LGBT Suicide and The Trauma of Growing Up Gay


As a mental health counselor for the past twenty years, I have listened to many painful stories from some of my lesbian and gay patients regarding their upbringing in a homophobic and heterosexist world. Many of my gay and lesbian patients, including a number of bisexual and transgender individuals, have shared with me that as young as age five, they felt different.

They were unable to articulate why they felt different, and, at the same time, they were too afraid to talk about it. Many reported that they knew this feeling of being different was related to something forbidden. "It felt like keeping a tormenting secret that I could not even understand," described one of my gay patients. Others shared with me that this feeling of difference revealed itself in the form of gender nonconformity, which could not be kept secret.

Therefore, it made them more vulnerable to homophobic and transphobic mistreatment at school and often at home. They had to cope with a daily assault of shame and humiliation without any support.

The experience of carrying a sense of differentness, because it related to some of the most taboo and despised images in our culture, can leave traumatic scars on one's psyche. Most school-age children organize their school experience around the notion of not coming across as queer. Any school-age child's worst nightmare is being called faggot or dyke, which is commonly experienced by many children who do not flow with the mainstream.

One gay high school student disclosed to me that, on average, he hears more than twenty homophobic remarks a day. Schools can feel like a scary place for LGBT children, or any child who gets scapegoated as queer. For the most part, LGBT kids do not get any protection from school officials. This is a form of child abuse on a collective level. Mistreatment of LGBT youth and a lack of protection are contributing factors to the issue of LGBT teen suicide.

The feeling of differentness as it relates tobeing gay or lesbian is too complex for any child to process and makesense of, especially when coupled with external attacks in the form ofhomophobic, derogatory name calling. Unlike a black child whose parentsare typically also black, or a Jewish child with Jewish parents andrelatives, the LGBT youth typically does not have gay or lesbian parentsor anyone who could mirror his or her experience. In fact, manyfamilies tend to blame the mistreated LGBT youngster for not being likeeveryone else, making the child feel like he or she deserves thismistreatment.

When parents are either unable or unwilling to "feeland see" the world through the eyes of their child and do not provide areflection that makes the child feel valued, that child can not developa strong sense of self. Faced with isolation, confusion, humiliation,physical violence, not being valued in the eyes of their parents, andcarrying a secret that the youngster connects with something terribleand unthinkable is too stressful for any child to endure - especiallywhen there is no empathic other to help him or her to sort it out. Theyoungster suffers in silence and might use dissociation to cope. In aworst-case scenario, he or she could commit suicide.

Many LGBTyouth who found the courage to open up about their identity issues haveexperienced rejection from their families and peers. Some families treatsuch disclosures as bringing shame on the family. They may throw theirkid out of the house, which forces the youngster to join the growingpopulation of homeless kids on the street.

The stress of trying tocome to terms with a complex matter such as same sex attraction, one'sfamily's rejection as a result of finding out about same sex attraction,and becoming victimized through verbal and physical abuse by peers dueto being different are contributing factors to the trauma of growing upgay or lesbian. Such traumatic experiences can explain why lesbian, gay,bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth are up to four times morelikely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Suicideattempts by LGBT youth are their desperate attempts to escape thetraumatic process of growing up queer.

Those of us who survivedthe trauma of growing up queer without adequate support and managed toreach adulthood can benefit by becoming conscious of our internalizedhomophobia. When a gay or lesbian youngster experiences humiliationevery school day for being different and has no one to protect them,that child can develop internalized homophobia. Internalized homophobiais internalization of shame and hatred that gay and lesbian people wereforced to experience. The seed of internalized homophobia is planted atan early age. Having one's psyche contaminated by the shadow ofinternalized homophobia can result in low self-esteem and other problemslater in life. Bisexual and transgender youngsters can also internalizethe hatred they had to endure growing up, and may develop self-hatred.

Tonot deal with internalized homophobia is to ignore the wreckage of thepast. Psychological injuries that were inflicted on LGBT people asresult of growing up in a homophobic and heterosexist world need to beaddressed. Each time a LGBT youngster was insulted or attacked for beingdifferent, such attacks left scars on his or her soul. Such violentmistreatment caused many to develop feelings of inferiority.

Lifeafter the closet needs to include coming out of toxic shame, which meansbecoming aware of repressed or disassociated memories and feelingsaround homophobic mistreatment that was experienced growing up. All therejection and derogatory name-calling one suffered growing up queer canbe stored in the psyche in the form of implicit memory: a type of memorythat impacts one's life without one noticing it or consciously knowingits origin. Coming out of toxic shame involves recalling and sharingwhat it felt like growing up in a world that did not respect one'sidentity, fully feeling the injustice of it. Providing empathy andunconditional positive regard for the fact that one has endured manyyears of confusion, shame, fear, and homophobic mistreatment can givebirth to new feelings of pride and honor about one's LGBT identity. Thisis an alchemical process that involves transforming painful emotionsthrough love and empathy.

As a community, learning to knowourselves can add vitality to our struggle for freedom. The LGBTliberation movement should not only include fighting for our equalrights, but also working through the injuries that were inflicted on uswhile growing up queer in a heterosexist world. External changes such asmarriage equality or the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policyalone cannot heal us from homophobic mistreatment and rejection wereceived growing up gay or lesbian. We need to open a new psychologicalfrontier and take our struggle for freedom to a new level. The gay civilrights movement is like a bird that needs two wings to fly, not justone. So far, the political wing has been the main carrier of thismovement. By adding psychological healing work as the other wing, thebird of gay liberty can reach even greater heights.

About The Author

Dr. Payam Ghassemlou MFT, Ph.D., is licensed in the state of California as a Marriage and Family Therapist with over fifteen years experience. He has a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology along with being a registered addiction specialist.

As a psychotherapist, his areas of expertise include, but are not limited to, interpersonal neurobiology, insecure attachment, mindfulness, dream analysis, substance abuse, couple counseling, managing emotions, pain management, sexual compulsion, coming out, internalized homophobia, self-esteem, midlife crisis, shame, depression, anxiety, HIV/AIDS, dual diagnosis, grief/loss, trauma, immigrant families, work concerns, personal growth, and bi-cultural marriages.

Furthermore, Dr. Ghassemlou has advanced training in contemporary psychoanalysis, Jungian psychology, sandplay therapy, cognitive therapy, mindfulness, and Eastern psychology. He is skilled at goal-oriented, problem focused, and time-efficient therapy. He provides individual therapy and couple counseling. His office is conveniently located on the border of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.

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