By Julia Fox, author of And Then There Were Three: Sixty Seven Letters to Sasha
While a major hurdle for LGBT rights in the western hemisphere has finally been overcome in the past few years (legalization of gay marriage in both the United States and the United Kingdom), it looks less and less hopeful that that same tolerance can be achieved globally. In former communist-bloc countries, the period for modest LGBT freedoms was brief, and homophobia is still widespread. Homosexuality is often considered an abnormality and, in some cases, prosecuted under the criminal law.
These countries have a vast population of LGBT members who have lived in the closet for most of their lives while obliged to form traditional families. Spending the majority of their lives attempting to pass as heterosexuals to gain social approval and often engaging in secret same-sex relationships, these gay men and women end up with irreversible damage to their physical and mental health.
“Coming out is no longer a matter of popular debate, but a matter of public health,” claim scientists from Louis H. Lafontaine Hospital in Montreal. But for some who spent most of their lives in the closet, it might be just impossible. Whether it is the fear of being rejected by their now grown children, being criminalized by the homophobic society, ostracized by their own community, or the strong belief they would be unable to rebuild their lives with their new identity, these men and women are too broken to start anew.
Here are the main ailments that are likely to develop if you are forced to keep your sexual identity a secret from society and often from yourself:
- Dissociative Identity Disorder. Notable psychiatrists Sullivan and Roughton have discovered that closeted individuals routinely separate their attractions and feelings for the persons of the same sex from their identity. That means these men and women find their desires so unacceptable that they keep them out of their conscious awareness, separating their sexual identity from the rest of their persona. Blocking the anxiety-provoking thoughts about their sexuality forces them to lead a double life and are very often unaware of it.
- Chronic Depression. Increased fear and withdrawal from friends and relatives and the chronic stress of hiding one’s sexuality can lead to excess amounts of cortisol in the body, which contributes to severe depression as well as the general “wear and tear” of the body. Scientists at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis H. Lafontaine Hospital in Montreal found that staying in the closet weakens your whole immune system, in addition to leading to chronic depression.
- Self-disgust and Self-hatred. Socialized into thinking that being non-heterosexual is somehow “mad,” “bad,” “wrong,” or “immoral,” many closeted gay and lesbian individuals develop internalized homophobia. They find that they do not belong and do not fit in either the “straight world” or the “gay world.” This painful feeling often leads to self-disgust, self-hatred, and contempt for the more open LGBT members.
- Low Self-esteem and Negative Self-view. Both can lead to avoiding fulfilling relationships with others. Spending the majority of their lives attempting to pass as heterosexuals to gain social approval, many closeted individuals develop low self-esteem and negative body image, which brings with them such issues as fear of intimacy, deep shame about their sexual experiences, and inability to develop emotional intimacy, psychologists claim.
- Alcohol/Drug Abuse and Suicidal Thoughts. Growing increasingly withdrawn and depressed, closeted individuals often follow unsafe sexual practices and engage in other destructive, risk-taking behaviors. Being ostracized by the community, fearing shame and physical torture and imprisonment, creating heterosexual families, and dissociating themselves from the gay population altogether leads many to a life of substance abuse and addictions. Constantly haunted by suicidal thoughts, many consider ending their lives.
My relationship with a closeted gay man, Sasha (who was actually my husband’s lover years before I married him, and I chronicle in my memoir And Then There Were Three: Sixty Seven Letters to Sasha) opened my eyes to the many aspects of homosexuality and the life paths that LGBT men and women choose in the parts of the world where homosexuality is still considered an abnormality. The freedoms that sexual minorities enjoy in democratic countries today are precious and unheard of in such places as Ukraine, Russia, Belorussia, Azerbaijan, and other post-Soviet territories. Giving American LGBT members a glimpse into the lives of those who are less fortunate and still struggling for their rights will be an eye-opening read for many.
Julia Fox immigrated from Russia in her late teens, settling in the United States in the early ’90s. She published two books of poetry before leaving her home country, both in Russian, and published two more in the English language after immigrating. And Then There Were Three: Sixty Seven Letters to Sasha is her first autobiographical memoir.