The effects of growing up as a gay youth in a conservative Catholic setting have been long-lasting for one writer who recently described his experience in a newspaper column. He is not alone: research shows that growing up in an environment of intense shame often has deep psychological effects that can stay with a person for a lifetime.
Antoun Issa, a writer and editor for The Guardian Australia, felt that he had overcome the challenges of growing up in a conservative Catholic family. He described his teenage life as guilt-ridden:
“[F]or many years in my adolescence, Good Friday was the moment of repentance, of a dive deep into my own being in search of guilt. I’d sit, in darkness, burrowing into the corners of my mind, scouring the memories of the previous year in search of acts or incidents that would render me guilty, that would strike the emotional cords, and activate the stress hormone that made tears well up in my eyes.”
Rather than seeing himself as a special case, Issa acknowledges that his experience is one that many people like him have gone through:
“My adolescent experience is, sadly, too common among LGBTQ+ youth raised in conservative settings. The worldview, the values that we’re instilled with at a young age, inevitably leads to a Titanic moment – the crash into the iceberg when the realisation that our very natural being is in total conflict with all that we’ve come to know. Some of us find a way to swim, some of us sink, and others tread through life brandishing the scars inflicted upon us in our developmental years.”
While Issa feels he has negotiated a new reality for himself, he acknowledges that the negative effects of his upbringing still linger:
“I like to think I’ve shed my conservative baggage, that I was one of the fortunate who managed to swim – through education, life experiences, relationships, and a reimagining of my worldview that allowed a comfortable space between spirituality and the reality of my sexual diversity.
“The scars of Christian guilt – or LGBTQ+ shame – in our developmental years may not be completely vanquished, even if we’ve refuted religion or found a way to be at peace with our gender and sexual identities.”
Jeremy Shields, a clinical psychologist who works with LGBTQ+ patients, affirmed Issa’s perception:
“‘[Sexual orientation] is not like a behaviour that you can just stop… If during my development I experience messages that there’s something inherently wrong, sinful within me, then I’ll start to believe that there’s part of me that is shameful. In psychological terms, we call it “toxic shame”.'”
That toxic shame can have influences on a person’s personality and behaviors for years:
“Our brains are constantly adapting to their environments, Shields says, which means that a brain that has trained itself to be highly vigilant of threats may be more prone to certain behaviours. So LGBTQ+ individuals who have expended significant energy compartmentalising their lives to hide or repress their sexual identities, particularly in their adolescence, may continue to exhibit those behavioural patterns well into adulthood.”
Issa observed that he continues some “passing” patterns in his own life, when he shifts his accent and mannerisms at times to fit in at predominantly heterosexual situations. Code-switching is a common coping mechanism, says Issa, and was verified by a study of gay men in Poland:
“It found that the men de-emphasised their sexual identities in environments perceived as hostile, such as church and family, while de-emphasising their religious identities in LGBTQ+ environments.”
Issa’s testimony highlights how complex the work of healing from an overload of guilt and shame can be. That work is not “one and done”–we often need to return to it again and again, going deeper into the process of healing and forming healthy relationships with ourselves and others.
The code-switching that queer people do in many church spaces is a survival strategy that we often learn at a young age. It still serves a purpose for many folks as they age. Catholic spaces can be shifting ground, where we are not sure if we are safe. Changes in church leadership or new statements from the Vatican can quickly thrust us back into an environment of possible harm. In this environment, we are often not comfortable enough to bring our full selves to church.
This situation leaves Catholics who affirm the full dignity of queer people with an ongoing challenge–to create faith spaces where people do feel able to show up fully, where the many dimensions of our selves are explicitly and exuberantly welcomed.
—Mac Svolos, New Ways Ministry, May 15, 2021