How Coming Out Trauma Explains Some LGBTQ Resistance to Pete 2020
I am not an official spokesperson for The Gays.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve earned the credits — having been officially gay since 1993 (and unofficially since 1987). In that time I’ve done my level best to evangelize our unique culture and to build bridges with anyone who was receptive to crossing a yawning chasm with merely a few bolts or screws. Though I am younger than the earliest group of AIDS and Gay activists (the loss of whom still echoes in my life), I’ve been on the front line of every major cultural battle since coming out of the closet.
I’ve seen allies suddenly turn on us when politically expeditious. Think Clinton and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — even though we are the most reliably polyamorous voting block. I’ve seen expected enemies become major supporters of our community: think W and his passion for ending the AIDS crisis. I’ve watched the promise of a new future be co-opted by political reality: think Obama’s “evolving” position on marriage equality. And I’ve seen whatever this indescribable nonsense is that’s going on now — a President simultaneously holding up pride flags at rallies and actively persecuting Trans people.
But what seemed inconceivable even a few years ago has — both sadly and excitingly — become a possible reality. On one hand, the end of American democracy. On the other (juxtaposition somewhat intended) the rise of an unlikely politician: an openly gay, married, veteran, small-town mayor with a hard-to-spell, recent immigrant’s last name becoming an honest to goodness viable candidate for the Presidential nomination.
The historical impact of this is indescribable, especially for a young gay Gabe struggling to understand himself and find his way in the 1980s and 90s. It actually makes me somewhat teary-eyed to even consider how my 16 year old self would have been helped by an openly gay candidate for President. My entire life would have been different, and I think yours too.
You see, I grew up in a time when “all fags got AIDS and died” (the media’s words not mine). The impact of this kind of repetitive, consistent and relentless negative framing still echoes through my life. That my father was also a closeted homosexual and only came out after I did, only served to reinforce the idea that gay was shameful, horrible — a “condition” that could only be cured with death via disease or hate crime. Choose your poison.
I’ve spent a lot of time in therapy working through my fear, self-loathing and self-hatred. But I know it’s a continuous process that takes a lot of time. Even with my privilege, I am still untying the knots of caustic identity politics well into my mid (late?) 40s.
I think this is the reason so many gays express vitriol toward Buttigieg and his candidacy.
It is because we do not believe we are worthy or deserving of taking our rightful place in the power structure. Many of us don’t even believe we deserve to live, and are carrying extreme survivors’ guilt for the horrors of AIDS. The unique struggles of our identity formation also make many of us believe we are not even deserving of love, community and kinship. This fear of becoming has led so many of us into the darkest of places, and continues to negatively impact our relationships with others and ourselves.
These issues are so serious, structural and profound that gay and bisexual men have a 3–5x greater prevalence of qualified mental health diagnoses vs heterosexuals. Any LGBTQ person living in our society can attest to the ills that oppressive identity politics have had on our community. And a number of excellent books (The Velvet Rage, Out of the Shadows) have looked at this issue, helping us unravel the nuance and dynamics of gay men’s mental health.
One of the most salient points made by both Downs and Odets is that gay men have a fine tuned system for managing rejection. Because we are rejected by our families, communities, cultures and — often — ourselves as part of our coming out, we are overly sensitive to rejection as adults. We view others’ rejections as invalidating our essence, leading to fractured communities and struggles in all aspects of our lives.
Against this backdrop, I believe it’s only natural that gay men would believe Pete represents another opportunity for disappointment, and so they are choosing to reject him first. The thinking goes that if he gets up and disappoints us, it will be just another example of an America unwilling to accept us the way we are.
It strikes me as similar to conversations I’ve had with African American friends about Reparations. I’m a big believer in the need for financial remuneration for slavery, but the most heated arguments against it I’ve ever had have been with POC, often centered around the idea that “white america will never let it happen.” I remember being dumbfounded not by the valid objection that it would be challenging, but rather by the lack of inherent belief that it was something worth fighting for. Many folks I spoke to were resigned to the idea that it was impossible, and therefore imprudent to even discuss.
But giving up and avoiding rejection is not how change is made. It’s not how you become your true and best self. It’s not how you build vulnerability and empathy with others. And it’s not how you develop the core belief that you deserve to be here and to take your rightful place among the moon and stars. This is the central gauntlet we must pass as LGBT folks coming into our own, and the burden we bear for a lifetime.
Now, many people have legitimate gripes with Pete and his campaign. I understand that you may have considered him in detail and decided — because of your politics — that even though you’re LGBT, he’s not the right candidate for you. I accept this answer.
But I know firsthand how insidious this trauma and self-loathing can be. And if you’re not conscious of your bias, honest about your fear of rejection/disavowal, and aren’t able to connect Pete’s effort to your lifelong struggle to just be you, you may not be paying attention to your own needs and those of the next generation.
It’s risky and he’s imperfect. But most of us have walked that tightrope a million times. Instead of trying to pull him off the line, we can be his ballast.
And he, ours.