June 14, 2011
During my sophomore year in college I was as far from gay and proud as I could be. It was the mid-1970s and, despite a relaxed campus atmosphere, I felt wildly out of place among other students enjoying their first taste of adulthood. I had a deeply-buried secret: I was a homosexual. My attraction to other men went back as far as I could remember, although I had never acted on those urges or dared to verbalize them out loud. They were deeply buried under shame and stigma, and it was about to get worse.
One glorious autumn day I arrived for a sociology class I was taking called "Social Deviance." We had already covered various aspects of criminal behavior, including sex crimes. A huge pit opened in my stomach when the professor announced that on that day we would be discussing yet another category of social deviance: homosexuality. I know my face flushed and my heart began beating wildly. Would any of the students sitting around me realize there was a deviant among them? That day the professor even invited several "real" homosexuals to speak to the class in an attempt to humanize their struggle. But for me, discussing homosexuality in the context of social deviance confirmed my deepest belief that what I felt was so wrong I could never reveal it with another soul.
Today that class seems to be from another universe, and indeed it was. It was a liberal college that presented homosexuality as it was understood at that time. I didn't know it then, but things were looking up for homosexuals. Just that year, the American Psychiatric Association determined that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness (a hard-fought decision that passed by just one vote). Stonewall had occurred a few years earlier, but it was light-years away from that small Ohio town. I remained buried in shame.
After graduation I moved to New York, a life-saving decision, but even there I struggled several more years before I made peace with my sexuality. My first wave of healing came from other gay men in 12-step rooms where I experienced truly unconditional acceptance. It was my first opportunity to receive such support from others who knew everything about me. They taught me that my internal sense of being deeply flawed was itself an error. With time and patience I gradually began to believe them.
As I accepted myself, the energy I had spent suppressing my feelings was released and I blossomed both personally and professionally. My occupational interests turned to healing as my own spirit awakened. My heart slowly opened and then broke as AIDS ravaged my community in the 1980s. Ironically, in that dark time I began to experience a sense of belonging that ignited my own first sparks of gay pride. I witnessed men with tremendous courage fighting for services and caring for one another, along with our allies, with incredible emotional strength. We showed up as a community and, even as we lost countless friends and lovers, we carried on. Our compassion and skills were tested and we came through. There was no time for shame -- there was work to be done.
From that period forward my sense of gay pride evolved slowly and steadily. I was often preoccupied by my own HIV diagnosis and hospitalizations. For example, when I became anemic from AZT, which was then prescribed every four hours, I had to rely on the generosity, kindness, and healing powers of family and friends, both gay and straight. Over the years, my sense of pride also came from accomplishments that were not explicitly gay, such as professional success, having an impact in the lives of my patients, or the achievements of my children who had come into my life 25 years ago with my first partner.
Today, my gay pride is rooted in a balance of giving to our community and receiving the positive energy that comes back to me. That old internalized fear of being devastatingly flawed is gone. I rely less on externals and more on my internal sense of who I am.
While academia has moved on, there are still some, of course, who persist in believing we are all deviants. On good days I hold a sense of compassion for them; on days when my emotional resilience is low I tune them out. I, along with my gay brothers and sisters, have walked through fire and emerged with love and power. My "inner-deviant" is gone (well, except in a good way).
Have we arrived? Of course not -- there is much work to be done. I know many men for whom gay pride is simply an opportunity to take off their shirts and celebrate once a year at festivals dominated by beer and lube. Such gatherings have their place, but a deeper sense of gay pride is much more subtle. For me, instilling gay pride is about helping someone understand their worth and overcome that critical self-talk that keeps them mired in doubt and shame. It's slow work that sometimes involves creating a safe physical or emotional space in which a gay man or woman can gain enough trust to emerge. It's a space where someone believes in you even if you don't yet believe in yourself. It's about connecting with others and, if necessary, recreating a chosen family. It's learning to receive love and affection and know with certainty that we deserve it. It's about managing strong emotions and sexual feelings without succumbing to the temptation to numb or escape.
We have much to be proud of. The pride we share was not freely given, but was hard-fought and earned. Ironically, I believe our individual journeys of overcoming both harsh societal judgments and internalized self-doubt creates GLBT individuals who can choose to live consciously and with compassion. Of that, I'm the proudest of all.
David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.S.C.W., is a social worker, certified sex therapist and clinical hypnotherapist residing in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He answers questions about mental health and substance use in TheBody.com's Ask the Experts forums, and also writes for the blog HIV Care Today on TheBodyPRO.com.
Stay tuned for David's own blog on TheBody.com, Riding the Tiger: Life Lessons From an HIV-Positive Therapist, launching later this month!
This article originally appeared in TheBody.com's Pride 2011 special section.