Updated: Oct 3
Coming out to others – An essential first step
National Coming Out Day (NCOD) began in 1988 and is celebrated annually on October 11th. For years, LGBTQ+ advocates asserted that the most powerful tool to change biased hearts and minds is for sexual minorities to come out of the closet. As a result, LGBTQ+ equality has blossomed in just 30+ years, and the lives of sexual minorities have greatly improved.
Yet, according to the Trevor Project, LGB youth today are still almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, and 40% of transgender adults report having made a suicide attempt in their lifetime. Sexual minority adults experience higher rates of depression and anxiety than the general population and are two to three times more likely to struggle with addiction. Research clearly shows that the stresses of social stigma (homophobia/transphobia) create the wounding that drives these troubling statistics.
So, while claiming our place in the world is essential in the coming out process, it’s only a first step.
Gay men coming out on the inside
On the road towards greater equality, the LGBTQ+ community has focused on pride, and rightly so. We have so much to be proud of as the courageous survivors and gifted spirits we are. But over the years, as riots became marches, and marches turned into festivals, our focus on pride has created a potential bypass – a “pink cloud” in the coming out process. Ironically, the relief so many of us feel from coming out of isolation can prevent us from fully acknowledging and healing the pain we accumulated in hiding– our closet wounds. Fully sharing our truth with others as gay men requires that we do the hard work of reclaiming our own inner truth. In this sense, coming out isn’t just something we do on the outside with family, friends, and co-workers, but a process of coming out to ourselves on the inside, too.
No matter how much we may have tried to protect ourselves, homophobia wounded us. Some of us may have been more visible and, thus, overtly targeted. But in today’s world, homophobic wounding is inescapable.
Anger is a natural response to having been violated. We may feel anger at those who tormented and abused us, and anger towards others who stood by and did nothing. We may feel anger at our parents or caregivers for their rejection and betrayal at home, or anger towards schoolmates or teachers for the bullying we experienced at school. If we more easily “passed” as straight, we may feel anger at being forced to hide, or at our inability to stand up for others like us who were victimized. We may feel anger about specific abusive situations we survived, or the accumulated digs and slights we endured.
Anger can be powerful. It tells us personally when a boundary has been crossed, or collectively when our rights have been violated. Gay anger counters the stereotypical narrative of gay male weakness, and gay rage has, in part, fueled a powerful social movement towards greater equality and respect. On the other hand, unhealed anger can be dangerous; hurting people hurt people – both themselves and others. As gay men, our unacknowledged hurt and anger can have devastating effects on our individual lives,
relationships, and communities.
Often accompanying anger - sometimes hidden just behind it - is shame. As gay men, our shame is carried by a small boy still locked away in a closet, isolated and often engulfed with terror . . .
“What if someone sees through me? What if someone exposes the truth of who I am . . . and what I really want and need? What if someone discovers just how scared, alone, and unlovable I actually feel?”
Gay shame comes from knowing that if our full truth came out, we could be ridiculed, shunned, abused, or worse. To survive, we pushed away and drowned out our basic human needs for closeness and intimacy. We discovered an assortment of masks to protect ourselves in childhood . . . achievement, people-pleasing, over-responsibility, manipulation, dishonesty, control, or perfectionism. We learned if we could be who others wanted us to be, we could avoid shaming and abuse.
Moving into our adult lives, many of us bolstered our childhood survival mechanisms with addictions and compulsions . . . alcohol, drugs, workaholism, sex, porn, codependence, working out, materialism, etc. Eventually, we may have forgotten we ever put on masks, believing our armored false self to be truth. In coming out, we met others with the same wounds, wearing the same masks, and caught in the same transactional performances. We may have mistaken dysfunction for love or belonging, and in doing so, fortified our emotional prison.
An insidious barrier to healing shame for gay men is that “admitting” shame can feed into homophobia–proof that because we feel shame, we are inherently shameful. To be clear, gay shame has nothing to do with our worth as gay men. It’s based on the inevitable internalization of ever-present lies – that we were intrinsically wrong, defective, and disgusting. Gay shame is a toxin that infected us starting very
early in life, and that still affects many of us as adults today.
Gay reclamation of our younger selves
Human babies come into this world small, needy, helpless, and dependent. Soon after birth, we sensed that rejection by our caregivers meant death. As young gay boys, our acceptance probably depended on gender role conformity – how we “walked and talked.” Around puberty, we realized we could additionally be targeted for our sexual expressions and attractions towards other guys.
Closet wounding comes from disowning parts of us throughout our childhood. We instinctively learned to reject aspects of ourselves that made others uncomfortable – often the most tender, precious parts of us. So, we may have pushed away from our three-year-old self, who coveted a fluffy pink scarf. We may have disowned our six-year-old self, who sought comfort in a baby doll. We may have rejected our nine-year-old self for being curious about his mother’s makeup. And we eventually exiled our 13-year-old self, who secretly had crushes on other boys at school.
In time, we no longer needed to be shamed by others to keep the closet door shut. As an added layer of protection, we developed an internal mechanism for shaming ourselves – our inner critic. This part of us can be brutal and relentless, driving our protective performances and keeping our stored pain hidden away. Until we stop running, distracting, and numbing – we may not even recognize our inner critic exists. It’s by quieting ourselves, turning inward, and deeply listening that we begin to hear and feel our critic’s harshness.
When we learn to set boundaries with our inner critic, we create breathing room and an internal sense of safety. Through the embrace of self-compassion, self-forgiveness, and unconditional self-love, the terrified little boy in us emerges. It is then that we feel the sadness and grief for all that was lost. Anger may erupt, and tears wash down our face. Slowly, we reclaim and unburden the precious parts of us forced into exile, and transform our protective survival traits to their original healthy states.
Unfortunately, healing closet wounds isn’t fast or easy. But doing the inner work of fully coming out to ourselves can bring a sense of freedom, connection, and peace we may have never believed was possible.
A world without closets
A good friend of mine works in a local public school. He sometimes shares with me how things can be different for gay boys today. Recently, he told me how two young men, both on the football team, were outside his classroom, playfully laughing and chatting between periods, looking confident, relaxed, and happy. As the next class approached, they hugged and gave one another a kiss. Walking away, one yelled down the hallway to the other, “I love you!” His boyfriend yelled back, “I love you more!“
I genuinely hope we are moving towards a world where people don’t grow up in closets. But, until that day comes, we can empower ourselves, support each other, and seek professional help when needed to heal our closet wounds. In doing so, we can live in greater truth and love more fully as gay men.
Lou Bardach is currently a student intern at Cypress Wellness Center working toward LCSW licensure as a master’s in social work student at the University of Central Florida. He has also studied the Internal Family Systems psychotherapeutic model through the IFS Institute’s Online Circle program. He believes health and well-being are cultivated through self-care -- by learning to become one’s own compassionate caregiver. As a gay man experienced in working with LGBTQ+ adolescents and adults, Lou is particularly interested in helping others heal from the effects of homophobia, transphobia, and other types of social oppression (ProjectNoLabels.org). Contact him/them at Lou@cypresswellnesscenter.com