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My experience of being gay and anxiety - A Personal Story

From an early age I knew there was something different about me. In primary school I was too young to know I was attracted to the same sex, but I was aware that I behaved differently to the other boys in school. I had some of the typical cliché characteristics of other gay friends of mine growing up. I wasn’t interested or good at sports, I was a bit more sensitive and emotionally in tune, and I never understood why it wasn’t ok to play with the girls as well as other boys. Nature or nurture I will never know, but most of my gay mates were similar. Not all of us were ‘feminine’ but most had an awareness that they did not quite fit in.

I was bullied and picked on at times. These were the times I think anxiety started to creep into my daily experience. I was constantly wary of saying anything that might be seen as too gay, girly or ‘poofy’. There were kids I would go out of my way to avoid for fear of being picked on or even physically attacked. I remember a friend poking me once in the side and being surprised by how tense I was—I just assumed everyone held their muscles tense all day long! I started getting headaches, bloating and other somatic issues I now know were stress related. This all fed into the core belief of “There is something wrong with me”.

The late 1980’s was a time when the danger of AIDS was being heavily pushed onto the publics’ consciousness.  The grim reaper was appearing on TV advertisements bowling over families to an early death. The media pointed the finger at the spread of the disease to gay men. Messages from friends, family and the media had already enforced the notion that being gay, poofy or feminine was bad and unacceptable. Now, it seemed gay men were also diseased, and were spreading that disease throughout the world. On some subconscious level this reinforced a core belief that there was something wrong with me, and the belief that I wasn’t good enough.

High school, like for many gay men I know, was when the stress of an evolving sexuality really kicked in. It is a confusing time for all people, but seems particularly so for those same-sex attracted.

Masculinity and the expectations of what it means to be a man becomes a huge focus in the building of a teenager’s identity. I became hypervigilant of saying things and behaving in a more masculine way so that no one would perceive me as being gay. This constant attention to my behaviour only increased my self-consciousness in a negative way. I would worry constantly about what others thought of me. Friends were beginning to talk about their attraction to girls in class, and I felt confused about my own feelings. Constantly ‘acting’ straight all day long is exhausting.

I remember a teacher once talking about visiting San Francisco and how disgusted he was by all the gay men he saw holding hands “with no shame”. This teacher also referred to another teacher at the school as a ‘big poof’ and for us boys to ‘watch our backs’ around him. This teacher was an ex-football player and much admired by the boys in the class, so I am sure the message sunk in deep; gays are predatory perverts who should feel ashamed.

The combination of negative core beliefs (“there is something wrong with me” and “I’m not good enough”), hypervigilance about how I was behaving, a (legitimate) fear of social exclusion, confused self-identity, plus all the hormonal changes of being a teenager became the perfect recipe for developing severe anxiety.

It was in year 12 that I had my first panic attack. I remember feeling like I was outside of my own body, an intense sense of impending doom, and waves of terror going through me. I was convinced I was showing the first signs of schizophrenia, and was reluctant to tell anyone about my experiences for fear of being medicated or institutionalised.

This coincided with an intense pressure building within me to ‘come out of the closet’. I wanted to be an authentic and honest person. I wanted to love and to be loved. I wanted the acceptance of friends, family and broader society. To do this I would have to be honest about who I was. This was a terrifying prospect. Will my family still love me? Will my friends reject me or treat me differently? What will it mean for my dreams of having kids? Will I get gay bashed? Or catch HIV?

All this added to my constant worry.

As with any fear, the only way to deal with it was to confront it. Slowly I came out to people, first my sister, then my best mate, then my parents. Each time presented a new terrifying opportunity to be rejected or shamed. I am blessed to have family and friends that accepted me as I am; many gay men I know have not had that luck.

Part of the problem of being gay is that it’s often invisible. So, every new person you meet, you are faced with the issue of telling them or not. You don’t realise until you have to cover up aspects of your life just how often sexuality becomes an aspect of every day conversation.

In my first job, I worked as a casual retail shop assistant in a chain with stores all over Melbourne. I rotated around various stores so was constantly getting to know new staff I had not met before. Inevitably conversations would turn to whether you had a girlfriend, or comments would be made about some hot girl that had come into the store. Each of those times you have to make the choice to be honest or to lie. Each of those times, you still have the fear that this person is going to judge you. I think the constant vigilance about revealing yourself is a big trigger for anxiety in gay men. An experience that straight men do not have to live with.

Years later, I am now a happy and proud man, with a wonderful loving partner and an extensive circle of close friends and community. I have been very lucky to have always had supportive co-workers too. Many of my mates have not been so lucky. Some have been bashed by supposed friends, spat at on the street, reached a ‘glass ceiling’ in their workplace, or even work in such a macho culture that there is no way they would ever come out and bring their partners to work functions. This is still the reality for many gay men, and a source of constant worry.

Counselling and supportive friends, and a willingness on my part to confront my anxiety triggers has meant that today I am largely free of debilitating anxiety, and I no longer suffer panic attacks.

Do I think my anxiety problems were caused by being gay? Of course not, anxiety is caused by a complex combination of biology, psychology and social environment. But I do know that living in constant fear of rejection, in a world where people still equate same sex marriage with beastiality and incest, in a society that still used the words ‘gay’, ‘fag’ and ‘poof’ as put downs, has put me in a position growing up where I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was not good enough, and that meant I had to be constantly watchful for threats. This indeed magnified my anxiety.

So solving the anxiety problem is not just a personal issue, it is a social issue. We all need to be more accepting of difference, and aware that our lives may not be the same as others, and to be sensitive to what it feels like to be part of a minority.

By Anon



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