‘Gay’ Guyanese speaks out

In the ongoing discussion about gay rights in Guyana, arrivals and identity, please allow me space to share these thoughts with your readers. What it means to be Guyanese has been a recurrent thought over the past year. That is because this year marks an important milestone – more than half my life has been lived in another country. Despite this, I am undeniably Guyanese.

I speak with my native accent and retain a strong sense of attachment to the country and its customs. This experience suggests that a person’s identity is weighted heavily on childhood experiences. There are many developmental theories that corroborate my experience. They point out that childhood experiences set the foundation for emotional, cognitive and social development of the individual. I agree. Despite living outside of Guyana for most of my life, my experiences at home shaped who I am.

I am a gay Guyanese. My experiences are arguably very different from any other group in Guyana, and to leave ‘gay’ out of my identification would be to hide not only who I am, but to leave out the experiences that compel this letter. Over the years I have searched for a way to reconcile my two identities, knowing that sexual orientation discrimination is still prevalent in Guyana, and although there is momentum in the direction of acceptance, it is apprehensive.
I feel it is because there is still much room for misunderstanding. Understanding homosexuality and our reactions to it are keys towards acceptance. I share my story, and so it isn’t anecdotal, references to researchers for additional reading. I hope this will add even a modicum of empathy towards equality.

Growing up gay was very difficult, especially in Guyana. Years before sexual attraction became an issue for me, there was a feeling of difference. In ‘The Velvet Rage’, Alan Downs indicates this feeling of difference seems almost universal. Although vague, it established vulnerability and doubt in me. In those early years of development, little events in life make impressions that form that basis for adult identity. Difference created discomfort and sensitivity – perceiving myself apart from the world; needing more reassurance that in fact, everything was okay. In many cases, as Downs observes, mothers sense this instinctively and move in. Fathers withdraw, setting the scene for an almost characteristic pattern of invalidations the gay child will receive throughout his life. Not too long afterwards my mother also withdrew.

A child’s relationship to his parents, from infancy to puberty, is unlike any other. From mother and, or father, the child learns to bond with other people. A parent’s smile, touch, voice, imprints on him. He adopts behaviours that elicit more of these feel-good responses. Parents communicate with children not only through words, but facial expressions, touch, body language and even rate of breathing and non-verbal sounds.
Emerging from these interactions, the child builds a reference of human behaviour that will serve as the blueprint for all other relationships and a sense of safety and joy in the world. On the other hand, a child with a sense of difference might react less enthusiastically, and his parents follow suit. His experience of the world is qualitatively different.

By the age of six I was in need of reassurance, but in return I was looked at with distracted concern. The uncertainty I felt was being seen and reacted to. In those formative years, shame, doubt, guilt and inferiority are weighed against feelings of autonomy, confidence and initiative, according to the theory of psychosocial development.

Eventually, the feeling of difference evolved into a sense of shame. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so shy? Why don’t you go play like the other children? He’s like a little girl.” In retrospect, what they were referring to by “girl” wasn’t androgyny or effeminacy, but shame. By this time, any validations were rendered ineffectual by a young mind that had been trained to be more sensitive to negations than validations. My father was emotionally absent, and my relationship with him grew to encompass my relationship with other men – I felt uncomfortable around them, feeling not good enough, yet admiring them. I yearned for acceptance.

Then puberty arrived. The involuntary sexual attraction to men deepened my sense of shame. The consequent nightly experiences were physically pleasurable, but devastatingly full of guilt and self-hate each morning. The ubiquitous sentiment that same-sex interest was worse than any other behaviour, deserving Hell, death, ostracism compounded matters. Casual conversations of hate towards ‘antimen’ were everywhere.

Feeling shame and fear, being hyper-vigilant against discovery, suppressing my urges on every level, consumed my sense of wellbeing and lead to chronic stress and depression. Meanwhile, my heterosexual peers, through years of feedback that they were well and loved, embraced their puberty. I saw them develop a sense of mastery, refocusing their attentions from exploring the world to excelling in it through academics and sports. They socialised, as I locked myself in my room fearing the outside.

I secretly bought Playboy magazines to retrain my desires. When self-help failed, I turned to religion with self-reproaching austerity. I punished myself daily for not being devout enough, reciting prayers over hours and repeating them if I made mistakes. My religious upbringing – a grandfather who was a deacon in his Catholic Church and a parent who was conservative in Hindu devotion, compelled this behaviour. At the end of high school I was emotionally exhausted. Coming from a society without a clear grasp of mental health, all this was blamed on laziness, divorce, stupidity or that something was just plain wrong with me.

The gay child is invalidated, as I was, and in place of joy, shame and stress are hallmarks of his experience. His brain and mind develop within this context, resulting in longterm mental health and cognitive consequences as described by Rajita Sinha at Yale University and many others. Gay men, myself included, experience (1) external, objectively stressful events and conditions, (2) the expectation of stressful events and hyper-vigilance (“felt stigma”), (3) internalization of negative social attitudes (“internalized homophobia”) as per the Minority Stress Model. According to research by psychologist Dominic Carbone, some gay men exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-like symptoms, reliving negative feelings, each time they act on their sexual desires because of internalized homophobia.
Other research by Michael Wiederman found that parental neglect and continued isolation predisposed gay men to symptoms resembling borderline personality disorder – characterized by feelings of abandonment, history of unstable relationships, impulsivity, moodiness, chronic feelings of emptiness, substance abuse, anxiety, depression and self-harming. Childhood parental estrangement gives rise to the feelings of abandonment and an inability to sustain relationships, while drug use and impulsivity can be traced back to a need for pleasure in a life full of distress. Erectile dysfunction, sexual aggression and unsafe sexual practices frequently result. His mind has been primed to see and react to invalidating and painful experiences. It is interesting to see how the behaviours gay men are scandalized by, stem from the prejudice and stigma of society, and not any inherent quality of his.

Based on my experience, scores of acquaintances, and my reading, the gay man doesn’t become gay at puberty or by choice. Studies show no relationship between the presence of gay peers or homosexual parents and becoming homosexual. Conversion therapy and mistreatment to force change all result in even more psychological damage. Genetic studies implicate heredity – identical twins are more likely to be homosexual than fraternal twins. Intra-uterine factors have also been implicated. Furthermore, like humans, many other species exhibit homosexual coupling. As a result, after decades of careful study, the American Psychiatric Association delisted homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses forty years ago this year.

Pointing out that no child has power to shape his sexuality is only one part of neutralizing stigma and prejudice. The other half is identifying where such notions arise and questioning their validity. I grew up multi-racial – having features from Indian ancestry, but having a white grandmother and black grandfather. I feel it has made me both aware of, and sensitive to, the dynamics among races, both historically and in my household as a child. The psychological and social after-effects of colonialism were important dynamics in my family that I now appreciate.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to record contact with innumerable African tribes and described the ubiquity of same-sex practices throughout the continent. They reported male-male sex, female-female marriage and female kings and male wives, wearing male and female attire, respectively. These historical observations illustrate how completely we have been severed from our ancestry. Gender and sex are very fluid, and it is only in the recent past that we have embraced intolerant attitudes. Murray and Roscoe’s Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities is a good review of this topic.

These attitudes make the gay Guyanese very vulnerable. I was. Not because of any fault of his, but because Guyanese society adheres to prejudices that were impressed upon it, and refuses to objectively evaluate them. I’ve described my own insufferable life at the hands of these prejudices and stigma, and how they impacted me. They still do.

What is a mother and father to do to prevent his or her child from being inflicted with such psychological wounds? Be cognisant of your child. Be brave. Use the internet to educate yourself on how to be accepting and validating. Be aware of your prejudices and avoid putting your shame onto your son. Make home a place of acceptance and love, and seek a supportive environment outside.

Contact local human rights organisations that can advise you and your son on how to find a wholesome support group. Groups provide many therapeutic dynamics such as self-acceptance by other group members, insight into one’s circumstance from shared experiences and vicarious learning, identification with the group, catharsis of emotional frustrations and instillation of hope, among others. These factors break the onus of shame, isolation and invalidation.

As the face of Guyana changes, I feel an inclusive attitude is important to stymie continued friction. Acceptance of all Guyanese is necessary for that to occur, and accepting sexual diversity is of central importance because sexual minorities are most vulnerable. Accepting the reality that some sons will be gay, but still need educated, loving and validating parents takes a community effort. It is in this effort I see progress.

by Greg Sanjay
Source – Guyana Chronicle Online