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  • Writer's pictureChris Tompkins

The Importance of Healing Shame in the LGBTQ+ Community


  • It's not possible for an LGBTQ+ person to be socialized in a dominant heteronormative culture and not feel the sting of queerphobia.

  • Research shows the connection between increased rates of drug and alcohol use among gay and bisexual men and minority stress.

  • To heal shame, we have to first acknowledge that it’s something we feel.

For almost 12 years, I worked at a popular gay bar in West Hollywood, CA. Up until the pandemic, I thought I'd still be bartending while pursuing a Master of Arts in clinical psychology.

After working at a bar for as long as I did, I saw the devastating effects of drug and alcohol misuse.

Anesthetizing the Pain of Shame

Especially among members of the LGBTQ+ community, it became clear that unhealed shame and trauma, combined with substances, is a recipe for addiction.

In 2014, after six years of working at a gay bar, I decided to give up alcohol because of the toll it was beginning to take on my own life. I spent more days beating myself up than not. I used to hate myself for the time, money, and energy I committed to something that was the cause of so much suffering.

Nights were lost because I couldn't remember them. And the shame was unbearable. It was something heavy and thick. It was the number one reason I kept numbing out.

Back then, I didn't have a healthy way of dealing with the shame I carried, so finding temporary relief in drugs and alcohol became my way of anesthetizing the pain.

Old coworkers still reach out to me to share their own struggles with substance use. Many want to give up drugs and alcohol, but most of my old coworkers and regulars don't know how to socialize without substances. The look of disbelief on the faces of those with whom I shared my sobriety was a common occurrence while bartending.

I remember a customer telling me once that finding a sober gay person at a gay bar is like discovering a unicorn. They asked, "Do they really even exist?"

Recently, a young gay man I once worked with reached out to me about his attempt at sobriety. We worked together for eight years, and this past summer, he tried to quit drinking. After three months of not drinking, he drank one night and it was disastrous. He told me he's been sober again for three weeks and that he started going to Alcoholics Anonymous. He wanted to know my advice on how to maintain his sobriety.

Spiritual Practice and Personal Development

Whenever anyone reaches out to me seeking guidance on how to give up drinking and quit making self-destructive choices, I always offer them the same advice: "Cultivate a spiritual practice and make a commitment to your personal development."

Research from an article that explores the connection between internalized homophobia and drug use says, "Gay and bisexual men (GBM) living in the U.S. are 1.4–1.9 times more likely to meet criteria for a lifetime drug use disorder compared to heterosexual men" (Kerridge et al., 2017, as cited in Moody et al., 2017, p. 1133).

The article explores the connection between increased rates of drug and alcohol use among GBM and minority stress. What's more, the article posits that the unique stress GBM experience is due to stigma still associated with their sexual orientation (Moody et al., 2017, p. 1133).

I once bartended with a young lesbian woman. When she first started, she told me one of the customers thought she was "straight." I had only known her a few days, so when I responded, "Oh, I didn't know you were gay." She excitedly replied, "Yay! You thought I was straight, too!" Here we were, two gay people, both working at a gay bar, yet not only was she excited to have been mistaken for being heterosexual, but she also had no problem expressing it to me or was even aware of the implications it had.

We have to first value ourselves before we can ask anyone else to value us. We also have to value our community before we can ask anyone else to value it.

Dr. Brené Brown, a leading expert on shame and vulnerability, says, "If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive."

Naming Internalized Homophobia

To heal shame, we have to first acknowledge that it's something we feel. To the degree we are willing to name internalized homophobia within ourselves is the degree with which we can stop passing it along to future generations. Addressing shame within ourselves, as well as within our communities, is a courageous contribution LGBTQ+ people can make for the sake of the next generation.

Over the years, I've come to learn that the inner struggle with shame I had as a gay man is not uncommon among many LGBTQ+ people. It's not possible for an LGBTQ+ person to be socialized in a dominant heteronormative culture and not feel the sting of homophobia and transphobia. As such, the most important, and empowering, journey an LGBTQ+ person can take is to heal any shame that we've internalized about ourselves and our identities.

For more than a decade, I've worked to transform my past pain and heal from conscious and unconscious shame-based limiting beliefs—beliefs that tried to convince me that I wasn't good enough, smart enough, or attractive enough.

After nearly 15 years of anesthetizing my pain with drugs and alcohol and nine years of sobriety, what I share with others from my experience is that what people do at bars and what they do at church are ultimately the same: the pursuit of a connection with something beyond the realm of this world. It's just that one source is sustainable, and one isn't.

What I've also come to learn from my own healing journey is that connecting with our spirituality—or the direct experience of our own essence—loving ourselves, and taking full responsibility for our lives and choices is where our strength lies at the deepest level.

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Image Source: Cut Collective/Unsplash

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