Meet Jeffrey. Jeffrey is a 25-year-old white male. He just finished a master’s degree in the social service industry and landed a job a couple levels above entry level in is chosen career. Jeffrey is the youngest of three but is the first of the three to go to college let alone earn a master’s degree. Jeffrey has always been very social and well-liked. He has lots of friends, but only two or three very close ones. One of those friends is his fiancé, Becca. The wedding is about six months off. That is what the world sees of Jeffrey.
What Jeffrey sees is very different. Jeffrey is full of self-doubt. Though no professor ever suggested a problem, Jeffrey thinks he barely scraped by in grad school. He is scared to death to start this new job as he thinks he is unprepared, even incapable of doing it well. He is slowly losing touch with his vast number of friends, choosing to spend his time with Becca planning the giant over-the-top wedding rather than hanging out or chatting with them. He finds himself laying alone on the couch in the apartment in front of Netflix with the curtains drawn almost every day. Cheese puffs and chocolate have become diet staples. He only shaves if it has been a few days and he is going out somewhere nice with Becca.
Then there’s Becca. Jeffrey cannot figure out their relationship. He does not know why she is attracted to him at all. He’s not fit or handsome or rich. Nor will he ever be rich working in social services. He knows he loves her. She is sweet, funny, smart and pretty. It makes sense for him to be attracted to her, only he is not. They have not even been intimate together yet, not for lack of trying on her part. He says he wants their wedding night to be special.
Fast forward six months. The night before the wedding, trying to fall asleep Jeffrey is hit with the realization that if Robert, Jeffrey’s Best Man, were, at any time before the wedding, to say he is leaving his own wife in order to spend the rest of his life with Jeffrey, the wedding would be off immediately. Jeffrey chalks the ridiculous thought up to pre-wedding jitters and shakes it out of his mind.
Fast forward another decade and a half or so. After 3 children, six moves, many many hours of therapy, a divorce, and a whole lot of changes in societal expectations. Jeffrey comes out as gay. Two thirds to three quarters of Jeffrey’s family and friends are not surprised in the least. Only one couple, ironically—or tellingly—a couple who were supposed to be almost as accepting as his parents, refuse to accept Jeffrey’s new understanding of himself. The third of Jeffrey’s life that is surprised is joined by almost every new person he meets in asking upon hearing his story, “When did you know?” All of them correctly assuming Jeffrey has not just come to this knowledge. Yet also the question for many, if not all, passes the judgment of “How could you have done that to Becca and your kids?”
I thought of Jeffrey and the question he hears repeatedly when I heard the story of yet another person struggling with the if, how, when, and to whom of coming out of the closet as gay. I have heard people say more and more that things have changed so much it is not an issue anymore. Society is accepting and welcoming for the most part. Indeed, just a few months ago I was struck by just how far we have come at the sight of buildings in the Chicago skyline lighted in rainbow colors. So why write about the closet? Perhaps more to the point why write about being a member of the LGBTQ+ community on a mental health blog? Being gay has not been considered pathological since the American Psychological Association (APA) removed “homosexuality” (an offensive term to most of the LGBTQ+ community-so try to avoid using it) from its diagnostic manual in 1972. It is true for many that they are not only out of their closet, but their closet is closed, locked, and even demolished. As great as that is- and it is great! – it is not true for everyone. This year’s widespread coverage of the “straight pride” movement and the U.S. President’s attempt to keep American Embassies from flying the rainbow flag are just some of the evidence that the struggle is not over.
Some may be asking, even if the struggle is not over in society what does that have to do with mental health? In fact, I just pointed out that it is no longer seen as a diagnosable disease and has not been for almost 50 years. Identifying as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is definitely not a disease. Recognizing one’s difference and trying to live that truth, however, often brings with it a whole host of mental health issues. Depression, Anxiety, Eating Disorders are just some of the mental health issues that often go hand in hand not only with coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersex, asexual and others, but also with being out.
(For simplicity’s sake, I am going to continue talking about this experience from the point of view of a gay man. I do not choose the gay experience of coming out as some sort of archetypal paradigm. Certainly, every letter in the title and more have different issues. Just as every person has different experiences. The experience of the gay man is just the one with which I am most familiar. However, it is also safe to say that there are similarities and parallels across the community.)
To begin to grasp the mental health connection, we must start before an individual “comes out” publicly. Like Jeffrey, one of the first questions a gay man hears when he comes out is “when did you know?” For some it is an easy answer, something like “I’ve always known I was different.” For many it is much more difficult, more of a process of understanding, which unfortunately goes against what he is being told from outside himself. One popular answer has become, “when did you know you were straight?” Generally, said tongue in cheek, it actually holds some explanation of how mental health issues are connected to coming out.
In this country, no matter how well meaning and intentional parents may be, everyone grows up socialized to certain understandings about what it is to be male and what it is to be female. From the moment people know the assigned gender of a child, expectations surround his whole life. The problem is the expectations do not match what a young gay boy is feeling and thinking often from a very young age. He grows up conflicted and confused. He taps into the expectations of his family, friends, and the society around him. From the inside it looks like an unequal match of colossal proportions. Seemingly the whole world expects him to be one way versus how his little solitary self thinks he is.
Let’s look at our example, Jeffrey. When he was growing up, no one talked about being straight. EVERYONE just was. It was the only option. So, when Jeffrey found himself attracted to other young men in high school and college, he had to explain it away. He convinced himself and for a long-time others—even Becca, that he was just looking for a best friend. Society saw two young men spending a great deal of time together and thought, “aren’t they good friends.” Even the other young men saw Jeffrey as a good friend. All the time Jeffrey secretly, deep inside where not even he would venture often wanted more from the friendships. Hiding that kind of secret inside himself affected his psychological and emotional health. The more he felt the discomfort the more he tried to mask the pain. The more he masked the pain, the more uncomfortable he felt.
Little by little he came to not believe in himself at all. Even with the proof of both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, he questioned his own intelligence, his own ability. At least in part, that is because he spent his whole life questioning his own identity as he knew it, especially when compared to societal expectations. No matter what he did, he learned to question its validity. He actually learned to avoid things that would point to the dark secret he hid inside. From hobbies, to colors, to certain words and gestures, Jeffrey found himself constantly on guard, lest someone recognize he was not like other men and guess his secret. The constant vigilance began to make him believe the façade he had created to be real. So, when his actual reality burst out the night before the wedding, when he recognized Robert as the love of his life, he shook it away because he could not believe it was real.
Jeffrey did not intentionally set out to hurt Becca. He never considered that his life and his choices would bring pain to his children. Yet when he finally saw the cracks in his facade and wanted to be his true self, he had NO idea how to do it. Every way he looked he saw pain in store, for himself yes, but even more so for others. So, he kept quiet. All the energy hiding himself from himself and the world took its toll. His depression became persistent. The anxiety of others figuring out his secret was real.
It may be more acceptable for people to be out and proud in this day. Yet the old expectations are not gone. You find them in the hopes and dreams of parents for their own children. You find them in the public opinion of actors who are leading men, the “man’s man.” They hide in the definitions of a professional athlete. Now more than ever they are spoken about by political leaders and even some religious leaders who otherwise preach (literally) welcome to all. The message is still passed along to young men like Jeffrey. They still grow up feeling like they may not fit in or they may disappoint their parents or even themselves.
Coming out or not coming out is very much an issue of mental health. It can take a person on a long journey to anxiety, depression and more. Now, more than ever, we need to have these conversations with our children, our friends, even our parents. Talking about it makes it real. Talking about it with respect makes it safe. It may be better out there, but the bridge from inside the closet to the world outside can still be very frightening.
Just so you know. Coming out did not solve all of Jeffrey’s problems. Indeed, he found himself dealing with some new ones. However, the energy freed up from the secret keeping, has made it possible for him to deal with the new issues in healthy ways. Jeffrey and Becca are the best of friends. They and their kids have found a new definition for their family that works for them. It’s not all perfect. To this day, Jeffrey answered for Robert the question of “when did he know.” Jeffrey still harbors a deeply rooted fear of how Robert may respond—though he suspects he’s figured it out.
Talk about mental health and life in general with people you trust!