I was 9 years old when I first registered that the world didn’t like me. Not for anything I had done, but because of something I could not change and had no choice over.
It should have been a fun evening, watching Dave Allen with my mum, laughing at a few funny sketches on his comedy show. But then a sketch started which was to impact on my young mind with the power of a punch. Three monks stood in a line, each with a halo. Then a woman walked by and the monk on the left lost his halo. the other two monks looked pleased with themselves. Then another woman walked by and the monk on the right lost his halo. Both monks looked at the one in the middle with respect. He really was pure, with no sinful thoughts…..but then a man walked past, and he too lost his halo.
If it had ended there it would have been funny and a comment on the assumptions we make. But it had a closing sting. The two monks on either side backed away from the monk in the middle until he was left standing alone. And as a 9 year old boy watching this I somehow knew that the man in the middle was me. It brought up a fear that if others saw this in me they too would back away. It told me there was something wrong about me. It created a seed of shame that was then watered by articles in the Daily Mail, the paper my mum read, my step-father’s homophobia, and all the poisonous anti gay politics of the 1980s. By the time I was into my teenage years I was in a state of full denial and shutdown.
Then a few years ago I read an article in The Huffington Post called ‘The Epidemic of Gay Lonliness’ which gives a really powerful overview of where we are right now as a community and the struggle one man has had in his life and how he came through. In the article he talks of minority stress. It was the first time I had heard of this concept, but it immediately resonated with my childhood experience. The article starts by describing the dilemma that one researcher has observed:
“He found that gay men everywhere, at every age, have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, incontinence, erectile dysfunction, allergies and asthma—you name it, we got it. In Canada, Salway eventually discovered, more gay men were dying from suicide than from AIDS, and had been for years. (This might be the case in the U.S. too, he says, but no one has bothered to study it.)
“We see gay men who have never been sexually or physically assaulted with similar post-traumatic stress symptoms to people who have been in combat situations or who have been raped,” says Alex Keuroghlian, a psychiatrist at the Fenway Institute’s Center for Population Research in LGBT Health.
Gay men are, as Keuroghlian puts it, “primed to expect rejection.” We’re constantly scanning social situations for ways we may not fit into them. We struggle to assert ourselves. We replay our social failures on a loop.”
The article goes on to explain how all of this is a manifestation of growing up with minority stress. Minority stress occurs for anyone who is a minority in a majority culture – people of colour in mainly white schools or workplaces, women working in an all male workplace etc. Any minority will experience the pressure of being different from the majority. It is especially hard for gay men as it may all occur in our family as well if we hear homophobic comments from parents and feel that we don’t belong even at home.
As the article says: “For gay people, the effect is magnified by the fact that our minority status is hidden. Not only do we have to do all this extra work and answer all these internal questions when we’re 12, but we also have to do it without being able to talk to our friends or parents about it. John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, says the real damage gets done in the five or so years between realizing your sexuality and starting to tell other people. Even relatively small stressors in this period have an outsized effect—not because they’re directly traumatic, but because we start to expect them.”
Thus by the time we are adults we have been through this battle field of stress. And it is no wonder gay men then exhibit a greater tendency to addictive behaviour, use of drugs, smoking, sex and alcohol to self-medicate.
The article goes on to say that this initial damage is then intensified and made worse by the experience a lot of men have on the gay scene, or whilst using the apps, of being judged and rejected, so that associating with others in the minority group actually leads to more wounding rather than a space of support and mutual understanding.
- One of the first steps to healing is to recognise and name the pattern that is playing out. That’s why I found it so powerful to be able to put a name to the experience: minority stress. It helps to realise that I was not alone in this – but that nearly every gay/bi man I meet will in his own way have experienced it.
- Then it is being able to talk openly and honestly about your experience – whether in a group or in individual therapy where your gay identity will be affirmed. Telling our story and being heard is such a powerful way of healing.
- Leaning to care for ourselves and bring kindness to where we struggle is a vital part of shifting out of this pattern of feeling we are wrong or that we don’t deserve love.
- Celebrating our difference rather than trying to fit in will also counter the message of minority stress that there is something wrong with us and that we cannot be accepted. This might be a small act of recalling something you denied about yourself. As boy I enjoyed skipping and doing things seen as ‘girls’ activities and as gay men we can be in touch with our feminine in a way some straight men might struggle with – so let’s celebrate this!! Enjoy painting your nails if you feel you want to. Have fun giving yourself a pampering session and face mask (something I used to do with my boyfriend when we lived together). Dress up and look fabulous for a party (once we can have them again)! Arrange some flowers. Or simply respect your empathy and sensitivity rather than telling yourself you should be more butch!
A few months ago I led a 3 hour workshop on this theme, which allowed time for people to share in the group and also talk in smaller groups of 3. We did exercises about revealing the unconscious negative beliefs we have taken in from society about what being gay is and writing affirming statements instead. It finished with a meditation where we met our inner gay self as a child and told him he was loved. I had messages afterwards from participants saying it was the most powerful workshop they had done on the weekend festival and it had helped them heal some old pain by being able to talk openly and hear other men’s stories and realise they were not alone.
You are not alone
For all of our differences most of us as gay/bi men share being a frightened boy who felt there was something wrong with him. Realising you are not alone, that you share this with others, and letting that boy know he is loved and is beautiful can bring a profound shift in how you feel in yourself.
I’m running the workshop again in December and it will be great to have to have you there. Details below. Click here for more details and to book