“Breaking that silence means emerging from the closet of shame. To proclaim oneself openly as gay is, above all else, to come out of shame – profoundly, to break the silence. This is why the term “Coming Out “ is a shame metaphor’ – Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael (Coming Out of Shame – Transforming Gay and Lesbian Lives)
I remember being a closeted 22 year old, when the footballer Justin Fashanu came out in 1990. It was the talk of the office, as we all watched from the sidelines to see how the story would unfold. Sadly, that story did not have a happy ending, for whilst Justin had taken the bold and courageous step to come out, he was not met by a world ready to embrace a footballer, who happened to be gay. Regardless of how that story concluded, I continue to be inspired by the courage displayed by Justin, and his story certainly gave me the courage to eventually come out and live my life as an openly gay man.
Yesterday, almost 23 years after Justin became the first openly gay footballer associated with English football, another footballer came out as gay. The player in question was 25 year old, US born Robbie Rogers, who had played for the US and Leeds United. Whilst Justin’s coming out had provided the tabloid press with stories reinforcing certain stereotypes of gay men around the issue of sex, Robbie’s coming out was very different, as he took us on a journey that many gay men travel, in their quest to live an authentic life. Robbie showed us what lies beneath the surface of the masks that many gay men have learnt to wear. In his note, Robbie says –
“Things are never what they seem….. My whole life I have felt different, different from my peers and even different from my family………”
That feeling of ‘being different’ is a view reflected by many of the gay men I have had the opportunity to speak with, personally and professionally. That sense of being different starts in early childhood, with many not having a name for it, it was simply an inner knowing of not exactly fitting in with the rest of the boys. This feeling is certainly not unique to gay boys; it is something that many people, regardless of sexual orientation can relate to. However, for gay boys (and lesbians), through the many images that we see reflected in our homes, schools, places of religious worship and the media, we often walk away with a sense of feeling and being oddly out of place.
As human beings, we all have a desire to belong and for many, growing up with a sense of ‘being different’ is the beginning of a shame-based identity. In their book ‘Coming Out of Shame‘, Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael explore the impact of being different in a world that promotes sameness. They write –
“It is virtually impossible to be different, particularly in this culture, and not feel deficient for the difference, because any awareness of difference inevitably translates into a devaluing comparison. First we are devalued by others, and then we devalue ourselves…”
It is so easy to jump to the conclusion that ‘being different’ or ‘feeling different’ automatically means that there is something wrong with us. Sadly, this is the conclusion that many young gay children jump to when they do not receive the positive affirmations and validation that ‘they are okay exactly as they are, and do not need to be any different from who they are’.
G Kaufman and L Raphael go on to say –
“…because of the close connection between the awareness of difference and shame, being gay or lesbian inescapably makes us as lesser. That is always true in the culture at large. Often being lesbian or gay is to be not only shamed, but shunned and actively renounced. We become outcast in our own culture – and in some instances demonized”
Many who grow up with this limiting belief of being ‘less than’ unconsciously look for ways to compensate for this feeling of inner deficiency. All sorts of coping mechanisms come into place, all with the same intention – “when I get this, then I will be okay. When I become this, then I will be accepted. When I achieve this, then I will be loved”. These coping mechanisms, which are ways of hiding our inner shame, are very much like the metaphorical hungry ghosts – they always want more and are never satisfied, and at some point or another lead to a deep sense of unfulfillment and dissatisfaction.
On the surface, there has been some collective progression when it comes to the acceptance of gay people, afterall we are now seen on many TV shows, in some countries around the world we can now get married and we even get a mention in the President of the United States inauguration speech. However below the surface, there are still many areas where the gay child and adult cannot help but notice that all is still not well in Utopia. The fact that, it is implied by many pockets of society, that regardless of legislation our love is one not worthy of marriage. The fact that some still tell us that we are not worthy of adopting children. The fact that in many countries around the world, being ourself is still considered illegal. The fact that many religious leaders still consider us abominations, and do not fully embrace us. And behind closed doors, there are indeed many families who still say they would rather not have a gay child. With all this beneath the surface, it is no wonder that Robbie, like many gay men, felt –
“… For the past 25 years I have been afraid, afraid to show whom I really was because of fear. Fear that judgment and rejection will hold me back from my dreams and aspiration. Fear that my loved ones would be farthest from me if they knew my secret. Fear that my secret would get in the way of my dreams…”
The fact of the matter is, being secretive about who we are simply means that we continue to be trapped in the closet of shame. What this means for many gay men, like Robbie, is that during this period of not showing our true self, we start splitting our identity, by only revealing aspects of who we are to certain people. Whilst this might work on the surface and help us get through the day, it certainly does nothing to reduce the shame. As Brene Brown says, shame needs three things to thrive – Silence, Secrecy and Judgment. All three are certainly present in the journey of the gay man, who due to old emotional wounds, and fear of rejection is unable to reveal his authentic self to many of the people whom he meets along his life journey.
Shame does have its downside, as Robbie points out in his note – “secrets can cause so much internal damage”. For many gay men, this “internal damage’ translates to substance or alcohol addiction, dysfunctional relationships, depression and in some cases, suicide. In the draft report titled ‘Living On the Edge: Gay Men, Depression And Risk-Taking Behaviours’, by the late Spencer Cox for The Medius Institute, he writes – “The incidence of mood and anxiety disorders, and particularly of depression, dysthymia and generalized anxiety disorder, are substantially higher among gay men than in the population of men as a whole. The most reliable estimates suggest that gay men are about three times more likely than the general population to experience depression”. The statement echoes the findings of the UK charity Stonewall who also looked in to the issue of Gay and Bisexual Men’s Mental Health.
Coming out is something that the individual ultimately does for himself, for it is a personal decision. For Robbie we sense the liberation when he says – ‘my secret is gone, I am a free man, I can move on and live my life as my creator intended’. And yet, each person who comes out, also comes out for the many others who are watching from the sidelines, wondering if they have the courage to do so too, wondering if they will take that risk.
In coming out and writing about his thought process, Robbie sends a powerful message to every young gay child and adult – along with every family member of a gay person, every friend of a gay person, every employer with gay employees and many more people across the globe. That message is simple – ‘Take a risk and reveal your authentic self. It’s okay to feel vulnerable’.
In reflecting on Robbie’s note, I am reminded of something Mark Nepo says in his book ‘The Exquisite Risk – Daring to Live and Authentic Life’. In it he says –
“For years, I’ve been trying to explore and understand: How can we, being forgetfully human, remember we are of one human family? How can we stay awake and authentic when our wounds make us numb and hidden? How can we minimize what stands between us and our experiences of life? How can we make a practice of wearing down what thickens around our mind and heart? How can this practice of staying authentic serve and draw strength from the universal Whole, while we are immersed and entangled in the moments of our lives?”
Mark goes on to say –
“So what does it mean to be real? I would suggest that it involves both an outer commitment and an inner commitment: an outer commitment to live as close to our experience as possible, and an inner commitment to keep our individual spirit aligned with the soul of the world; an outer commitment to stay transparent until what we experience is what we feel, an inner commitment to stay transparent until who we are is joined to the source of life……….”
So, ‘how can we stay awake and authentic, when our wounds make us numb and hidden?’ And ‘how can we cultivate that inner and outer commitment to keep it real?’ Guess that lies in being courageous and taking that risk to show our true self, for as Robbie says –
“Life is only complete when your loved ones know you. When they know your true feelings, when they know who and how you love. Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions, and at last the pain from hiding such a deep secret.”