Monday, December 30, 2013
Below is my response to a question I received recently in an email from Matthew. He asked:
What was it that turned the tides for you, and allowed you to let go of your self-hatred [as a gay man]?
Your question is an intriguing one. I've given it some thought over the past several days, and I'm going to begin by answering the second part first.
You make the assumption that I've let go of my self-hatred, and that it no longer affects me. But that assumption is incorrect. Yes, I'm more aware today than I was in the past that I have a streak of self-hatred in me. And, yes, being more aware allows me to live more consciously and take better control of those times when I still feel it.
But the truth is, I don't know if it's possible for any of us to overcome our self-hatred altogether. To arrive at that happy day and time when we can say, I used to hate myself, but, now, I no longer do. To say I've totally made peace with my sexual orientation, and, from this day forward, I will never feel negative about it or be affected by it. I don't think we ever get to that place, and, if someone tells you he has, be suspect of it.
I believe the most we can do is manage it. We can't get rid of it altogether, because we are not in control of everything that happens around us. We never know, for example, if someone will yell "faggot" at us from a moving car (which happened to Chris and me only a few years ago). Or if someone we pass in a grocery store will give us that look, the same one we've received countless times and recognize as disgust (which I wrote about in a recent post).
For me, even at my age, and even after I've worked for some time at overcoming my self-loathing, instances such as these continue to take me back to when I was that kid, or that younger man, all those years ago, and encountered people who had already made up their minds about who I was on the basis of my sexual orientation alone. And who made it very clear how they felt about me.
I've come to the conclusion that, unless you are one strong individual, and in complete control of your feelings at all times, you will likely always be affected by the insensitive things that some people say or do. All any of us really wants is to be loved, or, at the very least, liked and accepted. When we receive the opposite of that, well, it's a tough thing to process, and it can't help but influence how we feel about ourselves.
But–and I want to be really clear on this point–the work involved in overcoming self-hatred is still worth it. Had I not discovered that I hated myself some time ago, and started to take the steps to turn that around, I wouldn't be where I am today. And where I am today is a far cry better than where I was before, when I bought into all the bullshit about what other people thought about me, and when I allowed what other people thought about me to affect how I felt about myself.
All I'm saying is this: I'm not sure the work to overcome self-hatred ever ends. You will need to be continuously vigilant to fight against what other people think of you, and, sadly, what you end up thinking about yourself as a result. It's a constant struggle, but it's definitely worth your time and effort. Doing the work will change the course of your life for the better. You have to believe me when I say that. And I know for a fact most other gay people would say the same thing.
Okay, so let's take a look at the first part of your question.
What turned the tides for me (as you put it), in terms of starting to let go of my self-hatred, was so simple when it happened that it scared me. It prompted me to think, if it really is this simple, why did it take me so long to get it? And, almost immediately, it began to lift the heavy weight I'd been carrying around for the better part of my life.
While I've written a dedicated blog post on this very subject, I'll try to summarize it here:
I remember it was the early 1990s, and I was walking home one day. Out of nowhere came an epiphany, and the epiphany was this: Almost all of us, gay or straight, feel some form of self-hatred. Usually, the self-hatred we feel is the result of the way we're different from other people, and how some people judge us because of how we're different.
It doesn't matter how you're different. Whether you're Asian, or female, or black, or overweight, or Jewish, or gay, or what have you, someone out there doesn't like you for some stereotypical reason associated with what you are and not who you are (because they don't know you as a human being; they haven't given themselves the chance to find out about you in your amazing and wonderful complexity).
What struck me when I realized this was, I didn't look at these people who were judged in the same way at all. In most cases, I thought they were beautiful and incredible human beings, and I didn't believe for a moment they should hate themselves for any reason whatsoever. In other words, perhaps because I knew I'd been judged unfairly in the past, I didn't see them in the same way as those who judged them did, and I didn't treat them like some stereotype.
And here's the key piece that helped start my recovery, that opened a crack and helped me see myself in an entirely different way: If it was possible that other people were judged unfairly because of how they were different, was it also possible that I was judged unfairly because of the way I was different?
Those around me, who knew I was gay and liked me anyway (I thought this was a contradiction at the time), didn't understand why my self-esteem was so low. Why I was so down on myself. Why I was consumed with self-loathing. To them, there was nothing wrong with me, no reason whatsoever why I shouldn't see myself the same way they saw me. And it occurred to me that they felt about me in the same way I felt about those people who I knew were judged because of their differences, but didn't deserve to be.
For the first time, I really saw myself through the eyes of those who knew about me and accepted me anyway, or maybe even accepted me because of it. I realized I was no different from anyone else. That is, I was no better or no worse. I was just the same.
That realization opened up my world. Because I had always thought, as a result of what I'd heard about gay people over the years, that I was inferior and unworthy. That I was less than scum. In extreme cases, that I was actually worse than rapists and murderers. All at once, I knew this was not the case. I was different from other people, yes, but the way I was different was no better or worse than the way anyone else was different. That made me equal to everyone around me, no matter who they were, or the way they were different.
And since I knew I couldn't do anything to change how I was different–that it was just the way I was, that it was the way I was made, even–I knew I had no choice: I was compelled to accept my homosexuality in a way I never had before–even when I'd come out many years previously–and I had to believe, finally, that I no longer deserved to hate myself because of it.
Matthew, I'm afraid I may have confused you with all this, and made something very simple more complex than it need be. On a personal level, all you really need to understand is that, as a gay young man, you are like everyone else, no better and no worse. And, as such, you are just as worthy, and valuable, and amazing.
Every human life has value, and it isn't because one is gay that one's life is worth any less.
Being gay is nothing more than another way of being in the world, that's just as acceptable as any other way. And, when we get that, we discover there's no reason whatsoever to hate ourselves.
That's when we reach a turning point, when we realize we can't live for anyone else anymore. Or, rather, we can't allow ourselves to be influenced by what some people have said about us for far too long. Realizing this gives us the right to take back control of our lives, to believe in our intrinsic value as human beings, and to fulfill our unique and meaningful purpose for being here.