Interpersonal Issues Gays And Lesbians May Have To Deal With
Most of the time when someone feels awkward in a social interaction their sexual orientation isn't that relevant. There are situations everyone has the potential to find difficult. However, there are some social struggles that are unique to people who are gay and lesbian... ...or to put it more accurately, there are some social struggles that are unique to gays and lesbians because we live in a society that doesn't fully accept different sexual and gender orientations, and that causes interpersonal complications.
Before I start I'll note a few things to put the article in context:
- I'm straight myself, though I've always been 100% in support of LGBT rights. So unlike a lot of the articles on this site that draw from my personal experiences, this one is based on the research I've done.
- I'm writing this from the perspective of being gay in developed Western countries. Here LGBT rights still have a long way to go, but things are better than they've ever been, and living as out is the norm. In most of the world people have to remain closeted their whole lives as a matter of basic safety.
- Many of the points I'll cover below also apply to other people in the LGBT community, like bisexuals, transgender or intersex individuals. However, each group's experience is different enough that I didn't want to carelessly lump them all together. This article sticks to things I know gays and lesbians go through.
- In any individual who's gay, and also socially awkward in some ways, I realize it's impossible to tell how much of their awkwardness is a complication of their being homosexual in a not completely accepting world, and how much they would have been like that anyway, because it's just in their personality to be a bit shy, or whatnot.
- I don't want to imply that social problems are an inescapable part of being gay or lesbian. They're just something that can happen. It's a harmful stereotype that all LGBT people are damaged goods. More and more these days if someone is from a liberal, accepting environment they may come out as a younger teenager with little incident and happily go on with their lives.
With that covered, here are some social struggles gay and lesbian people might have to deal with in their lives:
The general interpersonal complications of being in an oppressed minority
I'll mention this first before getting to the issues that are more specific to being gay. When someone's in a discriminated-against minority group there are some general social problems they can run up against:
- The effects that can result from being ostracized and abused: Damaged self-confidence, increased nervousness around people, isolating yourself and missing out on social practice, a sense of alienation and not being able to relate to anyone, etc. Note that even someone who's in the closet can still be abused indirectly, for example by hearing classmates, family members, and the media make homophobic remarks. They may also be made fun of for being too effeminate or 'butch', even if they're not being specifically picked on for being gay.
- People consciously choosing not to include them in social activities, because they're intolerant, or even just uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.
- People more benignly leaving them out, not because they hate them, but because they assume the minority person has their own group, and their own stuff going on and wouldn't want to hang out with them anyway.
Higher levels of social anxiety
Some people believe there's a link between being gay and experiencing higher levels of social anxiety, particularly when someone is young and still in the closet. This doesn't mean everyone who's gay goes through this, but it's not hard to speculate as to why a connection may be there:
- At its core social anxiety can stem from shame and a sense that there's something wrong with you. A young person who's grown up hearing tons of negative messages about homosexuality could easily feel they were fundamentally flawed.
- Hiding your sexual orientation can add a ton of stress to every social encounter. You worry that people can tell you're gay. You have to watch what you say. You try to consciously control your every gesture, or the tone of your voice, to hopefully come across as 'straight' enough. If you're living a double life you have to deceive people and cover your tracks. You may have to come up with a bunch of lies if someone casually asks you about your love life, and then need to keep track of them all for later.
- Just holding such a big secret inside creates a huge amount of pressure. All that anxiety may leak out in the form of your feeling more generally on edge around people, even if you're not particularly worried about being found out.
Not being able to get close to people when they're still in the closet
If someone's still closeted it can really get in the way of social intimacy. They may have no problem having more fleeting, casual interactions with people. However, they feel it can't go beyond that. They risk inadvertently revealing their secret if they share too much of themselves. So there's that cautiousness factor. Also, someone may decide, "There's no point in having deeper conversations with people because it's not like I can let them see my real self anyway. I'd get nothing out of it."
Fear and wariness around straight people
This can apply across all levels of being out. Understandably, some gays and lesbians feel on edge around straight people they don't know well. There are a lot of bullies and bigots out there, and every gay person has experienced their share of direct or indirect abuse. This can introduce a low-level amount of shyness and inhibition into many of their social interactions.
Smaller friendship pools and a harder time meeting people
Gays and lesbians make up a small percentage of the population. Especially if they don't live in a city with a large LGBT community, they'll have far fewer potential friends to choose from if they want to hang around people who are also gay, and who they actually click with. It's just harder to meet people too. Heterosexual people are everywhere. But if a gay person wants to meet other gay people they usually have to make a more active effort. And again, it's not like every small or mid-sized town is going to have an LGBT center or gay bar where all their prospective friends will congregate.
Gays and lesbians often move to big cities in order to be in a large enough LGBT community. That certainly opens up more opportunities. However, the narrative of the person who grows up in a stifling small town and happily escapes as soon as they can doesn't apply to everyone. What about people who love country life, and who would be miserable living in the downtown of a sprawling city? They often feel forced to move anyway.
The issue of not having enough people to meet is particularly tough in high school. There aren't going to be many gay people in any one school, and at that age many of the ones who are around are still in the closet. Gay high school students can therefore feel intensely lonely and isolated.
Awkwardness around same-sex friends when they're younger and still closeted
A young gay person might become attracted to his or her same sex friends, which can create a lot of awkwardness, not to mention heartache. If they keep their attraction secret it can eat away at them. And when they're younger and keeping their sexuality hidden, they may not feel they have any other dating options, so the idea of liking someone and not being able to act on it can be especially tough.
On the other hand, if they try to show their feelings it can strain or end the relationship. Actually telling the person obviously has its risks. Some young gay people also have stories about how they got in trouble by being overly touchy feely with their friends, or taking things that little bit too far when they were wrestling or rough housing.
Delayed social development in some areas, particularly with dating
Take a lesbian who comes out at 22, and who's never really dated before, aside from some highly half-hearted attempts to go out with boys in high school. When she does start dating, in a way she's a 14-year-old. She's just beginning to experience and find her feet in a world that your average person started on in middle school. Anyone will tell you beginning to date is a tricky period to go through. The gays and lesbians who did do more opposite-sex dating when they were younger have it a bit easier, but often still have a lot of adjustments to make.
Having to adapt to unfamiliar new subcultures
Take a 19-year-old gay guy who moves to a liberal metropolitan area, after growing up in a small town where he had to keep his sexuality hidden. When he enters the various LGBT social scenes in the city, and when he starts dating, he's got to figure out how to navigate all these new, unfamiliar subcultures and learn their unspoken guidelines. And if he doesn't do it quickly enough he may be taken advantage of by someone who wants to cash in on his naivete.
Having to adapt to new subcultures is something everyone has to do. For example a woman who gets her first job in a kitchen has to get up to speed on chef and restaurant culture. I still included this point though because when gays and lesbians have to do this it's got its own flavor. They spend roughly the first two decades of their lives exposed to and immersed in the social and dating cultures of the majority, and then when they're in around their late teens they're essentially told, "Yeah, all that stuff isn't as relevant to you. Your future happiness, social life, and romantic life is going to largely revolve around how you can get by in these entirely different groups. Good luck!" Of course the process of discovering them is going to have many positive moments as well, but it's still a social challenge not everyone has to go through.
Continually having to tell people they're gay
Some gay people don't have too much trouble with this, or only struggled with it at first. Others find it a continuing source of worry and awkwardness ("What if I'm rejected? What if people are awkward around me? What if I'm putting myself in danger?") It's getting a little better, but for the most part people's default assumption is to think everyone they meet is heterosexual, unless that person dresses and acts in a very stereotypically gay manner. Of course, not everyone fits a stereotype, which means every time they meet new people, or start a new job, or so on, they have to let everyone know about their sexual orientation. For example, a lesbian will be at a party and someone will offhandedly ask her if she has a boyfriend.
What to do about these issues?
So what to do about these issues? Well long term hopefully a lot of these problems will cease to exist as the LGBT rights movement continues to make progress and society becomes more accepting. That's a ways off though, and here are some more immediate, practical suggestions:
If you're still in the closet many of the issues above get better once you're out
Coming out brings up its own set of challenges, and in many parts of the world it simply isn't an option. However, in Western countries most out gay people will tell you that once they accepted who they were and started living honestly and openly, it was like a huge weight was lifted from their shoulders. All the stress and complications that trying to pass as straight added to social situations disappeared. This article is too small to include a whole section on how to come out. And besides, there's already a ton of good information available, written by people who are way more knowledgeable about the topic than I am.
If you're still in high school things will get better afterward
You don't get to choose where you go to high school. Teenagers can be cruel jerks who will harass anyone who's different. Teachers and school administrators can be bigots. Things may not be any better at home. It's the lowest point in the lives of many gay people. It gets better once high school is done. You get to choose where you live, and who you associate with. Your days of being forced by society to do anything or go anywhere are over.
Seek support from the LGBT community
This can be helpful in a lot of ways. You can get practical advice from people who have been in your shoes. You can meet people. You can learn that you're not alone, that there's nothing wrong with you, and that there's a whole world out there that's looking out for you, and that wants you to pull through.
Fortunately this kind of support is never that far away now that the internet is so ubiquitous. Even when someone who lives in an isolating, conservative area, if nothing else they can still get advice and support through a computer or their cell phone's web browser. There are tons of sites and forums for people in the LGBT community. Other options that may or may not be available where you live are:
- The Gay-Straight Alliance at your high school
- Your college's LGBT center
- An LGBT center in your community
- A telephone support line for people in the LGBT community (with services like Google Voice they don't even have to be in your city to call them)
- Seeing a counselor who's an LGBT ally, or in the LGBT community themselves
- Attending a support group for LGBT individuals or youth
Work on facing your fears and getting more social practice
Like I said, the social problems gay people have to deal with are ultimately rooted in intolerance and discrimination. However, you can still address many of the more immediate social difficulties they spawn through the same methods that are used for other types of interpersonal problems. For example, say you're nervous around straight people, even after coming out. You'll always need to keep your guard up to a degree, but you don't want to feel unnecessarily scared of people either. You can apply methods for handling anxiety and use the principles of gradual exposure to get more comfortable around them. Or say you find it awkward to constantly have to tell people you're gay. That's a mini-skill you can practice and gradually become more proficient at.