I just finished reading a wonderful memoir by Alan Cumming, Not My Father’s Son. In an important part of his story, Cumming’s writes about the first time he masturbated in a clearing in the woods, “I am at peace. I am twelve years old, my jeans are around my ankles, and I’ve just made a big discovery.” He then sees a man at the edge of the forest watching him. He continues, “My heart is suddenly racing and my cheeks are flushed once more. I can feel something rising up inside me. I am instinctively resisting but it is fighting very hard for control of me. It is shame.” He concludes in a way that I love, “I lie there for a while in the dusk, then make a decision, little knowing how it will affect every facet of my life and fiber of my being for the rest of my life: I say no to shame.”
Cumming’s book is an important and powerful testament. Those early experiences of self-discovery are where so many of us gave in to the feelings of shame about who we are. When I first discovered my attraction to men, the first time I masturbated at 14, I felt I had discovered something wonderful and new. But I quickly began to understand how the world felt about homosexuality, reading the few books available to me in 1971. I soon felt deeply ashamed about what books described as an ugly and sick part of me.
I learned early on that my attraction to men would not be welcomed by my family or the broader community. I needed to hide my attraction to men because it was seen a deviant and sick. I love the fact that Cumming’s was able to “say no to shame” at such a young age. When I was 14 I was made to feel like my attraction to men was a sickness that would lead me to a life of sexual deviancy and tawdry sex with men in public bathrooms and parks. It had me try to pack away my sexuality, never to be disclosed.
Yet I did venture out with men beginning when I was fourteen. And that venturing out began an emotional dissonance that went on for years: driven to be with men while deeply ashamed and homophobic about my attraction to men. That basic internal fight continued until I was in my mid 50’s, unresolved.
One of the large differences with men of my generation is between those who came out and those that went into the closet. The men who came out young often rejected shame early. The men who went underground about their sexuality gave into shame and homophobia. Even today shame continues. When I see a man on an app like Grindr or Scruff with a headless torso picture and the word, ‘discrete’, in their profile, I think it is a sad testament to how gay men are made to feel ashamed. The word, discrete, implies a man who is deeply homophobic and ashamed of who they are. Any tryst with them would be quick, one and done. Not something that might lead to something deeper and out in the world.
One of my friends, who has been with his partner for about 20 years, shared with me that he and his partner never go out much and do not have any gay friends. When I asked why he shared that his partner was not out. What? Not out, but with a man for 20 years? The shame men feel around their sexuality does not go away when they enter relationships or fall in love with another man.
As I have come out in increasingly public ways over the last few years, the coming out process has chipped away at the shame and internalized homophobia that I had. Not to say that all shame is gone. But it is much clearer to me today when I do feel ashamed. I feel much better able today to fight my own homophobia and shame as it comes up.
I love reading autobiographies of gay men as it highlights all the various paths we go down and the internal challenges we need to face. Cumming’s book has very little to do with his homosexuality, but so much to do with his fighting old demons and feeling he can live honestly and openly in the world. It is a great read and a testament about fighting one’s shame.