Last time I said that the most frequent question I hear from gay men is “How can I find a boyfriend?” I discussed three core values which are essential foundations of the capacity for intimacy: self-awareness, self-acceptance, and integrity. This week I’d like to highlight a fourth value – coming to terms with the past – and review some of the specific issues that many gay men face in their early development which can create obstacles to the trust and openness that intimacy requires.
Most of us sense early in life that we’re different from other boys and that we aren’t who we’re “supposed” to be. We may be more emotionally sensitive and less aggressive than other boys, dislike like rough sports, or have “feminine” interests. We learn quickly – through parental disappointment, pressure to conform; and contempt and ridicule – that being different is our bad, not something about which to be proud. The result can be a deep wound in the core of our sense of selfhood. Often, the background sense of being outsiders – wrong, shameful, “less than”, defective – stays with us well into adulthood, even after we’ve come out and “accepted” who we are.
The painful irony is that the ones who do the most to teach us that we’re wrong are the people we most want to love us– other males. The first man in a gay boy’s life, his father, often notices his son is different by the time he’s three or four years old, and may sense, consciously or subliminally, that he’s gay. After more than a quarter century of listening to the stories of gay men, I’m still amazed at the brutality and cruelty so many men inflict on their gay sons to try to change them or punish them for being different. But more often, the rejection is subtle, and may never be consciously understood by either father or son. Disappointed looks, emotional withdrawal, and preference for straight siblings are some of the ways fathers convey to their gay sons that they don’t feel the respect and love for them that all children need from their parents.
The close bonds that gay boys often have with their mothers are, in part, a response to paternal rejection. They also happen because mothers sometimes sense an emotional affinity with their gay sons. She may feel that he “gets’ her more than the other males. But this closeness can further alienate the father both by arousing his jealousy, and by confirming, in his eyes, that his son is a “sissy” and a “mama’s boy.”
Even today, in their school years, gay boys face rejection from their male peers, especially if they’re perceived as feminine. By adolescence, gay guys are aware of their sexual attraction to other guys, and often have experiences of humiliating and hopeless unrequited love for straight boys who can’t return their feelings and who respond to them with contempt. It should surprise no one, then, that, as adults, so many gay men respond to their wounds by closing up, by becoming cynical about the possibility or even the value of having loving partnerships with other men. Sometimes, then, the first step in finding a loving relationship is to admit to ourselves that we want it.
Once we’re finally independent enough to live openly gay lives many of us quite naturally want to forget about the traumas of the past, but what Santayana said of history also applies to the personal past: those who don’t remember it are condemned to repeat it. As adults, we congregate together, usually in urban areas, looking to each other for support and community. But we bring our wounds with us. Ours is the challenging task of creating communities of outsiders. Is it any wonder that we don’t do it perfectly? Is it any mystery why so many gay men find the “gay community” cold, unsupportive and deeply disappointing?
Gay men who long for a loving relationship but have difficulty forming stable bonds with other men might benefit from reflecting on the connections between their past and present experiences with men. One way to begin doing this might be to read Richard Isay’s excellent new book, Commitment and Healing: Gay Men and the Need for Romantic Love. Isay is a psychiatrist practicing in New York who has devoted his career to helping gay men overcome their obstacles to love. He believes fervently that strong sexual partnerships are vital to our well-being. He writes “The love of another person in an intimate, caring and sexual relationship, sustained over many years, is the cure for the impoverished self-love of gay men who were hurt in childhood by parental rejection or indifference to their distinctive needs and later traumatized by peer rejection and by a culture which demeans their passion.” His ultimately optimistic message is that this generation of gay men does have the power to heal our wounds and meet this essential need.