Saturday, January 24, 2009

Homosexuality and shame: how shame turns us against ourselves

Some basic research that I did at university has led me to believe that one of the most important things in defining gay people on both an individual and social level is the emotion of shame.

Shame is what so many of us carry as a silent burden when we are closeted. Heck, it's the very reason for the existence of the closet. It's a common refrain from our opponents when we appear in public in, say, Pride marches: "Shame on you!" "You should be ashamed of yourself!". The very existence of gay Pride was once described to me as "a natural reaction to undeserved shame".

Shame is intimately bound up with social activity. A social theorist named Barbalet(1998, p104) whose writings I encountered in my studies described the social mechanism of shame as the "supposition of another's regard for self, of taking the view of another". It is a means of social control, more subtle and more effective than brute force or even peer pressure: make a person feel that others will judge them negatively for the "shameful" thing and also make them believe that this judgement is correct. The person, through their own feeling of shame, punishes themself more effectively than through any further external means that could be applied.

The struggle against undeserved shame is the struggle to believe that the judgements of others is wrong. Even after you may have spent a very long time believing that they were right.

Our society has long treated homosexuality as a shameful thing on the basis that homosexuality was seen as something that could be prevented or altered: making it shameful would therefore prevent people from engaging in it and encourage those who had engaged in it to stop. The emotional coercion of shame was preferred over attempts at rational persuasion perhaps because of the view of homosexuality as "depravity", "mental illness", and many other labels, all signifying the belief that a homosexual must have taken leave of their senses and could not be reasoned with.

It is my suspicion that true liberation from the corrosive personal and social effects of this shame has not yet been achieved among the GLBT community.

I suspect that one of the understandable but unfortunate results of individuals' efforts to throw off this shame is overcompensation and oversensitivity. Having struggled so hard and for so long, often from the very start of adolescence, against external attempts to, through the pressure to feel shame, over-ride feelings and emotions as fundamental to our being as those concerning sexual orientation, it makes sense to me that many such individuals would be very sensitive to even so much as the possibility of other people attempting to pressure them emotionally. Oversensitive, even. To the point that a gay person will absolutely not let other people's opinions and desires affect their behaviour in any way. Do gay people tend to be more selfish and egotistical than straight people? On average, perhaps, yes. If so, our battle against the shame we have been taught to feel is the reason why.

In some cases this overcompensating defense against the imposition of shame may cause a gay person to start attacking first in self-defense, so to speak. The sense of threat, so pressing for so long, leads to a sort of bunker mentality. Every social engagement with another is seen as a potential danger. The sense of threat from others is exaggerated, and the person counterattacks even before they know for sure whether or not an attack is coming. And the usual form of attack? The one they are most familiar with: an attempt to shame a person. Hence the reputation of gay people as "bitchy".

Occasionally a gay person notes that gay people are quite good at oppressing ourselves without any outside help, which I think isn't quite true: we do oppress ourselves, but we do it as a result of our struggles with the shame which we have been taught to feel about ourselves.

There is hope. The younger generation are growing up in a society where the social pressures of shaming have been weakened, or even in some cases have vanished completely. It's somewhat gratifying to occasionally read one of the younger generation say that they don't understand the point of gay pride. And for them, having never been taught to be ashamed of being gay, there is nothing to be gained from a conscious display of pride. It's for those who have still been taught that homosexuality is a shameful thing. It's a way of dealing with that shame. I don't know if it's the best way to deal with it - my Buddhist tendencies lead me to see the opposite of shame as not pride but as, well, the absence of shame - but it's one way of dealing with it.

I believe that our failure to deal with our shame effectively makes us often far too quick to take offense, even (or perhaps especially) to take offense at each other, and far too quick to give it, even (or perhaps especially) to each other. That is corrosive to us, and it is corrosive to our community. While there have been many positive steps to prevent the future generations from experiencing that shame, I think we need to become more aware of how our battle with our existing feelings of shame impacts us and the people around us, so that we can better ameliorate its effects.

Barbalet, J.M., 1998. Emotion, social theory, and social structure: a macrosociological approach, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge NY,


RR said...

my name is Raffaele Rodogno, and I found your post extremely interesting. I am an academic based at the University of Oxford. I am co-authoring a monograph on shame ( that includes chapters on shame, gender, and the public domain. I am having troubles finding relevant literature on shame and homosexuality and was hoping you would be able to help.

Z said...

I'm an undergraduate humanities student and have looked for research in this area as part of my own studies, but have not found anything specifically pertaining to the relationship between shame and homosexuality in peer reviewed research. I did find some things on how shame in general can act as a mechanism of social control in J M Barbalet's "Emotion, social theory and social structure, a macrosociological approach" (around pp 105-114 if my coursework is correctly referenced), which in part is what prompted this blogpost in the first place, but other than that I don't think I can help you, sorry.

RR said...

I'd be happy to let you have a paper on shame and gender I am in the process of writing, if the issue is of any interest. You should find at least some of the footnoted literature of interest. Though shame and women is the main topic of the paper, many of the claims discussed might apply to members of other disesteemed minorities. I would be happy to receive comments from someone who has greater first-hand acquaintance with this topic than I do.

people_trees said...

Try this great paper,

I too read your blog and I actually disagree with your point that ' Do gay people tend to be more selfish and egotistical than straight people? On average, perhaps, yes. ' This could indeed be your own internalised homophobia, in working clinically with LGBT clients and those who identify as straight, I see no evidence for this. I know it's a blog and not a paper but posting opinions like that without any evidence - well it's the stuff that people who want reasons to 'cure' homosexuality cling on to. Have you read about NARTH ?