Coming Out of Shame: Transforming Gay and Lesbian Lives

Gershen Kaufman

We'll be exploring what it's like for men growing up gay and women growing up lesbian in contemporary society. We'll examine how experiences of shame can become embedded in our emerging awareness as lesbians and gay men, and thereby shape our eventual lesbian or gay identity. It is virtually impossible to be different, particularly in this culture, and not feel deficient for the difference because any awareness of difference inevitably translates into a devaluing comparison. First we are devalued by others, and then we devalue ourselves. While the culture rewards certain differences like athletic achievement and heroism, it unequivocally punishes many others--signaling the danger of appearing too different. In such a climate, differences almost automatically translate into deficiencies. 
    Examining the lesbian/gay experience inevitably brings us face to face with shame because that experience has been inexorably infused with shame across cultures and centuries. In order to fully comprehend the nature of the contemporary lesbian/gay experience, we must confront the problem of shame while also furthering the task of enlarging lesbian/gay consciousness. 
    What do we mean by a lesbian consciousness or a gay awareness? What is a gay identity or a lesbian identity? How does a lesbian or gay identity develop? How is self-esteem influenced by the intimate knowledge of being gay or lesbian? How does our experience translate into intimacy and sexuality? These are the central questions we'll be examining as we consider gay life for both women and men. 
    If we are to effect substantive, lasting change in the personal lives of gay people, then we must begin with a searching inquiry into shame that expands our knowledge of this misunderstood human emotion. The key to building self-esteem is understanding shame and its profound hold on us, because shame is the source of low self-esteem. Shame is equally central to the development of identity for all people, gay and non-gay alike. No other emotion is more central to our emergent sense of identity. Further, if we are to become successful in the pursuit of intimacy, we must understand shame's disruptive interpersonal impact. Shame is the single greatest barrier to the realization of intimacy. Developing self-esteem and a secure, self-affirming gay identity, along with integrating intimacy and sexuality, are central developmental tasks for gay individuals.