Psychological Effects of Heterosexism.

Psychological difficulties are a normal part of life. Every healthy person experiences them; they are the catalysts for growth and maturity; they are necessary times of emotional upheaval that forces one to change certain aspects of one’s life and rethink priorities and values. Life stressors can put obligations on hold, and at the same time propel others forward. Sometimes psychological difficulties are life-threatening, but more frequently they are life-affirming.

There have been many psychological difficulties in my life and of those of friends and family, but none have been as emotionally-damaging, distressful and life-altering as the mere identification of myself as “gay.” This small facet of myself has extraordinary implications on the rest of my ego and personality, a belief ignited by society. By identifying myself as gay personally and to others, it has largely shaped my values, opinions and outlook on life. Coping with my sexual identity and revealing this part of myself to others has developed certain psychological problems surrounding my identity in general and the way I think of and interact with others.

Being true to myself honestly after hiding a significant part of my identity for 25 years of life has not been easy or even completely successful. It has led to delayed personal development, social adjustment disorder, shame, and a drastic change in daily life. Being secretly gay was not easy, especially for someone who has embraced socializing and intimate self-disclosure in highly emotional times of life. And naturally, a time came when I was mentally exhausted and finally needed to accept myself and enter society as a gay person, complete with the good and the bad; but acceptance was not something that only I needed to accomplish in order to feel as a valuable part of society.

Being “closeted” was the first challenge to deal with. Up until the age of 26, I was a young man, normal in the eyes of society, a physically healthy, high-achieving, good son and brother, striving for self-actualization; but I was hiding something believed to be wrong, dark, sinful and morally abominable. I was aware of the views of others, the teachings of governments, religions and society, and yet despite my having no control over it, I did not fall into these values. I wanted to be accepted, but I was scared to show my true colours to the world. If gay people had a choice to be straight, many would decide to change, as I had so often wished to do.

Granted, life was much simpler living with the constructs of society instead of challenging the majority’s ideas of gender roles and proper behaviour and nudging set beliefs from their believers. No one wants to face discrimination or exclusion due to an inherent part of one’s natural being. Every morning as I woke, thoughts raced through my head like clockwork: realizing I am still alone; hiding; lying to those I love; putting on a charade; wondering whether I should tell the truth; feeling helpless with no one to tell; wondering if life is worth living; feeling worthless; panicked; trying so hard to hide my faults; covering every hole in the story of my fake life.

The psychological depression, anxiety, overwhelming fear, and being a side joke and target of physically abusive attacks while merely walking down the street would leave any human animal demoralized and disillusioned. This behaviour is demonstrated by both ignorant and uneducated people, as well as highly educated professionals. Sitting in medical school listening to such things as: “the HIV-positive homosexual man presents to his GP…” and “HIV is caused by sexual deviance, such as homosexuality” has maddening effects on an individual’s mind.

Insecurity, paranoia, self-harm and suicidal ideology are all evident in social adjustment disorder. This leads to delayed development of one’s own identity. Heterosexual children are praised for their interest in the opposite sex. They have the time and support to settle into the comfort of being part of the norm. Their caregivers enjoy the fact that they are normal and not going to be outcast from society. For many gay people, there is no one to talk to.

Although negative thoughts flooded my head, I eventually, at the age of 24, began to question these thoughts, to challenge them, and defend myself. Where is the support for gay people in a world where people stubbornly value their traditions and beliefs over science and logic? In certain community support centres, I suppose, but it is not easy or necessarily helpful to wander into one of those places, where the staff does not have to be properly trained.

The one saving grace of dealing with my sexuality was reading scholarly journals that verify that the stigma toward gay people was built by society, is the problem of society and not my own. Homosexuality was removed from the American Psychological Association’s list of mental disorders in 1973. It is not a mental disorder or alternative lifestyle choice, it is a human condition in which the diversity of human nature displays itself, I discovered. Sexual diversity – both heterosexual and homosexual desires and actions – is seen in many kingdoms of life, and heightens the survival rate of humans by giving us all an infinite number of unique traits.

Nonetheless, figuratively “coming out of the closet” as a gay man at age 26 was a significant achievement. The happiness my life has now, after coming out to society as a gay man, far exceeded the expected sorrow and anxiety felt while still closeted. Now there is more comfort and humility within myself, but still significant traces of social adjustment disorder caused by heterosexism, “the ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual form of behaviour, identity, relationship, or community” (Herek, 101).

Hostility and discrimination against homosexual individuals are well-established facts. On occasion, these negative attitudes lead to hostile verbal and physical acts against gay individuals with little apparent motivation except a strong dislike. In fact, more than 90% of gay men and lesbians report being targets of verbal abuse or threats, and more than one-third report being survivors of violence related to their homosexuality. Although negative attitudes and behaviors toward gay individuals have been assumed to be associated with rigid moralistic beliefs, sexual ignorance, and fear of homosexuality, the etiology of these attitudes and behaviors remains a puzzle. Weinberg ( 1972 ) labeled these attitudes and behaviors homophobia, which he defined as the dread of being in close quarters with homosexual men and women as well as irrational fear, hatred, and intolerance by heterosexual individuals of homosexual men and women (7).


There are many overt forms of heterosexism: verbal and physical abuse against gay people (hate crimes); blaming gay men as the cause and spread of AIDS; gay people overwhelmingly depicted as villains, drug addicts, silly side characters, and assuming the identity of the opposite sex in film, television and other media; sodomy laws primarily instated for gay men; laws that raise the age of sexual consent for same-sex couples over that of opposite-sex couples; the banning of same-sex marriage, and further giving same-sex couples similar but less substantial civil unions to create a compromising glass wall; the banning of adoption by gay people; the banning of blood and organ donation by gay men; the banning of gay people from serving in the military and teaching in schools; and in some countries, capital punishment (3).

And still, as laws are protested against by large groups and organizations and inevitably but slowly changed, there are more personal and implicit forms of discrimination that are difficult to bring to society’s attention and therefore difficult to change: censorship of gay people in art (especially books and movies) and even advertisement; the incorrect portrayal of gay historical and political figures as either heterosexual or bisexual, thus reducing visible gay role models; no mention of homosexuality in sexual education courses in school; the banning of gay people revealing their sexuality at work; the listing of homosexuality amongst social deviance in text books; alienation and avoidance by peers; and general discomfort around gay people.

Further, heterosexism can exist in even the most well-meaning and open-minded people. Everyday assumptions and expectations, however innocent, constantly force gay people to feel isolated and avoidant of certain topics, such as relationships, sex, friends and past times. A man who has a boyfriend and is asked: “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” will result in the possibility that he will either say he has a boyfriend and reap the social consequences, or say that he hasn’t found the right girl and walk away with a dishonest conscience. Either way, in a maladjusted gay person, the psychological consequences can be overbearing. The lack of involvement in honest interpersonal discussion can cause gay people to “go with the flow” and become heterosexist themselves to avoid confrontation or attention.

This heterosexism leads to the marginalization of gay people, the feeling that they have no significant role in society, and as a result, internalized heterosexism, a prejudice against homosexuality that gay people hold towards themselves and other gay people. This discomfort with one’s own sexuality can lead to sexual repression, which almost invariably leads to major depression disorder and general anxiety, precipitating a high alcoholism and suicide rate among gay people (3).

Furthermore, psychological distress often strikes those who are gay. Distress is “persistent stress that is not resolved through coping or adaptation…[and] may lead to escape (anxiety) or withdrawal (depression)” (5). I was, and still to an extent am, anxious of being gay, or rather, others knowing I am gay. Whenever a situation arose in which my sexuality would be under scrutiny, I would go to great lengths to avoid it, perhaps by leaving a discussion, changing the subject, or bowing my head. I also demonstrated depression in my withdrawal from society, often not leaving my home or not attending school, and even avoiding eye contact. Regular activities and hobbies I once found enjoyable eventually became worthless, I was unable to sleep well, my energy waned, I had difficulty concentrating, and I frequently had suicidal thoughts.

Along with distress, comes guilt, “a cognitive or emotional experience that occurs when a person realizes or believes – whether justified or not – that he or she has violated a moral standard and is responsible for that violation.” In this case, it is a belief, not justified. But in any case, this guilt can be experienced collectively; guilt by association is the “idea that a group of humans can bear guilt above and beyond the guilt of particular members, and hence an individual holds responsibility for what other members of his group have done, even if he himself hasn’t done this” (1). This is significant because, while gay people are as diverse as any other category of people, individuals within the gay community often feel guilty by the behaviour of a select few other individuals. People who claim gay men in general are promiscuous, weak and attention-seeking place guilt and shame upon every gay man’s shoulders.

Like any form of discrimination, such as ageism or racism, heterosexism can and did for me lead to chronic social adjustment disorder that may never be cured.

The diagnostic criteria for adjustment disorder in the DSM-IV are:

  • identifiable stressor occurring within three months of the onset of the stressor.
  • These symptoms or behaviors are clinically significant as evidenced by either of the following:
  • marked distress that is in excess of what would be expected from exposure to the stressor
  • significant impairment in social or occupational (academic) functioning
  • The stress-related disturbance does not meet the criteria for another specific Axis I disorder and is not merely an exacerbation of a preexisting Axis I or Axis II disorder.
  • The symptoms do not represent Bereavement.
  • Once the stressor (or its consequences) has terminated, the symptoms do not persist for more than an additional six months (2).The development of emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to an

Heterosexism, unlike other forms of discrimination, as well causes psychological repression, the “conscious representation of frightening memories, wishes, or desires, or of the unwanted emotions. The specific defense mechanisms of isolation, denial, rationalization, projection, reaction formation, intellectualization, or sublimation, all serve to repress thought or affect” (6). Repression is a common stage in sexual self-acceptance, the concealment of one’s sexual desires for the same sex, and not just from others. It is the active mental blocking of these desires from oneself, and it results in one’s own denial as a basic human being.

Coping with the stresses of being gay can also go in tow with the Kubler-Ross Model, also known as the Five Stages of Grief. The five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, are related to coming to terms with one’s sexuality (4). Starting with preadolescence, I discovered that I was gay and immediately denied it, almost automatically, as I did not know exactly what it meant to be gay. After the denial got the best of me, I was angered by my situation and that there was nothing I could do to change it. Of course, I tried to change it, tried to bargain with myself that I was going through an immature phase that I would grow out of, hoping I would soon start to “sexually mature.” It may have superficially worked for a while, but depression ensued like no low I had felt before; there was no hope for my future as a gay man. And finally, I learned to accept myself, at which point I came out as a gay man. That I accepted it did not mean that I was comfortable with it, but it was a necessary step to being comfortable with it.

Although being gay has caused an innumerable amount of grievances, it has also been an awakening experience. I have been essentially forced into judging people individually and without as much prejudice as I previously have. I have even learned to accept certain people’s negative views of gay people and not have it affect me so coarsely. I have learned to live life, albeit somewhat cautiously at times, not so dependently on others. I have learned to surround myself with positive individuals and ignore the negative ones.

I might have coped differently with my sexuality had I known more about it, had I myself been more educated on the subject. The greatest treatment of adjustment disorder is talking with trusted people about one’s problems. I had gone to several counselors and psychiatrists and experimented with several selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors before I calmed down enough to reflect on circumstances on my own and by myself.

One type of help for coming to terms with my sexuality I might have tried had I known of it earlier is group therapy, a form of psychotherapy during which one or several therapists treat a small group of clients together as a group. I think group therapy may have helped myself more than one-on-one discussions with probing psychologists, because of the distribution of attention present at these meetings. It also would have been consoling to be around peers with similar problems without being giggled at, harassed or judged. I would be able to learn first hand what methods of coping worked for others and try whichever methods I felt worked best for me. I would be able to say everything that was on my mind so it was not bottled inside me any longer. I would be able to connect to others without boundaries.

In conclusion, the psychological difficulties I have endured were indeed difficult, but made more reasonable through treatments such as counseling, antidepressants and self-talk. The knowledge I gained from this course may have made the coping easier, and I think it is a great resource for those who experience their own difficulties, no matter what they are.
















1. Branscombe, N. R., & Doosje, B. (2004). Collective guilt: International perspectives.

Cambridge University Press.

2. The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th edition. (1994).

American Psychiatric Association.

3. Herek, G. M. (1996). Heterosexism and homophobia. In R. P. Cabaj & T. S. Stein

(Eds.), Textbook of homosexuality and mental health (101-109). Virginia: American Psychiatric Publishing.

4. Kubler-Ross, E. (1973). On death and dying. Routledge.

5. Lazarus, R. S. (1993). From psychological stress to the emotions: A history of

changing outlooks (1-22). Annual Review of Psychology 44.

6. Singer, J. L. (1995). Preface. Repression and disassociation: Implications for

personality theory (xii). University of Chicago.


7. Wright, L. W. & Adams, H. E. & Lohr B. A. (1996). Is homophobia associated with

homosexual arousal? (440-445). Journal of abnormal psychology, Vol. 105.



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