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“I am increasingly interested in understanding how our social environment impacts our psychology and health.”

Monthly Aspectarian January 1997

Originally published in The Monthly Aspectarian, Chicago, IL, USA.

This month I want to explore the connections between immune competency, the social issue of gay rights, and the necessity of personal and collective inquiry among gay men to overcome diminishment by shame. Very often in the body/mind field, we forget the impact of social factors on healthcare outside of the more economically obvious, i.e. people without money not only don’t have access to services but usually also don’t have the education to make use of accessible services. As Jonathan Mann of Harvard pointed out at the XI International Conference on AIDS, healthcare cannot be separated from issues of human rights and freedom. In the last 50 years, only 1/6 of public health improvements in the US came from medicine. According to a recent report from the World Bank, what will make the biggest impact on global public health is increasing the educational level attained by girls.

I am interested in understanding how the social environment impacts on our psychology and health. Recent research by Cole, Kemeny, et al (1995) 1 in a study lasting 9 years has indicated that closeted gay men have a higher incidence of cancer and other infections than “out” gay men. The same holds true for HIV+ closeted gay men, who were more likely to die of AIDS 1.5-2 years earlier than those gay men who were mostly or completely “out”. Interestingly enough, another study correlated negative health consequences of coming out for those men who are especially sensitive to social rejection. It is not particularly surprising that cultural repression is a co-factor in immune suppression!

I was born in 1954, the year that Rosa Parks refused to be moved on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This act began a yearlong boycott of the busses by the local black community, and has been regarded as the opening salvo in the civil rights struggles of the 60’s. It was an auspicious symbol for my life path as a rebel in search of freedom and self-determination. (The current gay rights movement has a lot to learn from the civil rights movement. The writings of black poet Audre Lorde in italics throughout this column highlight the similarities of our struggle. 2)

I encountered early on the limitations of gender-appropriate behavior; the shaming by Catholic dogma and education; the fear of an alcoholic, controlling father; and the conformity of post-WW2 America. My adolescence coincided with the anti-war years, a time of collective discord, questioning and confrontation, which justified the explosion of my suppressed personal rage. This began the process of asserting a separate self from the culture. The blessing was this era gave me support for asserting my creativity, questioning the dominant paradigm, and feeling righteous. The curse was I projected my anger and shame on the System instead of examining its roots within, so I felt the weight of my isolation without understanding its source. My dedication to freedom and individuality by being the rebel generated a lot of power for me, yet undermined my ability to connect. The protective narcissism I developed to unconsciously guard against the emergence of my shame, rage and sadness also erected a barrier against the surrender to love. It took a loving relationship in my 30’s and subsequent therapy to unravel the layers of maladaptive coping strategies that inhibited me from fully participating in my feeling life. In freeing up the expression of my feeling and bodily life, I was able to transform old patterns of inhibition, which I suspect curtailed the HIV virus from continuing its damage to my immune system. (In these last 8 years, my CD4 cells (the major target of destruction by HIV) have not changed substantially from their holding pattern of 150.) 3

It is easier to be angry than to hurt. It is easier to be furious than yearning. For each of us bears the face that hatred seeks, and we have each learned to be at home with cruelty because we have survived so much of it in our lives.

We are a community of outsiders searching for inclusion. Even many gay men who are actively involved in and respected by our community will privately admit they feel like outsiders. This quality of “outsiderness” is not only interpersonal yet intrapersonal as well. We exist a little removed from our own experience, from our own bodies and feelings, because to stand in our center is to be bombarded by the intense shame, rage and sadness of our identity, which can feel life-threatening. As gay men and lesbians, we have been "sexually abused" by the dominant culture - our sexuality has been wronged, punished, disavowed, and held contemptible by invasive and destructive social programming. Examining the psychological and somatic symptoms of survivors of sexual abuse can teach us a lot about the wounding of the gay psyche. Even after years of self-examination, working through shame, and empowering my identity as a man who loves men, I find myself at times cringing, averting my eyes in shame, withdrawing into myself, and feeling I have done something wrong. I cannot ignore that I am surrounded by a collective death wish: go away and do not exist so others may be comfortable. “Your homosexuality is OK as long as you don’t rub it in our faces”, i.e. don’t express affection in public = don’t express who you are. My former boyfriend would go into distress if I would put my arm around him on the street because “someone from work might see me”. The necessity of vigilance, staying alert to the environment, censoring spontaneity, and relegating the natural movements of affection to “safe spaces” demands constantly active sympathetic nervous system - the fight-or-flight syndrome with its chemistry of fear. The fear becomes like a low-grade fever, always present but out of awareness so we don’t even know we are afraid anymore. Even in the privacy of our homes, we are liable to carry the critical, condemning eyes with us into our relationships, having internalized so well the voices of culture.

As much as I intellectually understand the unconscious power of homophobia that infiltrates all levels of society so I can maintain my own inner equanimity, I still live in this toxic field of condemnation and hatred. This requires splitting off from my felt inner experience to survive with some shred of self-respect, making me empathize with the plight of women living in the field of misogyny, people of color in the climate of racism, and Jewish people in the atmosphere of anti-Semitism. And yet even though we freely acknowledge these others as forms of bigotry and injustice, we have only begun to do that with homophobia. Gay people are still condemned by the world’s major religions, can be fired from jobs without legal recourse, and live daily with slurs and ongoing threats of violence. It is not surprising we internalize our “otherness” and struggle with it intra-psychically.

Kaufman has written extensively about the place of shame in distancing us from each other and ourselves. 4 He maintains there are principal defending scripts that develop in response to shame: rage, contempt, perfectionism, striving for power, transferring blame, internal withdrawal, humor/sarcasm, and denial. These scripts bury awareness of the original traumas, so we live in a state of reactiveness and diminished aliveness without realizing the source of this discomfort. To resurrect the memory can actually become another source of shame, which feels unbearable. So we re-double the efforts of our “boundary patrol”, and become prisoners of our own shame, taking other hostages with us, especially those with whom we are closest. And as is common with survivors of childhood abuse, it is safer to hurt our loved ones than to confront the actual perpetrator who still holds power. Yet in this case, the perpetrator is the systemic disease of “institutionalized homophobia” that permeates all aspects of culture.

We reduce one another to our own lowest common denominator, and then we proceed to try and obliterate what we most desire to love and touch, the problematic self, unclaimed but fiercely guarded from the other. This cruelty between us, this harshness, is a piece of the legacy of hate with which we were inoculated from the time we were born by those who intended it to be an injection of death. But we adapted, learned to take it in...yet at what cost! In order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone, and now we bruise ourselves upon the other who is closest.

The slogan from the AIDS activist group Act-Up is “Silence=Death” - this habituated silence is also the death of the feeling life, and of the body’s integrity and strength of expression. To risk speaking invites annihilation and death, and for the old shame spiral to be activated; yet to speak is also to connect and to come out - of the paralysis of feeling. To settle for less is collusion with our own oppression and the repetition of that pattern - especially with those we are closest to.  Speak to me darling...let me in on your heaven and hell, your joy and your suffering...with words, phrases, sounds, images...set the ghosts free by speaking the pain and letting it go. The fear of therapy is a fear of self-revelation. If someone is unwilling to be seen by a neutral witness, such as a therapist, they certainly are unwilling to see themselves and to be seen by the intimate other. Without self-revelation, there is no true loving connection intrapersonally or interpersonally, only the illusion of love. That illusion can be maintained for a while, but ultimately it crumbles without support. The reality of love requires work and caring attention to heal all the years of wounding and neglect, and the subsequent distrust and fear of surrender. And yet why would we want to risk exposure, even with our loved ones, when a legacy of shame is present that we would rather bury? And given the long-standing use of therapy to pathologize sexual orientation and try to change it, is it any wonder there is distrust?

Often we give lip service to the idea of mutual support and connection between Black women because we have not yet crossed the barriers to these possibilities, or fully explored the angers and fears that keep us from realizing the power of a real Black sisterhood. We cannot settle for the pretenses of connection, or for parodies of self-love. We cannot continue to evade each other on the deepest levels because we fear each other’s angers...

We all know that acting is different than truth. In so many circumstances as gay men we've learned to be “straight acting” - to fit in and not be noticed - as acts of survival and self-love. Unfortunately, these strategies of invisibility also carry with them duplicity and dissociation.  How can we come into our full power as human beings if we feel obligated to act? How does this acting interfere with our immunity and the production of white blood cells - the guardians of identity that differentiate self from not-self? Do we even know we are acting anymore, especially in our intimate relationships? The gay community is one of men in relationship with men, whereas straight men in relationship are mediated by the emotional sensibilities of women, so they constantly have to face their vulnerable feelings. This can be quite uncomfortable because, as men, we have been shamed for feelings of tenderness, fear and distress. To be vulnerable, to surrender, threatens our survival as often we equate it with powerlessness. And to be powerless is not to be a man. In a funny way our homophobia can be even more extreme than that of straight men! And as men, we have been socially conditioned to be competitive and "go it alone". No wonder we can be so guarded, suspicious, and untrusting with one another! The rejection experienced with families and society often is transferred onto the gay scene, translating into aloofness, uncaring behavior, bitchiness, and sexual/emotional misuse of one another. 5

Given all this, it is truly a miracle we can even get close to one another at all. It is the curative power of love and sustainable relationships that will redeem us, lead us to the Promised Land of our freedom and actual pride - not the marketed commodity pride sold in every gay ghetto. What often masquerades as “gay pride” is a superficial, naive attempt to bolster self-esteem against the destructive tide of homophobia. It often only deals with the surface manifestations of our oppression, and soothes our longing for belongingness without the deeper confrontation with hopelessness, despair and shame. Even the concept of pride has little to do with healthy self-esteem. Pride carries with it the baggage of not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and truly empathic, not able to fully give and receive love. As Buddhist teacher Steven Levine has pointed out, pride is the most painful of the Seven Deadly Sins as it keeps us separate from one another.

To grow up metabolizing hatred like daily bread means that eventually every human action becomes tainted with the negative passion and intensity of its by-products - anger and cruelty.

We can only blame society for so long for our oppression as gay people. As Malcolm X pointed out, we are not responsible for our oppression, but we must become responsible for our liberation. Just because we are oppressed is not a justification for acting out our pain on one another - totally understandable, yet unacceptable. It is important we become accountable to our community and stand together, which requires healing our individual wounds and our relationships, coming forward and making ourselves visible and vulnerable to one another so we can move out into society with more support and strength. It is unrealistic to expect homophobes to change if we are unwilling to change. And a political movement of human rights has no inner foundation of support if we are not willing to simultaneously examine and transform our own “human rights abuses” - in ourselves, our intimate relationships, and the larger community.

To search for power within myself means I must be willing to move through being afraid to whatever lies beyond. If I look at my most vulnerable places and acknowledge the pain I have felt, I can remove the source of that pain from my enemies’ arsenals. Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me. I am who I am, doing what I came to do, acting upon you like a drug or a chisel to remind you of your me-ness, as I discover you in myself.


1 Cole, SW; Kemeny, M; et al, "Accelerated course of HIV infection in gay men who conceal their homosexuality", in Health Psychology: Vol. 15, #4 (1996)

2“Eye to Eye”, from Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde, The Crossing Press (1984)

3 We are beginning to realize that the expression of feelings generates a natural pharmacopeia in the body that creates a primary line of defense against illness. I will review this fascinating literature next month.

4 “Coming out of Shame: Transforming Gay and Lesbian Lives”, Kaufman, G. and Raphael, L., Doubleday (1996)

5 I am indebted to psychologist Walt Odets for our collegial conversations that explored many of these themes.

Originally published in The Monthly Aspectarian, January 1997, Chicago, IL, USA.

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Jamie McHugh.