Recently I was accused of being “just another self-hating gay with internalized homophobia.” (I think those were the exact words, but please pardon me if I don’t spend a lot of time digging them up.) Based on the context, I gather the basis for this accusation is that I don’t believe marriage is meant for two people of the same sex. This is a reasonable and unsurprising point to be challenged on, but it came embedded in a personal attack, to which my first response was:
Of course I don’t hate myself! Of course I’m not homophobic! I hang out with a lot of gay people. “Some of my best friends are gay.” (LOL.)
I guess, though, the more I think about it, the more I realize a more honest and more accurate response is:
You know, there’s some truth in that. It’s hard to imagine anyone growing up gay in a society and culture created by straight people, for straight people, and somehow making it to adulthood without lingering feelings of shame (which is a nicer word for self-hate). I did internalize the homophobia I encountered in middle school and high school. I’ve come a long way in dealing with those shame issues, but I’m still dealing with them from time to time.
(Now, the barb of “just another” is cruel, dismissive, dehumanizing and profoundly untrue. I will not accept it. I am not “just another” anything. Neither are you, and nor is my accuser, for that matter.)
As a follower of Jesus, my first weapon against shame is remembering how God sees me. I am “fearfully and wonderfully made;” even, I believe, the wonder and delight that male beauty provokes in me is God’s beautiful design—I think I feel that way about men because he feels that way about men. (Although, I admit, that’s a complicated topic.) He loves me deeply. But more than that, he likes me. God, the only person whose opinion matters in the end, likes me. With all the powers of creation at his disposal, why would he create something he doesn’t like? His son, Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross.” He suffered and died to pay the price for my sins because he couldn’t stand the thought of eternity without me. I am the joy set before him for which he endured the cross. I am, as C.S. Lewis put it, “an ingredient in the divine joy.” When I can remember all of that, shame goes into hiding. One way to describe shame is that it’s the belief that you are a cosmic flaw in the universe. But how can I believe that when I consider how God feels about me?
However, whatever your disposition toward God is, a weapon that’s available to all of us is empathy. Shame says you are something that’s wrong with the universe, and that you’re alien because of it: unique, but monstrously so. Empathy says, “you’re not alone, that’s me too.” When I encounter someone who experiences self-hatred due to internalized homophobia, I can connect with them about that. I can show them that they’re not weird or monstrous because of it; it just means they’re human. We can compare notes and find out what’s been helpful for each of us. Yelling at that person and telling them they’re messed up because of the shame they feel is obviously not going to help. Empathy presents vulnerability. It risks. It sacrifices. To show empathy is to show love. And maybe this is a sappy hyperbole, but the only thing that ever really changed the world is love.
Alas, though: sadly, empathy does not make for FIRE TWEETS.
Most of these ideas about shame and empathy come from Brené Brown. If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend her work.