Twenty-six-year-old “Lauren” lives somewhere in the Midwest. She doesn’t want you to know exactly where, or what her real name is because the consequences for revealing such simple truths might prove catastrophic. If the people in her small town knew she was bisexual, it wouldn’t just be a few weeks of murmurs and awkward interactions. Her whole life, Lauren assures me, would come crashing down around her. It’s happened before, when she was outed in high school.
“I was pushed down the stairs and broke my arm a week before one of the tournaments that we had to travel to for basketball,” Lauren says. “The girls on the team didn’t want to share a room with me, so they got the guys’ basketball team to corner me, threaten to rape me, and then they pushed me down the stairs. I got suspended for starting the fight. I got cut out of my family’s will.”
When Lauren came home from college — where she dated men because it was “easier” — she hid her sexuality. She’s married with a child now, but struggles with the question of whether she truly loves her husband. She wonders if she’s being honest with herself by being with him. The answer may never come clear. Her family and friends rallied around her again after she “got fixed,” and any new revelation about her sexuality would put the life she’s built at risk.
“I work for my mother-in-law,” Lauren says. “I’d lose my job. I’d lose my support.”
Lauren is set to take over the family business someday and she’s certain that — even if she stayed with her husband — just admitting that she identifies as bisexual would prove cataclysmic. In a part of the country where “loving the sinner, but hating the sin” is the prevailing belief, Lauren believes she’d have a hard time finding someone to stand with her. In fact, she says that people who knew about her coming out in high school have admitted that witnessing the way she was treated kept them from being open too.
“It was supposed to be easier after coming out,” Lauren says. “It wasn’t.”
Later in the conversation, I circle back to Lauren’s work. “What kind of business would somehow be mismanaged in the hands of a bisexual woman?” I ask. “What is it about the bisexuals that we can’t trust?”
“They’re all whores,” Lauren says bluntly, admitting that even now she hates associating with bisexual women.
“Because they’re whores,” she responds.
I assume she’s joking, but the statement is made with a sort of casual sincerity. She didn’t seem like she even had to think about it.
“You believe it?” I ask.
She admits that she does, though she hates the fact that the scorn of others has caused her to become bigoted. As I consider her response, I can’t help admitting that I believe it, too (while also simultaneously hating myself for this belief).
Until the sixth grade, the LGBT+ community was a vague bogeyman in my home. My parents didn’t approve of Pride. They worried that the men and women marching in the street might be predatory and mentally ill, and they treated anyone who was out as sexually perverse. When friends would come visit us, my parents would pack them in the Camry and take them on a tour of San Francisco, starting with a trip down Lombard Street and ending in the Castro. Sitting in the backseat, I saw men walking hand-in-hand, as my parents and their friends grimaced and made jokes. I would count the rainbow flags that lined the street, believing that if I counted enough, or if they ended on an even number, my own gay feelings would go away. Then my parents would never have to face the embarrassment of taking their friends to the Castro and discovering that the person they were making fun of was me.
Three weeks before my first year of middle school was over, I found myself sitting near the auditorium with Shelley, our beloved bus driver. I’d gotten out early and sat next to her quietly as she did breathing exercises cross-legged on the bench next to mine. Her T-shirt was emblazoned with the words “love is love” and when she opened her eyes, I asked her about it.
“It’s from the day I got married,” she told me. “We gave T-shirts to all the guests.”
“What’s your husband’s name?” I asked, eager to be her new favorite kid.
“Julie,” Shelley replied. “I married a woman.” Then she showed me a small caricature drawn on the shirt. Two stick figure women stood underneath a tent. They were both smiling.
I was revolted. Instead of aligning myself with Shelley — someone who had clearly gone through the same struggles I was dealing with and ended up okay — my longing for her approval quickly turned to nausea. I was struck by a feeling I couldn’t explain then, but can now: fear. Fear that someone would come and discover us together. That they’d see Shelley’s shirt and out me. That by the next day, the entire school would know that I was gay. I was never early for the bus again.
Over 20 years later, I have (more or less) come to terms with my own sexuality. I am married, I don’t hide the fact that I’m gay, and no one would accuse me of being “masc” and “straight-acting” (terms reserved for those guys who are either so “normal” that their homosexuality is imperceptible or so jacked that no one would dare question them). But while I’m open on the outside — a testament to “living out loud” and “it gets better” — my inner turmoil about being gay has never dissipated. I was reminded of that on the day of the Orlando night club shooting. While others gnashed their teeth and posted messages of hope and outrage on Facebook, I felt nothing save for relief that I hadn’t been at that club.
“It’s not like I go to clubs like that anyway,” I thought as I watched report after report of the shooting. “That wouldn’t happen to me.”
This kind of distancing, even after one has fully grasped the notion of being out, isn’t abnormal, nor is it unexpected. Despite the prevailing notion that being gay in America is safe now — something that wasn’t particularly true even before the shooting at Pulse nightclub — it’s impossible to deny that the overarching cultural narrative is still fraught with negative messages about being a sexual minority.
Michael LaSala, associate professor of social work at Rutgers University and author of Coming Out, Coming Home (a book intended to help families deal with the coming out process) tells me that his first reaction to the shooting was similar to mine. Despite the scope of his research and the fact that his Facebook profile lists him as an “out and proud gay man,” he tells me multiple times that he also retreated when first confronted with news of the shooting.
“As LGBT people, and maybe gay men more than others,” LaSala says, “we develop a kind of shell as a survival technique. It’s almost like we have a defense mechanism where we don’t pay attention, we purposely focus away from incidents during which we feel stigmatized, during which we feel people are verbally assaulting us in an effort to make ourselves impervious to those things and not be psychologically entered by them. What we do is we set up this very strong defense mechanism where we almost compartmentalize it and even deny its effect on us.”
The more a person relies on these sorts of defense mechanisms, the less likely they are to fight them. The thought process for many men is that if you’re going to be gay, then at least you’re not going to be like the other gay men out there — the ones your parents warned you about. You’re not going to dance on floats in the Pride parade, you’re not going to collect signatures to repeal laws. Instead, you’ll hang onto as much normalcy as you possibly can.
LaSala continues, “We don’t want to face the stigma because we’re worried that if we’re really going to get in touch with our feelings around it, then we’re going to go into a rage ourselves or fall into a depression or something like that.”
“Why don’t people examine this?” I ask. I’m asking partly for myself. I’ve only recently begun to grapple with the overwhelming unconscious feelings of hatred within and I wonder why it’s taken me so long to get there.
“Probably because what they’re feeling is echoing what’s in society as well,” LaSala responds. “They don’t have to look too far to see validation for their feelings. How many times have we heard straight people say, ‘Well, maybe straight people should have a parade?’ If you’re a gay person who has trouble with activism, you don’t have to look too far.”
Even LaSala struggled with these feelings when he first came out and was confronted by the realities of living outside the closet. “I’m really, really different about that now,” he says. He emphasizes that these days he loves to celebrate Pride, but he remembers wondering why the community needed a parade, whether it gave people who identify as LGBT+ a bad name, and why he was urged to be an activist when that’s not what he signed up for.
The shooting in Orlando and the various transgender bathroom bills have put even more pressure on those of us whose identities fall under the LGBT+ umbrella to politicize our sexuality and gender identification. And while that’s important — there’s a lot of power in coming out and putting faces to labels — it can also serve to push people back into the closet. If you’re living in the LGBT+-friendly cities on the East and West Coasts, it may be easy to pass judgment on those who are gay privately, but don’t hold any ties to the community at large. But for some, internalizing the negative messages put out about homosexuality by both mainstream leaders and by their own loved ones isn’t something that can be fought. It’s a matter of survival, both physical and mental.
In a piece for Vanity Fair, Dave Cullen writes that he had a screaming match with his therapist about being gay. “I’d hate it,” he shouted after being asked what it would be like if he were gay and not bisexual as he had styled himself.
“Of course, you would,” his therapist, himself gay, replied.
At the time that Cullen came out, he notes, the world viewed homosexuals as lepers. That may have changed — although the media and lawmakers arguing against the fact that the Orlando shooting had anything to do with homosexuality is a sign that we’re not ready to give the LGBT+ community as much respect and support as they deserve — but coming out as gay often still feels like a mark against you. It’s something that you have to explain to others, with fingers crossed that they’ll understand.
Jack, a 45-year-old man who also asked that his real name not be used, tells me that one of the reasons he finds the gay community so unpleasant is due to his own jealousy. That jealousy comes from a lifetime of having to struggle to find the right people to be out around. He says that his interests don’t align with those of other gay men — although that sentiment itself is an important reminder of the stereotypes about what gay men are and aren’t interested in — and that the “twinks” he sees participating in Pride are “too happy.” Jack tells me that he’s had to struggle and, for the younger generation, it’s been much easier.
Is that true? Yes and no. The Trevor Project reminds us that “it gets better,” but for every Pride weekend bursting with bacchanalia, there are 363 other days of the year during which these very same revelers may struggle with their homosexuality, some of them fighting the same jealousy and disconnection that Jack feels. We have to remember that people who are out and celebrating during LGBT+ History Month may still be in hiding or experience dissonance around their families or in their hometowns.
“It is easier to find other gay people than it was before,” Dr. Gary Grossman, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst based in San Francisco tells me. “For relating, chatting, communicating, or hooking up. It’s so much easier, in terms of access. But there’s benefits and there’s detriments in the ease of connection for sexual relations. There’s still something secretive that’s happening when you’re communicating via the internet, that also can be an expression of an underlying feeling like, ‘I need to keep this secret. This is safer to do online, than it is to go out into public.’”
“The issue of safety is still very much in the culture that influences a gay person’s emotional, psychological development as they’re maturing,” Grossman continues. “That the issue of safety is still very much prevalent, and for gay men in particular, since AIDS and HIV, danger, risk and sexuality are so intimately intertwined that I think that also complicates maturation and development.”
Grossman sees a great deal of progress — especially in terms of younger people in urban areas growing up more and more open-minded about sexuality and gender — but he cautions that that open-mindedness is deceptive. On the surface, it may feel like there’s much more support for those who are openly gay or who may be considering coming out, but there’s still a steady stream of not-so-subtle negativity and hate.
“At the same time that people are becoming more open about their gender identities and sexualities,” he says, “there’s still the old guard of people who find variability threatening, and will become more vocal. There’s a lot more overt hostility towards LGBT experience and expression in 2016 than there was in 1972, when I was in high school.”
This is surprising, but it makes sense. As voices grow ever louder in support of the LGBT+ community, those who are against LGBT+ rights or grossed out by public displays of affection between two members of the same sex grow louder too.
“When I was a child, I might have heard talk about gay people,” Grossman says, “but I rarely heard and rarely saw in the newspaper or on television somebody saying anything like what people say about LGBT people now. Children are exposed to both much more positive, accepting attitudes towards LGBT individuals, but also a lot more vitriol and hatred in ways that my generation was not exposed to. It was much more subtle.”
All one needs to do in order to recognize the truth in Grossman’s words is to watch videos produced during the campaign to pass California’s Pop 8 in 2008. As adults, we’re able to look at overtly negative messages and see them as blatant anti-gay propaganda — an ad threatening that homosexuality may be taught in schools is a particularly glaring example, as is the widely-mocked “gathering storm” video — but a child coming to grips with feelings of homosexuality, or a teen thinking of coming out is likely to see these messages as a sign that their sexual identity should be stuffed deeper and deeper into the closet.
This repression can lead to self loathing that mutates in all sorts of ways. Prominent lawmakers such as Larry Craig, who fought against gay rights in the Senate while at the same time engaging men in public restrooms, and religious figures like Ted Haggard, who decried homosexuality even as he engaged in sexual relationships with other men, are excellent examples of where internalized homophobia can go. As Dave Cullen points out, the reason that a joke Craig Ferguson makes about gays being essential because they’re the ones passing anti-gay legislation is so painfully funny is because it rings so terribly true.
But even that painful laughter is short-lived. Gallows humor is an important aspect of survival, but homophobia (in all its forms) is a public health nightmare. As Michael LaSala tells me, there’s no way that homophobia isn’t connected to “suicide, mental health problems as well as risky sexual behaviors, those that put people at risk for HIV.” With gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens attempting suicide four times more commonly than their heterosexual counterparts (teens questioning their sexuality attempt suicide at three times the rate of their straight peers), it’s impossible to disagree.
For these statistics to change, two things are paramount: Continued visibility and acceptance. As the shock of the Orlando shooting transforms into unyielding heartbreak, it’s more important than ever that members of the gay community don’t let it be forgotten that there was a reason that Pulse was targeted. We must continue fighting hate by being as prominent as we ever were and embracing other members of the community and ourselves (regardless of how wrong we’re often told that being gay is).
At the end of my conversation with Lauren, I ask her how long she’ll be able to keep up the fiction that she’s heterosexual, how long she’ll be able to keep such an important part of her identity buried so deep inside.
“I’ve always just kind of assumed I wouldn’t live long enough to have to deal with the consequences,” she says.
Mark Shrayber is senior writer at Uproxx Life. You can contact him directly on Twitter.