Each week in the gay men’s mindfulness class we finish with the Loving Kindness practice. Loving Kindness grows from a sense of our wish for our well being and happiness. To truly wish for one’s own happiness we need a deep sense of our own value and worth. If we have low self-esteem and feel full of shame it becomes a lot harder to feel this sense of well wishing towards ourselves.
The impact of growing up gay will depend on our family and the way we respond to the messages we hear. There does seem to be some common experiences though, as evidenced by books such as ‘The Velvet Rage’ and ‘Straight Jacket’, that the messages we hear as we grow up impact on our sense of self-worth. These books explore the higher incidence of mental health issues among gay men than straight men, and connect this to the deep shame that can be felt as we start to recognise our sexual desire and hear messages from our family, society or peers that tell us this desire is bad or wrong.
Once this shame has taken hold, it becomes hard to truly value ourselves or see our sexual desire as a thing to celebrate. I was once on a weekend well being event for gay men. We were exploring how to celebrate our identity as gay men. Over lunch I heard two men talking, one said “If I could take a pill not to be gay I would”, the other agreed. How can we truly start to love ourselves when on one level we wish we were not be who we are?
The video below came up in my feed a few days ago on You Tube. It’s beautiful on many levels. The way this father talks of his gay son and celebrates him made me cry. It made me so aware of how cut off I felt from my father and his approval. I only met my dad when I was 25 and he died a few years latter. I never told him I was gay. At the time I met him I was celibate and then living in a monastery, so I told myself there was no need to tell him, but deep down I felt a fear, a dread, that if I told him then the little contact and respect I had now found with him would be lost. I felt that I could not show him this part of me that was so central to who I was. This is what shame looks like.
I wish I had been able to see a video like this at that age, or read any of the books I have now come across that celebrate who we are as gay men. In this video Dr. James O’Keefe explores why a son may be born gay and what value this has to his family or community. He starts by outlining the fact that what matters in terms of evolution is the passing on of genes. Given that siblings share so many of the same genes having one brother who is not going to have children of his own but who puts his care and skills into supporting his nieces and nephews is a winning strategy for the survival of that child and successfully passing on the families genes to a next generation.
Dr. James O’Keefe discusses how in a large family where there have already been several sons born, the youngest son is often gay. It’s as if nature were flicking a switch at this point so that there will not be another man producing offspring to use up resources, but who will instead be a support to his brothers and sisters in ensuring the survival of their children. Dr. James O’Keefe describes how his son provides this nourishment in his family. Being a source of support for his siblings.
He goes on to ask why it is his son is the eldest in the family, as this does not fit with the idea he just outlined of the youngest being more likely to be gay. He discusses research that suggests that when there is extreme stress for the mother during pregnancy her body turns on the DNA elements that predispose a male to be gay. This is done as there is a need for the child to be attentive, kind and nourishing. In his wife’s case she was having treatment for a throat cancer after becoming pregnant. I don’t know if this is true, but it is in line with my experience. My father left my mother when she became pregnant and she did not know if she would have anywhere to live. At the same time she had a medical condition that caused her to have high blood pressure, causing her to be ill. The talk goes in to a lot more detail about the science behind this theory of epigenetics if you find it of interest.
The conclusion of the talk is that Dr. James O’Keefe’s son holds his family together through being a kind and attentive brother. He might well be like this is he were straight but Dr. James O’Keefe identifies characteristics of gay men that make us more likely to be caring than aggressive and predispose us to being nurturing. He quotes from studies which show that gay males tend to score higher in metrics of compassion and cooperation and lower in metrics of hostility.
Studies of emotional intelligence and IQ research has shown that those who have a high IQ are also more likely to be gay. Meaning that a family with a gay child has someone who is more emotionally intelligent, less aggressive, is more compassionate and has a higher than average likelihood of being intelligent and able to solve problems. Seems like a winning strategy in terms of evolution for promoting the chances of the survival of your family and tribe!
If we grew up feeling we were a gift to our family and essential to the well fair of it, how different would our sense of who we are be? What would our sense of self worth be if we felt we were essential, rather than a mistake?
I found this talk so affirming. A reminder that for much of our history the gay man’s role in society was healer, shaman, care giver, artist, philosopher and sage. Even with the denial of our role in society that the era of oppression brought gay men have still found their way to be poets, artist and a kind ear to listen to other’s difficulties and provide support.
I find it helps to be reminded that if evolution had no purpose for homosexuality it would not have survived. Nor would it occur in non human animals – but instead we see it among all animals. Growing up in a culture that does not celebrate the gifts we bring to the tribe may mean those gifts get denied or lost sight of, but it does not mean that we do not fulfil a purpose for the well being of the tribe. Instead of wishing we could take a pill to be made straight, perhaps you can consider what gifts do I bring to the world for being gay.