Disclaimer: this blog post largely focuses largely on the experiences of cis-gay men and addresses topics related to trauma, loss, and encoded masculinity. LGBTQ+ communities are vast and unique. The experiences of certain members of one specific subset therein cannot and should not be generalized across all its members, nor the LGBTQ+ communities as a whole. This article reflects on experiences correlated with a specific subset within these communities. Individuals referenced in this article have had their names altered to protect their identity.
On October 11th, 2021, many individuals across the United States celebrated National Coming Out Day, defined by the Human Rights Campaign as an annual LGBTQ+ awareness day observed to celebrate and support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals in coming out of the closet. The date is a memorialization, the anniversary of “The Great March”, otherwise known as The Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, a large political rally that took place in Washington D.C. in 1987, largely successful due to its size and scope.
In many ways, it would be appropriate to speak on the myriad of successes the LGBTQ+ communities have overcome and the challenges and uphill battles that the LGBTQ+ communities are still faced with. For this blog post however, I’ve decided to shift my focus toward a related yet altogether distinct area of concentration. There is a question among the out and open that recurrently and persistently begs to be asked: once we survive the trials and tribulations to outness, how do we cope?
Three years ago, in the middle of a session with my therapist, I received an assault of Facebook notifications, alarming me to the news of the death of a close friend of mine. Tom was a beautiful person; brazen, intelligent, unapologetic, creative, goofy and warm.
He was 30 years old.
In this moment, my mind went blank. Lost and forgotten was the conversation shared between my therapist and I only moments before. In its place was a bombardment of emotions that at the time I struggled to identify. Confusion, shock, sadness, grief, anger, and loss. They swirled around my mind in total discombobulation. As I sat in silence, staring at the patterns in the carpet of my therapist’s office, looking up at him with tears in my eyes unable to say anything, I heard my therapist ask me,
“How are you feeling?”
I looked at him with disbelief. I’ve always felt that one of my strengths has been my ability to identify my own emotional states. Looking at him from across the room, I was left with nothing to convey.
I later found out through a mutual friend that the cause of death was believed to be either drug overdose or suicide. I was aware that Tom had been struggling with anxiety and substance use for some time, and had spoken with him on a number of occasions about seeking out therapeutic support. In his death, I felt a sense of responsibility.
Some facts: Gay men are at increased risk for adverse health outcomes resulting from experienced stigma and discrimination rooted in homophobia. Experienced prejudice and resulting physical and psychological trauma is correlated with increased substance abuse as well as increased sexual risk-factors among gay and bi men. Gay men are three times more likely to experience depression than the general adult population and are also likely to commit suicide.
Stories of young people within the gay community dying from various forms of mental illness have become far too familiar to me. Later that day I reached out to a group of friends whom I knew shared in my sense of loss. In a group text I wrote: “Hey guys…I wanted to know if there were any plans for people getting together at a house or something and honoring Tom’s memory? We should celebrate his life, share stories, support one another. Is anything like that happening? If not, can we?”
That night I was fortunate enough to meet up with a group of Tom’s friends and reflect on the tragedy of his death. As I walked in the apartment of the friend hosting the gathering, I felt a sense of uneasiness emanating throughout the room. Here were a group of 15+ gay men, scattered, talking amongst themselves, struggling to find a way to communicate with one another about their communal loss. Upon seeing me, the host greeted me loudly by exclaiming “Oh good! Now we have a therapist to conduct the session!” I took his comment in jest, but felt a twinge of pleading sincerity behind his words.
Within the group there was a collective sense of perplexity. How do we communicate with one another? How do we address this loss? What do we do? I suggested that we use the space as an opportunity for those who want to express their thoughts openly to the group. I proposed we provide a podium for people within our formed assembly to share their thoughts, feelings and memories. During this experience, a very close friend of Tom’s began providing facts and details of the events leading up to the discovery of Tom’s death. In his description of the events that transpired, I was keenly aware that his account was devoid of his own emotions, thoughts, and like the question my therapist had asked me only hours before, I gently touched his knee and found myself asking, “how are YOU feeling?”
I’ve known of how prevalent mental health issues are within the gay community, but that night I realized, I think we all did, the importance of acknowledging and addressing the reality of what that means within ourselves, our interactions, and our community. There is a diverse breadth of experiences that exist within the queer community. Attempting to generalize any group or person’s experience would be insulting. What I have come to understand though is that cis gay men are often faced with a particular set of challenges. Cis men are born into a society that demands we align with a certain prescribed definition of masculinity. We are told that expressing emotions other than anger makes us weak; sadness, grief, joy, are emotions to be repressed; dominance over others brings status; and being strong means never asking for help. These messages, both implicit and explicit, permeate our society. Over development, these messages are encoded as truths and cause the men who internalize them a wealth of unnecessary challenges and harm. For many of us who identify as gay these encoded messages carry extra weight, as the failed struggle to perfectly align with these toxic ideals of masculinity have caused us a great deal of pain, both internally, and within our environments. I don’t know a gay man of my generation who hasn’t felt at one point in their life victimized, ostracized, threatened, abused, abandoned, and/or alone. These wounds are buried deep within us, because that is all we know how to do. Because expressing emotions other than anger makes us weak; sadness, grief, joy, are emotions to be repressed; dominance over others brings status; and being strong means never asking for help. So what do we do? We suppress our trauma; we take unnecessary risks. We resort to sex and drugs for escape, and when all else fails, and we feel wholly alone, we die.
How do we fight this? How do we redefine our worth?
As I waited for a response to my question from Tom’s close friend, I saw confusion, sorrow, and fear. “I’m not doing well…I’m not well at all.”
With his admission, the dialogue had been opened. As the conversation continued, we allowed ourselves within this permitted space to feel, to cry, to laugh, to mourn, to identify our emotions, to support one another, to feel vulnerable, and to embrace our collective vulnerability. The fear of judgement and shaming that I had sensed from Tom’s close friend had abated and what was left was trust.
A month ago, I had a saddening conversation with a childhood friend of mine, a 30-something gay man, who expressed feeling consistently distressed about his interactions amongst his group of friends. On a number of occasions, I’ve personally witnessed with dismay the complex interplay of cruelty displayed towards one another under the guise of wittiness. While he recognizes how these interactions negatively impact his sense of self, his self-worth, and the self-worth of those he considers close, he reports feeling trapped within the rapport. In one conversation with him, he confided in me “sometimes I say nice things in texts, and immediately follow-up with an insult afterwards.” When I’ve asked him why he can’t lay down the witty caustic facade and address his feelings openly with his friends. His reply is always “That could be construed as weakness”. When we praise one another for our ability to fling cutting insults under the pretext of cleverness, like a scar that replaces a wound, we strengthen the walls around us and are met with isolation, continually fed by our internalized sense of shame.
Moreover, not only are we fearful to be vulnerable with one another, and share openly our feelings; as men, we struggle with identifying feelings at all. We have been bred to believe that feelings equate to weakness, and as such, learning to identify WHAT we are feeling becomes irrelevant. I perceive this to be one of the most harmful attributions to perceived masculinity. When we fail to strengthen our ability to identify what we are feeling, we lessen our ability share ourselves with those who love us, and remain limited, closed off to the potential bonds that would bring us closer to healing.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that looking around the room that night three years ago, I saw a group of beautiful men, all distraught, all fearful to allow for vulnerability to exist between them. As a community, we need to fight the stigma. We need to embrace vulnerability. We need to recognize that we all struggle, some more than others, with mental health consequences of growing up in such a world, coming out in such a world, and we need to love each other for it. We need to have dialogues, we need to mourn, we need to support each other, and we need to check-in and check ourselves. We need to learn how to identify what we are feeling, and we need to feel comfortable enough around the family that we choose to let them know when we need their help. And when we are asked for help by those who need us, we need to be there, we need to listen, we need to embrace their pain, understand it, and love them all the more for being open.
If you are experiencing any of the aforementioned short-term or long-term mental health consequences resulting from experienced stigma and discrimination for being a member of the LGBTQ+ communities, please know that therapy can be a great space to process your experiences, learn how to cope, and move forward. There are a number of therapists who are willing to help. If you are interested in starting therapy, please feel free to contact us.