This morning, I received my daily visit from a community nurse, who is coming to terms with the suicide-death of her adult, gay brother. In an attempt to help her, and to explain the shameful and desperate aloneness, involved in growing up as a gay man, I have decided to commit to paper a reflection upon my own experience, growing up as a gay boy, in a world, still deeply and entrenchedly homophobic. And I thought I'd share it with you. Because this reflection is based in my own experiences, growing up as a gay child, adolescent, youth and adult man, my terms of reference will be gay males; this is not, however, in any way, intended as a slight against, or lack of respect for, gay females. It is, however, the first time I have ever made any public disclosure of my deepest fears that began, as I vividly remember, when I was only five-years-of-age.
Homosexuality is in and of itself not pathological; like heterosexuality, it is a complex expression of multiple personal and historical meanings. For me, growing up gay meant being scapegoated, shamed, ridiculed and subsequently hidden. It meant internalizing my negative self-esteem. Only after thirty years of age.....and with the help of my one-and-only lover, the most beautiful man I have ever known, the late Singaporean Jeffrey.....did I begin to learn how to "manage" my homosexuality and grow into some kind of acceptable me!
Not being a "queer, a poofter, or a faggot" is still a central, organising principle in our cultures. It was also the central, defining force in the world of my gay childhood, puberty, adolescence and adulthood. Even in today's enlightened society, every gay boy's experience cannot help but be shaped and formed within this framework. Every young boy, who later identifies himself as gay, begins his life within this reality. It has potent implications for the development of his own sexual identity; and it offers some explanation for today's seemingly never-ending epidemic of gay youth-suicides.
As a gay man, I had complete awareness of being "different" from fairly early on in my life.....well before puberty.....as early as when I was five-years-of-age. Looking back, I can appreciate and tie this feeling into my currently differentiated and formed gay identity. But, I have, only now, begun to grasp the nature of my childhood experiences. This poignant feeling of "differentness" appears particularly tied to my lack of gender-typical behavior. Many more complex processes, within me, were also going on in more subtle, less conscious ways. One such process was the lack of any mirrored responses to my early, emerging, sexual and affectionate expressions. It was my same-sex, erotic fantasies and dreams, centering solely upon the male form, that initially made me feel so different and reprehensible.
Every genetically-designed gay boy.....as I was.....has some dawning awareness of being different, from an early age. To varying degrees, he begins to connect this differentness with something forbidden, terrible and unthinkable. This may come in a momentary flash or it may be a continual fear; it can be conscious or unconscious. The hatred and hostility, which people around him manifest when using words like poofter, faggot, sissy or queer.....whether directed at him or at others.....coupled with his own undeveloped, distorted understanding of these terms, is unique. Unlike being black or Jewish, the gay child is both alone with his differentness and is often confused, conflicted and horrified by "it". Unlike the black child, whose parents are typically also black, or the Jewish child with Jewish parents and relatives, the gay child not only doesn't have gay parents, but also doesn't even know what "gay" is, except as something dreadful about him, very nebulous and very negative. His "gayness" might remain unobvious to the outside world and he might try to manage it internally alone.....as I did.....with varying degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness. Alternatively, it might become obvious to the external world and be met with intense disapproval and ridicule, further increasing his shame and fear. Whatever his development, all of this must be handled alone. Unable to react emotionally or thoughtfully to the traumatic events of his early life, he is forced to keep the presence of his gayness undigested, but still powerfully influential, albeit outside of his consciousness.
In my case, there was no sympathetic person, with whom I could share my feelings; and I had no ability to appreciate the injustice of my situation. The numerous injuries, overt or covert, that happened to me on a daily basis, were to be suffered by me in silence. That was God's will for me. Whether I was overtly ridiculed, or whether I covertly endured ridicule and rejection for being different in the way I suspected and feared I might be, or if I tried to prove to myself that I wasn't different, these were all injuries that I was called to suffer alone and in silence. Sometimes, my suffering was conscious, but more often than not it was unconscious. I could never voice my tormenting secret.....not even in the sacramental privacy of the confessional. Certainly, as a child, my deadly secret was a secret only unto myself. It remained poorly understood, dimly realized, fearfully avoided, rationalized and reacted against by me. Even my private emotional reactions were often aborted; never could I experience the luxury of tears, rage, blowing off steam or thoughts of revenge. As a gay boy, I never knew whether I could repair my injury or whether I should just accept it. So, I just accepted it.....with about as much success as any other deformed boy ever accepts his deformity!
I didn't begin to learn, not until I was in my thirties, that I might be able to correct my memory of humiliation by appreciating my own worth. Appreciating my own worth required very complex and highly developed healing-capabilities.....clearly beyond my capacities as a five-year-old. I had no ability to empathize with myself or appreciate that the world's rejection and ridicule was wrong, unfair and unjust. Hence, I never experienced tears of sympathy or rage, or the joy of maintaining a consistent and reliable sense of my own self-esteem: after all, who could expect a five-year-old to accomplish this, without enormous external support? As a result of my inability to react, these traumatic events then become the cause of a splitting or dissassociation between my public and private personae. They are still deep within me, as unconscious, yet powerfully influential, memory-traces, reactivated much later in my life: I mean, if they are not, why am I still thinking and writing about them, today, at sixty-years-of-age?
My sense of being "different" was difficult enough; but, when I sensed intuitively, at a very early age, that it was related to some of the most taboo, frightening and despised images in my culture, as well as in my family and.....heaven help me.....in my beloved Roman Catholic Church, then this was all too emotionally overwhelming and confusing for me, the young gay boy. Any boy.....even a boy who feels generally valued and approved of by his family.....who hears his parents decrying sissies, poofters or faggots, receives inarticulated trauma that becomes internally structured. How much more, then, can a gay boy, like me, become a suicidal, gay adolescent and disaffected adult, later on in life.
"Coming-out"......the process of beginning to identify myself as gay, to slowly accepting myself as gay and disclosing this identity to others.....was, for me, an enormously complex process that touched and hurt me to the core. Not for me a series of discrete events leading to increasing self-disclosure as gay, leading to reduced isolation and emergent support!
The sophisticated gay adult within a large urban gay community, who is "out" to himself and others, has a very rich developmental history. But still, he has laid down internal structures that do not easily vanish or change, even with the more overt support from his community. And overt support from his family of origin does not always completely make up for early deprivation.....but, it sure does help.
But, for me, the total opposite of overt support from my family of origin.....in fact, the heightened discrimination against me by both my father and mother and the covert, yet intensely unwelcoming, disapproval from most of my siblings.....made my desire for acceptance of exactly who I am, from those whom I loved and, therefore, whose approval I sought, a completely futile exercise. And acceptance of myself by myself, a lifelong struggle! I can say this, now, with no resentment, just with acknowledgment of my reality. For me, resentment has always been the most damaging of all the emotions, with which I have any experience.
In other words, I still have much internal work to do: I have found that the emotional segues from a lifetime of discrimination, isolation and humiliation, do not resolve themselves through social interventions, alone. Only now, am I beginning to heal and hope.....and that healing hope has only really taken ahold of me after God's loving and totally accepting intervention into my life, in the operating theatre of Armidale Hospital on Tuesday, the 18th of December, last year. For that intervention alone, I shall say daily, for the rest of my life: "Thank you, God!"