My paper concerns shame and its impact on the therapeutic experience of gay men. It is my belief that shame is at the core of our psychological framework as modern humans, and that gay men have unique issues in dealing with shame. Although gay rights have made great political strides in the past thirty years, from the psychological standpoint gay men are still struggling with shame, which is a major obstacle to psychological well being.
The issue of shame is made more complex by what I feel is our societyís flight from shame and the resulting fear of dealing with shame from a societal point of view. All individuals need a sense of shame, which provides needed boundaries on our behavior. Gay men, who are confronted with societyís negative judgements and the weight of religious teachings regarding our sexuality, dealing with shame is particularly difficult. The temptation to reject the entire concept of shame is overwhelming, yet futile. This presents an extremely difficult problem in that we as humans whether gay or not need an ability to experience shame. How do we regulate our shame? I will argue that by working with a qualified therapist and by the willingness to be honest, one can develop a healthy sense of self. Shame can be identified, accepted and we can learn to make friends with our shame.
The idea of shame is firmly rooted in our society and is derived from our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is important to note that shame is both a religious and psychological construct. It is possible indeed likely, that individuals who are not religious will exist with a sense of shame. The formation of our psychological construct is heavily influenced by our Judeo-Christian heritage, no matter what our religious beliefs may be. Although, we have been pushing against the boundaries of our religious heritage, shame is still at the core of our psychological make-up. For gay men in therapy who are dealing with psychosexual issues shame lies at the bedrock of the issues to be dealt with.
This can be very difficult, as the development of a sense of shame is imperative in the development of an individualís conscience. Without a conscience, we as individuals and by extension as a society are unable to manifest compassion towards others and ourselves. The challenge is how do we strike a healthy balance around shame. This paper concerns shame as it relates to oneís sexuality. This involves the idea of other, for example how society views an individualís sexuality in relationship to overall societal norms and values. In essence how do we balance the need for a healthy sense of shame without creating an overwhelming burden of shame?
The fundamental issue that one confronts in therapy concerning psychosexual issues is shame. Without acknowledging the inherent feelings of shame that gay men feel, oneís therapy is likely to be a best sterile at worst harmful. This can be problematic as one can be caught in a false dichotomy that shame is without value and needs to be eradicated. So one is left with the tricky task of trying to negotiate a healthy level of shame. This is more difficult because society still has not reached a modus oprendi in relationship to same sex relationships. In fairness, gay men have not reached any type of consensus as to the societal placement of same sex relationships.
The challenge simply put is as follows; if one is ashamed of oneís sexuality and yet that sexuality is so central to oneís identity, how does one calibrate a proper level of shame? Particularly if society questions the very validity of oneís sexual identity, which leads to a sense that one, is under attack. The burden of negotiating a healthy level of shame seems to be a challenge that is not worth the trouble. The realization that the challenge is worth the trouble serves as liberation.
Shame is not the equivalent of guilt. It is the ground that guilt springs from and is subtler. Shame is more pervasive and yet is not as visible to the psyche. The dictionary definition of shame is a "consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety" (Webster 1990). The operative word is not guilt but consciousness. In our modern society, we have attempted to extinguish the conscious notion of shame and regard the idea of shame as something to be eradicated. We have driven shame into the closet. Is it big enough?
The second part of the definition is "something that brings strong regret, censure, or reproach" (Webster 1990). This part of the definition implies the external, what others will think of one. The internal and the external are locked in symbiosis and it is almost impossible to determine which is more important or which comes first.
From a more psychologically oriented perspective Freudian thought shifted the focus from shame to guilt. If we are the products of our desires held in check by society, our ego and superego, then the notion of guilt becomes much more relevant. Shame has its origins in the in the religious where as guilt is grounded in the psychological. It is important to understand that the religious has existed for well over two thousand years. Freudian psychology has only existed for a little over a hundred years. Both shame and guilt have existed in the mind of man, the question is of emphasis.
In terms of this paper I have focused my readings, interviews and web sites to those which are predominately concerned with gay white men and have not concerned myself with the experiences of people of color nor of women. In addition the overwhelming emphasis has been around men in urban areas and somewhat affluent. My research has taken place among the highly articulate, many of whom turn words into money. The inference should not be drawn that the words have any particular clarity or wisdom. In fact, the very fluidity of the words can have the effect of obscuring the underlying sense of confusion around the issue at hand.
I must self identify at this point and state that I am heavily involved in my own therapeutic process and am working with my own issues of shame as it relates to my sexuality. This has proved to be a hindrance and a great boon to the research of my paper. In addition, through a confluence of events I have been presented with two very different models about dealing with the issue of shame as it relates to sexuality. Although seemingly opposite at there core the issue of shame is similar.
In order to solve a problem one must be confident that an answer is available even if somewhat obscure. The challenge is that shame as a "problem" cannot be solved and most likely should not be solved. For gay men existing in that awkward state between full acceptance and deep shame is like resting on a razorís edge. By trying to stay on the razorís edge, we are greatly empowered. This empowerment comes from a sense of unease, which provides a spur to creativity, and at best compassion. The point is not the eradication of shame but a greater understanding of shame and the benefits that it can play in our lives. On an individual level shame acts a check on our baser instincts and provides a framework that we must posses in order to function as a society, it provides a reference point that we can rebel against which is critical in order to facilitate change and creativity. On an individual, group and societal level shame provides the necessary sense of dis-equilibrium that man seems to dread yet instinctively seeks out. Let us turn our attention to the beginnings of same sex shame.
The bible is clear on the point, in Leviticus it states, "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." (Lev. 20:13) This was written at a time when Rome ruled and homosexuality was pervasive in certain segments of society. Aside from the rather harsh language, the important point is the reference point. At the time that this was written, Rome reigned supreme and same sex relations were well established within Roman society. The division was not as defined and between men, more flexibility was the norm. Judeo-Christian spirituality was to emphasize the idea of watcher. A monotheistic deity who watched and would exact punishment of the severest form, blood, two thousand years in the future blood was to come again to the forefront.
Thomas Aquinas was to extend further and codify the rules regarding sexuality. His writings did not concern themselves solely with homosexuality but definitely had the effect of codifying the prohibitions around same sex activity. The idea that "venereal acts" should led to procreation and that sexual activity that did not lead to procreation was inherently sinful.
All of the above was taking place at a time when society was held in thrall to the church. The struggle for physical survival and the shortness of life, life was indeed short, nasty, and brutish. The hereafter was as real as the here and now. The notion of God was predominate and the sense of imminent discovery was all-pervasive. The watcher was watching, with those realities in place, shame was in the ascendancy.
Gay as we now know the word did not exist at that time. Acts existed but not the idea of a separated sense of sexual identity. Acts, which clearly violated the fundamental, laws of nature and were an abomination.
The transition from the laws of the church to the laws of the state served to codify the shame and brought the heavy hand of the state into the picture. A hand that stills rests rather heavily today. Indeed, it was less than a hundred years ago that the Oscar Wilde trial took place.
The monolithic hegemony of the church was to weaken and the mind began to attract more attention separated from the hegemony of the church, and more importantly from individuals who were outside the structure. Herr Freud was making his way to stage center.
The Path Widens
The rise of Freud was a seminal event in the history of dealing with the notion of sexuality and more specifically same sex relations. Current thinking holds that Freud was anti homosexual at least in the gay community; in fact, Freudís views are much more nuanced than most gays believe.
In Freudís Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality he writes on the idea that homosexuals although not the "norm" are capable of functioning in society and should not be characterized as degenerates. One example of this was when one of his chief students wanted to ban homosexuals from joining psychoanalytic societies, Freud demurred.
Freud viewed homosexuality as a stage of sexual development. By taking this approach he normalized same sex relations and broke down the wall. He began the process of normalizing versus condemning. He made homosexuality scientific and this planted the seeds of a future relaxation of attitudes. One must not gild the lily as my mother would say and have Freud as the godfather of Act-Up. According to Freud we pass through a bisexual stage, the operative words are pass through not remain. Freud went to great lengths to try to develop theories as to why people did not pass through into heterosexuality. From my readings, they seem painfully labored.
What is fascinating is that he seemed to be trying to find a middle ground between inherited and environmental factors. Again, this is reminiscent of todayís discussion/argument around the idea that there may be a genetic predisposition to homosexuality. Towards the end of his life, he wrote a beautiful letter to an American mother who had concerns about her sonís sexuality. In reading the letter, I wish that had given a copy to my mother when I was coming out.
I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you, why you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider I a variation of the sexual function produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime, and a cruelty too. If you do not believe me, read the books by Havelock Ellis.
The letter continues and is filled with both honesty and compassion that reflects well on Freud. The interesting point is that he is very clear in making the distinction between those who are homosexual and those who are not. Freud as he is writing this letter seems to be dealing with an individual who he views as part of a larger group, the focus of the letter is not around shame but working to ease guilt.
The important point that needs to be emphasized is that Freud moved sexuality away from the religious arena and into the psychological. From an absolute to a relative point of view, from an external watcher to an internal watcher, from shame to guilt. However, this movement was not complete, shame being an innate human quality was not to be eliminated. It was to be driven underground and left to fester while attention shifted to the newly empowered guilt.
This movement from a shame based psychological construct to one more focused on guilt was not smooth or complete. In fact, the transition is occurring in fit and starts and is made confused by the overlap between the two. Although eager to rid ourselves of shame, we are unable to divorce ourselves from our own psychology.
Three Men on the Path
I will present three case studies that will illuminate the struggles around shame that gay men go through. One case study involves my own therapeutic journey and my personal struggles around my own sense of shame about my sexuality. Another will concern an individual who I will call Paul, with whom I feel a strong affinity. The final case study concerns an individual who is much more aggressive around his sexual orientation but still struggles with shame issues concerning his sexuality. Samís struggles are much more focused on the external issues of shame versus internal shame issues. It can be argued that the external is just an expression of internal struggles that he is unable or unwilling to confront. Let us start with Sam.
Sam is the only child of an older couple who had no expectation of every being able to have children. His birth was something of a "miracle" before the advent of test tube babies. He grew up in comfortable middle class New Jersey and graduated from a mediocre college. He is thirty-seven years old and lives in the suburbs of New Jersey, with his twenty-five year old German lover. In addition, they have a roommate who is his former lover of seven years. They are all close and are happy with the living arrangements. They are his "family".
Sam is extremely vocal at work about his sexual orientation and has aggressively campaigned to get the company he works for to offer domestic partner benefits. He mentions his partner in conversations at work and wears a ring that symbolizes their commitment. He also tends to be highly attuned to people who are uncomfortable with his sexuality and seems to relish talking about his partner to those people. This in turn increases the discomfort level for many people, in particular a senior member of his work group who has developed a strong dislike to Sam. This colleague is also gay although much more closeted than Sam is. Although Sam is aware of the negative implications, he feels that he must not "bend" and must resist attempts to push him back into the closest. I admire his courage but see the toll that this is taking upon him both physically and psychologically.
It is important to reiterate that this struggle is occurring between two gay men. Sam has made it a personal goal of his to force his colleague to publicly acknowledge their shared sexual orientation. He is willing to say or do anything to get his colleague to come out. Sam feels that by not coming out his colleague is living in a "state of denial and shame". This in turn creates greater fear and anger in his colleagueís mind. It is a vicious cycle of cat and mouse with negative consequences for both individuals as well as others in the office. From my interviews and observations it appears that, Sam is struggling with his shame issues externally and his colleague is struggling with his shame issues internally. The struggle to reject shame that is generated from another gay man is truly an exquisite conundrum. Unfortunately all too familiar of a struggle, both feeling that they are right, both unable to make friends with their shame.
Let us turn our attention to the second of our case studies Paul. An individual with a very different approach to dealing with his sexuality and issues of shame that arise or more accurately suppressed.
Paul is the third of three children, the only son. The age gap between him and his sisters is nine and fourteen years respectively. He is highly intelligent and has Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He wrote his dissertation in six months, while working full time. The subject of his dissertation was the value of empathy in therapeutic relationships. He went straight through from kindergarten to doctoral program without stopping. After completing his doctorate he dropped out of the field and went into consulting (for a major business consulting firm), in effect leaving the field that he had worked so hard to become schooled in.
Paul then went on to get an MBA and has risen steadily to a high ranking corporate position that commands a six-figure income and a significant amount of authority. He is of Jewish heritage and is extremely fastidious in both dress and manner. He is about my age and has been in a committed relationship with another man for over twelve years. They own two homes together and enjoy all the trappings of the successful gay lifestyle that is so widely heralded in New York society. They throw and attend numerous dinner parties. They have a coterie of friends who are coupled and have been together for a number of years. The perfect example of the gay bourgeois. Fully adjusted and integrated into society, a post gay rights poster person.
As I have spent time with Paul, I realize that underneath the façade lurks a tremendous amount of doubt, anger and shame. A sense that the façade was not as solid as I had initially thought. The catalyst for the revelation was watching the interactions of Paul with another gay man who was more flamboyantly out.
In my discussions with Paul, I have heard his labored rationalizations for not coming out at work, the culmination of which was his statement that if he did come out "they would use it to hurt me". The question in my mind being, who is hurting whom about what? In another conversation stretching well over two hours, the story of his telling his parents that he was gay was retold. They found out inadvertently and Paul "had no control". He said that he felt a sense of shame. When I asked him why he stated that he felt that his privacy had been violated and that he was being watched.
Another discussion concerned his feelings that one should not tell people that one was gay until they gotten to know you "because then they will accept you". In addition, he has shared the fact that he had to stay closeted in graduate school because if it were known that he was gay he would have been kicked out of the program. The fact of the matter is that many gay men and women attended the same program as he did and although experiencing a degree of homophobia were able to complete the program, as openly gay students.
Paul feels the need to keep his sexuality private for fear of rejection, this seems to be based on a fear of exposure. Exposure witch implies being observed or watched.
The overwhelming feeling that one takes away is a pervasive sense of shame and fear. This shame although not explicitly articulated is pervasive and serves a negative force in the work environment. Ironically the greatest victim of Paulís shame is another gay man who is more vocally out and who refuses to retreat into the do not ask do not tell policy that Paul would like to impose. Both feel that the other is held hostage by their shame issues, both are correct. Same coin different sides.
The third case study that I would like to explore is that of my own. This part of the paper is the most difficult to write and the most critical in terms of the honesty of the work. In this piece I will explore the nature of my own shame and glimpses of the therapeutic journey that I am traveling in order to negotiate a healthy balance with shame.
I have had the opportunity in my own therapeutic journey to begin to work with my own sense of shame around my sexuality and have discovered that I what I thought was guilt is more rooted in shame. As a thirty-eight years old single man whom has established a modicum of career success, I find this acknowledgment both liberating and odd. In working with my therapist I have discovered that this quality of watcher, the dread of exposure. I have learned first hand that guilt yearns for exposure while shame goes to great lengths to avoid any exposure. In therapy, I have learned the value of exposing oneself in a safe environment and can work to create a sense of balance. The therapist views the exposure without any judgements. The therapist helps to create a controlled environment and one can explore the boundaries of shame.
In interviewing and observing Sam and Paul, I have realized that gay men have to balance both internal and external shame and that the gay community is not always supportive around the issue of dealing with shame. The core problem seems to be that there is no consensus in the gay community of how to deal with shame. Does one adept flight of fight, is it possible to face shame directly, without judgements?
The experiences that I have had in my own therapy has shown me that one can indeed negotiate a healthy relationship with oneís own sense of shame. That the negotiations can be conducted without the aggressive approach of Sam or the half hearted denial of Paul. Hiding or trying to turn oneís sexuality into a weapon is symptomatic of the same root; shame. Self-acceptance and a non-judgmental attitude are essential; one must accept the existence of shame and work to create a healthy balance. It is important that one does not judge others to harshly because harshness towards others is internal aggression directed externally. One can watch with compassion and understanding, the watcher does not always need to punish.
At first blush the above seems like a case for coming out, in some sense it is. The unanswered question is coming out from what? In order to come out one must be in. The usual default position is that one s in the "closest". The construct of the closest is oneís shame; the watcher is oneís own fear. The antidote is not the eradication of shame but the realization that shame can provide a reference point and a lodestone for liberation. However, one must be aware that liberation is as transitory and illusory as shame. If you come out of the closest, arenít you entering into a larger room with walls? If you liberate your mind than the location is irrelevant.
I have experienced much shame in my life. I have run, I have lied, I have denied but only recently have I begun to accept. It is truly liberating.