friends and clients, each was unique, but there was one common thread connecting them. Even though some people were too young to understand it, or even have language to express it, everyone knew, when they were quite young, that somehow they were different—in a way that was expressly unacceptable. And as kids are apt to do, they made the assumption there must be something wrong with them. Some excelled in school and other areas to compensate, others barely got by. But either way, unconsciously what they all learned, was that if they wanted to fit in and be accepted by their families and the people around them, they would have to put their questions aside and conceal a part of themselves.

Most of the people I spoke to came out in their late teens to early thirties, but their ages ranged from as young as five to as old as seventy-five. Two of the stories I heard that were especially touching were from men on either side of the age span, from youngest to oldest.

Walter, the older man, didn’t come out until after his wife had died when he was seventy-five; they had been married for over fifty years. After her death, Walter finally felt the freedom to come out and live his life as the gay man he was. So he wrote each of his children a carefully worded letter, explaining that he had been devoted to their mother during their marriage, but now that she was gone he wanted to live whatever years were left to him, for himself. He told them that he kept his sexual orientation hidden from them for all these years because he felt sure they would reject him if they found out. He knew this revelation wouldn’t be easy for them, but he hoped they would understand. Anxiously Walter waited, not knowing if or when he would hear from either of his children. Some weeks later they called, concerned and filled with questions. With time, they got over their disbelief, and when I heard the story, they were, if not accepting, at least staying in touch and keeping the lines of communication open. Now, Walter is living out his elder years active in the gay community with his gay partner. When I heard Walter’s story I imagined what it must have been like for him, to grow up in a world that made him feel something as natural as his sexual orientation was sinful. How much regret and shame he must have carried to live his life—seventy-five years of it, living a lie to protect himself.

But the times were very different when Walter was growing up in the 1930s. Most gay people’s lives were shrouded in secrecy then, and the handful of people who were openly out, were considered the dregs of “polite” society. Back in the day when Walter was in the army, it was during a time no one even thought of asking, and clearly no one thought of telling, unless they placed little value on their lives. After living through such blatantly homophobic times, I could understand why Walter remained closeted for so many years, but that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking. When I heard the following story at a therapy conference, I couldn’t help but think of Walter’s situation.

A baby elephant, living in captivity, was tied to a tree at night with a strong chain. Instinctively it tried to break free, but being just a baby, it didn’t have the strength. Still, it kept trying to free itself, but failed each time, and eventually gave up. When it became an adult, and could easily have broken free by uprooting the tree or breaking the chain, this huge, powerful elephant, weighing several tons no longer made an effort to escape. Even when tied to a twig, it didn’t try to free itself, it simply accepted its fate. The elephant had limited its present abilities by limitations of the past. It’s a concept called “learned helplessness,” first researched by the psychologist Hans Selye. In light of the elephant story, it has also been called “elephant syndrome.” It’s been said an elephant never forgets—and sometimes neither do people.

The other story that I found so poignant was from Nick, a sixty-year-old man who knew something wasn’t right when he was only five years old. His sister brought her boyfriend home to meet the family, and he got a crush on the boyfriend. From the age of five Nick lived in fear of anyone discovering his secret. What were the messages he got at the age of five that told him there was something very wrong, not only with what he was feeling, but also with who he was? The truth is there was nothing wrong with him, but there was something very wrong with a society that would give such messages to a little boy. With the exception of his sister, Nick hid his sexual orientation from his family, and from most of his friends, and as far as I know he still remains in the closet.

Then there was Keith’s story. Keith, a thirty-year old client I was seeing in therapy, told me by the time he was twelve he knew he’d better act straight, talk straight, and be straight if he wanted to keep his family’s love. Like so many other gay teens, Keith stuffed his feelings and got so good at hiding them; he was no longer sure who he was. It took years before he faced the truth about his sexual orientation and was able to come out first to himself, and later to his family. Growing up Keith walked a tightrope between fulfilling his family’s expectations of who they thought he should be, and who he actually was. His options were limited as a teen, so he did what he needed to do to survive, and learned to play the role he had to, but in the process he lost himself.

It isn’t only gay teens that cope with these kinds of feelings. Straight teens may have similar feelings of not fitting in, or doubts about who they are. But added to the normal angst of adolescence, gay teens are facing atypical anxiety and confusion, as they try to come to grips with their sexual orientation. That doesn’t make for an easy transition, not in the homophobic world we live in.

Most of us have been socialized to believe that what’s “normal” is being straight and that sexually we’re all pretty much the same. But that one-size-fits-all theory doesn’t work—not when it comes to sexuality. How could it, when we’re all so unique? After extensive research Alfred Kinsey, famous for his groundbreaking work on human sexuality, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, concluded that people do not fit into neat and exclusive heterosexual and homosexual categories. Kinsey developed a scale representing the continuum of human sexuality. Genetically, it’s been said; we are ninety-nine percent alike—ah but, that other one percent. That’s what makes us who we are.

Not long ago I counseled a gay man named Matt who was from a strong Christian background. He wasn’t able to accept himself, or his sexual orientation, and did everything in his power to “become” straight. Homosexuality went against everything he had ever been taught by his family and by his church. Being gay was unimaginable to him. Matt came to see me after an unsuccessful stint at an “ex-gay” ministry that claimed he could “cure” himself of his homosexuality through redemptive prayer if he had the desire and the will to change. Listening to Matt tell this highly improbable story, I wondered if their theory could also be applied to straight people too. Could they also “cure” straight people with the desire to become gay in the same way? With all their promises, what this “ex-gay” ministry offered Matt was acceptance—albeit conditional, as long as he complied with the behavior and beliefs that they deemed appropriate. In other words: we’ll accept you, as long as you declare that you’re straight and live as a straight man. But what kind of acceptance is that? What I know from my conversations with gay people is that those who are drawn into groups like this most often have difficulty reconciling their sexual orientation with parental rejection, religious beliefs, and society’s disapproval. So to fit in, they suppress their natural inclination. But in spite of reprogramming, abstaining from sex, and/or being placed in heterosexual marriages, people in these ex-gay ministries are set up to fail and dismally at that, leaving them feeling far worse about themselves than they did before. I equate going to an “ex-gay” ministry to dyeing my hair red. People seeing me would most probably assume I was a redhead. But am I? On the surface it would certainly seem so, but in reality the red only lasts until my hair begins growing out, then it returns to my natural color. No matter how much I want to be a redhead or how hard I try to be one, it’s just not going to happen, not permanently.

We live in a world where we can easily whiten our teeth, change the color of our hair, and with contact lenses, even the color of our eyes. To keep us looking younger there’s plastic surgery—and presto, change-o—a smaller nose—a more chiseled chin—firmer, shapelier breasts. But no matter how many external changes we make, the one thing we can’t alter is our fundamental nature, and that’s what these “ex-gay” ministries try to do. The reality is if someone is gay, he or she is gay. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t change a bird into a fish because you don’t like the song it sings. You might teach a bird to swim, but eventually it will fly; that’s what birds do. To purposely try to change someone who’s gay into someone who’s straight by attempting to change his or her natural sexual orientation is, I believe, not only psychologically damaging, it’s downright Orwellian. For what purpose is this done to make gay people “straighter” and therefore more acceptable to mainstream society? These “ex-gay” programs persist, though the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and virtually the entire mental health profession has denounced them.

Because homosexuality is such an anomaly to so many people, there’s a widely held, but misguided, belief that being gay is a choice—and I was one of the people who held that belief not so long ago. When I read the book, Is It a Choice?, written by Eric Marcus, something he said remained percolating in the back of my mind, and while I was writing this it re-surfaced: “We don’t choose the person we’re sexually attracted to; those feelings come to light as we grow up, whether we’re gay, straight or bi.” It wasn’t an earth-shattering idea, but I hadn’t looked at it in that way before, and it made sense to me. There are theories about it, but does anyone really know why we’re sexually attracted to one person and not another? So when I thought about attraction simply happening, and that as we mature we become aware of it, that got me thinking about my own sexual orientation—my first crush on a boy in the second grade, and all the other crushes I had growing up. Being in the “normal” majority, it wasn’t something I had ever given much thought to, but when I did, it wasn’t like I could remember ever making a choice to be straight—I just was—and have been all my life. So if I hadn’t chosen my sexual orientation, why did I believe that Michael had?

When you think about it, does it really make sense that a person would choose to be gay if it wasn’t their natural preference? I mean, why would someone consciously choose a life where they would be treated like a second-class citizen, not given the right to marry, might lose the love and support of their family, even be ostracized from their religion? That didn’t make sense. So, could it be that being gay isn’t so much about making a choice, but that the choice is about whether or not to express one’s own God-given sexuality?

Sometimes trying to sort it all out can be tricky, though, because there are always exceptions; life as we know is filled with a ton of contradictions. And since we are dealing with human nature that makes the whole choice thing complicated. An instance: Maddy, a straight friend was sexually and emotionally abused by her grandfather for much of her childhood. As soon as she was able, she took off, wanting to get as far away from her grandfather and from her past as she could. But remnants of the abuse were not so easily forgotten and she spent many years in therapy coming to terms with it. Even though Maddy wasn’t a lesbian, during those years she lived as one, it was where she felt safe. When she finally met a man she trusted, whose love allowed her to feel safe, she was able to let down her guard and let nature take its course; she’s been married now for over twenty years. All of us have been affected by our childhood experiences in ways that aren’t always easily explained or understood.

When I was seeing Pete Fischer for therapy, I asked him why he thought so many people were intolerant and sometimes completely irrational when it came to homosexuality. His answer took me by surprise. “More people than you would imagine are very Victorian when it comes to sex. They’re uptight, puritanical, and embarrassed even with straight sex, but gay sex? The very thought of it sends them running for the hills.”

That, of course, was the bottom line, and was something that I hadn’t even considered. Now that I’m a therapist, I’ve learned how true that is.

A great paradox is that the Bible or should I say some people’s interpretation of the Bible is often what perpetuates homophobia. So many people quote and misquote Bible passages to support their personal beliefs about the “evils” of homosexuality. They are what Peter Gomes, author of The Good Book, calls “selective literalists,” picking and choosing passages that suit their agenda. Some portions of the Bible that have gone by the wayside are those that support slavery—we don’t hear those much anymore. Thankfully we’ve come a long way from those days. And what about the passages that call for the death of adulterers, or brides who aren’t virgins? Just imagine if people were advocating those passages. A scary thought in today’s world don’t you think? And with current divorce rates in our country at around fifty percent, it would seem that at least half of the population simply chooses to ignore the Bible’s condemnation of divorce. So why is it that people still point to the quotes about the “evils” of homosexuality, when the Bible offers so many more reasons to oppose homophobia than it does homosexuality?

I think a lot of it has to do with superstition and people’s fear of anything or anyone too different from them. My mother used to tell that when she was growing up, whenever she tried to use her left hand someone slapped it. To protect herself, she learned to use her right hand, though it was never her natural preference. That was over eighty years ago, when being left-handed was considered a sin by a lot of people—an archaic notion now. But there are people in today’s world who believe homosexuality is a sin; much in the same way as people a century ago believed being left-handed was a sin. Out of such superstition, prejudice is born.

There are many ways prejudice takes hold; one could be compared to marinating a chicken. If you pour soy sauce over a chicken and let it sit in the marinade for, say, an hour, the chicken will absorb the pungent, flavorful taste of the sauce, whether it wants to or not. Like that chicken, most of us grew up soaking in a marinade of one kind of prejudice or another and, unbeknownst to us, it became a part of who we are.

Actor Mel Gibson’s behavior demonstrated how this plays out when a police officer pulled him over for a traffic violation in 2006 and arrested him for driving under the influence. While in custody, Gibson made widely quoted anti-Semitic remarks. It was quite shocking at the time, but later I learned this wasn’t the first time Gibson’s prejudice emerged. A few years before this incident, he made appallingly homophobic remarks about gay men and then refused to apologize, saying, “I don’t think there’s an apology necessary, and I’m certainly not giving one…if someone wants my opinion, I’ll give it. What am I supposed to do, lie to them?” But after Gibson’s irrational outburst, blaming the Jews for all the wars in the world, he did express regret, saying, “… Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.”

Intellectually, that may be what Gibson believed, but under the façade he presents, I saw a very different picture. And what it looked like to me was someone who had been soaking in a toxic marinade of prejudice for a really long time. Like other bigoted people, Gibson didn’t know how deep his feelings went—all the way down to the bone. As far as I was concerned, Gibson’s homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks were a double whammy, offending me both as a Jew and as a mother of a gay son.

Homophobia is insidious.  It begins with a seed of fear planted in fertile ground. When it’s fertilized with ignorance, and watered with narrow-mindedness, the crop likely to sprout is irrational hatred.

We only need to remember the tragic killings of Matthew Shepard, Ryan Skipper, and Sean Kennedy—killed for no other reason than they were gay—to know the reality of this truth. In a vicious attack, twenty-one year old Matthew was robbed, brutally beaten, tortured, tied to a fence in a remote, rural  area, near Laramie, Wyoming and left to die. Matthew’s injuries were fatal. He remained in a coma for five days and never regained consciousness.

I met Ryan Skipper’s stepfather (and later his mother) at a PFLAG conference where I heard the story of Ryan’s vile murder. Twenty-five year old Ryan had been beaten, stabbed twenty times and had his throat slit by his assailants who left his body by the side of a road in Wahneta, a small town outside Winter Haven, Florida. The accused killers allegedly drove Ryan’s blood-soaked car around the county and bragged of killing him.

At that same conference I met Sean Kennedy’s mother, Elke, and heard the story of her twenty-year-old son Sean’s senseless death. A boy in a parked car asked Sean for a cigarette. Sean gave him one and was walking away when another boy, sitting in the back seat of the car, got out, approached Sean and called him a faggot. Then he punched Sean in the face with such force that he shattered Sean’s cheekbones and separated his brain from his brainstem. His injuries were so severe his mother was told he would not survive. He did not. The last word he heard before he died was “faggot.” His accused assailant left the scene, then called a friend who knew Sean and left this message on her cell phone: “You tell your faggot friend that when he wakes up he owes me $500 for my broken hand.”

Because Sean’s attack took place in South Carolina, where they have no hate crime legislation his assailant was charged with involuntary manslaughter. His sentence was reduced to fifteen months.

Hate crimes like these are increasing. I can’t help but feel outraged that our society is so complacent and apathetic about these brutal crimes. How can we as a society allow this kind of violence to continue? How can we excuse it? What of Sean, Ryan, and Matthew’s families, of all the thousands of families who have lost children to hate crimes? How are they to pick up the broken pieces of their lives, knowing that so little is being done to stop this kind of violence from continuing?

Homosexuality is not the problem in our world today. The problem is homophobia. And it’s not a gay problem. It’s society’s problem. We all were carefully taught to fear what was too different, to stick to our own kind. But here we are in the twenty-first century; it’s a whole new millennium.

Naturalist John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature–he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” We’re all in this together. What affects one of us, affects all of us. Isn’t it time to re-educate ourselves and leave behind the prejudice we’ve carried around for too many generations? Homophobia not only hurts gay people, it hurts the rest of us as well.

 



[1] “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Copyright © 1949 by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Copyright Renewed. WILLIAMSON MUSIC owner of publication and allied rights throughout the World. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.

[2] From Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Co., 1948). Copyright © The Kinsey Institute. Reproduced by permission of The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Inc.

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