The Closet and Gay-Bashing
For some gay men, "Hiding and passing as heterosexual becomes a lifelong moral hatred of the self; a maze of corruptions, petty lies, and half truths that spoil social relations in family and friendship" (Herdt and Boxer, 1993). There are many gay men who, before they came out, were either "gay-baiters" or "gay-bashers" themselves.
Attacking those perceived to be gay serves several functions. One penile plethysmography study indicated that men with strong antihomosexual beliefs actually had significant homosexual arousal patterns (Adams et al., 1996). Strong antihomosexual feelings may represent an effort to control perceptions of a gay-basher's own sexual identity. This might translate as, "If I attack gay people, no one will think I am gay." Psychoanalysts call this defense "identification with the aggressor" (Freud, 1966). It may represent intrapsychic efforts to maintain a psychological distance from one's own homoerotic feelings. In other words, it is an effort to strengthen dissociative tendencies.
Coming out may be the most commonly shared cultural experience that defines the modern gay identity. Historically, the term was an ironic reference to debutantes "coming out into society" (Chauncey, 1994). In contemporary usage, "coming out of the closet" means telling another person that one is gay.
Years spent in the closet can make the prospect of revealing oneself an emotionally charged experience. However, the process is not just about revealing oneself to others--in coming out, gay people integrate, as best they can, dissociated aspects of the self. Herdt and Boxer (1993) classified coming out as a ritual process of passage that requires a gay person to 1) unlearn the principles of natural or essentialist heterosexuality; 2) unlearn the stereotypes of homosexuality; and 3) learn the ways of the lesbian and gay culture they are entering. Finally, as gay people must decide on a daily basis whether to reveal and to whom they will reveal themselves, coming out is a process that never ends.
Coming out to oneself is a subjective experience of inner recognition. It is a moment that is sometimes charged with excitement and at other times with trepidation. It is a realization that previously unacceptable feelings or desires are part of one's self. It is, in part, a verbal process--putting into words previously inarticulated feelings and ideas. It is a recapturing of disavowed experiences.
Coming out to oneself may precede any sexual contact. Sometimes, the moment of coming out to oneself is sexually exciting. Some gay people describe it as a switch being turned on. "Coming home" or "discovering who I really was" are how gay people frequently describe coming out to themselves. In the language of Winnicott (1965), it can be experienced as a moment in which they make contact with their true selves.
Coming out to oneself may be followed by coming out to others. Such revelations are not always greeted with enthusiasm, and fear of rejection often plays a significant role in a gay person's decision about who to tell or whether to come out. For those who cannot come out in their hometown, moving to another city offers opportunities to come out among strangers. It can be exhilarating to come out in new and faraway places where one is not known to either family or friends. After making such a move, gay people may completely (and perhaps dissociatively) sever relationships with their past lives.
The Therapist's Role
A therapist's recognition and respect for individual differences allows multiple possibilities in the coming out process. There is no single way to come out, a fact sometimes overlooked by well-intentioned therapists trying to affirm a patient's homosexuality. Every coming out situation may be associated with anxiety, relief or both.
As previously stated, being gay, in contrast to being homosexually self-aware, is to claim a normative identity. From this perspective, coming out to oneself is integrative and often serves to affirm a patient's sense of worth. It is a prerequisite of this work that therapists be able to accept their patients' homosexuality as a normal variation of human sexuality, and that they value and respect same-sex feelings and behaviors as well (Drescher, 1998).
A therapist fluent in the meanings of coming out can point out both obstacles to and inhibitions of the process. However, patients may hear therapist fluency as tacit encouragement to "hurry up and come out," even rebuking a therapist for perceived efforts to force movement in that direction. Therapists need to be aware they can be heard this way and treat it as grist for the psychotherapeutic mill.
Therapists should recognize gay patients' struggles to define themselves as the important therapeutic focus--and that this is not a typical struggle for those who claim a heterosexual identity. Gay patients face a whole set of decisions unlike anything heterosexuals face. Hiding from oneself depends upon dissociative defenses, while coming out to oneself holds the possibility of psychological integration. An implicit value of psychotherapy is that integration is more psychologically meaningful than dissociation. Consequently, therapists cannot be neutral about coming out to the self.
Coming out to others can be fraught with danger. A need to hide may be based on reasonable concerns, as in the case of gay men and women serving in the military. A therapist would be unwise to advise a patient to come out without knowing the attitudes and opinions of the intended object of the patient's revelation. A therapist cannot fully predict the consequences of such a revelation on the relationship of those two people. Again, coming out to others needs to be addressed in a way that recognizes individual differences.
Internalized, antihomosexual attitudes are often rigid and disdainful of compromise or "relativism." A patient's dogmatic belief system may not recognize the concept of respectful disagreement. Nevertheless, exploration of such internalized, moral absolutes, and the identifications from which they stem, requires therapeutic tact. Some patients may try to resolve inner conflicts about being gay by selectively attending to their antihomosexual identifications. Unable to tolerate conflicting feelings about homosexuality, these patients rather unconvincingly tell themselves, "It is OK to be gay." This approach reverses the feelings and identifications of a closeted identity. In the subjectivity of the latter, heterosexuality is idealized and homosexuality dissociated. After coming out, being gay is idealized, while disapproving feelings are denied. Therapeutic holding entails being able to contain both sides (Winnicott, 1986).
When gay patients understand their own antihomosexual attitudes--and the defenses against them--they have a wider view of themselves. As patients feel more comfortable with themselves, they may begin to feel more comfortable with others. Not only does this encourage self-awareness, increase self-esteem and enhance the quality of relationships, it helps a patient more accurately assess the implications of coming out. If a patient chooses to come out, the decision needs to be carefully explored. Conversely, the same is true if a patient decides not to come out.
Given the social stigma, the severity of antihomosexual attitudes in the culture and the difficulties associated with revealing one's sexual identity, why would a gay person come out at all? "Most frequently coming out involves choices about how to handle moments of ordinary, daily conversation" (Magee and Miller, 1995). Furthermore, coming out offers gay people the possibility of integrating a wider range of previously split-off affects, not just their sexual feelings (Drescher et al., 2003). Greater ease in expressing themselves, both to themselves and to others, can lead to an enormous enrichment of their work and relationships. To many, such activities constitute a reasonable definition of mental health.
Adams HE, Wright LW Jr, Lohr BA (1996), Is homophobia associated with homosexual arousal? J Abnorm Psychol 105(3):440-445.
Chauncey G (1994), Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books.
Drescher J (1998), Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man. Hillsdale, N.J.: Analytic Press.
Drescher J, D'Ercole A, Schoenberg E, eds. (2003), Psychotherapy with Gay Men and Lesbians: Contemporary Dynamic Approaches. New York: Harrington Park Press.
Drescher J, Stein TS, Byne W (2004), Homosexuality, gay and lesbian identities, and homosexual behavior. In: Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 8th ed., Sadock BJ, Sadock VA, eds. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Freud A (1966), The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International Universities Press.
Herdt GH, Boxer A (1993), Children of Horizons: How Gay and Lesbian Teens are Leading a New Way Out of the Closet. Boston: Beacon Press.
Herek GM (1984), Beyond "homophobia": a social psychological perspective on the attitudes toward lesbians and gay men. J Homosex 10(1-2):1-21.
Herek GM, Berrill KT (1992), Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.
Magee M, Miller D (1995), Psychoanalysis and women's experience of "coming out": the necessity of being a bee-charmer. In: Disorienting Sexuality: Psychoanalytic Reappraisals of Sexual Identities, Domenici T, Lesser RC, eds. New York: Routledge, pp97-114.
Roughton RE (2002), Being gay and becoming a psychoanalyst: across three generations. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy 6(1):31-43.
Sedgwick EK (1990), Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, p3.
Shidlo A, Schroeder M, Drescher J, eds. (2001), Sexual Conversion Therapy: Ethical, Clinical, and Research Perspectives. New York: Haworth Medical Press.
Sullivan HS (1956), Clinical Studies in Psychiatry, 1st ed. New York: Norton.
Weinberg GH (1972), Society and the Healthy Homosexual. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Winnicott DW (1965), Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In: The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment; Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press, pp140-152.
Winnicott DW (1986), Holding and Interpretation: Fragment of an Analysis. London: Hogarth Press.