I remember the first time I realized that I was gay. The feeling was a lot like that first drop on a roller coaster: exhilarating, terrifying and unstoppable. Finally I’d discovered myself and had an explanation for the feelings I’d struggled to understand. It was a great relief to be able to identify the source of my longing, isolation, confusion, pain, and depression.
Growing up gay in a small farming community wasn’t exactly easy. Everyone seemed to know I was gay far before I did. My initial reaction to coming out to myself was pure shock. When I was 14 there were few gay role models. Will and Grace were a decade away. There was no such thing as a Gay/Straight Alliance. Sermons from the pulpit were hellfire and brimstone. Daily news reports on the mysterious illness that was eventually named AIDS were the only mention I heard of gays. I never knowingly spoke to another gay person until I was in college.
It’s easy to know the exact time you came out to yourself. However, simply knowing your sexual orientation doesn’t give you much information about how to cope with those feelings and how to navigate the worlds of sex and love. Pinpointing the moment you truly accepted and embraced your sexuality is quite another matter. Was it the first time you had sex and didn’t feel guilty afterward? Was it the time you refused to accept an anti-gay slur at Thanksgiving?
My answer might surprise you. It was the first time you felt defiant. After the shock and amazement of coming out passes, we start to notice how much is wrong with how our society treats us. Anger rises and begins to compete with our old feelings of shame about being gay. Defiance follows quickly and we have the urge to rebel.
And rebel we do. We start to challenge gay jokes and confront prejudice in our families. We attend our first gay rally. We walk into a gay bar to feel a part of a community and to be away from the straight world for awhile. We fall in love. We have sex.
Think about that last one. What could be more defiant than rejecting the taboo against gay sex? I can certainly remember the first time I had sex with a man. It ranks among the most intense experiences of my life. I was ecstatic and I felt like I had just done something very wrong. I had to unlearn the attitudes that gay sex is wrong and dirty. We have to fight to learn that our expression of affection is just as valid as the culturally prized heterosexual model.
Defiance goes a long way toward giving us the energy to form a positive image of ourselves and to reject societal attitudes. However, like any sharp tool it’s easy to cut yourself with it. If we lose our footing, we get lost in being defiant without actually changing ourself or the world. It takes courage to look at the warts of your society. It’s also draining and infuriating. It’s no surprise that minorities have increased problems with depression, addictions and compulsive behavior. Gay people are no exception.
Some of Our Challenges
• Depression is caused by many factors; genetics, stress, lack of social support to name a few. Everyone knows that depressed people feel depressed but did you know that irritability is also a sign of depression? Depression is marked by disturbances in sleep, appetite, sex drive, concentration and motivation. If you’ve had trouble feeling sad or irritable for more than 2 weeks, it’s a good idea to call a counselor or see your doctor. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call a professional immediately. Quick treatment can prevent depression from becoming severe and causing more problems later.
• Alcohol is definitely part of the social scene here in Wisconsin. You can certainly find other drugs but for most folks alcohol is the chosen social lubricant. The up side is that alcohol and drugs heighten our senses and relax us. Unfortunately, they also numb emotions and inflate sense of self-esteem chemically. Finding the line between healthy use and abuse is difficult. If your loved ones are concerned or you are having trouble cutting down on your use, seek out a professional who is specially trained in substance abuse counseling. They can help you decide if you have a problem and what you can do about it.
• Sex and romance. The things we are fighting so hard to have accepted, can also lose their meaning. Sex can become a way to submerge our inner conflict and guilt. When you start to neglect friends, family and your responsibilities to pursue the next conquest, sex has become a compulsion. Conversely, others avoid sex out of shame and fear.
How We Can Help Ourselves
So how do you avoid falling into these traps? There is no substitute for the supportive ear of a trusted confidant. Many of us at least temporarily lose contact with our families at the very moment we need the most support. Reach out to friends. Some people find seeing a counselor helpful especially if they are isolated. It doesn’t matter so much what you do, just do something with that energy. So many times when stress arises we forget to schedule time to relax and let it all hang out. Make time for hobbies and socializing.
Taking care of your body is another way to inoculate yourself against stress. Exercise is very effective for blowing off steam and keeping depression at bay. It also greatly improves sleep. Eating well increases energy and stamina to forge ahead. Not exactly rocket science but we could all do better on these fronts.
Keep an open mind about the many facets of the LGBTQA community. Humans instinctively respond with anxiety when presented with something new. Just make certain that you aren’t mistaking anxiety for dislike. We are already working to escape the prejudice of the world, let’s not set up more barriers within our community. Try out all the scenes: sports teams, non-profit groups, political campaigns and pageants just to name a few.
The changes that come with identifying your sexuality and accepting yourself can be overwhelming. Even people who’ve been out for decades come across pockets of homophobia inside themselves. By creating a circle of support and taking good care of ourselves mentally and physically, we can create a healthy community. It is that community that eventually topples the prejudice and bigotry we all face every day.
Dale Decker has been a psychotherapist and substance abuse counselor in our community since 1994. He can be found online at www.daledecker.net