When I was a kid, before my teen years, I already knew that I was just not like the other boys. My difference did not have a name that I knew but I knew it just the same, as clearly as I knew my name. At the same time people around me, my family, kids at school would sometimes say things to me that got inside and made me feel great hurt and shame. Things like, “You run like a girl”; “You are such a sissy”; “Why do you walk like that.” “Walk like what?” I thought. But in my secret place I knew what they meant. I spent many years trying to walk right…whatever that was. What it became was walking like a man, the image that my family, the school, my church defined as manly and therefore non-gay. But in the deepest place in me that I thought only I knew, I felt my differentness was obvious somehow. So as I worked all the harder to be a man, I felt all the more ashamed of me.
When we are young, we are fed and usually swallow whole the lessons about how we are supposed to be. Ideas and rules on how our family, our neighborhood, our school, our friends, our church wants us to be. “Act ladylike, be a man, boys don’t cry, that’s so gay.” The process is called socialization but the result is also internalized homophobia. We are continually being taught to fit within the larger cultural context. The intention of the teachers of these norms is not necessarily mean spirited. It is for our benefit, to teach us how to fit in by not being too different from everybody else. To be a girl like the other girls; not a girl who acts like a boy! These lessons are powerful especially as they are being taught by the very family and friends from whom we want acceptance and love. We swallow whole the toxic messages about being GLBT. We learn to adapt, to march to their drumbeat if we can. Inside we start to feel bad, unlovable. We learn to hide our true selves. People usually do not hide what they feel good about. They hide what they feel ashamed of and for GLBT persons that is our own identity.
Even as the culture changes to include more positive images of GLBT persons, which is absolutely necessary and helpful, the power of the negative stereotyping and the messages that we have already absorbed into ourselves persists. It feels like we have two batterers. The world around us and ourselves, as we have more or less come to believe that we are not OK, not acceptable, not lovable, sick or perverted. It is very difficult as a teenager to worry about and work hard at fitting in with our peers and at the same time learn to accept our true internal selves if that self is GLBT. All the harder when we have come to believe that internal self is unacceptable. In the military the current solution for GLBT persons is to remain hidden, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” While hiding can be a survival technique in certain instances, it promotes the idea that something should be hidden because it is bad or wrong.
Restoring our self-esteem and damaged spirit is the most essential task at hand when we finally admit to ourselves who we really are. On the outside we can embrace Pride and slogans, join diversity groups and access positive information and images about GLBT persons through the media or the Internet. The inside stuff is more difficult and takes longer, but it is absolutely doable. Remember that the mirror that was held up to you is flawed and distorted as it represents what society thinks you should be, not who you are. It does not reflect your real true self or your value. Our cultural teachers (parents, school, peers) are themselves a product of that larger culture and what they learned. Think about what you were told coming up about masculinity and femininity and gayness and reexamine those messages more critically. Channel your feelings of anger and hurt in more positive ways like journaling or seeking out people or places where you feel more accepted. Learn to honor the rightness of your need and struggle to love and be loved. Remember that the cultural teachings (socialization) reflect general culture and overall fit, NOT you and your more specific fit nor your particular value as a person. Over time your value is created by what you do and how you live your life, not by how you fit a general standard of cultural measure.
For me, I eventually accepted that I walked as I walked and that it was neither masculine nor feminine, right or wrong, gay or straight, it was me and that was, no, I AM OK. I stopped beating myself up for what I wasn’t and started loving the self I was; and he is gay!