Last night on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart called Ken Mehlman a hypocrite and no doubt many people, including many gays and lesbians would agree with this assessment of the former Republican National Committee Chair and Bush Campaign Chief. During the Bush reelection campaign, Republicans, led by Mr. Mehlman, fanned the flames of fear, and intolerance toward gays and lesbians. Denying lesbian and gay people their civil rights, including the right to legally marry, was a central component of the campaign, seemingly intended to activate conservative voters. It is infuriating to think that a gay man, albeit a closeted gay man, not only aided and abetted but in many ways led the charge. Nevertheless, before we rush to judge Mr. Mehlman, a closer look at the various pressures gays and lesbians face are in order.

Despite slowly growing improvements in the public's attitudes toward homosexuality, intolerance is still alive and well. In a recent Gallup poll, close to half of those sampled believed that homosexuality should not be "considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle" and 40 percent thought homosexual relations between two consenting adults should be illegal. Thus, there still very much exists what stigma expert Gregory Herek and his colleagues call a homosexual stigma, which they define as "society's shared belief system through which homosexuality is denigrated, discredited, and constructed as invalid relative to heterosexuality."

Amazingly, kids, especially gay kids, learn about this quite early. At very young ages, gays and lesbians come to know that same-sex attractions are wrong-sometimes even before they are aware of these feelings within themselves. For the gay and lesbian youth interviewed for my book Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child (www.comingoutcominghome.com), their stories of coping and adjustment began long before they understood what their feelings meant. Once they faced their attractions head-on, they knew they were in trouble. If their peers or their parents discovered their sexual feelings, they risked becoming objects of rejection and abuse-and their attractions threatened to pull them away from everything and everyone they knew, leaving them lost and alone.

Gay Kids' Introduction to Stigma

Interpersonal interaction is one of the primary domains where stigma manifests, and many of the young people in this study first learned that their homosexuality was wrong at the hands of their peers. Their classmates saw their cross-gendered or otherwise atypical behavior as justification for cruelty. As I wrote in a previous post for this blog (People Must Recognize and Stop Anti-Gay Bullying), many gays and lesbians recall being physically assaulted by peers who sensed they were gay long before they recognized their own same-sex attractions.

Stigma in the form of discrimination is also embedded in institutional policies and practices. Most of the youth I interviewed who were verbally and physically harassed by peers recalled how school employees who witnessed their abuse did nothing to stop it. The confusion and shame experienced by these kids was compounded by the indifference of adults who could have protected them but didn't.

Coping

So, how do kids growing up gay or lesbian deal with stigma? One way many oppressed people protect themselves is to form groups with like others so they can learn effective coping methods such as externalization, which is when people place the blame for their stigma on its source where it belongs. (e.g., "It's not us who are sick, it's them!") However, for the most part, a resource such as a supportive group of gay peers is usually not available and it certainly wasn't for the young men and women in my study. As stated by a sixteen year-old young man: "As far as I knew I was the only person who was gay."
And recalled by this twenty-three-year-old lesbian:

"When I started thinking that I was gay, it was just really odd. There were no out gay people where I live, no out gay people on either side of my family. I am the only one. But I didn't know anybody."

Alone and isolated, gay young people learn painfully and powerfully that their burgeoning homosexuality is shameful and punishable by social exclusion and violence, and therefore hide their attractions in an effort to protect themselves. If one is good at it, hiding becomes second nature-and some never stop, even in adulthood. Others are so skilled they manage to hide their sexual orientations even from themselves, compartmentalizing their feelings into fantasies or fleeting sexual encounters which they keep hidden and walled off from their self-identities. Some of these individuals adopt the perspectives and sympathies of their oppressors, and in a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome, identify with their aggressors in order to survive.

So, by hiding his sexual orientation from other people and also himself, Mr. Mehlman was doing what his peers, friends, family, and society trained him to do. What makes him different from the many gays and lesbians who come to terms with themselves, come out, and fight against societal intolerance, rather than contribute to it, remains a mystery. Without knowing Mr. Mehlman personally, but being familiar with the case of Jim McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor who also came out as gay late in life, I can guess that burning ambition may have something to do with it.

Lessons Learned from Ken Mehlman

What Mr. Mehlman's example can teach us is that we all need to recognize and understand the enormously injurious power of homophobia and heterosexism. This double threat poisoned not only Mr. Mehlman but also our society. Another lesson is that no matter what our political persuasion, we need to recognize that gay people are everywhere-even places you don't expect to find them--and we are interacting with them all the time, even though we might not know it. Societal intolerance and stigma might force lesbians and gays underground but will never erase their existence. As a gay man, I am certainly angry that Ken Mehlman supported and helped spread the idea that lesbians and gays are unworthy of civil rights-he no doubt contributed to a destructive force that wounds many and continues to damage our society. However, as a therapist and researcher I can understand and even empathize with his coping methods along with his desire to avoid obstacles to his ambitions that heterosexuals never have to think about. A close study of people like Mr. Mehlman can illuminate the various dimensions of stigma as well as its pernicious effect on the health and well being of all of us.

About the Author

Michael C. LaSala Ph.D., LCSW

Michael C. LaSala, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the School of Social Work at Rutgers University, and author of Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child.

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