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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Does Homophobia Destroy Heterosexual Marriages and the Men in Them?

by @ 8:05 pm. Filed under Anti-Gay Bullying, Book Reviews, Joe's Rants

I am Gifts of Imperfection Covercurrently taking an online class based on the book, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, PhD.  Brown, who is a professor at the University of Texas, describes herself as a vulnerability researcher who studies authenticity, shame and courage. I was drawn to this class on Brown’s work because of her focus on empathy, connection and authenticity which are all running themes in my life because of my interest in Nonviolent Communication.

In her work, Brown defines shame as the “…intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging” and describes it as the “warm wash that comes over us that makes us feel small, flawed and never good enough.” It was hard to read that as a 41 year old gay man and not think about my childhood of being bullied, my teen years of trying to play straight and certainly my early 20s when I struggled to come to terms with my sexuality.  I am realizing from this book, this class and my own life that growing up gay is a crystallized example of being “in shame” as Dr. Brown describes it in her work.

I can remember after I was gay bashed in 1990. Just a few days after it happen I was looking in the mirror at a face I did not recognize because it was so swollen and black and blue. I was pulling my bottom lip down so I could count the stitches where my teeth caused a hole when I was kicked in the face .  I would try to use a hand mirror to look at the black and blue marks on my back.  I truly believe at that time that I deserved what had happen to me because I was gay. What happen was ultimately my fault because I was defective.  I was not worthy of love and belonging and I didn’t feel I had a place in my life where I belonged.   I know now and can name what that was.  It was shame.   It was the warm wash that came over me that I am convinced to this day is what caused me to physically heal in record time.  My doctors were amazed at how fast my black and blue marks, swelling and cuts and bruises healed.  I think I wished myself better to make the shame go away.

What was that shame really about? We live in a society where being gay is still viewed as weak, passive, the opposite of masculine.  While the last 25 years have brought great change to those views, it hasn’t changed enough to stop gays and lesbians from growing up feeling defective and unworthy of love for who they are.  The record suicide rates of youth bullied for their perceived sexual orientation is an example of just how damaging these views can be.

You can watch her Tedx Huston talk:

I am going to throw a premise out there I have been thinking about over the past few weeks about shame and homophobia.  We shame young men into being tough, into hiding their feelings, into hiding themselves and we do it with homophobia. I believe this damages heterosexual marriages and the men and women in this marriages.  Let me attempt to explain what I have been thinking.

Our picture for what a real man should be is really just “not a faggot” as the perception of the stereotype is this weak, emotional, effeminate, show tune loving guy who looks good in pink.  We raise our young men and boys by painting them a picture of what a man is supposed to be and then paint the opposite of that as a faggot. Thus making men want to avoid anyone thinking their are gay even if they are because it somehow makes them less worthy of love and belonging, (shame.)

Researcher Jackson Katz, an author, educator and film maker explored these ideas in his 1999 film “Tough Guise” where he breaks down the stereotypes we use to tell men what being a man is.  Before continuing to read the premise I am presenting, watch this short clip from the film and pay particular attention to what the young men say when asked the qualities of being a man.

One of the themes I have heard in this class from other men about living authentically is just how hard it is to be yourself in a world where you are programmed to live up to a certain framework of what a man is supposed to be.  I was thinking about this idea of the picture of what a man is “suppose to be.”  Men don’t show emotions. Men don’t show vulnerability. Men don’t show compassion.  Men dress tough, drive trucks, play football, burp, and fart.  The drink beer not wine.  They have steak and certainly they don’t eat quiche. Men also spend lots of time NOT doing anything that might lead people to think they are gay.  Some even going as far as killing other men to prove they are not gay, deemed the so called, Gay Panic defense.  They kill men who hit on them as opposed to just saying “thank you but I am straight but flattered.”

Despite the damage this is doing to gay men and boys, one has to wonder, what does all this do to heterosexual men and boys especially in light of all the new research out there in the past 10 years around mirror neurons, empathy, connection and motivation.  I have been reading a ton of books about shame, empathy and human connection and one of the things I find is that all these researchers agree, as men we are emotional, we are creative and those are not signs of being gay, but being human. In fact, many of the characteristics that get attributed to gay men are hold and hidden in straight men.

Homophobia and our refusal to accept and affirm gay men and relationships gives many bullies their power.  Just looking at the numbers of who gets bullied and what things bullies say to young men is a clue to just how powerful shame can be as a tool to make men feel small.  You want to make a man feel small, flawed and unworthy of love and belonging, call him a faggot.  Why is that so shaming, so powerful?  Because we allow it to be.  It reinforces to men that they have to appear macho not effeminate.  What would happen if we changed that stereotype?

I would like you think about what this shame and programming would do to a young, emotional and creative young boy who then grows up and marries a woman.   He has been programmed to not communicate his feelings because that is for fags.  So he is unable to express to this woman the things she really needs to hear from her partner to make things work.   He isn’t going to be told what to do by a woman because men who aren’t their own boss are again perceived as passive which is also another quality of the stereotype of gay men.  This leaves a man who faces conflict about chores and won’t be negotiating with his wife, he will want to be the boss.  God knows that last thing we teach young men is to be vulnerable, so it is unlikely he will be sharing honestly when he is in pain.

Two of the top reasons heterosexual marriages end are communication breakdowns and abuse.  I can’t help but wonder if these communication breakdowns are based in how we shame men into being “not gay” and would these change if we starting accepting gays and supporting them to be healthy, whole and authentic about their stories. If we accepted gay men, straight men would no longer care about being perceived as gay as it would no longer be a bad thing.  What if we taught men to have the courage to be who they really are rather than “not gay.”  That would mean calling a straight man sensitive wouldn’t send him into the warm wash of shame where he then wants to prove his “not gayness” to the world with destructive behaviors.

I would presume:

I really do think that homophobia hurts straight men just as much as it hurts gay men.   I believe it hurts heterosexual marriages for the same reasons.  Women with unrealistic and inaccurate views of what being a man is and men trying to live up to unrealistic and inaccurate views of the same.  Not sure I see that turning around anytime soon.  I do believe that affirming gay relationships, affirming boys desires to explore who they are will serious change so many of the negatives that comes from men trying to prove they “aren’t gay.”

When we can get society to the point where being gay is just no big deal.  It is no longer seen as negative.  We will also be removing the shame we place on men, gay or straight, when they do things out of authenticity like show emotions, cry, cook, dance, or ignore the Superbowl.

Brene Brown has started a bit of a movement of men and women committed to living authentic lives. To living”wholeheartedly” and willing to have the courage to tell and be okay with their own stories.  I truly believe that way to change some of the damage we do to men and boys is to get them to embrace who they are.  If you are a straight boy who likes ballet…good.  If you are a gay boy who likes pink, good.  It is all good, just be yourself.  Go dance barefoot in the kitchen to disney songs and it will make you no more and no less or a man.

I leave you with another of Brene Brown’s talks.  I find the information in her research her just transformative!

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