Words | Rhys Smith
Shame is a funny thing, aye? You’re walking around having the time of your life, then bam! An unbearable weight drops upon you – it’s hard to breath, speak, all you know is that the pressure’s mounting. So little Atlas that you are, you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders and pretend it ain’t shit. I mean you do this every day so it must be easy right?
According to Thomas Scheff shame is an inherently invisible pressure, even going as far to describe it as “ubiquitous.” It’s omnipresent and invisible, which means that such a force is magnified for populations that already struggle to maintain their footing in the world, namely minorities such as the LGBT+ community. This has some massive impacts on physical and mental health, and the ability of the individuals to interact within society. Due to the massive scope of this nature, we’re just going to focus on the effect of shame in the LGBT+ community.
Now you might ask me why I should have any right to speak about shame? Or even shame in the LGBT+ community. What a great question. So here we go bucko, it’s story time.
I’ve had my fair share of shame. I’ve been ashamed of so many things: my sexuality, my father, myself, pretty much a bloody lot of shame alright.
I was ashamed that at 15-years-old, I kept a stash of money in my dresser in case father dearest needed to “borrow” some money. It was like a tithe, a bribe being paid so that I could pretend to be safe, pretend I wasn’t afraid. Maybe afraid of violence, that endless and omnipresent anger father seemed to exude, but that wasn’t his style. He preferred a colder, harsher abuse – a sort of wintery negligence.
When I was older it shifted into myself. The first sixteen years of my life I was a bloody golden child (I even had blonde hair to match the charade). I was sweet, kind and charming – a pretty little picturesque statue cut from marble. I couldn’t be queer right? I mean how could I be? It was a blemish, a stain I couldn’t wash off my hands. I didn’t understand who I was or how capricious life is.
This was something that I couldn’t strangle out of existence and my queerness was breaking the charade I’d used to avoid my home life. I was scared and I hated myself for it.
Alright enough about me (sorry my narcissism was kicking in).
To point out the obvious, there’s already a constant pressure on the LBGT+ community. Homophobia, which is a terrible way of hiding discrimination behind the concept of an “uncontrollable fear,” is a constant presence in most of the LGBT+ communities’ life, be it expressed in overt or subtle ways. Academic writer, Elizabeth McDermott found that homophobia lead to distress (yea I coulda guessed that) which, in her words, eventuated into “suicide attempts, self-harm practices, risky sexual practices and excessive drinking and drug-taking.” Whilst McDermott points out that this isn’t the case for everyone, it seems to correlate with rising individualistic shame-avoidance strategies within LGTB+ youth. Whilst all this is pretty much what we’d expect to find, it goes even deeper to an inability to reach out for help at a community, institutional and national level. Considering the history between the LGBT+ community and pretty much every institute or support centre, the expectation of receiving no help is sadly warranted. Even though things are getting better, it still isn’t quite there.
Now to the main performance, shame.
Merely the concept of homophobia leading to LGBT+ youths to partake in shame-avoidance strategies points out this concept of underlying shame. Just as Mr. Ubiquitous and Invisible Shame (AKA Scheff) argued, the concept of shame and recursion leads to silence – such as not seeking out assistance or support – and that this concept should be further studied and applied to social problems. Shame is magnified for LGBT+ individuals, they’re already contending with external and internalised homophobia and other forms of social isolation. Compound them all together and you get a nasty concoction of vulnerability and self-destructiveness.
Assistant Professor in Health Studies at the American University, Ethan Mereish, writes his view that, “shame silences, disempowers, and isolates marginalized people,” it makes sense that this would directly and disproportionately affect minority groups. Homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexuality, gender, etc is an attempt to shame the individual. In my experience of being the only ‘out’ person at school, which I can say was definitely not my choice (a story for another time), it is isolating. I have been told to my face, by my friend I might add, that I was “only here to tick boxes.” Cute right. I was the ‘gay’ kid at school and that made me inherently different, I wasn’t part of the majority – it was a “hey, look your sexuality is the only thing that defines you” situation. To the point where when we went on group trips and found out that we’d have to share beds, it seemed necessary to make the joke “at least none of us are gay” (now that I think about it maybe the moral of the story is to chose better friends than me). Look, I can joke about it and make fun of my life all I like, but it was extremely lonely and I felt like I couldn’t do or say anything.
The point is this, LGBT+ people do experience shame just like anybody else, but it’s magnified by all the other pressures this world seems to lay on them. It’s compounded with external and internalised homophobia, the subtle discrimination, the isolation and marginalising that for some reason seems to be the staple of LGBT+ youths’ experiences. At the end of the day shame is a terrible feeling for anyone, but for the LGBT+ community it can be seen as a factor leading to disproportionate levels of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other issues. Shame is something we must consider if we are to move forward and deal with these issues in broader society.
No one should ever have to question their worth, no one should ever feel ashamed for who they are.
I should also remind you that this piece is entirely based on my subjective lens and my interpretation of the evidence.