Recently, I read a newspaper article written by Graham Hookey, a local high school teacher. Titled "Worth is the root of self-esteem," the article talks about his interactions with students who think little of themselves. More than anything, he writes, as teenagers, "we want to be accepted by a group of peers and we want to have options for courtship."
But, for so many reasons, many young people don't think they measure up. Hookey writes, "It is heartbreaking to me to see wonderful young people picked on, manipulated and damaged by insensitive peers. It is frustrating to work with talented young people whose self-talk is destructive...."
The subject of Hookey's article may be young teenagers, but young teenagers become young adults, and, as many of us know personally, especially if we're gay and were victims of the bullying he describes, nothing automatically happens between our teen and young adult years to magically fix all of our self-esteem problems. In most cases, those very same problems remain with us well into adulthood, when we ourselves make them far worse than any bully in grade school ever did.
That's what happened to me. The kids who bullied me ended wreaking their damage (to use Hookey's word) when I graduated from high school in June 1977, but, because I was filled with so much self-loathing by then, for the next ten or twelve years, I continued their sick routine--beating myself up nonstop, repeating to myself all of the things they used to spew at me, reinforcing it over and over again. In effect, I became my own worst bully.
The point of Hookey's article is an important one: "More and more I find myself trying to force them [the students he talks to] to right the voice in their head that leaves them vulnerable. It is their opinion of themselves that matters most because, ultimately, they must build their self-esteem from the inside out. My most common question is to ask a student if he thinks he is a good person and I let him ponder that awhile. It's often quite a struggle for a young person to answer that...and may take some time to evolve, but that is the ultimate root of self-esteem. You have to believe in your worth."
What Hookey writes has direct application to the repurposing of my blog this year, in terms of helping gay men to raise their self-esteem. Righting the voice in the head is critical to that process, and I write about it in more detail in the post titled "How to Love Yourself When You're a Gay Man (and When You're Not): Step #4, Take Baby Steps Forward." I invite you to click here to read that post in its entirety.
For now, another point I take from Hookey's article is the source of self-esteem. I think we'd like someone else to give us what we don't have--someone like a family member, a friend, or a life partner--because, one, we haven't been able to give it to ourselves, and we might not realize that's where it comes from anyway; and, two, if we are so enlightened, we believe giving it to ourselves might take a lot of hard work, which is counter to the time we live in where everything is instant, including, apparently, feeling good about yourself.
I could have waited, for example, until I met my partner, Chris, to tell me I was a good and worthwhile human being. But I probably wouldn't have met him had I not already started to work on my self-esteem. And, even if I had, what if he'd told me everything I'd always wanted to hear, but I didn't yet have an inkling it was true? How much self-esteem do you think he would have been able to impart to me? In fact, I probably wouldn't have believed a thing he said and might have found him insincere.
Moreover, I think the root cause of many challenges people in relationships face is low self-esteem--where fragile egos come together, desperate to feel love, because they have no love for themselves, and where insecurity leads to fighting for power and influence over the other. Sound familiar? I think this becomes the basis of many relationships (gay or straight), so is it any wonder why, built on such a flimsy foundation, they don't last or aren't good for either person?
And, finally, I want to touch on this whole question of whether people think they are good or bad, which, Hookey points out, is key to self-worth. I think for many gay men, crucial to improving their self-esteem is believing they are good people. Because, as I've written before, for many people, particularly religious fanatics, homosexuality is a moral issue. It's about straight being moral and good, and gay being immoral and bad.
Unfortunately, that message is reinforced in many different ways, and I think gay men, often being hyper-sensitive, take it to heart, believing, at least initially, that if someone in authority thinks it's right, like parents or the church, for example, then it must be true, and they have no choice but to believe it about themselves. Thus, moving from believing gay is bad to gay is good requires a monumental shift that is near to impossible to make, but it's critical in helping gay people to raise their self-esteem and to love themselves.
Ultimately, I think each of us who is gay must ask himself the question Hookey asks his students, and he must search his soul for the answer. When I did many years ago, what came to mind first and foremost was that I didn't choose to be gay (that is, I chose to accept I was gay, but I didn't choose to be gay). For me, the question of right or wrong, moral or immoral, good or bad, is a matter of choice, or a matter of consciously choosing one course of action over another. Thus, nothing is inherently bad or good, it just is.
When I was a little boy, I remember having feelings I didn't understand around certain men. Some of these men included family members, neighbors, teachers, life guards at the swimming pool, even fellow students. For a reason that made no sense to me at the time, I was drawn to them. I may have been drawn to their handsome face, their height, their muscular body, their facial hair, their masculinity, their hairy forearms and chests. Invariably, something about them stirred something inside me. I had no idea then, but this was the beginning of attraction.
I bring this up because I was a boy at the time, going with what was natural for me, and not making a conscious choice. I did not know that my attraction to other boys and men was wrong, or immoral, or bad, according to some people (not as a little boy I didn't, anyway). Later, when I did know, I hoped I'd grow out of it, that attraction would turn into admiration instead, and that girls would begin to appeal to me in that way, the same as it seemed to for most boys. But that didn't happen. Instead, my feelings for men intensified. And I began to realize not only did I feel connected to men in a way I would never feel connected to women, but also I was sexually aroused by them.
Children and innocence are often used in the same sentence. The belief is that children enter this world pure in thought and deed. I assume this means children are believed to be morally good because, at their young ages, they are incapable of making immoral or bad decisions. Yet, there I was, unmistakably drawn to men, staring at them all the time, doing everything I could to be physically near them, practically begging them to notice me. Women I socialized and felt a kinship with; men I wanted to love me.
When I ponder the question of whether or not I consider myself to be a good person, despite being gay, I don't see how I can answer any other way but yes. I did not make the conscious choice to be gay. What I have done is made the conscious decision to follow through on what is perfectly natural for me, which is to fall in love with another man and to share my life with him. How can I be considered a bad person only on the basis of loving someone of the same gender?
The fact is, none of us can. I'm not a bad person because I'm gay, and neither are you. So give some thought to that when you answer Hookey's question for yourself, and don't let anyone or anything tell you you're not a valuable and worthy human being. Remember, critical to raising our self-esteem as gay people is believing that to be true. There's no reason why you shouldn't.
(The quotes above are from "Worth is the root of self-esteem," by Graham Hookey, published in "The MR News," on Friday, January 14, 2011, located on p. 20.)