Thursday, February 3, 2011


Last weekend, Chris and I drove to my sister and her boyfriend's townhouse to help them paint their large living/dining room.  This is the sister who knows I write a blog, who read several posts in the past, and who posed the question, "why do you reveal so much of yourself," as though what she'd learned had been somehow disturbing.  I don't think she's returned to read anything since.    

"Because I don't have anything to hide," I answered then.  "I'm a human being like anyone else, with good and bad points.  I think of my life as a talk show--reveal whatever you need to in the chance it could be helpful to someone else."

Paint roller in hand this past Saturday, I said, "I've changed the direction of my blog.  I'm trying to help gay people to improve their self-esteem, to learn how to love themselves."

"Gay people aren't the only ones with self-esteem problems, you know," she said, as though accusing me of deliberately excluding heterosexual people from the discussion.  (For the record, I think much of what I've written thus far would serve non-gay people, too.)    

But, of course, I already had a response, since I'd given this some thought.

I told her I knew nearly everyone in the world has a self-esteem problem.  If I've learned anything from watching talk shows over the years, it's that most problems in people's lives seem to have their genesis in low self-esteem, regardless of whether the people in question are gay or straight.  That's the nature of being human on the planet at this time in history.

But, I told her, the self-esteem challenges gay people encounter are different from those faced by straight people.  Or, I should say, the worthlessness that characterizes the low self-esteem gay people suffer from comes from a different place, which adds a whole other dimension to what we have to overcome if we're to emerge on the other side of it.    

I don't intend for this to be a discussion about whether one form of worthlessness is worse than another.  The fact is, worthlessness is worthlessness, no matter the cause, and the pain a person feels because of it--because of how his entire life is affected by it in one way or another--is similarly crippling. Thus, I admit no one person's sense of worthlessness can be said to be markedly worse or better than anyone else's, because it's all subjective--and it's all worthy of acknowledgement.    

That said, I think recognition needs to be given to an additional element in the worthlessness that most gay people experience, which originates in the contempt many straight people feel toward them.  That contempt is largely the result of religious fanatics misusing passages in the Bible to level judgement on other human beings, which they fail to love, as God would have them do, rather than deride, which I've written about previously.

In short, many gay people, whose lives are invariably touched by some form of fundamental religion, are taught from an early age that homosexuality is bad, wrong, immoral, an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.  And that message is reinforced over and over and over again in many ways.  While some Christians purport to love the sinner but not the sin, it's difficult where gay people are concerned to differentiate between them because they are one and the same.  What they are is who they are.

Thus, I find it curious that one who kills another human being could be more easily forgiven for committing the sin of murder, because he himself is not considered immoral, what he did is.  But a homosexual, in order not to be a sinner, must not only give up his homosexual behavior but must also deny his very being, who he intrinsically is.  From the perspective of a gay person, the sin of homosexuality seems worse even than that of murder.          

Because we live in a largely Judeo-Christian culture, the spectre of being held accountable on judgement day for our mortal sins, including, in the case of gay people, having sex with someone of the same gender, is a frightening one.  Who wants to burn in hell for all eternity because he followed through on what was his very nature to be, because he lived his life fully?  Whether you believe in God or not, you can't help but be feel judged and influenced by the beliefs of those around you.

In my reading this week, I found this passage in The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience, edited by Louis-Georges Tin, a professor of literature at the University of Orleans in France.  When I consulted the book to research the issue of low self-esteem in gays and lesbians, I found "Self-Hatred," directing me to "Shame," which I think is telling in terms of the nature of low self-esteem gay people experience.

The passage states:  

"...Gays and lesbians are, in many respects, "children of shame."  Many of their personal stories are marked by periods of uneasiness and discomfort that show the difficulty of living in a heterosexual world consisting of repeated abasements, sometimes real, sometimes imagined; sometimes open, sometimes secret.  Whether before they come out or long after, gays and lesbians face a relentless and cruel treatment by society, and the growing knowledge of belonging to a class of "unsuitable" people whom society does not want, which they are reminded of on a daily basis.  Shame is a feeling of vulnerability that is universal, but not experienced equally across all categories of individuals.  In theory, we are all equal in [the] face of shame, but in the real social world, some are more "equal" than others.'

And, later, this passage appears:

'Shame is one of the most powerful mechanisms by which social order holds us in our presumed place in society, either by preventing "normal people" [read, heterosexuals] from straying from the "right path,' or by provoking "abnormal people" [read, homosexuals] to hide and remain out of sight by not publicly acknowledging their membership in a socially undesirable category.  Even amongst the most happy and proud of being out, homosexual shame can exist in those afflicted for a long time, resurfacing at the most unexpected moments when one thought it had been long overcome (and staying with them until their death).  As Didier Eribon writes:  "There is always, at the turn of every sentence, a wound that can reopen; a new shame that can submerge me, or the old shame coming back to the surface."  As the political result of the collective oppression, reproduced in a series of daily interactions, the shame suffered by gays and lesbians cannot be opposed except collectively in turn: it is a mechanism often too well anchored in our bodies, our subjectivities and in the objective structures of heterosexist society, to be simply revoked individually [both quotes from p. 414].'

Is it any wonder, then, why we, as gay men and lesbian women, have more work to do to restore our sense of worth, must live our lives more consciously, and are compelled to raise our self-esteem, to prepare ourselves for those times when, inevitably, we are made to feel shameful for doing nothing more than be ourselves?


  1. Excellent, Rick! I was thinking as I was reading this that you're in good company: Dan Savage was accused of making the It Gets Better Project "only for gay kids, when straight kids get bullied, too." His response was similar to yours, that yes, any kid can be bullied, but there is an extra layer in the bullying of gay kids, who are also, perhaps, going home where they continue to be bullied there. And sure, straight people can have low self-esteem. However, that probably comes from the way they internalize their own thoughts, not necessarily from the messages they're getting from society. As you've talked about, even if you take religious fundamentalists out of the equation, there is very little for gays and lesbians to identify with in today's media driven society. For me, it would be like never seeing an image of a woman, ever, in advertising, or on TV, or wherever. I would internalize the idea that there was something inherently wrong with being a woman. If I then went to church and heard about how sinful women were (hmmm...), and went to school where there were no female teachers, yeah, I'd probably question my self-worth, too.

    And remember, some people like to tear down those who are following their dreams (not to sound too corny.) I've noticed that the odd time from friends or family, where putting yourself out there maybe makes them question, on some level, how they're running their own lives. All you can do, Rick, is be true to your own idea, knowing that it isn't your job to everything to're simply going to do the best you can in this particular niche. (I think Dan's response to the people who said he should make an IGBP for straight kids was, "that's a great idea! You should do it!")

  2. I fully agree that shame is powerful mechanism of social order! In Japan mothers don't tell their kids to sit still on the train because Mom said so, they tell them to do it because other people are looking at them. No wonder it is so hard to be different. I think some family members reject gay people because they are afraid of being ashamed themselves. I'll bet that anti-gay folks also fear this shame, or feel the right to impose it. That is why individuality, diversity, and freedom of expression are such important universal themes.

    Great points Sarah. We should encourage more straight people to read Rick's blog too, or as you point out, they should make their own self esteem blog! P.S. How did your mentor volunteering go?

  3. Hey Doug! Thanks for remembering! Last night was more of a presentation that the (sex ed) group I volunteer for was doing, and it was interesting. The kids were very interactive in one of the games we played as a warm up, and were so incredibly savvy about being able to describe their own situations, so that was pretty neat to see, but there wasn't a chance for much one on one chatting. Clearly, though, it's a downtown space that is easily accessible for these kids, and so that's great to see, the way they come together to support each other. They're obviously very comfortable together. (Makes me wonder, though, about the kids who either aren't on bus or train lines to reach it, who perhaps don't have understanding family to drive them...?)

    Dropped off my application at the second place, so once they've assured themselves that the worst thing on my police report is the occasional leadfoot excursion on the Trans Canada, I should be good to go there, can't wait!

    Also was able to attend a workshop today on young men's sexual health, learned so much about the challenges the average kid faces when it comes to making good choices about protecting themselves from STIs, etc., and how to encourage them to take more responsibility for their own health (the stats show condom use is pretty low, between 30-45% for the under 25 age group...yikes.)

    And boy, what an education it would be for the average straight person (read: well meaning, but wrapped up in their own lives) to read this blog, it would be so eye-opening for them. Once you've started asking the questions, and really thinking about how things are presented in our society, you realize how fully hetero-centric (is that even a word?) it is. I love checking in here every day now!

  4. Sarah and Doug, thanks for checking back and for your comments. You know I appreciate it.

    Both of you have been terrific for me. Because you're smart and articulate, I find myself challenged to dig a little deeper into the subject matter of what I write about. I want to understand the issue of low self-esteem in gay men much better, so, hopefully, I can be more helpful. Both of you inspire me to do that, and I thank you for figuratively kicking my butt when you don't even realize you're doing it.

    On the subject of straight people reading my blog, I think what I try to do here--along with your help, of course--would be lost on them. I think most straight people don't have the least interest in the plight of gay people.

    While they would have the opportunity to deepen their understanding of us--a segment of the population that has been marginalized for many years--I think most straight people would just as soon gay people go away somewhere. It would be easier for them to deal with us that way than to take responsibility for the role they've played in what's happened.

    Or maybe I'm wrong. I'd love to be wrong on this point. Wouldn't that be great if I was?

    In the meantime, as you write, Sarah, I continue to do what I believe in my heart is the right thing.

    Again, my thanks for your contributions to the understand of what I write. Usually, I don't see all the angles, and you help me to do that.

    (P.S.: Sarah, I'm eager to hear more about your volunteering, too. Please be sure to share with us.)

  5. Rick, Doug, Sarah, because you've all be conversing here, I'll make this for all of you. :)

    Shame is as innate as guilt in the LGBT community. We're bred to feel this way. As straight and gay people, and anyone in between. We're all made to hate each other. It's the norm. As gay people, it's sometimes worse because on top of our own self loathing, we have hate and fear and other people's self loathing projected on to us. It's hard to cope with. Some of us are very resilient, rising above and truly finding out that it does get better. Some of us are wrapped in all the shame and guilt, hate, fear forever, unable to see anything but the dark aspects of life. And unfortunately, some of us just don't make it. The burden is too much, and we choose to end our lives.

    I am fortunate to be one of the people who belong to the first group. As a member of that group, I see myself as owing it to the other two groups, and others on the fringe, to show that we can successfully make it out okay, and find love and be loved and most importantly, love ourselves, without regret, shame or guilt.

    Just like this blog does. :)

  6. Amen, Heather, amen. Beautifully written. I know you felt this one, and I appreciate you sharing it with us.
    Among other things, I hope what I, with this blog, and all of you as followers and readers, have done here is create a place where we are living proof you can get through the adversity associated with being gay. When people find this blog, I hope they know, through the posts and through our conversations, it's going to be okay. It really will. We are living examples.
    If we can make it, anyone can, right?
    Thanks for your wonderful comment.