Many years ago, when I worked in education, I spent my summers directing outdoor park district activities for kids. The children would come from the neighborhood to play various games. One year I recall a teenage boy coming to the park with a desire to talk with me. He would attend a youth group at his church (which was located nearby) and then meander over to the park facility. At some point in our conversation, he told me that he was gay and that he felt ashamed as a result his church’s anti-gay sentiment. He felt very alone because he had told no one in his youth group of his sexual orientation. His parents were not informed, and would have been mortified had they known of his gay identity. Each time he came to the park we would talk about his struggles with being gay. Because I had trained student leaders to work with the park kids, I was able to devote some attention to this troubled young man. This was my first exposure in conversing with an individual who professed to be gay. I learned a great deal about a segment of society that played out their lives in agonizing silence.
I learned that gay people, like other minorities, are used to being stereotyped. Those of us who are straight, perceive gays to be effeminate, flamboyant, impulsive and artsy. Most of the gay people I have met do not fit that pattern. They typically feel isolated because their behavioral patterns are actually heterosexual in nature with the exception of their sexual affinity toward others of the same sex.
With the advent of multicultural thinking, gays are beginning to feel more comfortable and accepted. Their level of confidence affects their relationships and style of relating to the world. The acknowledgement of being gay takes supreme courage. The odds have been stacked against those who choose to make their gay identity known. Many adults, now in midlife, are just beginning to acknowledge their true sexual identity. With such exploration comes the awareness that “I feel a stronger sexual connection with those of the same sex.” Such a realization may signal the emergence of terror – “I am not who I pretended to be.”
When you listen to the stories of those who are gay, you get a sense of the conflict and tension they have experienced in their struggle to be authentic. Most have known from an early age that they felt different about their sexual identity. In an attempt to conceal their feelings and behavior, many gays worked feverishly at removing any vestiges of gay traits from their behavior.
Adolescence is a difficult time of turmoil for most youngsters. Add to that the issue of sexual identification and it certainly makes the process of navigating adolescence that much more strenuous. Many schools are afraid to acknowledge their gay students and provide little or no support for those in need. Ideological and political pressures play a role in keeping school administrators and school board members from stepping up to the plate in support for gay youth.
In my professional counseling practice, I have personally witnessed the anguish and conflict experienced by those individuals who have professed to be gay. I have also observed the courage that many patients have demonstrated in the process of emerging from their silence over their sexual orientation. Learning to be authentic is an important component of counseling and to honestly identify one’s sexual identity may be apart of that process.
Although there is little evidence to support its efficacy, many counselors surprisingly continue to espouse reparative treatment for gay clients. Counselors, who many times disguise their intentions, choose to subscribe to the archaic notion that sexual orientation is a learned pattern or choice rather than a lifelong identity. Reparative therapy views the gay individual as disordered and in need of transformation. Generally, counselors who conduct reparative therapy for gays look for deep-seated traumas as a causative factor in the “identity conflict” of those they serve.
Counselors who insist on touting reparative therapy for gays typically maintain their own biases regarding homosexuality. They carry these biases into treatment and negatively affect the self-worth and integrity of those they serve. Their insistence in curing gays creates a climate of self-doubt and defectiveness among those they treat.
Many in the religious community are unable to reconcile their beliefs and faith and are reluctant to identify with those who define themselves as being gay. This fact causes many gays to reject their faith or live in a constant state of religious conflict. Years ago, a friend of mine decided to spend a weekend of solace at a religious retreat center. This was to be a time of isolation and reflection. However, her time quickly took on a new meaning. Gay men from churches throughout the country flew into this retreat center. Many of them were board members, elders, and pastors of their congregations. No one knew of their sexual orientation with the exception of the hundreds of Christian colleagues who met at this retreat center to worship together once a year. Every year, these men got together in the freedom of their true identity and worshiped God. They talked with my friend, expressing their sense of liberation and love for the God they embraced. My friend said it was a moving experience as she was asked to join them in their religious services which were filled with energy and passion.
Denial is a dangerous thing. Those who choose to ignore their true sense of self pay a price for their own personal deception. It takes courage to live with the way things really are. There are pitfalls along the way, but it is more honest and authentic. Those in the gay community have the right to define themselves the way they wish. Unfortunately, for openly gay people, there are consequences for living with an identity they did not choose.