The Grumpy Ghey: Shame

by / Sep. 23, 2015 2am EST

“I know I’m unloveable / You don’t have to tell me / For message received / Loud and clear.”  —Morrissey

People have let me know they think I’m out of step. In six months since I began writing this column, I’ve received some garbled and defensive flak for supposedly perpetuating outdated stereotypes. I’ve been accused of being somewhat stunted compared to the activist 20-somethings blazing the LGBTQ trail these days.

If I keep hitting nerves, I’m not sorry. That’s pretty much the whole point. 

We’ve all got issues. Show me a gay man who says he’s completely free of  baggage and I’ll show you someone who’s chock full of horseshit. Some of us are pretty quick to let loose, all glib and smug, labeling other gays as “self-hating” without understanding what exactly that implies and how we end up that way. No matter how self-actualized, well-adjusted, and evolved you consider yourself to be, chances are unresolved self-loathing lurks somewhere within. We are all carriers. 

The prevalent and complicated world of gay self-hate has become a specialized area for renowned clinical psychologist Alan Downs, PhD. His book, The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World (HighBridge, 2005), is considered the go-to manual for understanding why so many of us don’t like ourselves.

Downs makes clear that young gay men get stuck in destructive patterns today just as much as they always have. Coming out quickly might seem like a luxury, but a more accepting culture doesn’t always soothe one’s critical interior dialogue, and ripping the Band-Aid off doesn’t allow time to process difficult feelings. There’s an assumption that we’re fine so long as you’re fine with us, but statistics tell us that the interior experience of differentness hasn’t much changed.

The number of “a-ha moments” in Downs’s book are staggering. In it, you’ll repeatedly see yourself and just about everyone you know. The Velvet Rage offers plausible explanations for virtually every disturbing behavior you’ve ever witnessed as part of the gay experience, along with some that we all accept as part of our culture. It’s unsettling but also familiar and true. Downs has a firm grasp on many of the issues I’ve written about here and, according to him, it all boils down to one thing: shame. 

Most gays will tell you they knew they were different at a young age. Adults pick up on these differences too. In being our young, unabashed gay selves, we’re often met with negativity. The cues may be subtle, but when our parents (or other authority figures) let us know that our gayness/otherness isn’t wholeheartedly welcomed, It sends a message of shame that Downs insists becomes a huge obstacle for us going forward. Whether you experience this at four, seven, or 10 years of age, you lack coping mechanisms for such a low blow. There’s no mistaking the message, though: We’re different, and that’s unacceptable. Downs goes further, using the terms “flawed” and “unlovable.”

You’re probably saying, “I don’t feel any shame about my sexuality. This doesn’t pertain to me.” But shame is a stealthy demon that lodges itself so deeply in our psyches that it’s not clearly discernible as an emotion. Downs argues that it evolves into a rigidly held belief that we do not consciously feel. Beneath that numbness, you’d be shocked to discover how much it’s running the show.

The Velvet Rage breaks down our struggle with shame into three stages. There’s overlap among them, and we can get stuck in holding patterns within and between—we’re a messy bunch. It’s a redefined, modified take on the Cass Identity Model, which breaks coming out into distinct stages of development. And it rings truer to our 21st century experiences as gay men.

In stage one, we are gutted by shame, buckled over and gasping for air. So awful is this experience of rejection, this secret belief that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us, that we move forward as if genuinely disabled. We seek validation by feigning behaviors that are more in line with expectations—being athletic and dating girls are two examples. Any pats on the back incurred are inauthentic, since we know these behaviors are not true representations of who we are.

Downs points out that the lack of any authentic validation results in a destructive rage. It boils below the surface, inviting self-hatred that crops up in defeating patterns: substance abuse/alcoholism, reckless sexual choices, financial abandon, career dropout, ignored opportunities, etc. Often depression ensues. Our avoidance of feeling anything akin to shame is vigilant, however, and we compartmentalize any situations, feelings, and/or opinions that might bring us closer to it. Sound familiar?

Men in stage one don’t usually date since they can’t accept their sexuality. Instead, they find sex on the fringes—parks, theaters, restrooms. For guys who can’t own being gay, this is often the only option.

Resolving stage one and moving into stage two requires facing one’s sexuality as something other than a shameful flaw. Thing is, even when we get to this point, we haven’t really addressed the underlying shame and rage. Our deep-seated notion of inferiority just gets buried a little deeper. We function as gay men much more wholeheartedly than before, but it’s still wreaking havoc on our sense of self. 

That tendency toward outrageousness and over-the-top gay culture comes into play here. Rarely, Downs reminds us, do we ever do things that are quiet, reserved, or commonplace. Sorry to burst the big, glittering bubble, but much of this need to for lavishness and grandiosity is overcompensation for feeling lousy about who we are. The dude driving the big rig may be covering for his small pecker, but we’ve got more intense problems. Many guys deal with stage two by overachieving—the best-looking men, a hot chiseled body, big bucks in the bank, a high-ranking job, elegant travel, etc.  

Men in stage two become validation junkies. Surely you know some: miserable, well dressed guys with everything going for them on the surface. The slightest criticism can set off that rage boiling just below, however. All’s well when everyone fawns over your latest achievement or the outrageousness of your last party, but we’re unable to distinguish between constructive feedback and being told we did something wrong. If this sounds like a childish level of understanding, that’s because it is. The tantrums that can result are also childish; coming from a 200-pound guy who turned on a dime, they can also be scary and intimidating.

Relationships of all kinds suffer in stage two. Everyone walks on eggshells around you. As a result, men who date in this stage get stuck in cycles of short-term, stormy trysts. Inevitably, one man wants more sex than the other. This is usually perceived as invalidating (even when that isn’t how it’s meant), so sparks fly. Sometimes a vicious pattern of sexual withholding sets in whereby each is perpetually punishing or being punished by the other. Resentment festers and escalates quickly. Bust out the crime scene tape: What was love last week is indifference today and disdain tomorrow.

Stage two guys often decide to distract themselves from the painful feelings of loss, depression, and shame from ending these combustible liaisons by hopping from one relationship to another. There’s nothing like the rush of a new romance to throw a smoke-screen over the ugly demise of the previous one.

Sex becomes a way of managing emotions for guys in this state. It is a handy tool to deal with loneliness, sadness, anxiousness, or boredom. Downs describes this as the emergence of a “process addiction.”

This sort of sex is inauthentic and selfish. It’s about making you feel something different rather than an exchange of pleasure or a shared intimacy. In our shame-based dislike for ourselves, we use any number of addictions to regulate our negative feelings—online porn, gambling, overeating, shopping, etc. En route, we’re racking up a fresh batch of shame for all the lousy things we’re doing to people and ourselves. Rage, shame, and self-hate are working together in concert, conducting the most lavish, over-the-top symphony you’ve ever heard.

Downs explains the difference between working through these problems (resolution) and remaining stuck in them (foreclosure) early on, since many men vacillate between the two extremes, thus lengthening the whole process, which isn’t necessarily linear. Two steps forward, one step back.

Reaching stage three is difficult. For many men, it’s a foreign and uncomfortable state—a mix of freedom and confusion. If we are able to confront our deep-seated feelings of inadequacy, Downs posits, we can become the men we were always meant to be. But without the thrill of the various chases and all the peripheral drama and noise, live seems unplugged, ambiguous, and uncertain. 

Stage three guys become less visible, and younger men don’t often get to see the healthy progression. There’s less of a need to be on stage and a craving for a quieter existence. These men have outgrown the need to avoid shame and pursue inauthentic validation. But not everyone can tolerate the serene, inner calm, and resolution is a slow, measured process. We’re left craving excitement and drama. And so, for some, it all begins again.

I see myself in a number of these scenarios; I also see every man I’ve ever dated, most of my gay friends, and various sexual partners. I also see how some of the principles I’ve learned over the years in the process of getting sober have helped me to avoid revisiting certain pitfalls. 

I’m reminded of the statement, “Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” By learning to own who I am, with all my shortcomings, and by accepting others as they are and not attempting to manipulate them into behaving the way I want, I can keep shame to a minimum. 

And, you know: On a day when none of that is working for me, I can resolve shameful feelings by hiring a brutish man-whore for an evening…