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In the final Harry Potter book, Harry meets Dumbledore in an ethereal version of King’s Cross Station. With them there is a creature, a repulsive, whimpering childlike form, lying helpless on the ground. It is meant to represent what remains of Voldemort’s mangled soul. It also somehow perfectly embodies the way I see myself.
Repulsive. Whimpering. Childlike. Helpless. My inner voice tells me I am all these things. Pathetic and loathsome. Something that should never be seen. Something that can maybe be pitied, but can never be loved.
Shame is the emotion I am most afraid of. It is also the emotion I feel more often than any other. Shame for being the person I am. Shame for being fundamentally wrong.
It makes sense that I feel this way. I am gay, after all. And to be gay is to be something that simply should not exist.
A friend of mine once said this when I mentioned gay shame. She was a straight female in a group of gay males, so she probably felt outnumbered and undermined by the implication that gay shame is more important than hers. Still, I had to stifle the urge to clap back.
Of course, everyone feels shame, but it is different for different people. There’s a reason that gay shame is different to the shame of being a woman or of being black or Latino or overweight or less intelligent (and it’s not because gay shame is worse or more valid).
Growing up, I knew no gay people. Or, more accurately, I didn’t know I knew any gay people. I had a gay uncle who was spoken about in vague terms I didn’t understand. I had a gay cousin I had never met. I had a gay cousin my own age who was as deep in the closet as I was. The occasional teacher who was rumored to be gay was little more than a punchline.
Gay shame is what you feel when you’re not supposed to exist. You know no one else like you, and no one wants to be like you. No one is there to validate who you are. You harbor a secret that you spend your life trying to protect. If the veneer cracks, you could lose everything.
All my life I had one big secret to keep. A secret so big that keeping it consumed me. Some secrets you can simply choose not to tell people. Other secrets you spend your life trying to keep from escaping on their own.
Being gay was like that. I had to watch my mannerisms, taking care not to ever let my wrist go limp. I had to filter the way I smiled and laughed. I had to listen closely to everything I said, making sure I hadn’t betrayed myself with a stray inflection.
And I had to remind myself not to tell people I was gay. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I do suffer at times from obsessive thinking. The term, “I’m gay,” was always on the tip of my tongue. If I let my guard down, my own words could give me away.
The thing with urges like these is that the more you tell yourself to stop, the stronger the urge becomes. I couldn’t count on myself not to say the thing which would hurt me most. This was true long before I had even come to terms with the fact that I was gay.
The impulse to blurt out my secret had a lot to do with the terror of the consequences that would occur if I did. It was a self-destruct button, the easiest way to hurt myself. But I know that part of it was the relief saying those words would bring. Letting go of the burden of that secret, sitting back and letting my guts spill from my body, would end the facade once and for all. Everyone would be repulsed by me, but at least I could take a break.
In the end, I didn’t say those words to anyone until I was somewhat comfortable with them and knew they wouldn’t destroy my life.
Traumatic coming out stories get more attention. The lesbian kid whose religious parents kicked her out, the trans person who was beaten to a pulp, or the non-binary person who was stripped by bullies to “see what they are” – these are all tragic stories which don’t end the moment the person is out the closet.
Happy coming out stories like mine, in which most of the people in my life accepted me immediately or shortly thereafter, have a resolution. I made it, and that’s cause for celebration.
Coming out did indeed relieve me of a burden. The process was transformative, allowing me to let go of so much. My mannerisms changed, not because I changed them but because I relaxed. I felt more comfortable speaking my mind without worrying about spilling dark secrets. I also got to stop obsessively checking my browser history.
Unfortunately, that’s only one side of the story. A lifetime of shame does not just go away overnight. Queer people are not just ashamed of being queer. We are ashamed to be ourselves. We internalize the shame. Just because our sexuality is out of the firing line, does not mean we are now okay with being ourselves.
My shame moves from one big thing to the next. I always have the feeling that if only X hadn’t happened or if only I had never done/said that, I would finally be okay with myself. But the truth is that this shame is not going away. Today, it is the shame that makes so many of my words or actions feel so consequential. It is not those actions that are causing the shame.
For many years, my shame crippled me. I lived as half a human, not daring to let go for a minute in case my repulsive, whimpering, childlike form revealed itself. I did not try new things or speak to new people. I shared nothing personal. I expected very little from myself and from the world.
Nine years ago, when I started therapy for the first time, I finally did something to counter that shame. This was still three years before I came out, but I made the first moves to prove to myself that I wasn’t as helpless and pathetic as I believed. Through a combination of challenging my inner voice, as well as forcing myself to do things I didn’t think I could do, I chipped away at the immense wall of shame.
Nine years later, and six years after coming out, I still feel ashamed of myself. I still obsess over things I say or the way I say them, mistakes I make, personal failures and career disappointments. It’s not nearly as monumental as it once was, and for the most part, it no longer stops me from living the life I want to live, but it is still constant and I still often run, hide, and try to fight it.
However, the battleground has moved. My goal these days is not to fight the shame but to accept it. As long as I express myself, I will continue feeling shame. Even if I don’t express myself, I’ll probably feel shame. But shame in and of itself does not have to be harmful.
Shame loses a lot of its power when you see it for what it is – a feeling. Feelings exist for a reason. They ensure you act in a certain way that is beneficial to you and your society. At least, that’s what they’re supposed to do.
Shame is no different. The feeling of shame can save your life. Queer people around the world have had to hide who they are in order to escape very real, often permanent consequences.
And like any other feeling, an excess of shame becomes harmful, rather than helpful. It continues to defend you against threats that are not as big as they seem, or that are no longer there. It causes you to do things that aren’t helpful or avoid things that aren’t actually harmful.
While I still feel a lot of shame, it no longer has the same hold on me it once did. I can step outside of it, recognize it as just a feeling, and let it be. The feeling is stripped of its sting, and I am saved from making decisions because of it.
There’s a practical exercise that helped me get a better grasp of this concept:
Next time you are feeling a little bit chilly, try to be aware that your body is sending you a warning. It is telling you that you might need to find a way to get warm in order to stay alive.
Take note of its warning, but ask yourself if you logically need to do anything. Is the cold severe enough to do any actual harm? If not, try to see the feeling for what it is. Be appreciative, and then let yourself feel the cold without taking action. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your perception changes and you no longer feel forced to reach for that sweater.
This is what I try to do with shame. I acknowledge it for the friend it is, sending me a warning to protect myself. And I try to let it be, in the knowledge that it is unnecessary now and that I am already safe.
It doesn’t always work, but it has been effective enough for me to pursue a career in which unadulterated honesty is often necessary. I know that, as a gay man, my honesty helps many others like me deal with this very same shame.
Even as a child, I could tell my parents’ marriage was a mess. My mother hurled insults at my father, denigrating him for not being able to hold down a job, provoking him with stories of past lovers who would have been far better husbands. My father saw my mother as a child and, although he did not voice his feelings the way she did, he barely concealed his contempt for her.
Nonetheless, they never seemed to consider divorce. And since theirs was the only marriage I’d been able to witness firsthand, a lot of my implicit beliefs about romantic relationships came from them.