Genre: LGBT Studies or Nonfiction.
It has been 50 years since a group of transgender, queer, gay, and lesbian individuals fought for their rights at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, physically, socially, and emotionally marking the onset of the gay rights movement. Since that time, much in US society has changed. In 1973, over 70% of Americans thought homosexuality was “always wrong,” a figure that decreased to less than 50% in 2012.1 By 2017, two years after the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which created a national legal basis for marriage equality, 62% of Americans supported marriage in same-sex couples—74% among Millennials and 65% among Generation Xers.2 Somewhat surprisingly, similar patterns have emerged among evangelical Christians.3 Today, it appears that the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community’s place in American society is, at a minimum, beginning to be solidified.
Despite these promising trends in societal attitudes, many continue to spew hate at the LGBTQ community, including some political and religious figures, and there is a substantial portion of Americans who still demean, ridicule, victimize, attack, and even kill LGBTQ people. These macroaggressions, found throughout the United States, have been precipitated by responses to recent legal advances that have sought to protect LGBTQ rights, enhancing gay men’s and women’s well-being, health, and safety. In turn, state and local legislatures in conservative locales have enacted efforts to undermine these rights, including marriage equality, under the guise of religious freedom.
For example, Senator Roy Moore, a supposed faithful Christian who has been accused of sexually abusing young girls, has openly debased the lives of gay men and worked toward denying their rights.4 Meanwhile, 2017 was the first year that NYC Pride was televised—though it’s been a mainstay celebration and march in the city since 1970—but also the first time in many years that the White House failed to fully recognize Pride Month.
Twenty-seventeen was also the year of Pidgeon v. Turner, a case that the Supreme Court refused to hear, maintaining the lower Texas State Supreme Court’s decision to deny spousal benefits to same-sex spouses of Texas state government employees, a decision that bigots heralded as “a Christmas gift.”5 This banner year further evoked the hate and ignorance of Ronald Reagan, when US president Donald Trump issued a World AIDS Day proclamation without a single utterance of the word “gay,” nor any mention of the chaos this disease has created for the LGBTQ community.6 Gay men also continue to be bombarded with venom like that of Mike Pence and other social conservatives whose targeted discrimination undermines LGBTQ rights and health.7 During the 2017 Los Angeles Resist March, which replaced the Los Angeles Pride March in response to the endless barrage of hate by the presidential administration, conservative pundit Tomi Lahren referred to the event as a “crybaby fest of bullshit.”8
These condemnations and slights are bad enough, but worse yet are the physical attacks perpetrated against LGBTQ individuals. The National Coalition of Antiviolence Programs9 reported that the number of attacks on LGBTQ people rose from 1 every 13 days in 2016 to 1 every 6 days in 2017. Of the 33 hate crimes that had been committed in the first half of 2017, 12 were against cisgender gay men (gay men assigned the male gender at birth and who identify as male). And of course the horrific attack at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando is still fresh in the public’s mind, heightening the fear for individual and collective safety for LGBTQ people throughout the nation.10
On the other end, microaggressions occur daily, whether at home or in places of work, coming from friends, family, and colleagues. These attacks are often subtle and veiled, but an attack is an attack—though they may be less obvious, they are just as insidious. I often think of a university professor colleague who insisted that being gay was a choice, not an identity—this person leads that school’s diversity committee. Other microaggressions are sometimes less intentional, even stemming from a misguided attempt to support the LGBTQ community.
In this vein, traditional gay neighborhoods, or “gayborhoods,” are being overrun by young heterosexual people who, in their zealousness to demonstrate acceptance, are not only “straightening” these environments11 but also co-opting LGBTQ identities. This idea reached a crescendo when actor Andrew Garfield, during his run in the play Angels in America, stated, “I am a gay man right now just without the physical act—that’s all”12—a statement both foolish and rude, despite his remarkable performance. I’m also reminded of a 2017 Pride event that I moderated at the LGBTQ Center of Hudson Valley, New York, where one young queer woman described the eagerness of her heterosexual friends, who identify as cisgender straight females, to attend Pride events to be “gay for the day.” Though such actions might seem supportive to some, they are in fact hurtful and disrespectful, tone deaf to the issues and criticisms LGBTQ people must contend with every day.
In light of these circumstances, life as a gay man in the United States continues to be complex and multidimensional, shaped by a person’s emotions, family, culture, religion, and society, structures that create the psychosocial burdens so many gay men experience. Notwithstanding the social and political advances that have created a better place for gay men in the United States, generation after generation must navigate and overcome hurdles while establishing their identities in a heterosexist world: for the Stonewall Generation it was the right to live their lives openly and freely; for the AIDS Generation it was the struggle to survive this deadly virus; and for the Queer Generation the battle rages on to make their place in a world filled with failure—such as the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and growing income inequality—and to resist the monolithic, gender-rigid, racist perceptions that often permeate gay culture. Though these challenges are wide and varied, there is one that remains a constant for all generations of gay men, central to the battle for their existence: coming out.
In a 2017 article in the “Queer Voices” section of the Huffington Post,13 James Michael Nichols depicts the powerful photographic exhibition on coming out by Alejandro Ibarra, demonstrating the universality of the coming out process as a rite of passage for gay men. What is often overlooked is that this rite of passage is a lifelong, continuous one. Gay men come out their entire lives and must fight for their place in the world in an effort to maintain and build their individual and collective dignity. For someone who is not part of the gay community, this condition of continually coming out may seem anathema and debilitating—and in fact it is. Yet coming out as gay men is what binds the community together, an emotional psychological process that defines so much of our lives and our struggles.
In the fall and winter of 2016–2017, 15 men shared their life stories with my research assistant, Adrian Zongrone, and me. We interviewed a nearly equal number of men from each of the three generations mentioned—the Stonewall Generation (men who came out in the late 1950s–1970s), the AIDS Generation (men who came out in the 1980s and 1990s), and the Queer Generation (men who came out in the 2000s and 2010s)—which in many ways mirror the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennial generations in terms of location in time, place, and cultural context. Though the interviewees’ backgrounds and life experiences are diverse, they had all come out, however they defined “coming out,” during adolescence or young adulthood. By situating the coming out experience during this period of life, the sociopolitical contexts of a given time period are similar across the men within each generation.
There are also commonalities that tie coming out experiences together across generations, whether you are a 78-year-old black man who grew up in Baltimore in the 1950s or a Chinese Mexican 19-year-old university student today, or anyone in between. While 59 years separates the generation of these two men, the battles they face continue, and both continue to resist the wars that are waged against them. Of course, differences exist as well, due to individual circumstances and personal experiences.
In telling their stories, each one of these men reveals who he is through personal narratives, which are key elements to the self-development of gay men, particularly gay teens. Autobiographical recollections provide an understanding of life experiences extending beyond the everyday mundane to reveal social and emotional paths. But their stories are not simply about the formation of one identity—a gay identity—although this was often the most prominent element of many of their narratives.
Instead, these narratives also show the multiple identities that these men have been developing throughout the course of their lives—as gay men, as lovers, as brothers, as sons, as professionals, in addition to their identities across culture, race, ethnicity, and location of birth, religion, and gender. The story of one’s gay identity is not separate from the myriad other identities a person holds. These identities include that of the otherness created by a heteronormative society; the masculine or male identity imposed by the same society as well as the gay community; one’s identity along the lines of race, ethnicity, and culture; the identity of drug use and partying; and one’s identity as a sexual being who has sex with other men—this latter identity defining a great part of who we are.
Self-Realization and Affirmation—Pride
Disclosure of sexual orientation is an integral psychological component of getting to know oneself as gay. In sociologist Richard Troiden’s model of sexual identity development,14,15 the telling of others, known as commitment, is a critical element of this self-acceptance.16 The idea is akin to psychologist Eli Coleman’s conception of coming out17 through an acknowledgment of same-sex feelings. The acts of self-acceptance and disclosure are also an essential step in gay identity development, as noted in Vivienne Cass’s paradigm.18,19
Coming out as a psychological process—one where gay men have the need to announce, pronounce, and scream out their sexuality—is one that most people who are not gay do not quite understand. It’s important to keep in mind that, unlike straight people, many gay men and women hold onto their feelings, hiding their identities, for years, as they are not bestowed the benefits of a society that just assumes all people have the same sexual orientation. Coming out also serves to remind others that members of the LGBTQ community are continuously trying to make sense of who they are and how they can work toward developing their own sense of pride and dignity as a community. This is to say coming out is an internalized complex process that only the person who is experiencing it understands; it is about the people coming out and not about those whom they need to tell. Said simply, coming out is necessary to realizing who we are—a phenomenon as crucial today as it was in the past. The act is a means of affirmation, a means of gay identity development, and an ultimate means to learn to develop pride in our own identities.
Through the stories in this book it is possible to more fully appreciate this notion of “pride” as central to the coming out experience. The meaning of the word has gained increased salience in my own life as I experienced the glee, honor, and respect with which these men shared their stories, even when there were events surrounding their identities that created troubling and sad circumstances. Not surprisingly, initial negative reactions to coming out may have a negative impact on well-being,20,21 but they do not have to have a lifelong negative effect. The ability to embrace pride in oneself helps ameliorate the potential negative consequences that confront so many gay men in their coming out and everyday life experiences.
Throughout these stories, the sentence “I am gay” can be seen as a proxy for the sentence “I am proud of who I am.” Perhaps this is the point of retelling coming out stories: to reaffirm one’s identity and place in the world. For many of the interviewees, these conversations gave them an opportunity to further own their identity as a symbol of pride but also to affirm their deep-rooted belief that this identity was central and inseparable from who they are:
It’s sort of like you’re taking hold of your identity and that tattoo. I’m owning this identity. I’m a gay man. I’ve got a pink triangle on me—I’m gay. It means I can’t take it off.
Wilson, the oldest of the men with whom I spoke, saw this pride in his gay identity as a powerful source of insight that may have not been bestowed on his life had he not been gay:
And so, I’m grateful for that, you know—because I am able to, I feel, see a lot of things that would come—comes to me because of this perspective that I have, because of the sexual orientation that I have.
This sense of pride resonates throughout all of the stories in this book and underscores the narratives shared.
Concealing one’s gay identity—and in effect squelching one’s pride—is closely linked to aspects of diminished health. There is therefore a connection between coming out and the health of gay men. For example, evidence shows that a heightened HIV risk exists for men who have sex with other men but who do not identify as gay, or at least have not come to terms with their identities, a situation that may be mediated by the psychological distress associated with hiding one’s sexual identity.22 More recently, Ellen Riggle and her colleagues23 have noted that higher levels of identity concealment are also associated with higher levels of depressive symptoms. Psychological well-being has consistently been associated with gay identity development and coming out,24 and it has been suggested by Cass that pride in one’s gay identity is a crucial element of a healthy self-conception.
Findings reported from the National AIDS Psychosocial Study25 indicate that gay men who concealed their identities had a 3.2 times greater chance of developing cancer over a 5-year period than those who do not conceal their identities and approximately three times greater odds of developing other infectious diseases such as bronchitis, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. Despite some counterintuitive findings, it has also been noted that self-concealment is associated with substance use dependence among sexual minority men.26 Such findings are consistent with literature that has shown an increase in physical health problems when psychosocial characteristics, such as gay identity, are concealed and in the psychological stress created by homophobia and discrimination within society.27,28
Coming out—self-actualizing, and integrating one’s identity as a gay man—is likely to have beneficial impacts on the health of individuals and overall populations. Recently, the enactment of marriage equality has been linked to an increase in psychological health in the LGBTQ population.29,30 In this light, legislation that protects the rights of sexual minorities and advances marriage equality may ultimately improve the health of gay men. Creating a society where gay men are safe and free to express their identities and their love will prove to be the greatest tool available in fighting the burdens of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, substance use, and mental health states such as depression that undermine and diminish gay men’s health. In other words, as a society, we must create circumstances that will ease the coming out of gay men; coming out will enhance pride, and this pride will improve one’s health.
Dignity, Equality, and Resilience
For gay men[R1] , the sociopolitical contexts of our world have changed, perhaps more so in the United States and western European countries than elsewhere. In countries such as Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Indonesia gay people continue to be arrested, as they were in pre-1969 United States;31 in Chechnya gay men are placed in camps and killed;32 and in Abu Dhabi HIV-positive gay men cannot enter the country, and when they seroconvert are deported. Still, this era in the United States remains charged with prejudice and hate toward the LGBTQ population. The challenge of coming out remains a very real one for many gay men, especially young ones whose socioeconomic and sociocultural backgrounds do not afford them the role models, support, or tools that would help them to further develop their gay identities, a reality that may be experienced more intensely for young gay men of color.
By[R2] facing these realities, however, all of us—gay and straight alike—can come to a better understanding of the issues our LGBTQ brothers and sisters continue to combat and how we are all implicit in the societal conceptions, constructs, and experiences of being gay in the twenty-first century. The stories I share in the coming pages are not rooted in the deficit models so many public health scholars espouse. Instead, they are rooted in a model of resilience. Like so many gay men who have come before us, and those who will thrive in the future, the men depicted in this book confront everyday challenges with determination. They willingly undertake the lifelong, and often exhausting, process of coming out, developing a sense of pride and living their lives with dignity. Consider the words uttered by 66-year-old Tom:
I take great pride in being a gay man. I don’t think that I would have had the success I’ve had, in life without being a gay man, and, the reason I say that is that if I had stayed where I was [rural Pennsylvania], I probably would be, if I were alive, I’d be fat, out of shape, with a wife I hated, and three kids, and I would be teaching high school chemistry in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Not a great future, not a great, not a great life. I also don’t think my life would ever have been examined.
It is this self-awareness that all of the men with whom I spoke described many aspects of their lives—gay men living a life proudly and with human dignity are shown time and again throughout the pages of this book. And this life of equality, pride, and dignity is the life that we as gay men want to lead, deserve to lead, and must lead.
Without this sense of pride, we wouldn’t have made such strides as individuals or as a community, nor would we be able to continue to do so in the generations to come. These individual narratives—detailing how gay men of the past and of today have had the strength to come into their own by coming out and the courage to lead their lives openly as gay men—help to define and illuminate the dynamics and conditions associated with coming out and being gay. As a population of gay men, we have much of which to be proud, and this is in no small part due to our fortitude, our grit, and our determination. These are the stories we should be telling, the stories of how, despite the odds, so many of us have made our place as contributing intelligent members of society, a trajectory attributable to our resilience and continuous fight to simply be who we are.
These are the stories shared in this book; these are our stories.
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31. Cumming-Bruce N. U.N. officials condemn arrests of gays in Azerbaijan, Egypt and Indonesia. New York Times 2017.
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Book published June 2019