Sunday, January 18, 2009

How Can I Have Stayed In The Closet So Long?

Some Reasons Why We Stayed In:
In the United States, many of us are brought up to believe that Homosexuality is a sin, it's wrong, it's a perversion and so on. We have been taught this by our churches, our family and friends, the media, and especially the legal system. Until 1970, every state in the U.S. except for Illinois criminalized homosexual sex between consenting adults in a private home.

An adult convicted of the crime of having sex with another consenting adult in the privacy of his or her home could get anywhere from a light fine to five, ten, or twenty years—or even life—in prison. In 1971 twenty states had 'sex psychopath' laws that permitted the detaining of homosexuals for that reason alone. In Pennsylvania and California sex offenders could be locked in a mental institution for life, (Lorrie grew up in PA and I in CA) and in seven states they could be castrated.

Castration, emetics, hypnosis, electroshock therapy and lobotomies were used by psychiatrists to attempt to "cure" homosexuals of their desires throughout the 1950s and 1960s. While we may not have been fully aware of these laws as children, the homophobic feelings they fostered would have been very noticeable to us.

Things didn't begin to change until 1969 an event happened that we now just call "Stonewall." The Stonewall riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. They are frequently cited as the first instance in American history when gays and lesbians fought back against a government-sponsored system that persecuted homosexuals, and they have become the defining event that marked the start of the modern gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.

Slowly, individual states began to repeal these laws, by 1989 "only" 26 states had "anti-sodomy" laws. It wasn't until 2003 that the US Supreme Court found the remaining laws unconstitutional. Incredibly, 15 states still had these laws on their books. 2003......yes, just 6 years ago.

Until we come into contact with accurate information and meet other lesbians and gays to challenge these negative beliefs, we believe the bad things we have been told. This is called "Internalized Homophobia." It usually means that we basically hate ourselves. The self hate manifests itself in that we have low self-esteem and try to hide or suppress our sexuality. Some of us are outwardly homophobic. We may not even be aware that this is going on within us, and it may manifest itself in different ways. I know in my case I continued to stay in an unhealthy, mentally unhealthy marriage.

As lesbians we are doubly oppressed: by a system which hates homosexuality and one which only accepts women in certain roles, i.e. as wives, mothers, slim, beautiful, etc. The combined effects of homophobia and sexism mean that women are less likely than men to realize their homosexuality, to act on their feelings or to come out. Let's face it ladies, we think it's our fault we just don't enjoy sex like our friends. We think we are cold or frigid or maybe we "just don't like sex."

Some of us become aware of our sexual orientation when we were young (some know they are 'different' as early as six years old, others during adolescence), but for what ever reason we cannot openly admit it or even act on it. Some research shows that lesbians who are 'feminine' might not realize their true sexual orientation until later. I mean, if we like traditional girl things, we can't be gay, right? However, with the greater portrayal of feminine lesbians in the media, (like the L Word, Gray's Anatomy, Private Practice) this phenomenon may decrease.

Because of conditioning, and because we are told that we can only be sexual in relation to men, some of us didn't become aware of our sexuality until later in life when we suddenly fall in love with another woman - many after having been married for years with little/no interest in heterosexual sex. Other lesbians, because of internalized homophobia, are aware of our true feelings for women but believe the myth that 'it's only a phase' and that we'll 'grow out of it' and hope that by getting married and having children we can suppress these feelings.

At some stage, most of us find that we cannot keep our true feelings under control any longer and have to act on them. Some of us continue stay in marriages and have lesbian relationships but never accept that we are lesbian ourselves. Some stay in marriages for the sake of the children and come out later in life whilst others never do come out. Sometimes we stay in heterosexual relationships for fear of losing our families and friends and for the privileges society gives to heterosexuals.

Others have found that being involved with feminism - where they can come into contact with positive fellow lesbians and a supportive environment (not all feminists are lesbians BTW) - helped them to realize their sexuality. Some lesbians who have come out through the woman's movement do not generally have the same levels of internalized homophobia to deal with because, before coming out, they had changed their beliefs about lesbianism, i.e. they no longer believe that lesbianism is a sickness or a sin but that it is simply who they are. Some who join these movements find them healing and reduce the levels of internalized homophobia and sexism that they did have.

We have learned through our own hard experiences that you can't 'choose' to be lesbian, unless, of course, you are bisexual. You can choose to come out though, and develop a positive lesbian identity.

Obstacles When Coming Out (but not insurmountable ones!)

Coming out is a process which begins when we first admit to ourselves that we are lesbian although at first we might just admit to being bisexual. (I don't want to get into the bisexual argument because this site is for lesbians who have come out later in life, but I know from personal experience that some of us first admit we are maybe bisexual before realizing that NO we really aren't, we were confused because we had been married or in heterosexual relationships.) Saying we are bisexual can also be less frightening that saying we are fully lesbian.

Those of us who learn to accept our feelings almost always want to find out more about our sexuality, meet other lesbians, find a partner, and come out to our families and friends. Later we may decide to come out at work and, finally, to tell the world, maybe by posting on a "coming out" website, or joining a discussion group. Each time you come out it takes some thinking through as to how to do it 'tactfully.

Some of us never come out to anyone or only to a few people and keep it secret from our families. Coming out is not just telling a friend, parent, daughter or son and then never mentioning it again; it is a long process of getting rid of the internalized homophobia and finally accepting ourselves as wonderfully made human beings.

This process, I think, is more difficult for women who come out later in life because we have developed (either knowingly or unknowingly) a lifestyle and identity that is technically heterosexual. Coming out for us then, is first letting go of our heterosexual identity and building up a new lesbian identity.

What do I mean by getting rid of a "heterosexual" identity? I mean, when we think of ourselves as having a "heterosexual" identity, we think in terms of "being normal" and all the things we take for granted. Having a heterosexual identity means we really don't think of our sexuality as being anything at all. When we are identifying as heterosexuals we naturally assume (we don't think about) that we are entitled to resources and opportunities that are not made available to us once we realize we are lesbians. No one gets fired for being heterosexual, is denied housing, needs to think about how we act in public because it may offend or incur anger in homophobes. Sadly in many cities and states these things are a real possibility once we come out.

When we first start to identify with being a lesbian, it is hard work emotionally - especially with the fear that you may lose all of your friends and family. This is often irrational, unless you only have family and friends who are openly homophobic or may belong to a homophobic church, but you may be surprised by those who are accepting; yes, you may lose some of your friends and even family.

Please remember however hard this is for you, that keeping in contact with people who are homophobic will only serve to undermine your self worth. With time they may come around, but subjecting yourself to their negative beliefs on a regular basis isn't good for anyone. There really are cases where parents NEVER accept their children as gay, and some fewer cases where children never accept their parents coming out either.

Usually our children, if at first are rejecting, come around because they see we are the same mother we always were, loving and caring and committed to their well being.

Finding other lesbians to just be friends with is another very important part of coming out. This has been for me, harder than I thought, and I have experienced feelings of failure and often thought that it is easier just having accepting straight friends. I mean that during the 'transfer' to a lesbian identity I have been lonely for friendship because I want lesbian friends and I don't know that many lesbians or how to really meet them and have not always "clicked" with the lesbians I have met. If you live in a small town this can be especially frustrating, honestly I am not going to want to be close friends with someone JUST BECAUSE they are a lesbian. Like you and everyone else I want friends who have similar interests as I do, aside from being lesbians.

I found it a struggle to be between the straight/lesbian identities, especially when you know you are lesbian and you want that identity! While I was 'straight' I had quite a few friends, both female and male, and was never short of company. I have lost some of these friends coming out. Sometimes but not always because of homophobia, but they no longer see us as having the same interests.

Don't give up though, it is important to have at least a few friends who are lesbian, it is good to be able to talk freely with them, hang out with them and not worry at all about what to say or think. I finally have two friends at work with whom I have lots in common, guess what? They are both bisexual! LOL, I am not bisexual at all but we do have interests in common and because of my past, I can relate to their married/heterosexual lives as well as being free with them about being lesbian. With time you will be surprised at the number of friends you will have.

Are you a person of color? Then you may have added fears of losing contact with your own community. This creates a huge dilemma; how to cope with the homophobia of your own community, while at the same time dealing with bigotry within the Lesbian/Gay community? Yes, shamefully, there are racist members of our own community. Guess what! For better or worse, we are made up of the same type of people that make up the whole human race. This means that even though we are a minority that has hate and bigotry directed at us, we have lesbians and gays who are themselves racist and bigoted. We have some lesbians that are bigoted against gays, some gays who have prejudices against lesbians, lesbians and gays who have prejudices against bisexuals and transgenders and persons of color and vice versa.

I have discovered however, that you will find very, very few transgender people who have prejudices of any kind against other people. The transgender folks that I have come into contact with recently have got to be the most loving and understanding people I have ever met. Oh they get angry at the way they are treated, abused and even murdered, but they don't seem to reflect that back to their fellow humans who are different. I think we have much to learn from them in the way humans should treat other humans.

The process can be even more difficult for those of us who have developed harmful ways of coping with the suppression of their true sexual orientation. I am talking about using drugs and alcohol to help cope. It is important to understand that this strategy will seriously hinder not only your developing positive lesbian identities, but your positive self image as humans. Understand that the more accepting you are of yourself, the more your own self esteem rises, and the reasons for continuing to use drugs and alcohol decrease. But we cannot always stop using them on our own, if you can honestly say you have a problem, I suggest you start by visiting the Pride Institute to get the help you need.

Negative Effects of Staying in the Closet

The extent to which you want to be out is entirely up to you. However, being partly out and not integrating your true self into the rest of your life has serious consequences: it means avoiding intimacy with those who you are not out to (especially those close to you); it often means taking the stress created by this back into your lesbian relationship, putting extra strains on that relationship.

U.S. research suggests that the more open you are about your sexual orientation, the more complete a person you will be and the more healthy - emotionally - you will become. Hiding something which is the very essence of who we are is extremely dangerous and can result in depression, alcohol/drug misuse, attempted suicide and other harmful behaviors.

Many who use alcohol or drugs as a way of 'coping' with their sexuality will more than likely continue to do so if they do not come out. "I knew I was when I was eleven but I suppressed it. I'd have three or four girlfriends and fall in love with one of them but would be unable to tell her. I'd be jealous as hell when she got off with a chap. I'd have one-night stands with blokes when I was drunk. Eventually, at 34, I stopped drinking and came out - I thought maybe it was being in the closet that was causing my drink problem. Since stopping drinking and coming out I haven't looked back." Joy, 36 year-old, white, working class, lesbian, from the UK.

Finding Support is Important!

It may be that if you have a negative response to coming out - especially from someone you care about - that you go back into the closet. You must be strong enough to deal with any possible rejections you may come across; there are several actions you can take to help:

Before you come out to anyone it is advisable to first meet other lesbians or even gay men just to talk with - Check with Empty Closets to see if there are any coming out groups, helplines or other support groups in your area. There may also be a group in the phone book you can contact. You will probably find this step very daunting because it means admitting to someone else for the first time that you are lesbian. This takes a lot of courage but remember, the volunteers on helplines and folks in groups will have been through a similar process and will be able to understand your fears.

If you find it too stressful to go to a group on your own, ask the helpline if someone could meet you somewhere neutral or if you could even e-mail or write to someone first.

Read materials to help you get rid of your internalized homophobia - to challenge all the negative beliefs. Amazon has quite a few. Download and read "The Blue Book" a manual written as a gift to the congregation of The Presbyterian Church, Mt. Kisco, New York, in recognition of the love and support that their church members have given to individuals and families whose lives have been touched by the issue of homosexuality.

It is best to come out initially to people who you know/think will be supportive; the more positive reactions you get the better you'll feel and be more able to develop your confidence in coming out.

When coming out to parents it is useful to make contact with a parents group and understand that it is likely your parents will be shocked and will also need support. More information about coming out to parents can be found at PFLAG, Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG will also be a great resource for you and your children. The books which discuss coming out will also have sections on coming out to your children.

When Divorce Is The Only Option

As a later in life lesbian who is coming out, it is likely that you will be married and have children. You are going to eventually have to come out to your husband. He WILL react negatively at first. Make no mistake there. He is going to have many feelings at first, shock, many times anger and will even feel it is his fault. He will feel that if only he was a better lover you would not be a lesbian. Now, we know that isn't true, but trust me, he will feel that way no matter how open and accepting he may be. Be prepared for that anger. Your spouse may be able to calm down, learn to accept it, and may agree to remain married to you and co-parent the children. There are Straight Spouse Networks to help him come to terms with your lesbianism. However, he may not be able to deal with it, or you may not wish to remain in the marriage, the option of continuing in the lie may be too much for you to bear and divorce becomes necessary.

Now, if you are in a physically abusive relationship, DO NOT TELL HIM you think/know you are a lesbian. Yup, you heard me. You first must seek help for the abuse, get yourself out of that situation, get a restraining order, but DO NOT TELL HIM. My ex was never physically abusive, but when I told him he was furious, he was hateful verbally and he even thought it was his fault. He bad mouthed me to the kids and I was ALREADY divorced from him before I told him. I cannot imagine his reaction if he had been an abuser. He has come to fully accept me for who I am and we get along better now than we have in years but that first year was hell.

If you must divorce because you are lesbian, it adds additional dimensions to the situation. If both parents are comfortable discussing issues related to sexual orientation - if both are able to answer their children's questions simply, without going beyond what the child is asking for - children usually will be more comfortable with the knowledge that one of their parents is gay. The important thing is that children are reassured that both parents will continue to love them, despite the situation they are living in.

Understand however, children of a gay or lesbian parent may be teased and deeply hurt by their schoolmates. Homosexual parents may also face discrimination from families, co-workers and the community which can be difficult to deal with. This can be especially true once new parenting arrangements are made. Children, particularly teenagers, may feel confused about their own sexuality and personal identity. They need an open atmosphere at home in which to ask questions and share their concerns or fears. If children or parents find the topic difficult to discuss, a knowledgeable counsellor may be able to help. Changes will be easiest for children if parents can work out the issues in their own relationship without involving the children. Self-help groups like PFLAG, may also be available in your community to provide support in dealing with issues of sexual orientation and parenting. Other groups specifically for children of gay or lesbian parents may also be available

Remember to be the healthy, complete human being that you were created to be, you'll need to do quite a bit of work emotionally in order to undo all the negative stuff you've internalised. The longer you've suppressed your true sexual orientation the more time it will take. If you're ready to take that step, good luck but remember it is ALWAYS worth it!!!!

A Checklist For Coming Out:

Change your internalized feelings about your lesbianism from a negative to a positive one by:

1. Reading books and watching films and videos that portray positive images of Lesbians.

2. Making contact with positive Lesbian/Gay role models. This has been the most important part of ending my own self loathing. I have also watched a lot of movies about famous and important lesbians. I have met some LGBT leaders in my home town. Check out's list of famous lesbians and see for yourself the variety of those who have positively contributed to society. Wikipedia also has quite a list!

3. Adopting a lesbian identity, i.e. naming yourself lesbian. It's OK if we often begin by saying we are bisexual, or just say we love women, do take baby steps if you have to.

4. Self-disclosuring (telling others about our lesbianism): This is necessary for intimate relationships (with partners, family and friends), confirmation of our lesbian identity and becoming our selves. Positive responses to coming out will help you move forward, negative responses can have the reverse effect. The opposite of self-disclosure is only an affirmation of internalized homophobia which implies that this aspect of yourself is too shameful to tell anyone.

5. Developing ways of handling direct and indirect disclosures. How would you evaluate the risks in who to tell: you need to increase the chances of positive responses and lessen the risks of negative ones.

6. Being patient with your parents and children. Remember how long it took you to accept your own sexuality? Well, your parents and children will need to go through a similar process before they can accept it.

7. Separating yourself from negative environments. For example, it is harmful (although sometimes necessary) to stay in a parental/marital home where there is conflict about your sexuality or to stay friends with homophobic people.

8. Finding a positive circle of Lesbian friends - join a pen-pal club, contact your nearest helpline to find out if there are any coming out or support groups.

Remember, internalized homophobia in either or both partners in a lesbian relationship will greatly interfere with that relationship. At the same time, the nature of the relationship and your interpretation of it can have a major impact on your development, either reducing or enhancing your internalized homophobia.

On a scale 0 - 100%, how would you rate the following?

1. Comfort with your own feelings of being a Lesbian?

2. Comfort with your relations with women?

3. Comfort with your own feelings about lesbian fantasies?

4. Comfort with, and respect and admiration for, other lesbians and gay men?

5. Ability to form meaningful relationship with another woman?

6. Ability to self-disclose in a positive way (i.e. not overly confrontational or apologetic)?

7. Use of a homosexual friendly reference group?

As a way of measuring how things are going, ask yourself how you would have answered the above questions a year ago. Or, putting it another way,

1. Do you still experience discomfort with your own feelings, relationships and fantasies?

2. Do you think a lot/say a lot of negative comments about lesbians/gays?

3. If in a relationship, do you respect your partner? Yourself? Your relationship? Do you take your relationship seriously?

4. How many people have you come out to? How did you do this? Were you confrontational or apologetic?

5. Do you still relate to your old network of friends/family, even if they are homophobic? Who do you turn to to talk about things concerning your lesbianism? Whose opinions do you respect? Have you developed a new circle of lesbian/gay friendly people?

I know from my own personal experience that coming out is difficult, hard and frightening. But everyone I have met who has come out later in life and early in life wouldn't go back to the old life of shame and denial. It is worth every step it takes!
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