The last weekend in December, coincident with New Year’s, marks as far in the calendar as you can possibly get from Gay Pride. It’s the darkest season of the year and the furthest outlying orbit point from the last Sunday in June with its purple-painted line drawn down the center of Fifth Avenue. It represents the wintertime shadow of the hundreds of Pride celebrations in cities and towns across America and around the world.
As such, this time of year is a perfect moment to reflect on Pride’s meaning and it’s emotional counter-weight, gay shame. Pride embodies the public celebration of our queerness and our annual civic coming out party. To participate in a Pride march or festival means that you have conquered the forces in your heart and mind that are the internal representatives of James Dobson of Focus on the Family or the newest homophobe-in-residence at the Vatican. It’s proof of your membership as a card-carrying, out-loud-and-proud dyke or faggot.
Or is it?
I mean, certainly, that’s what we intend it to mean. But lately, I’ve been starting to wonder what else it may be communicating. In my work as a therapist working in the LGBT community, I have a front row seat everyday at the queer psychological Olympics. I see people week in and week out taking on the biggest opponents of our kind—coming out, drugs and booze, domestic violence, AIDS, and hate crimes chief among them. It’s a privileged position and one I greatly value. I see day-to-day and month-to-month the courage and moxie of our kind.
I also have a unique opportunity to talk about gay shame, but it’s usually not a particularly welcome topic of conversation. Most of the people I see are initially dismissive of the need to talk about internalized homophobia—gay shame’s dressed up name—and don’t particularly want to revisit the homo-humiliations of the past. It’s as if, having come so far and sacrificed so much to live our lives as out lesbians and gay men, we don’t want to look at the scars we picked up along the way.
But I’m starting to think it’s more and more important that we do.
My friend Tom has a saying—everything that has a front also has a backside. The bigger the front is, the bigger its backside is likely to be. As we embrace our gay selves and celebrate our lives, maybe we should consider shedding some light on the remaining aspects of shame that linger within us.
Shame and humiliation are the bitter fruits that made up most of our diet as maturing gays-to-be. Even as little children, long before our first forays into conscious gaydom, we knew something was going on and we knew we had better hide it. That impulse—to cover up, to deny, to dissuade—lives on within us. To the extent that we still struggle with self-destructive impulses, that’s gay shame alive in us. Abusing drugs or alcohol, being unable to forge lasting and meaningful intimate relationships, keeping ourselves isolated, or in a hundred different ways remaining malnourished is proof that we remain, in some measure, stuck on the shame diet.
It’s vital to recognize that shame is one of human development’s most powerful emotional tools. Shame plays a necessary, if painful, role in our maturation as we come to understand what is appropriate behavior and what is not. As kids, we all received thousands of messages from the people who raised us and the community we grew up in about what constituted shameful behavior—lying, acting selfishly, hurting others were all rightly branded as shameful acts. When we broke these taboos, we felt flooded by humiliated exposure or shame.
But we also met this feeling when we recognized our same-sex desires, those attractions and contacts that made us feel most excited, happy, and fulfilled. As we struggled to come out, we fought against the powerful, self-abnegating force of shame. That feeling, of being ashamed of what we do and its connection to who we are, is similar to the ravages of racism, sexism, and transphobia that exercise a corrosive effect on self-esteem. It’s no wonder that adult gay men and women would avoid that feeling, almost at all costs.
But as we pump our self-esteem, we run some risks. Focusing to a surfeit on externals like appearance or status symbols just covers over the shame underneath. Gay Pride celebrations often seem to celebrate exactly these balms to bruised self-image. They are wonderful expressions of community growth and support, but they can sometimes mask the burdens of shame that remain underneath.
Now in the dark, short days of December and early January, as one year comes to an end and another begins, it’s the perfect moment to spend a little time exploring the dark side of pride. If we ask ourselves how shame still whispers quietly in our ears that we aren’t good enough, pretty enough, or ultimately loveable enough, we can better understand the mechanism of shame and call homophobia, both internal and external, exactly what it is—a lie. When we tell the truth about who we are and publicly share ourselves, bruises and all, we take away shame’s power and strengthen our pride, all throughout the year.